Robert Barnes was sitting in his office looking at the latest issue of the journal Foreign Policy. It was the end of September, and more importantly, of the fifth week of classes (only ten more weeks to go). The seemingly endless line of students waiting outside his door during his office hours during the first week of the semester had disappeared. But now that he had handed back the first midterm to his upper division International Relations Theory class, traffic had picked up again as students from that class came by trying to convince him to raise their grade--something he never did.
International Relations Theory was a difficult class to teach because none of the students wanted to take it. At some point in the past--well before he had come to NDU--the political science faculty decided that all international relations majors must take the class. This, of course, meant that two sections of it had to be offered each semester to accommodate the number of students who needed to take it. Much to his annoyance, Rob had been assigned to teach one of those sections each semester, in addition to his international political economy class and his seminar on Latin American politics.
Well, at least he had managed to avoid teaching the lower division Introduction to International Relations or Introduction to Comparative Politics classes. Trying to explain international relations to clueless freshmen and sophomores was not his idea of fun. Still, the students he got in International Relations Theory knew little enough about the subject even though they had to take both those lower division classes as prerequisites for it. Rob often wondered what was being taught in these two lower division classes.
There were no students in his office at present, but his reading was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. "Hello?" he said somewhat distantly into the mouthpiece. He considered it demeaning to answer the phone by announcing his name like so many other professors did.
"Hey Rob! This is Johnny Chang!"
Rob's feelings of depression instantly lifted. He and Johnny had been graduate students together back at M.I.T. More importantly, they had been friends.
"Johnny!" Rob almost shouted. "How's life as an investment banker?"
Rob remembered how Johnny did not have as successful a graduate student career as he had in the M.I.T. Political Science Department. Johnny had not been as adept at mastering quantitative social science methodology as Rob had. Worse, Johnny had openly questioned its usefulness in classes and seminars taught by the professors who most passionately believed in its utility. This was very different from the other graduate students (including himself, Rob sheepishly recalled) who vied with each other to demonstrate to the professors how conversant they were with the sophisticated quantitative methods being presented by not asking questions that might reveal a greater degree of confusion than was prudent to admit. He had been grateful to Johnny for always asking the questions that the rest of them were afraid to ask.
Johnny had gotten through the program, but it had been a real slog for him. Johnny had not been awarded any pre- or post-doctoral fellowship like he or Scott Halpern had. And while he had applied for several of them, Johnny had not even been called to interview for, much less been offered, a coveted tenure-track assistant professorship in a political science department.
Johnny, though, had been clever. He took advantage of the fluency in Chinese he had acquired from his parents--who had fled the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and eventually made their way to the United States--to write a dissertation based on interviews with Chinese officials in Beijing. Rob recalled that it had something to do with comparing their responsiveness toward U.S. Government negotiating positions with respect to different business sectors. The dissertation was not theoretically sophisticated. Indeed, Rob had helped Johnny give it what little sophistication it did possess. While researching it, though, Johnny had gotten to know quite a few American bankers and businessmen operating in China. These contacts, as well as the wealth of practical information Johnny gained through his field research, resulted in his being offered analyst positions by several prestigious investment houses. He had eventually accepted an offer from Mack & Monk--a growing firm in Baltimore that had recently scored several financial coups.
"It's never dull," Johnny responded. "Asia's going through a lot of financial turmoil right now, as you well know. I think, though, that it's bottoming out and that there are some great buys out there. Don't quote me, but I think some of the names I'm acquiring now could go up as much as fifty or even a hundred percent in the next twelve months. And how's life there at NDU? I keep hearing about what an up and coming place it is with that dynamic president of yours. It's certainly getting a lot of good publicity."
NDU stood for New Dominion University. It was a relatively new state university located in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. It had been established forty years ago as a branch of the venerable University of Virginia--founded by Thomas Jefferson--and became independent a few years later. It had been a pretty sleepy place until about ten years ago when George Michaelson became president. He succeeded in organizing the business community of Northern Virginia--a region which had become far more populous as well as far richer than neighboring Washington, D.C.--to lobby the state legislature in Richmond for increased funding. Despite strong opposition from the University of Virginia and other long-established state universities, he succeeded dramatically at this as well as at private fund-raising, and so a building and hiring boom ensued at NDU. In addition to recruiting some fifty bright young assistant professors like Rob, Michaelson had also lured a dozen "star" professors away from Ivy League and other prestigious universities. Some of these people were so famous that stories appeared in The Washington Post when they were hired by NDU--as well as the exorbitant salaries they were being paid. In the past couple of years, though, Michaelson's efforts appeared to have lost momentum. Rumor had it that he had become fairly unpopular with the state legislature down in Richmond.
