Can Graduate Student Teaching Survive?
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Almost all universities, public and private, have cut back on support for actual research work, to refocus on more pressing tasks such as graduating more MBAs. From 1970 to 2008, the number of MBA diplomas issued each year rose from 26,490 to 155,637—and rose even more after the financial crisis, reaching 177,684 in 2010. At the same time, schools are hiring growing numbers of MBAs into their administrations. These new hires eagerly apply business-school methods to quantify and evaluate research, teaching, and learning, over the protests of professors. The botched MBA coup against University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, who didn’t want to shutter humanities departments quickly enough, is probably the best known example, but Texas A&M might be the most absurd: the school issued a “faculty productivity report” that gave profit-and-loss statements for every professor on campus. The same forces have pushed for the rapid launch of online education programs, which threaten to overwhelm traditional classroom teaching. This is in keeping with the major change already wrought by business-minded administrators on the academic workforce: they are in the process of effectively abolishing tenure, in favor of casual academic labor.
The professoriate has stratified into a small, tenured elite that recruits few new members outside top-tier institutions and a swelling academic underclass. A recent National Science Foundation Survey found that in the physical and life sciences and engineering, only about 15 percent of recent Ph.D.s make it onto the tenure track within five years. From 1997 to 2007, the proportion of instructional staff members not on the tenure track grew from two-thirds to 73 percent. The figure is almost certainly higher since the recession, and higher still for younger scholars who weren’t grandfathered into the tenure system. Wayne State University recently proposed to abolish tenure outright.
For contingent and temporary professors (adjuncts), work is temporary. It can be overly burdensome (the dreaded “4/4 load”—eight courses in two semesters), unavailable, or spread among several campuses. This leaves almost no time for research, to say nothing of family. Benefits are often negligible. An hours-to-pay comparison often puts adjuncts below the minimum wage. From 2007 to 2010, the number of people with Ph.D.s relying on some kind of public assistance, such as food stamps, more than tripled, from 9,776 to 33,655. The decline of professorial hiring is not due to overproduction of Ph.D.s. More people are in college than ever before; advanced research is more important, we all seem to agree, than it ever has been. The problem is universities’ refusal to create good academic jobs. As in the rest of the American economy, employers are waiting out would-be employees, seeing how low the cost of labor will fall. Hence the endless spate of articles with titles such as “Graduate School: Just Don’t Go” and “The Disposable Academic.” A much-beloved (among academics) series of animated videos stages conversations between undergraduate naïfs and embittered academics, all on the theme of “So you want to get a Ph.D. in ___.” Conservative pundit David Brooks chose the word “tsunami” to describe what awaits academia.
But this is a political conflict over priorities, not a natural disaster. And in this conflict, academics are losing. These changes in higher education are the result of concerted efforts by a coalition of university administrators, donors, and conservative politicians to seize institutional power and reorient the university system toward private purposes. As Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Fall of the Faculty, corporate backers have installed an ever-growing army of overpaid administrators to superintend universities. From 1975 to 2008, faculty-to-student ratios stayed level, albeit with the portion of faculty who are tenured or tenure-track crashing. Meanwhile, the number of administrators doubled. This administrative staff is charged with supervising the faculty, making money off them where possible, and otherwise enlarging the endowment by extracting tuition and skimming funds from research grants. In return for the exorbitant tuition, administrators provide undergraduates with an increasingly fun experience, rather than an increasingly serious education.