In for Nasty Weather

Is faculty life, as it once was, officially a relic?
May 16, 2011

Maybe it’s because tenured professors are so disproportionately white male baby boomers that classic rock seems like a natural way to capture the sense that tenured faculty existence is vanishing.

First, summon the image of a tweed-clad, gray-haired professor exiting the halls of academe at the end of his career -- only to be replaced by an underpaid adjunct, whose credentials and teaching skills may well be far better than those the newly emeritus had when he started. Then, take your pick of the soundtrack. The song spoke to the tenured professor in his youth, but now it conjures a more forlorn feeling as he leaves campus -- and the kind of faculty job that he held leaves along with him: “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “The Song is Over” or maybe “Already Gone.”

In an upcoming post on his blog that is tentatively titled “Full Moon Setting,” James C. Garland, president emeritus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, reaches for the album-oriented rock catalog (his title is a riff on the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Bad Moon Rising”).

The song’s lyrics seemed apt, he said. “I hear hurricanes a-blowing/I know the end is coming soon/I fear rivers overflowing/I hear the voice of rage and ruin.”

“The metaphor in higher education is that the bad moon is rising,” Garland told Inside Higher Ed. “You’re hearing the voices of rage and ruin. It comes from unhappy faculty who want to form unions to protect themselves, declining standards, students who aren’t willing to work, the corporatization of the university and the general sense that things are getting worse.”

Garland’s larger argument is actually more philosophical (and, he said, influenced by his wife's t'ai chi teacher) -- that those in higher education should seek to gracefully manage change rather than pine for a bygone era. “You’ve got to realize that full moons aren’t forever, that the moon rises and sets,” he said. “That’s just in the nature of things. That seems to be what's happening, particularly to public higher education.”

Still, the darker themes implicit in such narratives of decline resonated -- with some exceptions -- among many experts on higher education and the faculty who were recently interviewed by Inside Higher Ed. Faculty members have never been known for being particularly Panglossian, but most of those interviewed noted that things now really do seem to be worse. While the current state of affairs is, in one sense, a reflection of the wider economic shocks that have hit other workers, many of the problems now surfacing pre-date the financial crisis. The erosion of status, stature, and prospects for a future that much resembles the past has occurred for complicated reasons, experts say, including long-term, systemic, external and ideological ones as well as more recent political and economic developments, and some self-inflicted wounds.

“The American professoriate is in the midst of a major transformation, and it will very likely involve permanent changes to this line of work,” Joseph C. Hermanowicz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia and editor of the forthcoming book, The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), said in an e-mail.

While he did not foresee the complete obliteration of tenured faculty, Hermanowicz said the trend of tenured and tenure-track faculty lines being replaced by adjuncts will likely continue, which will affect the nature of the university and higher education. “In the future, fewer and fewer people will know the academic life or the academic job that we have known over the past many decades,” he said in an interview. “The consequences of that, on the whole, will be an eroded sense of what it means to be a faculty member and what a university faculty member actually is. We’re in the midst of that confusion right now.”

No Longer at the Center

Examples of the diminished stature of the faculty can be found widely. Governors have stripped public employees, including faculty members, of their collective bargaining rights. Legislatures and state systems of higher education have taken aim at tenure.

As intellectual elites, professors also make tempting targets. Classroom discussions conducted in the once-safe space of campus have been copied and distributed -- and heavily edited -- in what advocates of such measures tout as a bid for accountability, but that many faculty members see as propagandistic efforts at intimidation.

Others argue that faculty members wield too much power on campus and are too consumed with protecting their narrow interests at the expense of their institutions. Dick Armey, the former majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and, as chairman of FreedomWorks, a leading figure in the Tea Party movement, argued last month in the Houston Chronicle that universities must be restructured to "eliminate the faculty's iron grip over questions of governance” in order to hand over more authority to administrators, which, he said, would stamp out “cronyism."

And -- even as national politicians and foundations set goals for higher rates of educational attainment in the U.S. and as students grow increasingly diverse -- governors across the country have put higher education on the budgetary chopping block.

