Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Academic life, sigh!

Here are two pieces (here, and here) that I recently read about life in the academy. The papers isolate two unfortunate trends that, sadly, I see no reason to think will end soon. The first discusses the growing tendency of universities to pour money into administrative staff, at the same time asking for more and more retrenchment on the part of everyone else. Here's one view from the first piece reacting to the ubiquitous claim from administrators that they are doing everything in their power to keep costs down so as to direct money to the core mission of the university:

“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of theCenter for College Affordability and Productivity.
“I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

Nothin mealy mouthed about this.

The second paper discusses one of the main efforts for keeping costs down; offloading much of university instruction to adjuncts.  This really is a terrible thing to be doing. Instead of hiring faculty to keep up with growing student bodies, universities have been hiring people to be the "fast food workers of academic world." Even very wealthy institutions are not being overly generous. Here's a quote from the article noting where money is going at Columbia (hint: not towards faculty, full or part time).

Even wealthy institutions that arguably have a vested interest in keeping adjuncts happy (if only to combat a growing trend toward adjunct unionization) are doing little or nothing to that end. At Columbia, the base rate of $5,000 per class for an adjunct has not increased in decades. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2013, the Campaign for Columbia raised more than $6 billion, the highest amount ever raised by an Ivy League university. So where has the money gone? In the same seven-year period, the costly expansion to the new Manhattanville campus has proceeded apace, faculty salaries have remained flat and the ranks of professional administrators have swelled, as they have throughout American higher education.
When I first got into academia there were students, profs and a few profs that did some hard time administering the university before returning to the professorial ranks. Now we have customers in place of students, service providers in place of profs and supervisors in place of part time administrators. The latter see their job as controlling the unruly faculty whose main purpose is to generate outside money and teach large classes to allow customers to go through the system in at most 5 years. The university has become a combination summer camp and credentialing agent with space occasionally available for intellectual pursuits, but only if it does not get in the way of the real mission, which increasingly is to grow the endowment. A result of this is the creation of a growing group of managers (who, oddly are not really very good at managing if my experience is any indication) and a growing number of adjuncts that allow the whole thing to limp along.


  1. Though I'm sure it's not what you meant or intended, the comment that "a growing number of adjuncts [...] allow the whole thing to limp along" strikes me as pretty unfair.

    At least within linguistics, there seems to be very little discussion of what options PhDs have outside of academia for jobs. This is at least the case at the department that I am currently in; perhaps it's different in other departments (presumably especially departments with computational linguistics). Nonetheless, if PhDs don't know much about what alternative careers there are much less have support in pursuing those alternative careers, then it's not fair to place the blame on them for accepting a job in academia that perpetuates a lot of problems.

    Additionally, as you point out, there was once a time when professors took turns handling adminsitrative duties. One thing I've been wondering about is how the current state of affairs arose. Perhaps you have thoughts or insights on the matter since you lived through it. Did the current state of affairs arise because professors were pushed out of those positions? Was it because professors willingly gave up those positions in order to have more time to focus on other duties? Some combination of both? Some other reason(s)?

    At any rate, regardless of the reason, it seems like one thing that could conceivably be helpful is if tenured faculty were to try to reclaim some of those positions and push back against the trend of hiring administrators. Such a push would presumably have to be tied to arguing for the need to hire more tenure-track faculty as well in order to allow for rotating these duties.

    That's easier said than done, I'm sure. Ultimately, if things are going to get better, I think there's going to need to be some concerted coordination between all affected parties: undergraduates, graduates, adjuncts, and tenure-track faculty. All of us are getting screwed over for the same reason. The corporatization/businessification of the university has lead to outrageous tuition for undergraduates—pure extortion, in my opinion, given that the university has become the new high school and seems to be a prerequisite for many jobs nowadays—, overworked graduate students, graduate students with fewer course options, graduate students with fewer potential advisors, graduate students with advisors who have less time to dedicate to their professional development and research, severely overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty, stagnant salaries for tenured faculty, and less money for research for everybody.

    Nonetheless, being at the top of the food chain in a relatively secure position, it seems like tenured faculty could be doing more to combat this trend.

    Again, all of this, I'm sure, is easier said than done, and I know that there are many people across all levels of the food chain that are making concerted efforts to combat this trend. I'm not trying to knock anybody's efforts.

    It just seems like we should be talking about trying to find solutions, and it seems to me some things could help are:

    (i) supporting more PhDs in finding alternatives to adjuncting so as to dry up universities access to cheap and exploitative labor;

    (ii) collectivizing wages across adjuncts and tenured faculty, so that those who do end up as adjunct faculty aren't living in poverty;

    (iii) having tenured faculty push back against the hiring of administrators and adjuncts and instead push for more tenure-track positions and rotating administrative duties between tenured faculty;

    (iv) and connecting the dots between the issues that are faced by undergraduates, graduates, adjuncts, and faculty in order to build a group that could collectively push back against this trend in universities.

    1. I did not mean, as you surmised, that adjuncts do what they do so that the whole thing can limp along, but that having them available is integral to allowing the system to function as is.

