By Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black
For years now, a sad, steady flow of articles, books, and studies has documented the rise of the “disposable academic,” the growing underclass of poorly paid, uninsured Ph.D.s who do the bulk of college teaching but have no real chance of ever landing a secure academic job. This is a tragedy, the argument goes, not only for the young scholars who will never become professors, but also for undergraduates (whose educations suffer when they are taught by “disposable” teachers) and for progress itself (adjunct work is not conducive to original research, open debate, and knowledge production).
But despite the large body of work on the subject, the ratio of “securely-employed” to “disposable” has only gotten worse over the years. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in their recent study Academically Adrift, in 1970, 78 percent of college teachers at degree-granting institutions were full-time faculty; in 2005, only 52 percent were. Fully three quarters of all faculty appointments today are non-tenure-track. “The professor”—as a job, a vocation, and an academic institution—seems to be disappearing.
Moreover, warnings can only fall on deaf ears so many times before they sound absurd. People are still flocking to grad school. Grad schools are still admitting students—and, despite high attrition, they are still overproducing PhDs. InHigher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus report that between 2005 and 2007, American universities awarded over 100,000 doctorates—while creating less than 16,000 tenure-track assistant professorships.
“Don’t make fun of grad students,” Marge Simpson tells Bart after he taunts a group of PhDs working at the local bookstore. “They just made a terrible life choice.” It may be bad behavior, but mocking grad students’ “terrible life choice” is turning out to be a popular pastime for academia’s armchair humorists. In recent months, thanks to the DIY movie site Xtranormal.com, a number of grad students and professors have created short cartoons spoofing the hapless would-be professor. First there was “So You Want to Go To Law School,” which has been viewed over a million times since its launch in October 2010. Parodying the starry-eyed idealism of wannabe lawyers, the film had an obvious applicability to grad school, where starry eyes and poor employment prospects are in even greater supply. Short videos on the career suicide of pursuing a Ph.D. in physics, economics, political science, the humanities, and more followed in quick succession.
The Bitter Professor and the Obtuse Student
Revealingly, these videos center on the paradigmatic encounter between the naïve, aspiring undergraduate and the professor whose career the student aims to imitate. What they show, repeatedly and almost obsessively, is the disconnect between the jaded, bitter academic—who warns against graduate study in increasingly shrill tones—and the ambitious, obtuse student who hears the professor’s well-meant reality check as so much rain on her intellectual parade. The videos always end in the same place: Instead of persuading the students to pursue a more viable career path, the professors succeed only in making their smugly irrepressible interlocutors more determined than ever to become professors.
“I am going to grad school in English,” declares the pig-tailed aspirant in “So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities.”
“I am going to be a college professor.”
“You do know that less than half of Ph.D.s get a tenure-track position? You will probably end up as an adjunct, getting paid less than many of the secretaries and janitors in the school,” the weary English professor warns her.
“I will work hard.”
“No health benefits. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Money is not important to me.”
And so on. Eventually, the professor lets the student have it.
“You will have a career where people demand that you constantly justify to them why you exist. And you will begin to question the nature of your own existence,” she says. “You will discover that your life has been a complete waste and that will be confirmed when a student like you walks into your office asking you for a recommendation.”
“So will you write me a recommendation?”
The professor agrees to write it by Monday and kicks the student out of her office.
These immensely popular videos are hilariously funny, in a “been there, done that, wrote the footnotes” kind of way. In reducing professors and students to clichéd archetypes who can only talk past each other, the laughter they generate is one of rueful—perhaps even bitter—recognition. We’ve been the student, and perhaps, too, we’ve been the professor. And we know that the films tell the truth: People keep going to grad school, despite all indications that they shouldn’t. It’s an absurd situation. And since we can’t do anything about it, we might as well have a laugh at our own collective, pathetic expense.
That laugh is cathartic as far as it goes. If it weren’t, the films wouldn’t be so popular. But catharsis and farce do not always sit comfortably together—and in this instance, they do more than offer us a way to admit that there is a problem. They also encourage us to see the problem as absolutely intransigent—and so to see ourselves as powerless to change it.