"Social, economic and political forces are converging in what you could say is a perfect storm," said Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative On Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University. "Some would probably argue it’s a storm whose time has come."

Faculty have not fared much better within the narrower confines of the campus. Just one-quarter of college presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed said that their faculty had proven helpful in responding to the economic troubles of the past two years (on par with student government representatives; elected faculty leaders scored slightly higher). The disconnect between faculty and administration was even more pronounced among presidents of private colleges. Asked what changes to campus they would make if not for fear of political blowback, private college presidents listed faculty-related options as their top three choices: mandating the retirement age for older faculty, changing tenure policy and increasing teaching loads.

“What is disturbing today is that it seems a generation of presidents and provosts, not external yahoos, seems bent on diluting one of the defining, strong features of their own universities” -- the centrality of the faculty -- said John R. Thelin, author of A History of American Higher Education (Hopkins) and a professor of education at the University of Kentucky.

Implicit in views like Thelin’s is the belief that the faculty’s stake in colleges and universities is not an esoteric matter, or something to be dismissed as petty self-interest. While few faculty members would deny that they are self-interested on these issues, many would argue that their concerns are quite reasonable when most of the adjunct jobs being created lack job security or health insurance, and adjuncts are given little input into their working conditions or the academic mission of their college. The faculty are at the heart of the institution, wrote Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein in The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Hopkins). “Whatever the distinctive contributions that have been made to societies over time by universities, those contributions are overwhelmingly the work of the faculty through their teaching and scholarship,” they wrote.

While many adjuncts argue that they are more skilled instructors because of their larger teaching loads, research also suggests that frequent contact between faculty and students outside the classroom -- the sort of contact for which adjuncts are neither compensated nor equipped in the form of office space -- is a solid predictor of student success. Being on campus also allows faculty members to weigh in on the direction of the institution in the form of shared governance. But that influence is ebbing, said many observers.

“The faculty is not, for the most part, in the center of the enterprise the way it was 20 years ago. We’ve had a mind shift,” said Finkelstein, professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. One example, he said, is that administrative oversight has grown in stature as traditional metrics for accreditation (the number of books in the campus library or the share of doctorates among faculty) have been replaced by a focus on desired outcomes -- outcomes that often are determined without significant faculty input. "It’s not that knowledge workers aren’t important,” said Finkelstein. “It’s that knowledge work is so important that we can’t leave it to knowledge workers."

But, even amid such distress among the faculty, encouraging signs and counter-examples can be found, said Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. He challenged the view that the faculty have been largely marginalized and that their influence is on the wane. “It’s probably not quite as bleak as that,” said Rhoades. “There is a lot of organizing, energy and pushback and an effort to create better working conditions for a whole variety of faculty.” Rhoades cited recent organizing victories for the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere.

Many faculty advocates are fighting back by seeking to reaffirm their role and more aggressively align their fate with that of students -- and their institutions. Faculty members in recent months have rallied alongside students to protest cuts to higher education, and academic labor unions on Tuesday will formally launch a national campaign, previously described here, that seeks to assure a brighter future for higher education.

Neoliberalism Coming Home to Roost

Although the recent stresses on the faculty have grown more evident, the underlying reasons for these changes, say many observers, are more complex and structural.

Attacks on tenure and on the role of the faculty tend to happen not just during times of economic insecurity, but also during periods of political flux -- both of which apply at present, noted several scholars. Added to the mix is a strain of anti-intellectualism and a suspicion of elites. Technology, too, has diminished many traditional avenues of intellectual authority, allowing the uninformed to appear, to the layperson, as well-versed as the expert. “You could say knowledge creation and people’s views of that have changed,” said Trower, of Harvard. “I’m not a big fan of Wikipedia, but it is information, and I do think it has caused a shift in how people think about what knowledge is and how it can be delivered and how it can be known.”

But many agreed that perhaps the largest factor leading to the changed make-up of the faculty has been both slower moving and more consequential: the replacement of tenured faculty with adjuncts. Depending on the estimate, between one-half and two-thirds of the professoriate is composed of faculty members who have no tenure, low pay and little job security.

