Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education
Well, but so what? A bunch of spoiled kids are having trouble finding jobs—so is everybody else. Here’s so what. First of all, they’re not spoiled. They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.
Sure, lots of people have it worse. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap. (Bell Labs, once the flagship of industrial science, is a shell of its former self, having suffered years of cutbacks before giving up on fundamental research altogether.)
It isn’t just the sciences that matter; it is also the social sciences and the humanities. And it isn’t just the latter that are suffering. Basic physics in this country is all but dead. From 1971 to 2001, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in English declined by 20 percent, but the number awarded in math and statistics declined by 55 percent. The only areas of the liberal arts that saw an increase in BAs awarded were biology and psychology—and this at a time when aggregate enrollment expanded by something like 75 percent. On the work that is done in the academy depends the strength of our economy, our public policy and our culture. We need our best young minds going into atmospheric research and international affairs and religious studies, chemistry and ethnography and art history. By pursuing their individual interests, narrowly understood, departments are betraying both the values they are pledged to uphold—the pursuit of knowledge, the spirit of critical inquiry, the extension of the humanistic tradition—and the nation they exist to serve.
We’ve been here before. Pay was so low in the nineteenth century, when academia was still a gentleman’s profession, that in 1902 Andrew Carnegie created the pension plan that would evolve into TIAA-CREF, the massive retirement fund. After World War II, when higher education was seen as an urgent national priority, a consensus emerged that salaries were too small to attract good people. Compensation soared through the 1950s and ’60s, then hit the skids around 1970 and didn’t recover for almost thirty years. It’s no surprise that the percentage of college freshmen expressing an interest in academia was more than three times higher in 1966 than it was in 2004.
But the answer now is not to raise professors’ salaries. Professors already make enough. The answer is to hire more professors: real ones, not academic lettuce-pickers.
Yet that’s the last thing schools are apt to do. What we have seen instead over the past forty years, in addition to the raising of a reserve army of contingent labor, is a kind of administrative elephantiasis, an explosion in the number of people working at colleges and universities who aren’t faculty, full-time or part-time, of any kind. From 1976 to 2001, the number of nonfaculty professionals ballooned nearly 240 percent, growing more than three times as fast as the faculty. Coaching staffs and salaries have grown without limit; athletic departments are virtually separate colleges within universities now, competing (successfully) with academics. The size of presidential salaries—more than $1 million in several dozen cases—has become notorious. Nor is it only the presidents; the next six most highly paid administrative officers at Yale averaged over $430,000 in 2007. As Gaye Tuchman explains in Wannabe U (2009), a case study in the sorrows of academic corporatization, 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.
If you’re tenured, of course, life is still quite good (at least until the new provost decides to shut down your entire department). In fact, the revolution in the structure of academic work has come about in large measure to protect the senior professoriate. The faculty have steadily grayed in recent decades; by 1998 more than half were 50 or older. Mandatory retirement was abolished in 1986, exacerbating the problem. Departments became “tenured in,” with a large bolus of highly compensated senior professors and room, increasingly squeezed in many cases, for just a few junior members—another reason jobs have been so hard to find. Contingent labor is desirable above all because it saves money for senior salaries (as well as relieving the tenure track of the disagreeable business of teaching low-level courses). By 2004, while pay for assistant and associate professors still stood more or less where it had in 1970, that for full professors was about 10 percent higher.
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.
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But now those prerogatives are also under threat. I am not joining the call for the abolition of tenure—a chorus that includes two of last year’s most widely noticed books on the problems of America’s colleges and universities, Higher Education?, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, and Crisis on Campus, by Mark Taylor. Tenure certainly has its problems. It crowds out opportunities for young scholars and allows academic deadwood to accumulate on the faculty rolls. But getting rid of it would be like curing arteriosclerosis by shooting the patient. For one thing, it would remove the last incentive for any sane person to enter the profession. People still put up with everything they have to endure as graduate students and junior professors for the sake of a shot at that golden prize, and now you’re going to take away the prize? No, it is not good for so many of academia’s rewards to be backloaded into a single moment of occupational transfiguration, one that sits like a mirage at the end of twelve or fifteen years of Sinaitic wandering. Yes, the job market would eventually rebalance itself if the profession moved, say, to a system of seven-year contracts, as Taylor suggests. But long before it did, we would lose a generation of talent.
Besides, how would the job market rebalance itself? If the people who now have tenure continued to serve under some other contractual system, the same surplus of labor would be chasing the same scarcity of employment. Things would get better for new PhDs only if schools started firing senior people. Which, as the way things work in other industries reminds us, they would probably be glad to do. Why retain a 55-year-old when you can replace her with a 30-year-old at half the price? Now that’s a thought to swell a provost’s revenue stream. Talk about efficiency.