Solving the Academic Job Crisis

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
Author's email:

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.

Professors in the Crosshairs

It was 7 a.m. on January 11, 2011. In an hour, I needed to be at a writing workshop. I sat down on the edge of the bed in my hotel room, and turned on the "Today Show." A photo of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s left hand appeared on the screen, embraced firmly by the right hand of her husband. Matt Lauer spoke of the brilliant, articulate woman, loved by all who knew her; all, that is, except one deranged young man who gunned her down in front of a Safeway grocery store. The scene then switched to the community college campus from which the shooter had recently been suspended.

The young man's math professor explained that he could see that something was clearly wrong with his student. A series of complaints to administrators resulted in the student's suspension. He would be allowed to return to school if he could demonstrate that he had undergone a psychological evaluation that offered proof that he did not pose a threat to others.

While my eyes remained focused on the television screen, my mind went back three semesters, to a student enrolled in two of my classes, a young man who sat in silence during discussions, black ski cap pulled tightly over his forehead. Whenever I called on him by name, he appeared startled, as though I had brought him back from some faraway place.

Frequently, during class, he would turn to the young woman seated next to him and engage in a conversation. After asking him repeatedly to focus his attention on what I was saying, I finally asked him to switch seats. I made the request three times before he got up and moved. As he slowly walked across the room, I saw on his face what I had seen only one other time in my teaching career: hate.

A few days after that experience, a good friend and I were having lunch in the Student Center. She expressed her concern about a student who made her feel uncomfortable. As she described his behavior, I asked, "Are his initials AC?" (Those are not the student’s real initials.) She nodded in amazement.

A week later, one of my students came to my office, visibly upset. She said, "Why would he write those terrible things about you -- you of all people?" I explained that I had no idea what she was talking about. She handed me a copy of the e-mail that the young man had sent to more than one hundred students on campus. One of the sentences in his letter said, "She needs to be gone." While the sentence was ambiguously phrased, I felt certain that I knew what he had intended to convey: "This professor needs to be gone from the face of the earth."

I went to my dean with a copy of the letter. He listened supportively to what I had to say and then expressed regret that he needed to be away from campus for the next few days. He said that he would turn the matter over to the director of student services. I said, "I fear for my life and the lives of others on campus. I do not believe that this student is mentally sound."

The following morning, the director of student services came to my office. He said that he had just met with my student and that the student had reassured him that I had nothing to fear. Although the director of student services felt reassured, I did not. I believed that this student posed a threat to me and to others.

When the dean returned to campus, he held a meeting with the student and me, warning the student that he had picked on the wrong professor. The dean said that I had the reputation of being "one of the best." My dean and director of student services acted in good faith. Both did what they felt they needed to do to treat both the student and me with the dignity that we deserved. As I left the dean’s office, my fear had not diminished.

I spent the next two months facing my student every day in class, wondering what he might do if he snapped. On days when he got up and walked out midway through class, I envisioned him returning with a gun. When the semester ended, the young man left campus. I haven't seen him since. But I continue to think about him. I continue to wonder where he is and how he is and if he is receiving mental help. For his sake, and for the sake of our community, I hope so.

I looked over at the clock on the nightstand and saw that it was 7:50 a.m. I turned off "Today," which was now showing blizzards on the Eastern Coast, and headed to my writing workshop.

Nine professors from across the state were in attendance. The workshop was led by a colleague from my university; a brilliant, outgoing young professor who, over the years, had become like a daughter to me. During the workshop, I could see that something was bothering her. At our first break, I asked her what was wrong. She said, "I just received a phone call from the director of student services. One of my former students was on campus today, shouting that she was there to kill me." After the student left campus, the director of student services called the police. In his phone call to my colleague, the director reassured her that the incident had passed, that he had talked to the young woman and she had told him that she didn’t own a weapon and wouldn’t be returning to campus.

I called our chief of police and asked whether the young woman who had threatened my colleague’s life had been found. He said that he was unaware of the situation. He referred me to his captain. The captain said that another officer was looking into the matter and that she would call me as soon as she was back at the station. Two hours later, the officer called. She said that she had contacted the young woman and that the student was apologetic. The student had reassured the officer that she had no intention of killing my colleague. Instead, the officer said that the student had come to the campus with a magical umbrella, one that had the power to cause my colleague to age 120 years.

