The Timidness of Academic Solutions to the Phd Crisis
I’m constantly amazed at how many academics can brilliantly and boldly interpret what is currently wrong with our university system, and yet are nearly incapable of offering any but the most timid and passive solutions to the problems. The latest in this line is Peter Conn, a professor of English, who writes this mercilessly pessimistic article about the state of the humanities.
By and large, Conn’s description of the modern university system is dead on. When you combine the growing casualization of the university job market– fueled by a “Star” system which lavishly rewards one highly paid rock star professor at the expense of 10 poorly paid adjuncts and TAs– relentless budget cuts in public education, a growing disregard for the value of the humanities as a way of thinking of the world, and the rapid growth of a for-profit higher educational system, we’re left with a very bleak future for the humanities, and for those of us stupid enough to try to make our career in it. The most stunning fact to me is that the median age for tenured faculty has now risen to 55. That means the younger generations of academics simply aren’t getting tenure track jobs (not to mention, the academic protections that go along with it.)
As if to rub it in our faces, the article right above Conn’s on the Chronicle’s list of most popular is about how some universities have started outsourcing the grading of papers to Bangalore. Pretty soon we’ll be begging to keep those shitty $3000-a-semester courses.
But if Conn’s analysis is insightful, his proposed remedies are decent, but painfully inadequate. He calls for a couple of small superficial tweaks– smaller phd cohorts, more openness and accountability about job placement, and increased resources for students who want to work outside of the academy — and one utopian change to society (that “we should also do everything we can to strengthen the place of the humanities in American education and, indeed, in American life.”). Each of these are fine, in themselves, but no one can seriously think they will stop the bleeding.
I won’t claim to have all the answers to these problems. But I will suggest that the time has passed when we could appeal to the university system as an essentially sound system whose problems can be solved entirely internally by an appeal to its own better nature. In other words, Conn’s solutions- besides the last one, which seems nice but entirely unhelpful to me- are all about changes to the structure of particular university policies. This, of course, assumes a mostly well-meaning university that is currently simply arranged incorrectly, simply has adopted the incorrect set of policies and needs to be enlightened about better ones. The simple fact that most universities profit tremendously from, for instance, the over-reliance on adjuncts should belie this notion.
But even if the university were willing to adopt Conn’s suggestions, for reasons of its own enlightened self-interest, we would still be left with the underlying long-term trends that Conn himself identifies so well. Nothing Conn suggests will arrest the growth of casual labor in university education, none will increase state budgets to education, or reduce the inequality between professor pay (see this Gerda Lerner piece for this, especially the graph at the bottom).
What is missing, in Conn’s suggestions, is any language of power. Until we come to grips with the fundamentally unequal power relationship between, on one hand a tiny group of unelected college administrators (normally culled from the financial world), and on the other hand, the mass of students and teachers who actually comprise the living breathing university, we won’t have any sense of how to go forward.
That means talking about unions for grad students, adjuncts, and, where possible, professors; it means a vigorous student movement that holds the administration accountable; it means a citizen population that refuses to balance state budgets on the backs of educators. Most importantly, it means creating a real democratic university, in which power and resources are not horded by the few and privileged. This is radical, but not utopian.
Take, for instance, the creation of unions for educators at places of higher education. Besides raising the wages and improving the condition for teachers, they provide a very concrete political voice for the interests of educators at state capitals. In other words, they lobby for us. At the university level, they comprise an alternative power structure that the university administrators have to deal with, thus re-distrubiting at least some of the decision making power in a university to a democratic organization. Student rallies and occupations can help bring attention to a wider public, of the powerlessness of students, and the defunding of public education– both essential first steps towards our broader citizenry stepping up its commitment to public education.
One of the worst ideological constructions in American life is the idea of the “Ivory Tower.” Putting aside the way in which it sanctions a gross anti-intellectualism, the notion that the universities are distinct privileged places cordoned off from the “real world” has contributed, perhaps more than anything else, to an obscuring of the fundamental inequalities and exploitation within university settings. And, even more so, it has prevented too many academics themselves from acknowledging their own marginal position within it, and fighting to change it. As our current NLRB chair has said, even the Ivory Tower can have a sweatshop in it.