"It's never dull here either," said Rob enthusiastically. This was not, however, quite how he felt. At major research universities, the standard teaching load was two classes per semester (two and two). At NDU, however, just as at many other "teaching" colleges, the standard load was three classes per semester (three and three). And unlike other departments at NDU which offered graduate programs and hence could hire graduate students as teaching assistants, his department did not offer an M.A. or Ph.D. program in political science. There being no graduate students for him to draw upon as T.A.'s, then, Rob found that he had to do all the time-consuming and tedious work of grading himself. This would not have been so bad if the classes were small, but here they were very, very large.
This didn't seem to bother the older professors in the department who were hired before George Michaelson became president. Most of them had published relatively little before getting tenure and almost nothing afterward. They seemed content with remaining associate professors until they retired, thus avoiding the arduous but completely optional task of acquiring the "national reputation" necessary for promotion to full professor.
The younger assistant professors like Rob, though, did have ambitions to publish. Indeed, they had to have such ambitions: as NDU's prestige rose, so had the standards for granting tenure. Yet while tenure-track professors were now expected to publish more, they were also expected to teach no less than their more senior colleagues. The irony of the situation, however, was that these senior professors who had obtained tenure when NDU's standards were lower were now the principal judges of whether or not the junior professors were meeting the higher standards of the present. Many of them, Rob and most other assistant professors were certain, would not qualify for tenure if they had to apply for it now.
Still, Rob was one of the lucky ones with regard to publications, and he knew it. He had been awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship by the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington to write his dissertation on the politics of free trade between the U.S. and Latin America. That year had been a very fruitful one: not only had the dissertation been completed and successfully defended back at M.I.T., but also accepted for publication by the highly respectable Johns Hopkins University Press. All this had helped him land the job at NDU.
But that wasn't all. During the summer before his first year teaching, he prepared a proposal for a post-doctoral fellowship which a few months later was accepted by Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. After his first year at NDU, then, he had gone back up to the academic paradise of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just as at Brookings, he worked non-stop on the book--this time one on how Latin American governments sought to negotiate with the World Bank and the IMF over the terms these two institutions imposed as conditions for their lending and other aid activities.
"Did you finish that book you were working on up at Harvard?" Johnny asked.
"Yeah. It will be out in a few months," Rob tried to reply casually, but without being able to suppress a note of pride in his voice. This would also be published by Johns Hopkins. The outside reviews that the Press had sought for the manuscript were glowing, and miraculously little revision had been required.
"God! You are hot! When are they going to give you tenure?" inquired Johnny.
"As a matter of fact, I'm going up this year," Rob answered. It was customary at NDU and virtually all other American universities to apply for tenure in the sixth year of being a tenure-track assistant professor, when a decision had to be made either to grant promotion and tenure or terminate the assistant professor's employment. Rob, though, had decided not to wait until his sixth year but to "go up" now during his third year.
"That's really early to be going up, isn't it?"
"Yeah, but look: one book with a respectable university press is all that is necessary for tenure here. Having a second book accepted by one is more than enough," Rob bragged without trying to sound like he was doing so. This was not just true in his department at NDU, but almost all other political science departments as well.
"As our friend Scott would say, you have really `over fulfilled your quota,'" said Johnny. "Speaking of Scott: have you heard from him recently?"
Scott Halpern was a sore subject for Rob. And Rob suspected that Johnny knew it. Rob, Scott, and Johnny had all concentrated in the hot field of international political economy at M.I.T. But just as their professors had regarded Rob more highly than Johnny, they had regarded Scott more highly than Rob or just about any other graduate student. Scott had done his dissertation on the role of business elites in post-Soviet Russian politics--a very hot topic. He was always coming out with old communist phrases like "over fulfilling quotas." During the year that Rob was a fellow at Brookings, Scott had a fellowship from the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Although "the Kennan," as Scott called it, did not usually provide fellowships to doctoral candidates, it had done so for him as a result of his dissertation adviser having convinced the institute's director of how vitally important Scott's work was.
Rob and Scott had had friendly enough relations back at M.I.T. and even during their fellowship year in Washington--until, that is, they realized that they were both being considered for the same tenure track assistant professorship at Princeton. Both had applied, as had literally hundreds of others, for the international political economy (regional specialization open) position that had been advertized in the American Political Science Association's Personnel Service Newsletter that fall. Incredibly, both Rob and Scott had been selected for the short list of five candidates invited to Princeton to make a presentation on their research and undergo a grueling day and a half of interviews.
Rob had thought he had made a good presentation, but as several of the Princeton professors asked him more about Scott than about himself, he sensed that things weren't going his way. He had been a little nervous going there to begin with, and them doing this only made him more so. Further, Rob was the first of the five candidates to come through for interviews--and to be long forgotten by the time the last one had done so and the decision was to be made. As it happened, Scott had gone through last and had obviously made a strong impression.
