There is much confusion about publish or perish. Most of it is because here in America we have mass higher education. Upwards of 50% of all secondary school graduates participate in some form of post-secondary education. This mass education model is very different than the original German model of the university.
In that German model many fewer students attended universities. Students could obtain excellent educations in the higher secondary schools or gymnasiums. (The word comes from the ancient Greek higher schools, which really were gymnasiums – schools of physical culture with academic subjects on the side.)The only students who went past the gymnasium and attended the university were those intending to join their professors as producers of knowledge – in academic subjects or the professions. The great German universities were based on the idea that the only way young people could become knowledge producers was to work side by side with senior knowledge producers. Knowledge production could not be learned from lectures or textbooks. University professors were original knowledge producers, not teachers of general subjects, and the universities were training grounds for knowledge producers, not schools of general education.
Before the Ph. D. was introduced into the American University after the civil war, the top university teachers studied in German universities. University leaders picked up this idea of the university as a research facility, not a school. Professors who did not publish their studies were like dentists that did not drill or doctors who refused to treat the ill. The profession was simply doing research studies along with trainees, and publishing the results. The “publish or perish” did not have to be stated. Would you go to a dentist who refused to look at your teeth? Why then would you hire a knowledge producer who didn’t produce knowledge and hence could not train knowledge producers?
Today’s American university is more like a school than a research facility. Professors are hired and retained on the basis of their research publications even though their real job is to teach – mostly in courses for non-specialist students. The best researchers often get research grants and buy out their teaching time. Students get stuck with poorly trained teaching assistants, many of whom could not care less about teaching.
What is to be done? One answer is to back off from “publish or perish” and admit that universities are schools and professors are teachers. Moving in that direction means replacing Ph.D. research training programs with training for college teaching. Another answer, and in my view the right one, is to restore liberal arts colleges (perhaps as components of universities), hire superior teachers for them, and retain the ideal of the university as a knowledge production facility for those few students seeking research careers. In that case, “publish or perish” rules would be no more controversial than “drill or perish” is in the world of dentists.