December 02, 2003

Who's Minding the Store?

A temporary dislocation? Or, the dawning of a New Order? We take as our point of departure what is, on the face of it, an absolutely astonishing observation: Quite beyond the surge in part-time faculty appointments over the past quarter century, the majority (i.e., over half) of all new full-time faculty hires in the past decade have been to non-tenure-eligible, or fixed-term contract positions (Finkelstein and Schuster 2001). Put another way, in the year 2001, only about one-quarter of new faculty appointments were to full-time tenure track positions (i.e., half were part-time, and more than half of the remaining full-time positions were 'off' the tenure track). This is nothing short of what Jack Schuster and I have labeled elsewhere a new academic 'revolution' ó albeit a largely silent one.

-- Martin Finkelstein, "The Morphing of the American Academic Profession"

Martin Finkelstein offers what he insists is not "an exercise in expository hysteria" but "a realistic, if sobering, assessment" of the restructuring of academic employment. One valuable point that I think is worth emphasizing: in the face of the broader economic, political and social trends that are transforming the role and position of faculty, one of the academy's greatest strengths (ie., its decentralization) turns out it be a major weakness:

The point is simply that no one is in charge, no one is minding the store, just as it is being turned upside down. This is not to suggest that what American higher education needs is a coterie of external agents (e.g. the federal government, the student loan industry) jockeying to steer the transformation. Autonomy and diversity have, after all, been the hallmarks of the systemís strength. What it does suggest is that the systemís radical decentralization requires that individual institutions and constituencies assume an especially critical responsibility for self-consciously steering their own responses to the transformation with a view toward the future of both their own institution and the system itself.

Finkelstein also argues that "constructive conversation about what form our future stewardship of the enterprise may best take" depends on "the quality of our 'problem definition,'" which quality must be based on "a realistic assessment of what we in higher education are up against." On this point, I think it's interesting to place Finkelstein's attempt "to offer an interpretation of the systemic and long-term meaning of the current restructuring in American higher education" alongside Stanley Fish's latest call to arms. In The War on Higher Education, Fish calls on academics to actively fight the assault on higher education:

What is not clear is the response of the academic community to this assault on its autonomy and professional integrity. Too often that response has been of the weak-kneed variety displayed by the Association of American Universities when its president, Nils Hasselmo, offered a mild criticism of McKeon's ideas and then said 'We look forward to working with Mr. McKeon.'

No, you should look forward to defeating McKeon and his ilk, and that won't be done by mealy-mouthed me-tooism. If the academic community does its usual thing and rolls over and plays dead, in time it will not just be playing dead. It will be dead.

This is all well and good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The problem here, I think, is one of "problem definition." Fish defines the problem in highly politicized terms, as that of a

general project of taking higher education away from the educators -- by removing money, imposing controls, capping tuition, enforcing affirmative action for conservatives, stigmatizing research on partisan grounds, privatizing student loans (here McKeon is again a big player) -- and handing it over to a small group of ideologues who will tell colleges and universities what to do and back up their commands by swinging the two big sticks of financial deprivation and inflamed public opinion.

If only the academy's ills could be attributed to the efforts of a small band of anti-intellectual ideologues seeking a takeover of higher education. Then it might be possible to come up with workable responses and solutions. But of course the problems cut much deeper. Incredibly (or perhaps not), Fish utters not one word about the large-scale and systemic restructuring of the terms of academic employment -- a transformation that has to be seen as the single most significant factor in the weakening of the bargaining power of academic faculty. To repeat the point: when (as in the year 2001), only "about one-quarter of new faculty appointments were to full-time tenure track positions (i.e., half were part-time, and more than half of the remaining full-time positions were 'off' the tenure track)," we are looking at an extremely vulnerable profession: a profession that is vulnerable not only to direct attacks by Republican legislators but also to the more indirect effects of much broader and amorphous social and economic changes.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 2, 2003 12:15 PM

Great article -- I've passed it on to colleagues and one is trying to get permission to publish it in our union newsletter. At the very least, we'll be letting people know the URL. Heck -- I may even send it to my legislators when I get home. Not that they give a damn.

Posted by: ADM at December 2, 2003 02:37 PM

Perhaps its time to seriously consider reducing the number of phds graduating each year. The "large-scale and systemic restructuring of the terms of academic employment" that IA speaks of is in part because there are too many phds around. By having more qualified phds than jobs, it allowed universities to offer smaller and smaller benefits. Its not that universities gather in some smoke-filled room and collude to lower the benefits of for example english phds. If they could do that, they will proberbly target med school faculty who are proberbly the highest paid professors around.

Cant schools simply refuse to accept any phd students in a particular year? Why not? Virginia's Darden business school isnt accepting any phd students next year. Look at colleges offering phds in applied math fields. They only accept several students per year in each subfield, and are comming along just fine.

One possible reason is that these fields require funding to survive and are more sensitive to market conditions. If the market for their discipline is waning, there will be less funds and thus they cannot afford to have as many graduate students. This in turn leads to a shinking of intake in a particular year.

