Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education
A few years ago, when I was still teaching at Yale, I was approached by a student who was interested in going to graduate school. She had her eye on Columbia; did I know someone there she could talk with? I did, an old professor of mine. But when I wrote to arrange the introduction, he refused to even meet with her. “I won’t talk to students about graduate school anymore,” he explained. “Going to grad school’s a suicide mission.”
The policy may be extreme, but the feeling is universal. Most professors I know are willing to talk with students about pursuing a PhD, but their advice comes down to three words: don’t do it. (William Pannapacker, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education as Thomas Benton, has been making this argument for years. See “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,’” among other essays.) My own advice was never that categorical. Go if you feel that your happiness depends on it—it can be a great experience in many ways—but be aware of what you’re in for. You’re going to be in school for at least seven years, probably more like nine, and there’s a very good chance that you won’t get a job at the end of it.
At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis. As Christopher Newfield points out in Unmaking the Public University (2008), that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts. And this was before the financial collapse. In the past three years, the market has been a bloodbath: often only a handful of jobs in a given field, sometimes fewer, and as always, hundreds of people competing for each one.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 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.
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You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. (Professors also need dissertations to direct, or how would they justify their own existence?) As Louis Menand puts it in The Marketplace of Ideas (2010), the system is now designed to produce not PhDs so much as ABDs: students who, having finished their other degree requirements, are “all but dissertation” (or “already been dicked,” as we used to say)—i.e., people who have entered the long limbo of low-wage research and teaching that chews up four, five, six years of a young scholar’s life.
If anything, as Menand notes, the PhD glut works well for departments at both ends, since it gives them the whip hand when it comes to hiring new professors. 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.
Still, there’s a difference between a Roger Smith firing workers at General Motors and the faculty of an academic department treating its students like surplus goods. For the CEO of a large corporation, workers are essentially entries on a balance sheet, separated from the boardroom by a great gulf of culture and physical distance. If they are treated without mercy, that is not entirely surprising. But the relationship between professors and graduate students could hardly be more intimate. Professors used to be graduate students. They belong to the same culture and the same community. Your dissertation director is your mentor, your role model, the person who spends all those years overseeing your research and often the one you came to graduate school to study under in the first place. You, in turn, are her intellectual progeny; if you make good, her professional pride. The economic violence of the academic system is inflicted at very close quarters.
How professors square their Jekyll-and-Hyde roles in the process—devoted teachers of individual students, co-managers of a system that exploits them as a group—I do not know. Denial, no doubt, along with the rationale that this is just the way it is, so what can you do? Teaching is part of the training, you hear a lot, especially when supposedly liberal academics explain why graduate-student unions are such a bad idea. They’re students, not workers! But grad students don’t teach because they have to learn how, even if the experience is indeed very valuable; they teach because departments need “bodies in the classroom,” as a professor I know once put it.
I always found it beautifully apt that my old department occupies the same space where the infamous Milgram obedience experiments were conducted in the early 1960s. (Yes, really.) Pay no attention to the screams you hear coming from the next room, the subjects were told as they administered the electric shocks, it’s for their own good—a perfect allegory of the relationship between tenured professors and graduate students (and tenured professors and untenured professors, for that matter).