Thelin, of Kentucky, likened the structural integrity of higher education to a television commercial in which an exterminator tries to stop the spread of termites in a house, only to discover that the foundation has been devoured one morsel at a time, imperceptible to the naked eye. “It’s like the man from Orkin: the termite damage won’t be evident immediately,” he said. “But over time it’s going to nibble and nibble and nibble away the foundation of a sound academic institution.”

The shift to a contingent workforce has been paralleled by changes that have altered the framework that once supported other highly trained professions, several experts noted. “We aren’t the only profession that has had the nature of our job changed,” said Gaye Tuchman, professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of Wannabe U.: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press). “You used to have a family doctor who had a practice. There are fewer and fewer solo lawyers,” she said. “What I think we have to recognize is that the transformation is not simply a transformation of the academy; there’s a general transformation of the workplace."

That wider context doesn’t make the reality of the academic job any more palatable to those in academe -- either for those who are in the ranks of the contingent workforce or for tenured professors who are among the beneficiaries of cheap adjunct labor.

“It is appalling to me. We have a two-class system in the American university,” said Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University. “We have an aristocratic elite -- the tenured class and those who have a reasonable probability of being tenured. On the other hand, we have these adjuncts."

This reliance on adjuncts, said Vedder, is in some cases an outgrowth of the increased institutional emphasis on research -- part of the arms race to boost rankings and prestige. Research output is relatively easy to measure, he said (far more than teaching). More critically, he added, research creates revenue for the institution. “In their zeal to get all this money -- research money -- they’re paying more and more to full-time professors and giving them lower teaching loads,” he said. “That’s one dirty little secret we don’t want revealed: as teaching loads have fallen over the last half-century, we faced the little nagging problem that someone needs to teach the students." (Vedder's critique on teaching loads largely applies to more elite institutions -- and wouldn't make much sense to faculty at community colleges and access-oriented four-year institutions where 5-5 schedules are quite common.)

Attitudes among faculty, said Vedder – particularly at larger research institutions -- have hastened the transfer of teaching loads, in some cases, to graduate students and adjuncts. "Senior faculty can’t be caught dead with undergraduate students," he said. "Moderately senior faculty members want to teach upper-level seminars and … teach graduate students."

But the reliance on adjuncts, noted many experts, is just an example of a larger philosophical shift that has occurred, both in society at large and in higher education. “Most would narrow it down to the concept of neoliberalism itself,” said Adrianna Kezar, associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Typically, neoliberalism is defined as a philosophy that prizes the operation and ethos of the marketplace as a model for all human endeavors. Growing out of this philosophy is the conviction that private industry is inherently more effective, efficient and responsive than public entities. Applied to higher education, neoliberal approaches tend to prize the business function of the university and to seek to quantify often complex and interrelated activities (such as education) into data-driven metrics -- a process that critics fault as reductive and skewed.

Neoliberalism was also evident in many of the seven factors Kezar described as both causing and reflecting the diminished role of the faculty, including putting money into revenue-enhancing areas like fund-raising instead of instruction and treating students like customers. A fresh example playing out in Texas is the effort to quantify the efficiency and productivity of faculty.

Kezar also pinpointed the Bayh-Dole Act, which was enacted in 1980 and amended in 1984, as a key turning point. The law, which has been much lauded by research universities, among others, for revitalizing U.S. competitiveness, spawning new industries and situating universities at the center of economic development, gave institutions of higher education, small businesses and nonprofits control of the intellectual property of inventions that were funded by government research money.

But Kezar, who credited Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter, in their book Academic Capitalism (Hopkins), for the original insight, described one of the law’s consequences: the weaving of higher education more seamlessly into the fabric of the market place. “The following 20 years have just been a continuation and an acceleration of that 1984 act toward where we are today,” Kezar said.

At the same time, several scholars noted that bottom-line considerations, some of which point to conclusions that are unfavorable to professors, cannot be ignored, either. A large proportion of an institution’s budget goes to personnel -- and the faculty comprises a significant share of those costs (though it is diminishing compared to administration).

