Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Academic Death Panels

Inside Higher Ed op-ed, Solving the Academic Job Crisis, by Jeffrey J. Williams (Carnegie Mellon University, Department of English):

Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25% of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.

There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have stanched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. ...

Therefore, the best recourse is to solve the problem ourselves, taking matters into our own hands, as it were. To that end, I have recently founded an organization, Academic Opportunities Unlimited (AOU). Our motto is “We can’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but we can guarantee an opening.”

AOU is elegant in its simplicity, rebalancing an artificially skewed market. One of the effects of the job crisis is an aging professoriate. Since the 1970s, the scales have tipped heavily AARP-ward: while only 17% were 50 or over in 1969, a bloated 52% had crossed that divide by 1998. It is no doubt worse now, and strangling the air supply of potential new professors.

AOU would work to remedy this bias against youth. It would, through a rigorous screening process, pinpoint faculty who are clogging positions and select them for hits, or “extra-academic retirement” (EAR). While this might raise qualms from the more liberal-minded among us, we would argue that it is more humane, both to potential faculty who otherwise have been shunted aside and to those languishing in the holding pattern of a withered career, than our current system. The retirement would be efficient and quick, and strictly limited to those who, as the saying goes, have their best years long behind them.

In turn, AOU would enliven campuses with new faculty. It is widely acknowledged that faculty in most disciplines have their best ideas in the first flush of their careers, so a good part of their later careers are spent rewarming an old stew; AOU would encourage fresh ideas and innovative research, and bring some excitement back to campus. Undoubtedly, the changes would be visible: rather than looking like fugitives from a nursing home or a Rolling Stones concert, the faculty would be snappier, with better-fitting jeans.

A secondary benefit is that it would have a catalytic effect on those with tenure, who would step more lively when on campus or not hang on to their jobs until they had squeezed the last bit of ink from their yellowed notes. It would bring some concrete accountability to tenure and in turn help to recuperate its public image. Tenure would no longer be seen as a protection for lazy elitists, but a badge of genuine distinction and continuing merit.

Though AOU might prompt arguments like those against euthanasia, I think that it’s more apt to see it like “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in hospitals -- no easy choice, but the reasonable one in many situations. One can envision administrators building such a codicil into academic contracts. While aided retirement might be sudden, consider how many times people say that, if they had a choice, they would rather depart quickly than decline over years in hospitals and nursing homes. Is not academe, given its current demographic, a kind of nursing home for the intellectual class? AOU would be more humane than most other ways of expiring, and it turns the tide from a drain on scarce resources to a more just and productive use of them.

We should stress that AOU is not predicated simply on age, which would be ageist, but on productivity. We are as yet undecided on the exact process -- whether it should operate through nominations (a “three nominations and you’re out” rule -- 3YO) or through a statistical assessment of productivity -- although we will be conducting trial runs soon.

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"Fixing" the tenure system is like putting a band-aid on a necrotic limb. Dump tenure altogether; then the professorate can join the rest of the working world. The free market works (more or less) in engineering and manufacturing (both of which have their share of PhDs, too) and it can work in education.

Posted by: tom swift | Feb 2, 2011 10:12:29 PM

The higher education establishment is rotting from within and should be torn down if it will not fall down of its own accord. The higher-ed. "bubble" is sure to burst before long, as times get harder and money tighter. A prosperous nation possibly can afford inefficient universities and colleges who refuse to care whether or not their graduates get decent jobs in their fields, but a poorer (and more ticked-off) nation is not likely to stand for such nonsense. College costs too much, delivers too little in terms of real-world results, and is ideologically-biased against the views of many average citizens. Universities are also addicted to the cheap labor and indentured servitude of graduate students, medical/dental students, etc. - upon whom they have come to reply, and who constitute a de facto academic underclass, alongside of adjunct and part-time faculty. One can commit 6-8 years of one's life to pursuing a Ph.D. - at the opportunity cost of tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of dollars, and even accrue real debt (undischargeable in bankrupcy) in the six-figure range - and if one passes those Ph.D. exams, there's being an underpaid, overworked post-doc waiting for you, and probably no tenure-track position after that.
The university skims off all the cream, while you the student take all the risks and stick out your neck for an outcome that isn't likely to happen. The typical undergraduate is taught, especially at large universities, by a graduate student, the "real" faculty being too busy or otherwise occupied writing about 16th century French literature to do the job. Am I the only one who thinks such a system is corrupt and ineffective?

Just sign me... almost a Ph.D. but got sensible in time.