"I really haven't been in touch with him," said Rob. "Since we follow different areas of the world, we don't have much reason to contact each other. How about you?"
"I did speak to him a little while ago," Johnny replied imprecisely. "He's still working on his first book."
"I sure hope he gets it done soon," Rob commented, trying to sound concerned. "Schools like Princeton are famous for chewing up assistant professors and spitting them out after six years. Then they have to go somewhere else and start the tenure process all over again." Rob had no doubt, though, that Scott would finish his book. The main reason he hadn't done it yet, Rob thought, was because he was too busy making trips to Russia, writing a stream of articles for high profile journals (including one in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Rob noted with envy), and being interviewed by the media.
"Getting tenure at a place like NDU is a lot easier," Rob continued. "Once I get it, I figure that I'll be in a good position to move on to somewhere else with tenure."
That, at least, was Rob's hope. He sure as hell didn't want to spend the rest of his career at NDU with its high teaching loads, low salaries, minimal support for faculty research, chaotic library, two generation old computers, pathetic senior faculty, ignorant administrators, and unending stream of low quality students. He had worked hard to get the second book finished not so much to get tenure from NDU, but in the hopes of moving to a tenured position at what he considered to be a "real" university.
"So you're thinking of moving on from NDU?" Johnny asked. "I hope everything's okay there."
Rob knew he had to be careful about how he responded to this. Rob didn't want the talkative Johnny to let Scott or any of their other former fellow graduate students know how desperate he was to leave NDU. Soon after he had begun teaching there he realized that the reality of NDU did not match the glowing reputation that George Michaelson had successfully built up for it. He had also been smart enough to know that he had nothing to gain by saying anything negative about NDU to anyone on the outside. Michaelson's successful PR campaign made the entire NDU faculty look good--even if it didn't feel good. Dwelling on the university's shortcomings would only make him look bad for having accepted a position and stayed on there.
"It's a terrific place, Johnny! Don't get me wrong. But you know how it is--greener pastures and all that," Rob said, trying to sound jovial. "Seriously, though, there is one thing lacking in my department: the opportunity to work with graduate students. And it looks like I will have to go elsewhere in order to get that opportunity."
"How are your undergraduates?"
"Their writing leaves much to be desired, but we've got some good ones," said Rob. Technically speaking, this was not a lie: there were some good ones. But they were a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of students Rob had encountered were mediocrities. Few of them could write a coherent paragraph, much less an essay. He had also found that most students were completely unwilling to participate in class discussion. And at least half of those who did went too far the other direction, displaying an utter infatuation with the sound of their own voices expounding vapid ideas that weren't even theirs anyway.
Thinking about the generally poor quality of the students reminded Rob about the source of his depression. It had been a surprise and shock to discover how unprepared they were during his first semester teaching at NDU. He had become used to it by the second semester, but after being away for a year back in Cambridge where the overwhelming majority of Harvard and M.I.T. undergraduates he encountered were very bright (or at least were clever enough to appear so), he had increasingly come to dread facing NDU undergraduates again.
As far as Rob was concerned, most of them should never have been admitted. But admitted they were, and in great quantity. In fact, it was well known at the university that NDU admitted over eighty percent of those who applied. As the administration constantly reminded them, more students at NDU meant not only more tuition payments but also more funding from the state. Rob wondered why NDU bothered to reject anyone at all: he didn't see how they could be much worse than the ones admitted.
"And are you able to place your good ones in top notch graduate programs elsewhere?"
This was another sore subject for Rob. The one thing that made teaching at NDU that first year bearable was that he had a handful of bright, interested students in each of his classes. Some wanted to go on to graduate programs at more prestigious universities, and Rob had helped guide the brightest ones (the 3.7's and above) through the complicated graduate school application process, and spent hours filling out recommendation forms for them and others. Very few of them, however, succeeded in getting admitted into competitive programs elsewhere. Most had to settle for the disappointment of being admitted to relatively non-competitive graduate programs at NDU or schools like it.
"I've had some success," Rob replied. "I got one of my undergrads into Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs." This, however, was not the whole story. His very best student that first year had been admitted into this prestigious program and had even gotten a scholarship. What Rob didn't say was that he only just learned from one of the secretaries in the department office that the sonofabitch had dropped out of the program after just one semester. He had been unprepared, the student had told her, for the intense nature both of the program as well as life in New York City.
Rob had been furious when he found out. He had recommended that student very strongly to Columbia. What was Columbia going to think the next time he recommended one of his students for that program?