The officer said, "The young woman assured me that she has an appointment with her psychiatrist tomorrow. She’s supposed to call me and let me know how the appointment went."

I asked the officer if it would be possible to get a 72-hour mental health detention and she explained that it wasn’t possible because she hadn’t had the chance to speak to the student while she was on campus. I said, "But another faculty member witnessed her behavior. He said that he felt threatened and certain that the young woman intended violence." The officer said, "I need to make that determination myself."

I continued, "What about a disorderly conduct charge?" The officer said, "I doubt that a judge would support that; not when the individual needs mental help."

By the time I finished speaking to the officer, everyone in the workshop was aware of what was going on. Several were sharing their own frightening stories: one, of a student who had written a threatening poem in blood on the wall outside of her office; another, of a student who had warned her that his psychiatrist said he had the type of personality that could cause him to snap and kill someone. He had come to her office to assure her that, if he did kill someone, it would be her.

All of these stories were told by articulate, intelligent women who had, at some point in their teaching careers, feared for their lives, only to be reassured that they had nothing to fear.

Professors and students do have something to fear. As a French professor, I am keenly aware of the fact that an entire French class was a target of the deranged young man at Virginia Tech. Those who know and love Representative Giffords are all too aware of the fact that a troubled young man destroyed the lives of many.

After having spoken with the officer who investigated my colleague’s case, I am certain what I will do if I ever encounter someone who threatens the lives of others. I will immediately dial 911. Then, I will do whatever my university’s threat assessment action plan tells me to do. Why will I dial 911 first? Because it is better to be safe than sorry. If the officer who investigated the "magical umbrella" case had arrived on campus before the student had left, she might have been able to determine that the student posed a threat to herself or others. The officer may have been able to take the student to a mental health facility where she would have received a thorough psychological evaluation.

My heart goes out to Representative Giffords and to all of the families of those who died or were wounded at the hands of a mentally deranged young man. Pima Community College took action by suspending a troubled student. That action, unfortunately, did not stop him from killing and wounding nineteen people.

Universities must be safe havens. Dialing 911 will be my first act as I attempt to keep students and colleagues out of harm’s way.

Editor's Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the University of Wisconsin-Barron County, where the author of the above essay teaches, the opportunity to offer its analysis on the events described, and that response is the following: "Our primary concern, as UW administrators, is the safety of our faculty, staff, and student body. We wholeheartedly support the recommendation of Professor Hoeft; if students, staff, or faculty believe that their lives or the lives of others are in danger, they should call 911. As the result of incidents such as that outlined by Professor Hoeft, the UW Colleges has implemented formal threat assessment groups on every campus. The role of these groups is to assess and coordinate responses to students whose behavior raises concern for serious health and safety risks to themselves or other members of the campus community. On the UW-Barron County campus, this group has extended its role to include faculty and staff education and to provide increased access for students to mental health counseling services. The campus has also held in-service workshops on various topics including victim advocacy and encourages an ongoing conversation regarding campus safety. The best way educational institutions can protect themselves is to be prepared. We would urge all educational institutions to review and update their emergency procedures."

Mary Hoeft
Author's email:

Mary Hoeft is professor of communication arts and French at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Barron County Restorative Justice Program.

Waiting for the Goon Squad

Last Friday, I attended a meeting of progressive faculty and also started reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In raving about the book to friends, I keep calling it Waiting for the Goon Squad by accident, apparently mixing it up with Waiting for Godot and with my identity as a progressive faculty member always waiting for the goon squad to show up -- the goon squad being that vague and shadowy watching cloud that we fear may out us as real people.

The meeting itself wandered into a conversation about our online identities. Someone mentioned the recent case of the provost candidate at Kennesaw State University who was driven away from the job he had accepted by the local paper in Marietta, Georgia — about four hours’ drive northwest from where we were meeting in Statesboro, Georgia. The candidate didn’t out himself as a Marxist on Facebook; he merely cited a source, and the criticism of blacklisting someone based on a cited scholarly source has been well covered elsewhere. But this surveillance of our scholarship quickly and inevitably descended, in our case, into faculty fears that if we let anything slip about ourselves in a public forum in Georgia or elsewhere, someone might see us for who we really are.

