Web Letters | The Nation

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Hits the nail on the head

“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.”

No doubt.

This article brilliantly sums up many thoughts I have had about the nature and future of higher education and the changes I have personally experienced in the ten years since earning my degree and becoming an associate professor. For years, many junior and recently tenured faculty such as myself have been muttering about the sinking ship of public higher education. By now, the water is well into the hull and the muttering must be transformed into something much, much louder. As a tenured faculty at an R1, I realize many would consider myself “lucky” (i.e., “so why complain?”). However, I also know that the relative stability I have is founded on an overall system that is toxic and unsustainable and tragically exploitative. It is a calamity, as described, and it goes very, very deep.

Sasha Waters Freyer

Iowa City, IA

May 10 2011 - 1:44pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Thank you

Thank you for saying so much of what I have thought about academia.

It’s essentially a Ponzi scheme; young academics are nothing but high-paid migrant laborers who are treated like the doormats in an abusive relationship; and it’s a criminal waste to take some of the country’s brightest minds, pull them out of the labor force for eight years, have them study and labor for very little money under enormous stress loads, and then boot them out the other end of grad school virtually unemployable. I graduated in 2006 with an MFA in art and was lucky enough to find a staff position at an R1 research school, so my family is lucky to have a stable home life and a roof over our heads (though I do not have the teaching job I had been aiming for, and now I have the added stigma of being “staff,” should I ever wish to apply for a teaching job in the future). I watched my husband struggle through the four years of coursework, starting one dissertation project only to get scooped by another grad student at a different university, starting a new dissertation project and finishing it at night as he took care of our child during the day. He teaches as an adjunct at two separate institutions. The princely sum he earns is just enough to pay for gas to drive to the one that is sixty miles distant and for daycare for our kids, and he has $150 a month to show for his efforts. There is never a guarantee that he will ever see more work after the end of a semester. It is demoralizing, to say the least.

Your article doesn’t even get into all the kinds of stress that come about from trying to balance two academic careers and having children—couples who live on opposite coasts so that they both have jobs, women who put off having children until they are in their late 30s or early 40s because of career pressures or job instability. It is hard to plan one’s life if you don’t know if you’ll be in a city for longer than the two semesters you were hired to teach, and it is a major stressor to move small children every year or two.

Thank you for pointing out that this system, as it is currently set up, sells young academics a bill of goods, and then sells them down the river. It is nice to know that somebody at the top of the tower has noticed the rabble down below and thinks something needs to change.

Katherine Parker Bryden

Iowa City

May 9 2011 - 11:39pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

What about the students?

The article is great but fails to mention what is happening to the students, which is a big part of the equation. Student debt is skyrocketing to obscene levels, while a BA in most liberal arts fields is worth very little. I believe finishing my BA in English actually hurt my career (programming), yet I will be paying it off until I am 40.

Aaron Couch

Philadelphia, PA

May 9 2011 - 9:57pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Sauve qui peut

I’ve thought for some time about the reason that tenured professors don’t seem to be as bothered by the fate of graduates students as they should be (the professors I had at Northwestern when I got my PhD in English, for example). I think they unconsciously believe that the reason they got their jobs is that they worked very hard doing brilliant work; furthermore, they think the “best” students who are as brilliant as they are will also succeed in finding tenure track jobs at research institutions in desirable locations. They still seems to believe that the people who get the great jobs "deserve” them, and that everyone else must have made mistakes or missed opportunities along the way.

I did get a t-t job, but it was at a regional campus of a state school (in the middle of nowhere) and, unable to find a job in a major city, I finally just quit (before I was up for tenure) and moved back to Chicago. The decision clearly shocked and disappointed at least one of my former professors, but every single person outside of academia thought that my choice was obvious. What am I doing now? Adjuncting, of course.

Karen Leick


May 9 2011 - 8:46pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

James Conant?

Re “champions of social progress: people like…James Conant at Harvard.” “Champion,” my foot! Conant was a Nazi sympathizer, a racist and an anti-Semite, holding down the acceptance quotas for all these “undesirables.” Read Morton and Phyllis Keller’s book Harvard’s Jews, Women, and Blacks for more details on this.

Mustafa Odabasi


May 8 2011 - 3:30pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Not in my field!

The author clearly overgeneralizes the job market problems in his field of expertise to other areas of the arts and sciences. At no point does he use data or present anything but anecdotal evidence and historical background. The truth is that in some areas of science, such as mathematics, newly minted PhDs have no problem gaining employment. In fact, I know a number of former faculty members who left academia (having gained tenure track appointments) to become quants, but none who were forced to leave. The American Mathematical Society typically gives over 85 percent employment within a year from graduation, and that includes the bottom graduate programs—the percentage is close to 100 percent for the schools on the level of Yale and Columbia that author mentions.

Same with the length of the PhD studies. I personally finished in three years, graduated from the top university and am now employed (as a tenured full professor) at another. About four to five years is more typical—perhaps six years in the bottom quintile of the graduate programs. But seven years is way too much and nine years is inconceivable. I wish the author had chosen to clarify this in the article rather than to scare witless all prospective graduate students.

Ira Lewin

Los Angeles

May 8 2011 - 3:13pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

The grad school trap

William Deresiewicz has written a refreshingly honest essay on the terrible job crisis in academe. It does a fine job of plainly describing the problems that have made the academic job market toxic.

Aside from the Thomas H. Benton essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education (for so long a lone voice in the wilderness), there has been little public acknowledgement of the hopeless situation facing tens of thousands of graduate students.

Graduate school has, quite simply, become a trap for young adults. They walk into it unknowingly because they have been lied to, or, at the very least, they have not been given full information. These are obviously not stupid people, but universities have an interest in keeping prospective graduate students ignorant of the reality that awaits them after years of work toward a degree. Universities succeed in coaxing more people into the trap every year.

Victims of the grad school trap (such as the authors of blogs like 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School) have done their part to get the message out, but it is gratifying to see The Nation drawing attention to the fact that a PhD is becoming a ticket to part-time temporary employment (if you can find it).


Waldemar Gute

Cambridge, MA

May 7 2011 - 5:42am