Thursday, July 10, 2014

A crapification of academic life

I have several bees in my bonnet. One is the systematic degradation of academic life. This can be traced to two different  causes: (i) the diminution of resources to the university system and (ii) the progressive restriction on funding for fundamental research. Here are two papers that say something about each.

This one reports on a recent PNAS study on funding of biomedical research. It observes that things are bad and getting worse. More people chasing fewer dollars has led to short-termism. One doesn't have to be a vulgar economist to think that incentives matter and that this kind of situation can lead to cutting corners and focus on boring hygienic problems rather than risky fundamental ones.

Now, linguistics is not as well endowed as bio-med research, but I believe that we face analogous problems. See in particular the discussion of PhD bloat. I would be the last to suggest that grad programs start cutting down on admissions because the chances of landing a job are getting thinner. However, I think that we might owe new admits a stern warning (akin to what one finds on cigarette packages) that there is no guarantee of a career in ling after graduation. At any rate, the sociology in ling is similar if not quite identical to what currently finds in bio-science if this PNAS report is anything to go by.

This second paper discusses the first problem alluded to; the decline of the US university and it traces many the problems to the explosive growth of managerialism. It seems that lots and lots of money is going to administrative salaries. Put bluntly, the people at the top find that increasing their salaries and perks is easy to do.  In the US, this growth has coincided with the idea that everything is, and should be run as, a business. Students are customers, faculty are workers, and the real brains are the administrators that keep everything growing. I have even heard of administrators congratulating themselves on "herding" the faculty "cats" and that this guidance was critical to managing good research. Just another assembly line, albeit one with quirky workers.  At any rate, lots of money is being redirected to administration and this has had a baleful effect on university life. I personally do not see it getting any better very soon. Once in place, bureaucracies are self-sustaining and tend to grow. Oh well.


  1. RE: paper 2

    This is definitely part of a larger context, in which privatization/corporatization are becomingly increasingly rampant at the university, and outside it. One of the more disappointing components of this is the unquestioned acceptance by undergrads, grad students, faculty, etc. that are being marginalized by this change. I was trying to help organize the grad students in my department for a strike related to the bargaining with the UC administration, and everyone seemed to (a) acknowledge that the universities are essentially big corporations and (b) our marginalized positions were justified by comparison to other corporations.

  2. Happening here too. I've been Head of school for the last 2 years (sort of equivalent to Dean of a small faculty) and my interactions with our central administration have been, well, I guess the word is robust. For us I think it's not so much a matter of overly high salaries as the inappropriate imposition of often defunct business practices into academic life. In the words of one critic, our government seems intent on turning a system of first rate universities into third rate businesses. The complexity of academic work and the need for freedom to innovate in both teaching and research is just not compatible with the mindset of many of our top level administrators, who are being bussed in from business (thee are definitely exceptions, but the issue is the systematicity of this, irrespective of the individuals involved). What counts as best practice when you're making widgets or selling stocks isn't best practice when you're trying to push forward the state of human knowledge, and teaching and advising if students isn't the same as delivering a service to customers. But many of the decisions being made assume that there is a comparability if not identity to business activities and teaching/research activities. I think the academic leadership of my own university is generally enlightened about this issue, but the pressure to conform to the overall changing system is immense.