Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD


An article in The Nation entitled “Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education” has been making the Facebook rounds today. It’s a long one–really long–but well worth a careful read. William Deresiewicz used to be a professor at Yale (I like this line from his bio: “His separation from academia was a mutual decision.”) In the article, he draws from at least a dozen books written about academia in the last five years and provides a detailed, comprehensive account of what’s wrong–with plenty of new insights that I hadn’t seen in the regular helpful-but-make-me-want-to-shoot-myself articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

If you don’t want to read the whole article (seriously, though, you should), here are a few choice paragraphs (okay, a lot of choice paragraphs, they were all pretty important):

“When I started graduate school in 1989, we were told that the disastrous job market of the previous two decades would be coming to an end because the large cohort of people who had started their careers in the 1960s, when the postwar boom and the baby boom combined to more than double college enrollments, was going to start retiring. Well, it did, but things kept getting worse. Instead of replacing retirees with new tenure-eligible hires, departments gradually shifted the teaching load to part-timers: adjuncts, postdocs, graduate students. From 1991 to 2003, the number of full-time faculty members increased by 18 percent. The number of part-timers increased by 87 percent—to almost half the entire faculty.

“But as Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein point out in their comprehensive study The American Faculty (2006), the move to part-time labor is already an old story. Less visible but equally important has been the advent and rapid expansion of full-time positions that are not tenure-eligible. No one talks about this transformation—the creation of yet another academic underclass—and yet as far back as 1993, such positions already constituted the majority of new appointees. As of 2003, more than a third of full-time faculty were working off the tenure track. By the same year, tenure-track professors—the “normal” kind of academic appointment—represented no more than 35 percent of the American faculty.

“The reasons for these trends can be expressed in a single word, or buzzword: efficiency. Contingent academic labor, as non-tenure-track faculty, part-time and full-time, are formally known, is cheaper to hire and easier to fire. It saves departments money and gives them greater flexibility in staffing courses. Over the past twenty years, in other words—or really, over the past forty—what has happened in academia is what has happened throughout the American economy. Good, secure, well-paid positions—tenured appointments in the academy, union jobs on the factory floor—are being replaced by temporary, low-wage employment.”

On the increase in the number of grad students admitted to PhD programs as the number of available positions decreases: “Graduate programs occupy a highly unusual, and advantageous, market position: they are both the producers and the consumers of academic labor, but as producers, they have no financial stake in whether their product “sells”—that is, whether their graduates get jobs. Yes, a program’s prestige is related, in part, to its placement rate, but only in relative terms. In a normal industry, if no firm sells more than half of what it produces, then either everyone goes out of business or the industry consolidates. But in academia, if no one does better than 50 percent, then 50 percent is great. Programs have every incentive to keep prices low by maintaining the oversupply.”

On the rapid increase of non-faculty (administrative) positions: “…deans, provosts and presidents are no longer professors who cycle through administrative duties and then return to teaching and research. Instead, they have become a separate stratum of managerial careerists, jumping from job to job and organization to organization like any other executive: isolated from the faculty and its values, loyal to an ethos of short-term expansion, and trading in the business blather of measurability, revenue streams, mission statements and the like. They do not have the long-term health of their institutions at heart. They want to pump up the stock price (i.e., U.S. News and World Report ranking) and move on to the next fat post.”

(This part I find especially telling. I’ve become more and more alarmed over the years at the huge ideological gap that seems to exist between faculty and deans, with the latter behaving more and more like corporate strategists determined to maximize profits at all costs. One could argue that this kind of thinking extends into the truly horrifying practice of sweeping under the rug or blatantly ignoring sexual assaults on college campuses–administrators have to protect the brand and the bottom line, student safety and welfare be damned).

“What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.”

“As Cary Nelson explains in No University Is an Island (2010), shared governance—the principle that universities should be controlled by their faculties, which protects academic values against the encroachments of the spreadsheet brigade—is also threatened by the changing structure of academic work. Contingent labor undermines it both directly—no one asks an adjunct what he thinks of how things run—and indirectly. More people chasing fewer jobs means that everyone is squeezed for extra productivity, just like at Wal-Mart. As of 1998, faculty at four-year schools worked an average of about seven hours more per week than they had in 1972 (for a total of more than forty-nine hours a week; the stereotype of the lazy academic is, like that of the welfare queen, a politically useful myth). Not surprisingly, they also reported a shrinking sense of influence over campus affairs. Who’s got the time? Academic labor is becoming like every other part of the American workforce: cowed, harried, docile, disempowered.”

“Yet the liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the “practical,” narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable. Colleges and universities are moving away from the liberal arts toward professional, technical and vocational training. Last year, the State University of New York at Albany announced plans to close its departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater—a wholesale slaughter of the humanities. When Garland enumerates the fields a state legislature might want to encourage its young people to enter, he lists “engineering, agriculture, nursing, math and science education, or any other area of state importance.” Apparently political science, philosophy, history and anthropology, among others, are not areas of state importance. Zemsky wants to consider reducing college to three years—meaning less time for young people to figure out what to study, to take courses in a wide range of disciplines, to explore, to mature, to think.

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.”

“But leadership will have to come from somewhere else, as well. Just as in society as a whole, the academic upper middle class needs to rethink its alliances. Its dignity will not survive forever if it doesn’t fight for that of everyone below it in the academic hierarchy. (“First they came for the graduate students, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a graduate student…”) For all its pretensions to public importance (every professor secretly thinks he’s a public intellectual), the professoriate is awfully quiet, essentially nonexistent as a collective voice. If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to get off their backsides and organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole. Tenured professors enjoy the strongest speech protections in society. It’s time they started using them.


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This entry was posted on May 11, 2011 by in (post) Grad life and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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