"Well, it sounds like things are basically going pretty well for you there at NDU," said Johnny. "Look, the reason I called is this: Mack & Monk is expanding its investment activity in Latin America. I hoped I might be able to lure you away from academia to the world of investment banking. I know you would fit in here, and I would enjoy working with you. Besides, after all the advice you gave me on my dissertation, I want to do something for you in return."
Rob sat up in his chair. He had not expected to hear this little speech. "Why, thank you, Johnny. This comes as quite a surprise."
"Of course," Johnny continued, I realize that this is the beginning of the school year and you couldn't just pick up and leave."
If Rob had really been interested in becoming an investment banker, that certainly wouldn't have held him back. But he wasn't interested in that. He wanted instead to be a professor--a very great professor who was not only respected by other professors, but who was called upon for advice and comment from the State Department, Capitol Hill, the media, and the business world. What attracted Rob--and so many others like him--to academia as opposed to most other professions was the freedom to write and publish according to his own agenda and not someone else's, the freedom of not having to work in his office from nine to five (or later) five days a week but to show up only on the two days a week he taught, and the flexibility that the long summer break (plus the five-week one between semesters at Christmas and the week in the spring) gave him to travel or concentrate on his own research.
"Mr. Monk himself was very impressed with that op-ed piece you had in The Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago," Johnny added. "When I told him you were a buddy of mine, he asked me if I would talk to you about the possibility of your joining us on the research team here. Although everyone knows that NDU pays high salaries, I think you'd find that our firm would offer you a much, much more generous package."
Rob was certain it would too. While the high salaries of the "star" professors George Michaelson had attracted to NDU had been well advertized, the low salaries of the "regular" faculty were not. Once again, though, Rob had nothing to gain by letting Johnny or anybody else in on the truth.
"So you saw that?" Rob asked. "Yeah, it came out at a fortuitous time." That was an understatement. Rob had sent it in to the Journal over six months ago. The op-ed editor had called him to say that they hoped to run it, but that she would hold it until there was a news story to run it with. In the meantime, she told him, do not send it anywhere else. He had almost given up hope of seeing it in print when the European economic crisis caused a big enough downturn in Latin American stock markets to warrant the appropriate news coverage. He had then had to spend much of the Monday and Tuesday of his last week at Harvard on the phone with a sub-editor updating and massaging the piece. Its publication on the Wednesday led to some welcome attention just before leaving Cambridge and the disillusioning reality of NDU.
Yes, Rob had no doubt that Johnny's firm would pay a far higher salary than NDU. On the other hand, he strongly doubted that an investment firm would allow him the freedom to publish op-ed pieces or anything else without thoroughly vetting them in advance, if even then. But being a professor--even a low paid junior one at NDU--did give him that freedom. And as far as Rob was concerned, there was nothing, nothing, as thrilling as seeing something he had written come out in print--especially in a publication like the Wall Street Journal with a readership in the millions.
"Listen, Johnny, I appreciate the offer. But when it comes down to it, NDU is too good a place to leave right now, even without graduate students. Besides, I've already started the tenure process rolling and I want to see it through."
Actually, there had been a little unexpected friction with regard to this. Rob had had an oral agreement with Trond Knutsen, chair of the department when Rob was hired and during his first two years, that Rob would go up for tenure in his third year. But Ruth Silverstein, who had become acting chair this summer (after an external search for a new chair had failed to find a candidate whom both the department and the administration could agree on) had actually tried to dissuade him from doing so, saying she thought he would be in a stronger position next year after his second book was out and he had had a chance to perform more service to the university. He had quickly set her straight.
"I can appreciate that, Rob. But listen: maybe you can do some consulting for us. If possible, I'd like you to come up and talk to some of our fund managers and research analysts one day next week. I can offer you a thousand dollar consulting fee plus your expenses, of course. We'll go for a night on the town afterward."
This was an offer Rob was happy to accept. While his NDU salary was meager, the fact that he only had to show up two days a week left him free to do consulting on other days. In fact, the university encouraged it. Rob had been surprised his first semester upon reading his copy of a memo from the Provost to the faculty stating that the university allowed them to devote one day per week to paid consulting when class was in session (they were free to consult as much as they liked at other times). Most of the professors in his department would be lucky if they could get one day of consulting per year, Rob thought to himself. "It's a deal, Johnny!"
"Great! And if you hit it off with the gang up here as I think you will, maybe we can bring you back on a regular basis--if you're willing. But look: I've got to go now. Something's happening in the market. Let's talk again early next week."
"Okay, Johnny. Thanks for calling," said Rob before hanging up. Not a bad return from one op-ed piece, he thought. It suddenly looked like this year was going to be a lot more pleasant than he had thought it would be.