Posted by: at December 2, 2003 02:47 PM

No PhD students this year? Hmmm.... who would do the lab research that the tenured publish? Who would teach the undergrads? Who would grade the papers for the big lecture sections?

In my grad school experience, there was always a borderline "fight" among the tenured for who got to "have" the new PhD candidates in their labs.

That may not be the case with the humanities... but, again, who would teach the undergrads if not TA's? Adjuncts? Okay... but what about when the adjuncts (like me) get sick of doing such?

I suppose WAY in the future the pendulum may swing the other way... to everything there is a season? Is this a "no grad student" season?

Posted by: Ellie at December 2, 2003 03:20 PM

Should universities be controlling the marketplace? In a world of supply and demand, is the educated student, who wishes to pursue degrees to their highest level, nothing more than a commodity? What if I just wanted to get a PhD knowing full well that the prospect of a job is less than hopeful?

Hmmm. I wonder what happens to businesses that control supply in order to keep the demand high thereby raising the price?

Just my knee-jerk musing.

Posted by: cesek at December 2, 2003 04:16 PM

"In a world of supply and demand, is the educated student, who wishes to pursue degrees to their highest level, nothing more than a commodity?"

In a word, yes.

"What if I just wanted to get a PhD knowing full well that the prospect of a job is less than hopeful?"

I am forever encountering this argument or question, and find it difficult to respond to. At one level it is the kind of things that dept. chairs and adminsitrators say all the time to justify the continatuin of various humanities Ph.D. programs. At another level, though, I suppose it is a legitimate point: one ought to be able to pursue a Ph.D just because ...

Still, when students put this to me I can't help but wonder if what they're really doing is trying to side-step all of the evidence I have offered cocnerning why grad. school in the humanities is a bad idea. In other words, is this the intellectual 22 year-old's rationale of last resort?

Posted by: Chris at December 2, 2003 05:51 PM

Re: too many PhDs

Read Marc Bousquet's essay in the current edition of College English 66(2)Nov. 2003:

"The Rhetoric of 'Job Market' and the Reality of the Academic Labor System"

I'll go with Bousquet...the problem is NOT too many PhDs. Check it out. It's worth your time.

Posted by: acline at December 2, 2003 06:31 PM

I consider it a disaster for academia that Fish has emerged as a high-profile lobbyist. He is incapable of being self-critical; his arrogant insider's point of view plays right into the hands of halfwit politicians. IA points out one or two intrinsic problems in the academy that Fish leaves out of his piece in the Chronicle -- there are many, many more. Much is wrong with academia, and unless academics, in good conscience, attempt to fix it, legislatures will.

Posted by: constance at December 2, 2003 07:00 PM

In fairness to Fish (is he really a "high-profile lobbyist"? -- that's a serious question, by the way), I can understand the impulse to not give an inch when dealing with those who will take more than a mile. But I agree: an obstinate refusal to concede that there are any grounds whatsoever to complaints and criticisms coming from outside the academy is counter-productive, and just plays into the hands of the worst elements.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 2, 2003 10:23 PM

"Read Marc Bousquet's essay in the current edition of College English 66(2)Nov. 2003:"

I need to read this. It's on my list. I suspect I both agree and disagree with Bousquet (I can't help it: I'm Canadian: compromise is what we do).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 2, 2003 10:55 PM

In post 4, "Hmmm. I wonder what happens to businesses that control supply in order to keep the demand high thereby raising the price?"

Try asking OPEC. They seem to manage just fine, even if recent articles imply that they can have trouble making members toe the party line.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 3, 2003 07:07 AM

Other posters have made several good points.

'- Fish is incapable of being self-critical; his arrogant insider's point of view plays right into the hands of halfwit politicians.-' "Much is wrong with academia, and unless academics, in good conscience, attempt to fix it, legislatures will."

It is interesting that a program which can place all of its graduates (PhDs in business routinely experience more offers than graduates to fill them) is chosing not to accept any PhDs this year.

But of importance, people like Fish are truly creating targets in academia for legislators to go after. They are exactly what the legislators hold up to parents as what is wrong with academics and what needs to be controlled.

It is as if when Joe M. was out commie bashing (and, sad to say, he was right about the communist traitors in the state department -- guess even a broken clock can be right twice a day) someone had stood up and said "Yes, I'm a communist, and yes, we are trying to brainwash your children and betray the country, and here is why we are right."

What more needs to be said?

Posted by: anon visitor at December 3, 2003 08:13 AM

Ref Post #10
No I dont think OPEC is the right idea since that will mean that these departments do get together and discuss this. I dont think this happens at all.
What interests me is that departments should have a stake in their students doing well. If a department consistantly output students with bad placements, they will have difficulty getting the best students each passing academic year. The word gets around the industry pretty quick and soon they will find that they have problems attracting good faculty,funding,etc which in turn negatively impacts their reputation. Thus it is to the repective departments best interests that their graduates place well and not take on more students that they can take care off. Seems to happen in law schools, business type programs. Are they somehow different?

Posted by: at December 3, 2003 09:47 AM

As an outside observer in these discussions:

It seems that many of you are members of guilds that are so weak and dysfunctional that you can't even think straight. I'm a physician, and the difference between the guild(s) I'm in and academia are astounding.

