U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bowen Babies

Word is beginning to filter through my university that, due to an enormous expected state budgetary shortfall, brought about by a combination of cheap oil and mindless tax-cutting, my institution is likely to face a budgetary crisis, one of the results of which might be the cancelation of nearly every faculty search that we are currently undertaking. More grim news in an already grim picture for tenure-track academic jobs.

Sometime during the last quarter century, the bad – and almost always worsening — job market in history began to feel like a permanent fact of life. Those of us who were in graduate school during the late 1980s and early 1990s are perhaps the only cohorts of doctoral students in the last forty years to have studied in a period of relative optimism about our professional futures and about the near future of the academic job market. I know that optimism shaped my experience in graduate school. I imagine it has an impact on my experience of the very different job market that we actually found – and find – ourselves in.

I entered graduate school at Princeton in the fall of 1988. The following year, William Bowen, then President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Julie Ann Sosa published Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply 1987-2012. The book – which soon became known as the “Bowen Report” — created a minor sensation. Its argument even landed on the front page of the New York Times. “Shortages Predicted for 90’s In Professors of Humanities,” read the headline. The article could not have been more emphatic:

Unless preventive steps are taken soon, American colleges and universities face a major shortage of faculty members starting in the next several years, according to the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the academic job market.

Contrary to the common wisdom, the study, released yesterday, found that the biggest shortfalls will occur not in the sciences but in the humanities and social sciences, and that the shortage will be caused mainly by growth in student enrollments and not by large-scale retirements of professors.

”We need to increase overall production of new Ph.D.’s by two-thirds,” said William G. Bowen, co-author of the report. ”In the humanities and social sciences, we need to double the current numbers.”

Needless to say, this was incredibly positive news for those of us working on PhDs at the time. Jim McPherson, who was then our Director of Graduate Studies, told the entering class of graduate students in 1989 that they were the first group of students whom he could honestly tell they would all get tenure-track jobs. I’m sure the effect of the Bowen Report was felt most intensely at Princeton, where Bowen had been President from 1972 to 1988, and whose university press published Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences. Bowen’s co-author, Julia Ann Sosa, was also a Princeton graduate. But the book’s surprising conclusions were widely embraced.  Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences was positively reviewed by a wide variety of academic journals.

Three years later, Bowen and Sosa were back with another book. This time, they were joined by Neil Rudenstine, then President of Harvard, who had been an administrator at Princeton under Bowen and had worked as his Executive Vice President at the Mellon Foundation from 1988 to 1991. In Pursuit of the PhD (1992) reiterated the predictions of the earlier Bowen Report, as well as suggesting some policies that might help relieve the predicted shortage of PhDs. But while In Pursuit of the PhD also garnered its fair share of positive reviews, the actual academic job market was behaving in ways that seemed to bely Bowen and Sosa’s optimistic predictions.

David Hoekema, editor of the American Philosophical Association’s journal Proceedings and Addresses noted the disparity in a January 1992 “Letter from the Editor”:

[T]hose who frequent the placement area of APA conventions find these rosy projections difficult to believe. There we have seen, thus far, not an expansion but rather a contraction of the job market in philosophy. Each year for the past two years the number of new positions advertised in Jobs for Philosophers has declined significantly, following ten years of uninterrupted growth. Yet each year there seem to be no fewer well-qualified but discouraged candidates, hoping against hope for an escape from the dreary treadmill of temporary position after temporary position. My colleagues at the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and other disciplinary associations confirm that this pattern holds true across many disciplines.

The principal cause of the downturn is plain. Departments have been told not to fill positions, or to make only temporary appointments, because of campus-wide budget restrictions. The reasons for the budget crunch include cutbacks in federal aid to students and to colleges, reductions in state funding, and reduced income from endowment funds. Just at the point when younger faculty should be recruited in large numbers to prepare for future needs, present financial pressures have necessitated great caution.


But even Hoekema thought that this situation was only temporary, an unfortunate “in-between time” before the coming sellers’ market for PhDs.  Few people, it seems, took the full measure of the structural changes taking place in American academia that would prove Bowen and Sosa to have been wrong about a dramatic shortage of PhDs in the 1990s.

The years between 1993 and 1998, when I was on the job market prior to receiving my first tenure-track job offers, were certainly better for job-seekers than the 2010s have been. But they were not what the Bowen Report had promised. In my fifth year on the market, I was finally lucky enough to receive my first two tenure-track job offers, one of which, at the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College, I took.  By then I had adjusted to the unexpected reality of the still tight job market of the 1990s.

I think of those of us who entered grad school in the late ’80s and early ’90s as Bowen Babies. We pursued our doctorates feeling more secure about our future than any graduate students had since at least the mid-to-late 1960s.  Though our optimism proved ill-founded, it probably made the experience of graduate school a little less stressful.  But I wonder whether the dashed hopes of the Bowen Report ultimately made many of us more fatalistic about the changes that took place in academia that made the last quarter century a period of worsening prospects for new PhDs.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I have a somewhat different take on the era. I realize this is anecdotal, but I remember it quite clearly. One morning, a bunch of us graduate students were in the graduate lounge, reading the paper, drinking coffee, having our morning bull session, when the late Bill Abbot appeared. (btw Bill was actually quite supportive and sympathetic to the plights of graduate students.) Bill, the editor of the Papers of George Washington project, had heard some bitching about the job market among the early Americanists and decided it was time to stop the “belly aching.” He told us that in 1987, there were seven positions in early U.S. advertised in the Chronicle or the OAH newsletter. This was the most in years. I, being a first year, kept my mouth shut, but a couple of the older graduate students had heard it before, and they proceeded to reconstruct the job market and how basically, once the top tier job became open, every one took a more prestigious job, and at the lowest tier they simply eliminated a position leading to fewer employed. Bill, to his credit, thanked them for the knowledge, and actually fought hard for us in the spring of 1989 when the budget axe came down within the department.

    You once wrote about the Academy in Peril a few years back. I commented then about having a couple of articles from the OAH on the adjunct’s office concerning “Adjunct Purgatory.” Unfortunately those links are no longer active, but I hope someone remembers them.

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