Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25 percent of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.
There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have stanched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. Moreover, professors, especially tenured professors, probably won’t be first to gain increased public support when the economy rebounds.
Therefore, the best recourse is to solve the problem ourselves, taking matters into our own hands, as it were. To that end, I have recently founded an organization, Academic Opportunities Unlimited (AOU). Our motto is “We can’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but we can guarantee an opening.”
AOU is elegant in its simplicity, rebalancing an artificially skewed market. One of the effects of the job crisis is an aging professoriate. Since the 1970s, the scales have tipped heavily AARP-ward: while only 17 percent of faculty were 50 or over in 1969, a bloated 52% had crossed that divide by 1998. It is no doubt worse now, and strangling the air supply of potential new professors.
AOU would work to remedy this bias against youth. It would, through a rigorous screening process, pinpoint faculty who are clogging positions and select them for hits, or “extra-academic retirement” (EAR). While this might raise qualms from the more liberal-minded among us, we would argue that it is more humane, both to potential faculty who otherwise have been shunted aside and to those languishing in the holding pattern of a withered career, than our current system. The retirement would be efficient and quick, and strictly limited to those who, as the saying goes, have their best years long behind them.
In turn, AOU would enliven campuses with new faculty. It is widely acknowledged that faculty in most disciplines have their best ideas in the first flush of their careers, so a good part of their later careers are spent rewarming an old stew; AOU would encourage fresh ideas and innovative research, and bring some excitement back to campus. Undoubtedly, the changes would be visible: rather than looking like fugitives from a nursing home or a Rolling Stones concert, the faculty would be snappier, with better-fitting jeans.
A secondary benefit is that it would have a catalytic effect on those with tenure, who would step more lively when on campus or not hang on to their jobs until they had squeezed the last bit of ink from their yellowed notes. It would bring some concrete accountability to tenure and in turn help to recuperate its public image. Tenure would no longer be seen as a protection for lazy elitists, but a badge of genuine distinction and continuing merit.
Though AOU might prompt arguments like those against euthanasia, I think that it’s more apt to see it like “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in hospitals -- no easy choice, but the reasonable one in many situations. One can envision administrators building such a codicil into academic contracts. While aided retirement might be sudden, consider how many times people say that, if they had a choice, they would rather depart quickly than decline over years in hospitals and nursing homes. Is not academe, given its current demographic, a kind of nursing home for the intellectual class? AOU would be more humane than most other ways of expiring, and it turns the tide from a drain on scarce resources to a more just and productive use of them.
We should stress that AOU is not predicated simply on age, which would be ageist, but on productivity. We are as yet undecided on the exact process -- whether it should operate through nominations (a “three nominations and you’re out” rule -- 3YO) or through a statistical assessment of productivity -- although we will be conducting trial runs soon.
Foreseeing concerns that it might violate academic freedom, we should emphasize that AOU would not tamper with hiring; hiring should of course remain in the domain of the academic unit, as our motto indicates. AOU would clear the current logjam and create more openings, and then it would be up to particular candidates to demonstrate their excellence.
While AOU is an independent enterprise, we expect that university administrators will welcome the turnover of faculty. Cost-conscious provosts will embrace the reduction of salary lines from high-cost, low-yielding professors to starting salary levels. Deans will welcome the infusion of new energy instead of old entropy into departments. At the other end of the spectrum, students will be enthused by more-engaged faculty, with more contemporary popular culture references and the ability to text.
Among colleagues I’ve let in on the ground floor of AOU, there is some debate over whether we should employ independent contractors to conduct retirements or whether we should keep the job in-house. The consensus leans to the latter, which would provide an excellent opportunity for Ph.D. students or unemployed Ph.D.s to serve as “Opportunity Interns” (OIs).
Such an internship would have its own educational value. For one thing, it could give those in the positions a chance to apply the diverse academic skills that they have learned in practical ways -- those from physics could consult on ballistics, those in chemistry could advise about toxicity, and those in English could get coffee. It would be a truly interdisciplinary endeavor, and it would dispel the image of academics as nerds bound to the ivory tower, again building more public respect.
One way to think about it is that AOU would be a rational correction of the academic job market. The market has become distended in an artificial bubble; AOU would help to return the apportionment of faculty to a more natural range. Most scholarship shows that organizations work best if employees represent a breadth of youth and experience rather than clotting in one group, which, like sitting on one side of a rowboat, will swamp the organization. AOU would recover a more normal and productive range and revitalize the professorial ranks.
We welcome both nominations for EAR and applicants for Opportunity Internships.
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing two books: one tentatively called Against Obscurity: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, and the other an edited collection of critical credos from minnesota review, which he edited for 18 years.