Of course, the number of PhD.s should be capped. Going through a period of low-pay apprenticeship only makes sense if a good career awaits and the end. When I was in academic medicine I would have considered it grossly unethical to train physicians who didn't have easy access to excellent jobs. However, we didn't have a choice; slots in training programs are tightly regulated by accredidation agencies. Johns Hopkins can't add an extra resident in order to lighten the load on attending pysicians because that resident could not become board certified (or, in many states, even licensed).

PhD. candidates are not commodities; they are human beings who are being inducted into a guild. I don't understand how department chairs who are training PhD.s who don't get several tenure track job offers can look at themselves in the mirror.

What am I missing?

Posted by: Ted at December 3, 2003 09:48 AM


Like you I'm a frequent "outside" visitor to this board. The closest relationship I have w/ the academy is that I once considered going into it, but it's hardly where I am now. Your comments are probably the most sensible, rational ones I've ever seen here. That's not to discount the numerous worthwhile comments that are otherwise indeed posted here, it's just that it probably takes an unvarnished, uncorrupted outside perspective to take a quick objective glance and recognize that the emporer truly has no clothes. The air in the academy these days is so rareified and other-worldly (i.e. so completely divorced from the mainstream) you have to wonder how much oxygen is left in it. My gut reaction to a lot of what I've seen here, as I'm sure was yours, was nothing more than a big, pure unadulterated, "What the F**K?".

To further validate your very cogent viewpoint, I sort of arrived at the same conclusion going backwards and through personal experience. During my short tenure at grad school (non-PhD track but seriously considering it) I was walking down the street w/ a friend, himself a PhD student, and I remember remarking to him, "You mean to say that after putting your nose to the grindstone for 7 to 10 years you might not even come out of it on the other end with an actual job?" Though there were other factors, that was surely the Perry Mason moment where I realized the futility of going for a PhD under the available conditions at the time (which sadly have yet to change). Last I checked, 9 years out of grad school he's still a "research fellow". And he's in the sciences.

(Disclaimer: When I say "actual job" I mean, an _actual job_; full-time, tenure-track professorship w/ benefits etc. etc.)

Posted by: Dynamo Kiev at December 3, 2003 10:53 AM

I agree that the number of PhDs granted should be reduced, but along with that isn't it significant that, if the numbers are accurate, only 25% of job offers are actually tenure track with the remaining 75% part-time or contract work?

It seems that even with a reduction in the number of PhDs granted, we would still have the problem of Universities/colleges not making tenure spots available and instead relying on low-paid, no-benefit adjuncts (so there might be fewer out-of-work PhDs, but conceivably the same percentage of adjuncts).

I think a reduction in PhD output still needs to be coupled with a restructuring that once again favors tenure-track positions--the numbers should minimally be flipped; 75% tenure, 25% part-time/adjunct (I know, I'm dreaming here...).

I work in academia but I'm not currently a teacher/professor. I likely make more money than most adjuncts at my Ivy League employer and I get FULL benefits (health, retirement, vacation, etc.). Though I really don't know the specific adjunct stats for my university, it seems something is very wrong with that scenario....

Posted by: James at December 3, 2003 11:30 AM

Responding to #12: I personally haven't seen more than lip service being paid to placement results in my field. The department I'm trying to escape advertises an "expected time to degree" to applicants but does its best to quash the actual statistics (mean 7+ years instead of the advertised 5). We're not in the humanities, so anybody who wants a job can go into industry, but there isn't any disclosure of dropout rate or placement results. Certainly when I was an undergrad I wasn't sophisticated enough to ask those questions and wasn't advised to do so. After all, it's the #1 school in its subfield, how can it be bad?

Posted by: ABD Instructor at December 3, 2003 12:04 PM

Re: #12, 16

Like ABD, I don't think "word gets around the industry," and it especially doesn't in the humanities. I've much more often seen (and myself indulged in) what has here been charitably called magical thinking: I'm special, I'm brilliant, the numbers don't apply to me--and that's when people actually know the numbers. Most don't. Our department just received 155 applications for a t-t position. I don't want to reopen previous discussions about hiring practices, but still, you're going to have to dance real fast to convince me that most of those rigorously-trained PhDs with publication records the length of Beowulf are "unsuitable."

Ted's observations seem right on the money. Guilds are responsible not just for their masters (tenured profs), but for their various classes of journeymen (t-ts and adjuncts) and for their apprentices (graduate students). The guild can't weasel out from their responsibilities by saying you're not a member 'til you're tenured (I think there was a comment to that effect in the follow-up thread). Oh, right--they can. But not without dire consequences (*there's* a self-consuming artifact for Dr. Fish to think about).

Posted by: Rose at December 3, 2003 04:26 PM

Ted's point concerning the guild structure is very apt. However, I think it's likely that most tenured/tenure track faculty do not think of themselves as a guild, which is to say Ted's point is in all liklihood lost on most of the tenured/tenure track who read it. Someone in another thread said it better, "the profession doesn't know itself very well."

Posted by: Chris at December 3, 2003 05:37 PM