Undergraduate hubris, the films suggest, is inevitable and intractable: Students will never stop not listening, never stop thinking they know better than their elders, never lose their absolute certainty that they will be the exception to the rules. Professorial warnings will therefore always go unheeded.
And the professors themselves? They are helpless in the face of economic, institutional, and political forces far beyond their ken; they are harried, underappreciated, and put-upon. And they are to be pitied in their ineffectuality. Capable, it seems, only of inspiring obtuse post-adolescents to wish to be like them, the professor’s is a maddeningly Cassandra-like existence; she is doomed forever (for she will never retire) to be ignored as she warns a steady stream of arrogant whippersnappers away from almost certain professional ruin.
In the farcical version of academia’s employment travails, professors and would-be professors are locked in an unending, pointless charade. Clearly, there is nothing to be done.
Or so the films would have us think. There is something comforting, after all, about hopelessness. If there is no possibility of change, we have no responsibility to make things better. We can throw up our hands and continue just as we are until the inevitable happens and “the professor” disappears along with academic freedom, and, indeed, the life of the mind. And now, thanks to the Xtranormal efforts of academia’s amateur filmmakers, we can even sit back and enjoy it. Pass the popcorn!
As fun as these films are, then, they also arguably fuel the problem they describe.
For one, they ignore the complicity of tenured professors, who continue to teach graduate students in departments that continue to run graduate programs, despite high dropout rates and less-than-stellar job placement records, when they really ought to be downsizing, reorienting, and, in some cases, even closing their programs. The films also ignore the fact that most chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents—administrators who could at least try to address the problem in a systematic way—come from the professorial ranks. Professors are not victims of a faceless, dehumanizing system, as the films imply, but are, rather, the engines—and beneficiaries—of the patterns they so vocally deplore. After all, it’s the grad students and adjuncts who do the teaching the professors aren’t doing themselves; they lighten the professorial workload, freeing the faculty up for research, committee work, administrative gigs, and perhaps even a little bit of hookey.
Even more to the point, the videos don’t even know that governing boards exist. Trustees, as Martin Anderson notes in Impostors in the Temple, “are the invisible men and women of higher education.” And this is really too bad, since “they are the ones who are responsible for the death of integrity” in higher ed. While it’s easy to blame professors, administrators, politicians, and even students for the “decline of the American university,” Anderson observes, pointing fingers at them is, well, pointless. Ultimately, the only people with the authority to take action are the trustees—and they are also the ones with the legal and fiduciary obligation to do so.
But in this, as in so many things, trustees have gotten a free pass.
Time for Trustees to Act
The time has come for trustees to take up the interlocking problems of academia’s overproduction of Ph.D.s, its underemployment of same, and the impact these phenomena have on the quality of undergraduate education and scholarly research. The problem belongs to trustees, and has grown out of control on their watch. And only they are in a position to take meaningful action.
Meaningful action begins with the recognition that adjuncts are no longer “adjunct,” or supplementary to a tenure-track majority. As noted above, non-tenure-track appointments now make up 75 percent of all faculty hires. “Just as American companies have sought to maintain flexibility in their human resources policy, so are colleges and universities,” says the American Council on Education’s Terry Hartle, “And given the precarious financial situation facing most public colleges and universities, I don’t see anything on the horizon to change the long-term trends we’ve been seeing.” Tenure simply is not going to play a large role in higher ed’s future; indeed, the real “adjuncts” today—those who supplement the majority—are the dwindling numbers of tenured faculty. Trustees need to treat that recognition responsibly.
So what should trustees be doing?
