Two much-discussed trends in academe -- the adoption of corporate values and the decline in the percentage of faculty jobs that are on the tenure track -- are closely linked and require joint examination. That is the thesis of a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, just published by Fordham University Press. Frank Donoghue, the author, is associate professor of English at Ohio State University. Donoghue recently responded to e-mail questions about the themes of his book.
Q: What prompted you to write this book? Does your career fit these trends?
A: More than any other factor, the career decision that prompted me to write The Last Professors was my move to Ohio State in 1989. I’d spent my prior academic life (undergrad, graduate school, my first teaching job) at elite private universities. Coming to a public, land grant university meant working at an institution that has no vast endowment, that is often strongly affected by the state’s economy and politics, and that is frequently forced to make very tough financial decisions. This new climate gave me an unmediated look at “how the university works,” to borrow the title phrase of Marc Bousquet’s new book. I reacted by reading everything I could find on the topic of academic labor (not much in 1990, other than Richard Ohmann’s English in America and Evan Watkins’ Work Time), and then began teaching courses on the subject. The book really grew out of those graduate seminars on academic labor, and I’m deeply grateful to the students who took them.
Q: What are the main reasons for the erosion of the tenure-track career?
A: I believe that tenure and the kind of career it makes possible are disappearing largely for financial reasons. Opponents of tenure are less likely to make political arguments against it -- except in very inflammatory cases like Ward Churchill’s -- but instead are now inclined to argue that professors’ labor costs too much. The casualization of labor is the global norm, practiced by employers everywhere. Academia is one of the last workplaces to come almost completely under this management philosophy, where payment by the job replaces the traditional salary, benefits and, in the case of professors, job security. Medicine and the law are currently engaged in less acute versions of this transition from one management system to another. Among the professions, only the clergy and the officer ranks of the military seem to be immune to the erosion of tenure or its equivalent.
Q: Many advocates for adjuncts say that tenure-track (and especially tenured) professors did nothing or far too little as academe was restructured. Is this true? Why do you think this happened?
A: Certainly most tenure-track professors were oblivious as the teaching workforce was restructured, and very few predicted how dire a problem it would become. Had we identified the casualization of the teaching workforce as a problem when it began to take hold in the 1980s, we might have been able to correct it. Paul Lauter referred to the misuse of adjuncts as a “scandal” in 1991 in Canons and Contexts, and he may have been the first to use language that strong. That we could have done much about it over the past twenty years presupposes that professors set hiring policies. At most institutions, professors have a lot of input in the hiring of other professors, but not in the hiring of adjuncts, either the people themselves or the terms of their contracts. Decisions about adjunct labor have, by and large, never been made by faculty, but have instead been part of larger administrative policies.
Q: How have humanities professors fared, compared to those in other fields?
A: The liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, suffer the most because they lack any connection to sources of funding outside the university. Humanists typically don’t do consulting work, they don’t compete for large corporate or government grants, they don’t have the option of working in the private sector (and thus insisting that universities pay a competitive wage). These factors conspire to put humanists in a bad bargaining position: We depend entirely on our home institutions not only to pay us a fair salary but to determine both the kinds of work and the amount of work we have to do (publishing, teaching, service, outreach) in order to earn that salary.
Q: You have a chapter on the role of prestige -- how does this figure into your analysis?
A: For a hundred years, humanists claimed to follow Matthew Arnold’s exhortation to promulgate the best that has been thought and said. As universities have more and more come to function as occupational training centers, places where students come for vocational credentials, this charge has been emptied of any real meaning. It’s no longer relevant to the mission of most universities. And at those institutions where the liberal arts still flourish, prestige has taken the place of the Arnoldian mottoes. That is, the best universities now steer prospective students away from the content of the curriculum (literature, philosophy, history) and toward the signaling power of the institution itself. U.S. News & World Report has, since its annual America’s Best Colleges issue debuted in 1983, fixed this new principle by implying that the abstract notion of prestige can be converted into an assortment of rank-ordered lists. As a result, many universities present the narrative of their ambitions as a quest for prestige. It’s now one of the principal organizing fictions of American higher education.
Q: What are key steps that could be taken to restore the tenure-track professoriate?
A: The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.