      Re your proposals: I think that finding alternative employments would be wonderful. However, this is almost always a last resort for people who have gotten a PhD. So this is not a desired outcome. Nor is it clear to me that grad programs would then just limit admission. It supports the idea that PhDs are just job training programs. Is it bad to get one even if you are not going to be a prof in the relevant area? Should programs decide this? That said, right now programs only get "credit" for placing PhDs in tenure track positions. Why not in employable positions? At any rate, the problem is acute.

      How did we get here? Well, the main impetus was the collapse of support for universities by the state. The numbers, I am told, are pretty clear: per student subsidy has gone through the floor. This makes it very expensive to go to University. So the credential becomes a really big deal. The lack of funds also means that we need other ways of raising the money. So we need a large fund raising arm to a university. Big money, more managers. This is not quite right, I think, but these are some of the major forces. The idea is that when money pressures hit you need professionals to handle matters and generally speaking people do not go into academia because they want to run a small/large business.

      But this is all speculation. I really don't know the actual forces at work, except the very big decline in per student subsidies over the last 25 years. In my cynical moments I attribute this decline to the collapse of the soviet union. The world works in mysterious ways.

    2. I agree that alternative employment is not necessarily a desired outcome, but I think doing more to support it could be good for a few reasons. First, there are some people who do go through PhD programs and come out the other end not wanting to go into academia, so I'm sure they would value the support independently of the corporatization of the university problem. Second, I agree that the problem is acute, and it seems like it's going to require significant steps if it's going to be effectively addressed, so one thing that could in principle certainly be useful is a nationwide adjunct strike. If something like that turned into a long-term thing, it would only work if adjuncts were able to find other means of supporting and feeding themselves, whether that's through other employment and/or collectivizing wages.

      Also, another thing that I was thinking about that could be useful is trying to support more open source publishing venues and share access to paywalled research. This would allow those who are passionate about research to continue to be able to do research even if they were not employed at a university.

      Your point about finances is a good/interesting one. I suspect that many universities are like University of Michigan, where, although state funding has decreased, revenue has nonetheless significantly increased. The pamphlet from the Student Union of Michigan that I linked to points out that administrators have used the decrease in state funding as justification for raising tuition, which hides the truth that revenue has increased.

      This is consonant with your point that universities may need a managerial class in order to figure out how to raise more money given that state funding is going through the floor. Even if this is true, I think there's a lot of reason to push back against it. Some other points made in the pamphlet that I linked to are interesting. One thing that is pointed out is how universities have a vested interest in weaning themselves off of state funding, since state funding comes with strings attached.

      Additionally, one thing that the University of Michigan has been doing with increased student tuition is effectively pledging that revenue as collateral for financing construction projects. And these are generally construction projects that aren't really needed and don't really serve any educational/research purpose. There's another pamphlet with more information about this.

      So maybe another thing that could be useful is pushing states to re-up the funding for education—again, easier said than done–and pushing back against universities when they try to raise undergraduate tuition.

      Anyway, I suspect that there are no easy solutions here. I'm glad you're taking time/space on your blog to talk about these issues. Even if there aren't easy solutions, I still think we should be talking about potential solutions and trying to figure out what is to be done. So I'm just trying to push discussion in the direction of possible solutions and concrete steps that could be taken.

    3. I like the idea of making it possible for those that are not in academe anymore to still be able to participate. There is no reason why being a linguist requires being a prof. This is especially true in our field where big bucks for big machines are not always needed.

      As for the rest. I hope things change. The country can certainly afford a reasonable higher education system. So the choice not to have one is political not academic. IMO, we need to stop thinking of education as a process whereby individuals build human "capital" and one that involves developing ones general talents. Students are not consumers and teachers are not service providers and degrees are not (only) certificates for landing a job. However, the current milieu has changed our view of what an educational institution should be and do. This is partially in response to outside pressures. But by internalizing this ethos the university is also hurrying the changes we see along. Keep pushing the discussion.

  2. In Quebec we have these two problems also. However, we also have a third... outrageous spending on university infrastructure coupled with cuts to budgets.

  3. One factor that hasn't been mentioned is an enormous amount of government-mandated 'quality control' bureaucracy. When Bob Dixon retired from his position as God-Professor who ran the department to just be a professor, he went on at some length about the explosion of adminstrative work, which has probably contributed nothing to the value of the 'product'.

    Another factor, similar to the end of the cold war, is the disappearance of the scene from the people who saw great contributions to the WW2 effort coming out of unexpected places in the universities, such as language-teaching programs for numerous then little-known languages.

  4. The 'problem of management' is probably a major factor in neoliberal policy. 1) Get rid of worker self direction and ownership 2) replace management with graduates from management schools 3) give them incentive based pay increases 4) damage social programs...

  5. The 'problem of management' is probably a major factor in neoliberal policy. 1) Get rid of worker self direction and ownership 2) replace management with graduates from management schools 3) give them incentive based pay increases 4) damage social programs...

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