U.S. Intellectual History Blog

‘Tis the season to lament the state of academic employment

With the AHA underway, it’s a good time to join the chorus of voices complaining about the academic job market. I will refrain from warning against anyone seeking a university career in the humanities, as Thomas Benton does in the Chronicle—“Just Don’t Go,” is how he puts it to those weighing the pros and cons of graduate school in the humanities. Rather, I would like to address some of the reasons for this current sad state of affairs, gleaned from my recent reading of Marc Bousquet’s much discussed book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation.

Bousquet’s book is must reading. His main purpose is to understand the shift in the nature of academic employment that has taken place over the past 40 years. Whereas tenure-line faculty taught 75% of college courses nationwide in 1970, now, this number has dropped to 25%. This means that 75% of current college courses are taught either by graduate students or adjunct faculty. In other words, the vast majority of college teachers have tenuous working conditions, and can barely eek out a living. In short, they are exploited. Bousquet terms this the “casualization” of academic labor. This is all well known (although the numbers have been disputed–if Bousquet is even half right, it’s a major problem, in my eyes).

One of the more provocative arguments Bousquet puts forward is that there is not an oversupply of PhDs. Rather, there is an undersupply of tenure-line jobs. (He reiterates this point at his blog in a number of posts on the AHA.) In other words, college students need teachers, as ever, but they are now mostly taught by exploited adjuncts and graduate students. The solution to our problem is not to limit the size of graduate programs. This would be impractical: administrators control the purse strings and benefit from larger graduate programs, since graduate students do the cheap teaching. The solution, obviously is to collectively organize. To fight back!

A skeptic might say: universities are merely responding to the market, to skyrocketing operating costs, etc. For the university to remain operative, cheaper teaching labor is imperative. In other words, Bousquet has to explain why universities, most of which remain, officially, non-profit in status, exploit teachers in the same way that corporations exploit factory workers. So Bousquet is compelled to make the case from the top-down: that universities, in fact, operate by the logic of capital. They’re very bit as interested in capital accumulation as are corporations, even though shareholders don’t reap the profits from university accumulation, as with corporations. Capital accumulation in the university works as such: presidents and assorted higher ups make obscene salaries; high-profile coaches make even more, and are usually a state’s top paid employee (related to this, University of Texas faculty is protesting the new fat contract offered up to its football coach, Mack Brown); the university operates as a sports spectacle; the president uses capital for power and prestige, by funding pet projects; and most nefariously, capital accumulation in the university has allowed for the growth of a large administrative class. University administration is a career path of its own now.

One area of administrative growth that I’ve noticed on my campus is the whole “in loco parentis” industry. This is Christopher Lasch’s nightmare scenario—the “helping professions” are taking over the university! Entirely new classifications of administrators are popping up dedicated to the psychological well-being of our supposedly distressed students, giving lie to the bogus notion that the white middle class values rugged individualism. I see it as a way to profit from the “helicopter parent” phenomenon. (My wildly speculative hypothesis is that many such helicopter parents also hold ideologies about the welfare dependency in relation to the so-called “underclass.”)

Reading Bousquet has led me to questions related to previous discussions on this blog. First, is our discussion of a job market for intellectual historians—accentuated in our review of the Historically Speaking forum on the state of intellectual history—sheer folly in light of the overall situation? Have we been divided and conquered? By we, I mean intellectual historians as against, say, cultural and social historians? If we compelled the universities to shift back to the 75% paradigm, there would be more than enough jobs for all of us. In fact, there would be a shortage of qualified PhDs.

Second, has the creeping reality of academic labor shifted our attention away from the culture wars? Whereas in the 80s and 90s, professors of all ideological stripes engaged in culture war discussions—often against traditionalist conservatives, or as James Livingston makes clear, against one another over the legacies of liberalism—have we moved beyond that to focus squarely on whether our institutional niche is withering? Conservative critics of the academy certainly haven’t shifted gears. For instance, a blogger at a conservative academic watchdog site saw fit to review my book in light of my claims that the Cold War led to a more conservative educational system (even though, ironically, I’m a Marxist with a university job). This is still the stuff of the culture wars. Sure, most professors in the humanities are left to liberal. But why is this so concerning in light of the corporatization of the university? (Thanks to Ariane Fischer and Allison Perlman for discussing these issues with me.)


7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t have any answers to your questions, Andrew. I will state that I lean towards Bousquet’s analysis of the situation.

    The problem is that the state of things—or more precisely the pace of change—has surprised a great many of us. Everyone has known for 40 years that a kind of instrumentalism/vocationalism educational philosophy has come to dominate universities. But I’m not sure everyone saw, as a consequence, that university administration would come to mimic the corporate world in such a blatant way. I mean, in para 4 above, you simply need to insert “marketing” for sports and you have an even more precise corporate model.

    I’ve been complaining about for-profit universities for about a decade, mostly in terms of the University of Phoenix and like-minded endeavors. What’s really happened—what’s become increasingly clear—is that despite the non-profit tax status, ALL universities in the U.S. have become forms of for-profit entities. The differences are only in official terms used (e.g. “excess” vs. profit). And if a university here or there doesn’t appear to be there yet from an individual faculty members point of view, well, don’t worry, your time is coming. It’s a question of when, not if. – TL

  2. Tim: Bousquet deals with for-profit universities as well. According to his figures, almost 10% of the nation’s college students how attend for-profit universities, a growing and troubling trend. But as he sees it, so-called non-profit universities hardly operate differently. Certainly the University of Phoenix has nothing to teach, say, the University of Michigan when it comes to exploiting non-credentialed, part-time, flexible labor. So this supports your point.

    In reading more about the University of Texas faculty protesting Mack Brown’s raise from 3 million to 5 million per year, during a time when there’s been massive belt tightening around the campus, including $3 million in cuts to the liberal arts: “In October the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report from college presidents at institutions with major football programs found that twenty-five of the top football schools had revenues on average of $3.9 million in 2008. The other ninety-four ran deficits averaging $9.9 million.” This means that the vast majority of universities run football programs on the backs of the capital it accumulates from exploiting its workforce, especially teachers.

  3. A friend of mine recommended this book, which cites some of the same numbers used by Bousquet: Joe Berry, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education.

  4. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Andrew. I’m putting together a post (I almost wrote “short post,” but I know myself better than that 😉 ) on these issues. Expect it sometime this weekend.

  5. As to why the “left/liberal” sentiment of humanities faculty is concerning in light of the coroporatization of the university is concerning, the short-answer is that the pseudo-relativism embraced by said faculty is largely compatible with the relativism at the center of global capitalism. Said faculty end up being global capitalism’s unwitting partner.

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