In other faculty meetings and professional gatherings, I’ve heard a sort of competitive edge to the fear-driven conversations about what we post and whom we friend online. We have rules: no students; only students who have graduated; maintain two profiles; keep it utterly neutral. Since I began my career in higher education, I’ve learned that faculty members who survive — like other employees in the corporate world and its wannabe stepchildren — are those who embody a poker-faced restraint. This is why I assumed I wouldn’t last long. My poker face is more of a bingo face. And it’s assumed among faculty in general that anything can and will be used against us in a future Horowitz-driven witch hunt or a future round of budget cuts that accidentally happens to target outspoken faculty members.

This larger theme of fear of the cloud ties in nicely with Egan’s book. The "goon squad" in her book could be time itself, or it could be taken to be the cloud of consumer data and its market-driven aims of manipulation. One of the inadvertent heroes of the book — who ends up a superstar by giving in to the cloud — kept himself pure by remaining completely offline. Egan’s super-smart book may be saying that this idle hope is not the way to safety, or she may be saying something else. Her version of electronic communication is sales- and surveillance-oriented, and she’s got fantastic points.

But my version of the cloud also includes the strange and meandering civic functions the cloud provides. People do still occasionally hook up with political causes and learn about social issues through the Internet. And there are people like me — untenured and naked — who occasionally nevertheless post something about their political thoughts or personal experiences online.

In my own case, I have to admit this is driven by the contrarian streak that made me a memoirist. I like telling things that other people seem to feel are embarrassing. I don’t like secrets — they make me edgy; they make me clench my teeth and get depressed. And most of what I believe and have done is already out there in paper form, so I’m done for no matter what goon squad shows up.

I have never eaten a baby or knocked down an elderly person, but I have several things in my life that are bothersome and that I will not write about. Being "open" does not equate to having no discretion, shame, or concern for other people. I have pretty much the same filter wherever I go, and I like to believe that my online person roughly matches what I would say to you face to face. That’s my goal: to make the two identities match up.

Even on Facebook, I friend lots of people. I post links to articles that interest me. This doesn’t mean that I live a particularly fascinating or racy life, or that I post pictures of myself drinking with my students. That’s an image of someone who doesn’t care about their position as an adult working with young people.

Anyway, I don’t have those pictures to post. And I want to be a good role model. Often, I fail — just like every other adult. But I think being "out there" online is part of being a good role model. I want to suggest an alternative to the cautionary, circumspect, and reactive common faculty response to our own personalities. What if being ourselves online is part of our civic responsibility?

In other words, if we only put the neutral stuff online, our students see us as people who are interested in coffee, walks in the park, and the occasional splurge at a bookstore, and nothing else. Maybe we let slip what music we like, as long as it's not the Dead Kennedys or Ani DiFranco. In that version of our online selves, the "goon squad" of Egan's novel wins. The orientation toward private and consumer concerns is what is left when we strip away anything that might be used against us down the road. Either students see us as cowed and impersonal, or they can’t find us at all online, and they lose an opportunity to see what it’s like to live an adult life as one particular person who happens to care about civic issues.

There are two responses to the fear of online surveillance. One is to manage your data so carefully that when they come for the Marx-reading or Marx-citing, they can’t find you.

And then when they come for the Friere-citing, you’re nowhere to be found. The other response is for everyone to say, "I’m Spartacus," to "like" Spartacus on Facebook if you like him in real life, and to push back against the tactic of combing someone’s online identity to search for the objectionable material by being a bit more human online. If we try to compete against each other in a race to the bottom, the winners are those that succeed in being completely impersonal and private and apolitical, focusing on their own private square of safety (with a window) as the world goes to hell.

As wild as your personal beliefs are, we really only have one public sphere, and the Internet is part of it. Engaging in public conversation does mean ultimately that you will be searchable, and that’s important, because public conversations always involve risk, but these small risks are what change the world and what support other people to take larger risks and be themselves.

Sonya Huber
Author's email:

Sonya Huber teaches at Ashland and Georgia Southern Universities. Her most recent book is Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (University of Nebraska Press).

Mothers in Higher Education

As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.

You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.

So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.

Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?

I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.

1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.

Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.

If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.

The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.

The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.

2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”

The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.

In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.

3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.

I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.

As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.

