Academia is in Crisis - And It’s Political
Some of the most cutting-edge and politically engaged scholars of our age are leaving higher education or being pushed out. Young academics who graduated from one of the growing numbers of Ph.D programs in women’s and gender studies, ethnic studies, and other interdisciplinary programs—programs that typically trace their histories back to social movements for marginalized populations and which explicitly state their commitment to advancing social justice—are finding their futures in the academy untenable. Meanwhile this is happening as the United States tunnels through a political era in which every voice championing justice and compassion is needed.
Consider the story of Raechel Anne Jolie, a 32 year-old writer and former critical media and gender studies professor living in Massachusetts. “I was deeply inspired by the professors at my undergraduate institution who I saw doing important research on things like gentrification, social movements, and refugee crises, and that research came into the classroom and had a huge impact,” recalls Jolie. “This felt especially powerful for [me as] a working-class, first-generation person. Education transformed me. I wanted to be that for future students.”
But after putting in long work days for little pay over several years earning her Ph.D, Jolie found scant opportunities for employment. The only job she could find in her profession, a one-year visiting position, was located halfway across the country from her home.
Feeling conflicted but told she was lucky to land even a one-year contract, Jolie “uprooted,” as she terms it, to Massachusetts with her then-partner and began her position at a small liberal arts college. She would ultimately teach there for four years before the college declined to renew her contract, citing budgetary constraints.
“I spent four years doing the same work as tenure-track professors and getting paid less,” Jolie says. “Instead of offering me another salaried line, they asked if I would adjunct for literally half the pay as my former line. I couldn't stomach saying yes. And for the first time I began to accept that I may not have a future in the academy.”
The reasons why academia is a sinking ship are complex, but chief among them for interdisciplinary scholars—especially those at publicly funded colleges and universities— is politically motivated disinvestment in support for higher education.
In 2014, for example, anti-gay Republican legislators successfully pressured the University of South Carolina Upstate to cancel a performance by lesbian comedic performance artist Leigh Hendrix as part of the biannual Bodies of Knowledge Symposium hosted by the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. This action came after state legislators fought to cut the budgets of USC Upstate and the College of Charleston as punishment for providing students with LGBTQ+ educational content.
Just weeks after the forced cancellation of Hendrix’s performance at USC Upstate, interim Senior Vice Chancellor John Masterson then closed the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. This was done without input from faculty or students; rather, it occurred after classes and commencement exercises had drawn to a close for the year. Masterson’s excuse for doing so, according to the Charleston City Paper, was that while “[t]he center has done a marvelous, marvelous job to help Upstate be a welcoming place, I think much of that work is done.”
These right-wing attacks on interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching align with recent polling data from the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, there is a sharply growing gap between Republicans and Democrats in how they view higher education, with 58% of Republicans reporting that colleges and universities “have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” This is compared to 72% of Democrats who view higher education positively.
In such a political climate hostile to any research and teaching challenging right-wing ideology, interdisciplinary work becomes a particularly vulnerable target given the extent to which interdisciplinary programs analyze power, privilege, and resistance to oppression. Interdisciplinary scholars are arguably most immediately identifiable as supporting the liberation work of people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ+ people given that their very degrees often reference gender, race, and/or sexuality.
Kasey*, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies in New Jersey, tells a story that reflects some of these challenges as an interdisciplinary Ph.D.
“I began my post-Ph.D career as an adjunct,” Kasey explains. ”Then I entered the full-time precarious [job] market for five years. I was on the job market the whole time, looking for the elusive tenure-track job. This required moving for multiple contracted, contingent positions and criss-crossing [across] the country.”
It was as a result of her very last job application at the end of those five years that Kasey was finally offered her current position. At the time, Kasey reveals, “I had one foot out the door; I was planning my [post-academic] career at the time.”
And unlike Ph.Ds in traditional fields like history or sociology, Kasey learned, earning a doctoral degree in an interdisciplinary field like women’s and gender studies paradoxically does job seekers no favors when applying for jobs in the very field they trained in.
“When I looked up who got jobs I interviewed for, often they were candidates without a WGSS [women’s, gender, and sexuality studies] degree,” says Kasey. “When I shared this with others, we agreed that non-WGSS Ph.D holders were quite successful at landing WGSS jobs. Some friends even shared horror stories of campus interviews where hiring committee members disparaged WGSS training … claiming that we are read as ‘too eclectic’ on the job market.”
“Some committees do prefer a WGSS Ph.D grad,” Kasey adds, “but not enough to ensure we have jobs in our own field when we are done with our degrees.”
Jolie and Kasey’s stories beg the question: where is this new generation of interdisciplinary scholars supposed to go when their own fields don’t want them? Is it ethical to continue to accept students into interdisciplinary Ph.D programs when hiring committees -- typically composed of senior scholars from disciplinary fields despite their chairing of interdisciplinary departments -- often don’t value interdisciplinary doctoral degrees?
What is the future of interdisciplinary programs, and how does this fit into the future, or lack thereof, of academia as a whole?
Both women’s experiences with economic precarity also reflect a larger truth about the increasing reliance on “part-time” lecturers and adjuncts. This reliance is part of the larger move under neoliberalism to replace decent-paying jobs with what has euphemistically been termed the “gig economy,” in which employers profit off temporary contracts and exploiting workers’ labor. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), more than 70% of college and university faculty are contingent, meaning that their institutions have not made long-term commitments to the security of their employment.
At the same time, Ph.Ds often take on significant amounts of debt to fund their advanced degrees while recouping little pay as graduate teaching assistants and, later, as adjuncts and visiting lecturers. Additionally, according to the AAUP, more than 50% of all faculty appointments are categorized as part-time positions, even though many faculty hired as “part-time” end up teaching course loads that equal full-time positions. The student loan crisis, meanwhile, is increasingly being compared to the subprime mortgage crisis.
Christopher Newfield, discussing his 2008 book Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, wrote that the Republican-fueled defunding and destabilization of the public university is part of a larger attack on public sector workers and an “attempt at a wholesale cultural demotion of the public sphere.” Newfield argues that “[w]e are witnessing an increasing—and increasingly desperate—effort to discredit a core belief of democratic culture, which is that the public sector plays a formative role in social development.”
According to Newfield, conservative attacks on the public sector post World War II, and public education in particular, have constituted a concerted effort to halt the forward march of an egalitarian, racially integrated and college-educated middle class. Using this lens to understand the current moment, it makes sense that interdisciplinary scholars’ futures are increasingly untenable even as interdisciplinarity programs are growing.
“Many people would not be able to wait it out for five years or to move around so much,” Kasey says. “This economy requires flexibility and sacrifice, both of which I was willing to make until the end. And then I wasn’t able—energetically and emotionally speaking—to keep doing it. I was reaching the tipping point where the sacrifices were costing too much.”
For her part, Jolie adds, “[Students] deserve to have an education from people who are treated fairly and who can devote their time to preparing lessons, not applying for food stamps.”
To what extent those educators of the future will be interdisciplinary scholars remains to be seen.
*Kasey is a pseudonym. She asked that her name not be used out of concern for her professional future.