Posted by: Georgiaboy61 | Feb 2, 2011 5:59:32 PM

Somehow, I don't think the list of 100 reasons not to go to grad school is going to stop at 100:

...unless those academic death panels get up and running soon. Of course, by the time you finish grad school and get a tenure-track job, there usually isn't any "youth" left in you.

Posted by: Sven | Feb 2, 2011 5:08:19 PM

I like the idea but as a second careerist (got my PhD at 58) I worry that I might be cut off before I even find a tenure track position :)

Posted by: Rich | Feb 2, 2011 4:50:43 PM

May I ask what kind of Ph.D.s are unemployed? There is a world of difference between doctorate in chemistry, engineering, biochemistry, or pharmacology on one hand and one in English, Philosophy, Gender Studies etc. The ones I know working at jobs out of their fields or unemployed all come from the latter set.

Maybe all departments need to post employment rates for graduates?

Posted by: Kevin | Feb 2, 2011 4:49:04 PM

geek49203, like you, I question the 25% figure as well. It elides issues like postdoctoral positions that by their nature are temporary and, in most cases, desired. It most certainly is not descriptive of the market for new PhD's in mathematics - something about which I do know; and I doubt that it is descriptive of the market for PhD's in STEM related disciplines more generally. (I note that Mr. Williams hails from Carnegie Mellon's English Dept.) But more to the point, the proposal doesn't quite pass the laugh test: I've met administrators who claim to be sincerely surprised that post-tenure review hasn't accomplished Mr. Williams' stated aims already - a claim that if sincerely made by an administrative type ought to be grounds for immediate termination.

Posted by: S. Clark | Feb 2, 2011 4:46:49 PM

There's no such thing as a "permanent job" in any other industry, with the exception of "state or federal bureaucrat."

Posted by: HeatherRadish | Feb 2, 2011 4:45:49 PM

Why couldn't the Masters in Mathematics get a job at the burger joint? All their cooks had doctorates. Yes, change tenure so that continued productivity is also required. Professors don't get tenure just to earn the right to sit on their hands.

But hang on, perhaps something is amiss. The University of Wisconsin System has these two-year campuses. They only offer the first two years of college, hence the name. Those campuses are hire only doctorates for tenure track positions. Since no more than the first two years are being taught, somebody with a masters should be adequate for the job. By relegating those with masters to Instructor positions, and hiring doctorates for tenure track positions, they are encouraging people to get doctorates. A masters should be good enough. So perhaps institutions in their hiring practices are partly to blame for the large number of people seeking and earning doctorates. There are plenty of four-year colleges who seek to have as many doctorates on staff as possible.

Posted by: Milwaukee | Feb 2, 2011 4:20:30 PM

This is nothing new - the was a whole generation who got graduate degrees in the humanities in the '70s who could not find academic work. Most of us ended up going into law or medicine or business, some hung on as the first generation of the abused adjuncts.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Feb 2, 2011 4:04:50 PM

What is measured to determine "Productivity"? Does that mean academic articles published? Is that the best measure of a good professor?

And is it possible that the world actually needs less PhD's?

As far as tenure goes. I think it is an indefensible anachronism beloved only by its recipients and teacher's unions. The vast majority of working people in the US have to justify their continued employment all the time. They have to be competent and productive or they will be gone. Moreover, since pretty much all non-union jobs are Employment at Will, they are subject to the whims of their bosses. Why should teachers at any level be any different than the rest of us?

Posted by: Dan Palmer | Feb 2, 2011 3:58:56 PM

So, the academic system is graduating 3 times as many people trained to be college professors than we actually need? Sounds like a distorted market to me.

Maybe it is caused by colleges viewing students solely as a means of extracting loans and grants from the government. Why should colleges care if a student gets a job? The college already got paid.

You got to love the sense of entitlement academics evince. Universities exist to educate non-academics for the general good of society. They don't exist to provide jobs for people who want to be academics.

Posted by: Shannon Love | Feb 2, 2011 3:54:16 PM

Get rid of tenure, sure that would help.

Posted by: Scott | Feb 2, 2011 3:49:45 PM

"only about 25% of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs."

Uh, to clarify... That means "a tenure-track job in field"? Or, "Can't find a job even as a greeter at Walmart, or working the fry machine at McDonald's"???

Posted by: geek49203 | Feb 2, 2011 3:34:35 PM

This is not new. In the 1960s, my Alabama history professor used his yellowed hand written notes to lecture from, which were word for word the same as his Alabama history text book. That book was the approved state text book for 9th grade Alabama history. I got an A--both times, in high school and college.

Posted by: ken in sc | Feb 2, 2011 3:17:03 PM