Shell Game or Collapse? A Crisis in Academia

As a survivor of the Graduate School grist mill, I have second-hand experience with the poor job prospects of people with advanced degrees in the liberal arts and pure and social sciences.  The only options for these smart suckers are the academe or a low wage job that could also be filled by a kid with an undergrad education.  (As an economist, my prospects are slightly better.  I have better options outside academia.)  The probability of the low wage job is much higher, given the collapse of the academic job market over the last few years.  Openings for tenure-track positions are rarer than before, as in an effort to cut costs and boost revenues, universities meet their teaching commitments through short-term adjunct faculty and graduate students.

What we see are symptoms of collapse in certain sections of the ivory tower.  We must hope that these collapses do not severely affect the structural integrity of the tower, or the consequences might well be long-term and catastrophic.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements have led to structural changes in the labor market.  The higher paying jobs in technology, business and finance require specialization, quantification and process knowledge, rather than the critical or analytical faculties. As business processes are automated and algorithmized, the role and autonomy of the employee shrinks.  In a realization of Adam Smith’s comments on specialization, the employee’s mandate is now the smooth functioning of some small portion of the machine.  The mandate is repetitive and mindless, and indeed, independent thought and innovation would impede the efficiency of the worker.  For the systems analyst, this task would be code maintenance.  For the MBA drone, it would be preparations for endless meetings and maintenance of endless spreadsheets.

Concurrently, there has been a shift in the role and purpose of universities.  With the pervasiveness of the free market ideology and cuts in government support, universities are now expected to function more like corporations and look to the bottom line, rather than towards the intellectual development of their charges. This does not affect the engineering departments so much, because of a well-developed symbiosis with industry, where ideas are often incubated at the university and then patented, produced and marketed by industrial partners.  Nor do the business schools suffer.  As long as the Lords of High Finance reign in society’s collective imagination, whether as demons or knights, but always powerful, there will be a steady stream of students seeking business and economics degrees.  It is the pure (poor?) sciences, humanities and social sciences that suffer.

These changes in the labor market and in the university model feed back into the educational system in the form of an increased demand for business (and some engineering) degrees and a steely eye towards cost-cutting.  The cost-cutting leads to fewer tenured positions and more adjunct and grad student teaching in all departments (yes, even business), but more so in those that bring in less money, i.e. the pure sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Almost everyone is a sucker in this shell game.  The cost-cutting lowers the quality of the education that the undergraduate is paying a fortune and perhaps going into debt for.  More insidiously, the undergrad is probably unaware of the fact that s/he is badly served by a system where she attends classes of 300 students taught by graduate students earning $15,000 a year and overburdened by teaching and other commitments.  There is a shiny veneer to his/her collegiate experience that distracts: grade inflation, a beautifully landscaped campus, well-maintained buildings, state-of-the art sport facilities, student trips to Italy or Belize, a hundred sensed and unsensed support systems, each with their bureaucracies, to imprint a memorable experience.  What does it matter if this is not what education is about?  Obviously, this infrastructure is expensive.  How could fees not increase every year?

The educators on the other side of this transaction also get shafted.  As argued here, the status of the instructor has gradually deteriorated from that of respected intellectual to piecemeal, contract worker.  Indeed, we see the gradual transformation of the university instructor from white to blue collar, as education gets commodified and mass-produced.  What gives this transformation the immediacy of a mugging is the lack of awareness of those on this hamster wheel, running from grad school to adjunct position to adjunct position to …  Encouraged by tenured professors and captured by ideals, they often enter Humanities programs with the highest expectations only to land on a conveyor belt of job insecurity and piece-work.

In subsequent posts I shall look at other aspects of this crisis.


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