Trustees should recognize the importance of adjuncts to higher ed’s educational mission, find out how much their institutions depend on them, and ensure that they have the tools to succeed. As John C. Cross and Edie Goldenberg note in Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, most institutions don’t know how many non-tenure-track teachers they employ, nor do they know what their working conditions are. Trustees should refuse to allow such ignorance to continue. They must study the extent of non-tenure-track teaching at their institution. What percentage of courses, within and across departments, is taught by graduate students or contingent faculty—and what kinds of courses do they teach? What percentage of new hires is tenure-track? Non-tenure-track? Do the figures vary significantly across departments and schools? Are non-tenure-track teachers compensated appropriately? Do they have access to multi-year, renewable contracts? Do they receive benefits? What about office space and access to institutional resources, including opportunities for professional development? Do they enjoy due process and academic freedom? Are they rewarded for excellence—and can they be promoted? Do they have a voice when it comes to faculty governance? Non-tenure-track faculty often lack these things—and all are vital for their ability to provide quality education.
Trustees should evaluate the quality and viability of graduate education at their institution, and should be prepared to downsize, re-orient, or close ineffective programs. Looking closely at the funding packages, retention rates, time-to-degree, and job placement record of each program, trustees should ask the following questions: Are there any graduate programs that should be smaller? Any that should shift focus? Any that should be combined or eliminated? Do programs provide students with information about job placements and non-academic careers, and do they support students who explore the latter path? Evaluation of grad programs must be done with an eye not just to institutional prestige (which comes with being a Ph.D.-granting institution) but also to educational responsibility. Unsuccessful or redundant programs are costly, both to the students enrolled in them and to the departments and schools that fund and run them. They also divert crucial resources away from undergraduate education.
Trustees should recognize that the dysfunction of academic employment has harmed undergraduate education—and should take steps to remedy that. The inquiries outlined above should take place alongside a comprehensive examination of undergraduate education and intellectual culture at the trustees’ institution. Is there a strong, coherent core curriculum—or can students fulfill their general education requirements by picking and choosing from hundreds of courses? Are majors well designed? Is coursework rigorous—or are lax standards and grade inflation the norm? Are students learning, or are they among the millions who are “academically adrift?” Are students studying or partying? Trustees should examine whether these patterns apply at their institutions, and take steps to remedy problems. Studies show that non-tenure-track faculty—who tend to focus almost exclusively on teaching—are often among the better undergraduate teachers. Trustees should ensure that they have the resources and job security to offer rigorous courses. They should also ensure that tenure-track faculty are teaching an appropriate courseload, that they teach introductory and core courses as well as advanced ones, and that their courses are rigorous and substantive.
In short, trustees should know what is happening with education at their institutions—at both the graduate and undergraduate level. And once they have gathered information, they should work with the faculty—tenure-track and non-tenure-track—to devise and implement reforms that are tailored to their particular institutions’ needs.
Such reforms may include:
Shrinking, consolidating, or even closing bloated, redundant, or ineffective graduate programs;
Requiring graduate programs to track doctoral graduation rates, job placements, and career paths, posting results online where prospective students can easily find them, as Ohio State and the University of Maryland at College Park are doing;
Revamping the curriculum, at the general education and major levels, to make it more demanding, coherent, and engaging;
Standardizing and legitimizing the structure of non-tenure-track employment—a cost-effective move that offers viable, rewarding career paths for college teachers, many of whom, studies show, find the rigid and archaic tenure system unappealing and in conflict with their professional styles and goals. Duke University’s “professors of practice,” for example, have stable, salaried positions secured by multi-year renewable contracts. Primarily evaluated on their teaching, they may choose to build a research component into their assessment criteria; their pay is comparable to that of tenure-track faculty; they can be promoted; and they can even chair departments. Emory, Northwestern, and the University of Washington have all implemented non-tenure-track career paths. In each case, contract length and benefits increase with seniority.
Budget constraints, staffing needs, and undergraduate readiness for college-level work will all play a part in defining what changes are required. Trustees should know how other institutions are approaching these challenges and should craft solutions that are customized to their own schools.
In the end, it’s the trustees who are responsible for the fact that academia’s employment crisis has moved out of the realm of tragedy and into that of farce. It’s up to them to realize that this is no laughing matter—and that they need to act now. If they don’t, they’ll have the pleasure of presiding over the implosion of the world’s finest higher education system. And that will be no joke.