And, as colleges feel more pressure to increase access to students, certain kinds of higher education cannot be offered in the same way they have been. It is simply not possible to do so on a wide scale, said Finkelstein of Seton Hall. "We can’t have a model where a high-priced tenured professor teaches 20 students in a couple of courses,” he said. “We have to do things differently."

Such a distribution of resources and, in a larger sense, the existence of a robust, tenured and institutionally powerful professoriate reflect a version of higher education that Finkelstein described as an historical aberration. The "golden age," as many referred to it, was the legacy of a huge influx of public money into higher education through the enactment of the GI Bill, which led many states to expand or add public institutions, and the establishment of the National Science Foundation, which helped give rise to the research university.

“We’ve had a 50-year run like nothing else,” said Finkelstein. “We tend to think it’s always been that way. It’s never been that way. We’ve had all these great years and it’s kind of a new historical moment.”

But Rhoades of the AAUP countered this interpretation, saying that the “run” actually ended long ago. "The past has been past for 30 years," he said. "The condition we’re in is not the result of the unsustainable halcyon days of the academy. The condition we’re in is precisely the result of decisions."

Those decisions, said Rhoades, include prioritizing private gain over public investment -- for example, tax breaks for the wealthy over public education. In the context of higher education, he said, these decisions have resulted in a shift in the tuition burden from the state to the student, which has led to ever-increasing levels of student loan debt.

Another decision, made for what he described as short-term gain to the long-term detriment of both faculty and students, is the preponderance of adjuncts. “We’ve been at majority contingent faculty status at least since the early 1990s and it doesn’t seem to be solving our problems,” said Rhoades. “I would argue that this entrepreneurial model is what’s unsustainable.”

“It’s not the new normal," he said. "It’s old wine in a new bottle. We’ve seen the results of privatization and they’re not great."

What’s Next?

To newly minted Ph.D.s, the structural reasons for the lousy job market may well matter less than the inescapable fact that the job market is, well, lousy. Finkelstein said that the research he and Schuster have been doing "quite clearly suggests there isn’t an academic career anymore."

While some observers thought that tenured faculty positions will remain a presence in the most elite colleges, nearly all agreed that the share of these jobs will continue to dwindle in most other areas of higher education. "Eventually, the last tenured professor will die," said Trower of Harvard. "We’re not going to go back to the old days -- economically, technologically or politically."

For Vedder of Ohio, who has been teaching for 46 years, the darkening outlook has led him to change the advice he gives to his most promising students. "It used to be, until a few years ago, that I encouraged the best and brightest of my students. I urged them to consider following the career I followed," he said. "Nowadays, I’ve sort of gone in the reverse. I tell them you don’t want to rule out a college career, but it’s not what it used to be."

While others said they understand that logic, and they fault academe for producing too many doctorates when there is clearly not a big enough market within universities to absorb them, they still worry about the larger ripple effects of bright students turning away from careers in higher education in search of greater stability and a better shot at a middle-class life.

"The deterioration of talent will completely alter the academic profession,” said Hermanowicz of Georgia, “and its impact will be likely felt not only on the intellectual fabric of society, but on the nation's scientific and economic infrastructure."

He and others hoped that faculty would be among those who looked more widely and strategically at what their universities’ priorities should be. And, while some experts acknowledged that faculty members too often reflexively resisted change, others noted that the frequent turnover of administrators also made it difficult for faculty members and management to work together productively.

In particular, some observers suggested that faculty members ought to help prod their universities, especially large public ones, to be more judicious in their ambitions, even if it means taking a hard look at their own departments. In some cases, this may mean attending fewer conferences or being more hard-nosed about the need for every department to cover every specialty in every discipline.

"Is it better to have a smaller institution with exceptionally well-trained faculty who do what they do at a superior level," asked Hermanowicz, "or is it better to have a very, very large institution in which you have a tremendous mixture of talent and an extraordinarily heterogeneous faculty whose net outcome of work is really performed in a mediocre way?"

For Thelin of Kentucky, as worrying as all these trends are, one overriding characteristic of professorial life remains true, though with a caveat. "My take on being a professor is that it’s still one of the all-time great jobs -- but it is becoming less so and less certain to be so."


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