Stephanie McNulty
Author's email:

Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

What Texans Learned

This month the University of Texas System released 821 pages of “productivity” data for all faculty members and graduate assistants employed at the nine academic campuses that make up the UT System. As an adjunct lecturer for UT- Arlington, I am listed, along with my dear friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, on pages 91 through 93. We are sorted alphabetically, our names stacked one atop the other much like our mailboxes in the departmental office, and beside each is information about teaching loads, external research funding, cumulative grade-point averages, and compensation received in the form of salaries and benefits.

In public conversations, those taking place in print and online media, it is the report itself, rather than its content, that is at the center of the controversy. Publication of detailed information about the professional activities of those employed in postsecondary education has reignited long-running debates about the often conflicting ideals of individual privacy and institutional transparency, the relative values of teaching and research, and the meaning of and purpose of academic freedom.

As these are presented in op-ed pieces and blogs, there is the sense that while academics’ opinions on the issues are complex and numerous, that the positions from which they may be formulated are simple and number only two: tenured or tenure-track professor. Further, much of the discussion has centered on the reactions at the flagship campus at Austin and how this type of public reporting will affect that institution’s ability to recruit and retain “superstar” professors. At both the national and local levels, the focus has been on the Austin campus and little attention has been given to those employed by the other eight campuses. Those of us who are outside of Austin and the tenure system find ourselves outside of the conversation, our concerns not represented. The result is that the discussions taking place publicly are incomplete.

On university campuses in North Texas there are two very different takes on what publication of salary data means. Those who are tenured or tenure-track are worried about the reactions of the general public. And with good reason. Those outside academe often have little appreciation for the economic, social and cultural contributions postsecondary educators make to the state and lack understanding of the research and publication processes. Though most professors earn only modest salaries, and only a few's could be described as handsome, many still fear that the public’s perception will be that they are receiving more than they are worth. In a time of state budget shortfalls and widespread economic uncertainty, those whose work is often invisible and so misunderstood, make for easy targets.

Adjuncts and other contingent instructors are uneasy for another set of reasons. Not even the most creative political commentator could accuse us of greed. Our wages are not only shamefully low relative to those of our colleagues, but also in comparison to the workforce as a whole. And so for us, the publication of salary data has a very different meaning. It turns what is ordinarily a private embarrassment into a public one. It is insult added to injury. Still, this is not our biggest concern. Our real worry is how this information may further erode students' perceptions of our worth.

Attitudes about the relative value of those within and those outside of the tenure system are an often-unacknowledged aspect of the university culture. These attitudes are communicated in subtle but powerful ways and students pick up on them. Students see that the names of some instructors are listed in directories and department websites and others are not. They take note of the fact that those who are not listed are the same ones who are also crammed like cordwood in shared offices that often lack basic equipment. Through these and other small indicators, students come to understand that adjuncts are not valued, that we are expendable, that we are — as we are designated in the report— "other."

When students internalize these messages — and it is inevitable that they will — they lose respect not only for the individual adjuncts, but also for what we do. The classes we teach, the information we deliver and the assignments we give are deemed less important and less valuable.

I know that I am not supposed to complain. Regularly, I am reminded that I am fortunate to have a job in academia. And twice a year, when classes are assigned and I find myself again having somehow managed to make the cut, I am thankful: I will have another semester of getting to do what I love in the place I have grown attached to. But then come the calculations: after withholdings, and the expenses I incur — gas, parking, dry cleaning, toner cartridges — how much is left? Each semester it is a bit less, even as I am asked to do a bit more — submit more progress reports, assign more written work, be more available to students, teach larger sections.

Like most Americans, I am finding ways to do more with less. What I cannot afford to do without is the respect and confidence of my students. I worry about the conclusions they may draw if they learn what I am paid: $2,500 per course. Put differently: that’s $12,500 for five courses a year, when a 3-2 courseload would be considered full-time at many institutions. It’s there, in black and white for anyone with the time and inclination to sift through the data and work the math. What the figure doesn’t show is the number of hours I spend preparing for those classes — reading, planning lectures, updating statistics, reviewing notes, tweaking and grading assignments. It doesn’t show the commitment I have to my discipline, those with whom I share it, and the university in whose name I do it.

My position is not secure. I have not yet signed my contract for next semester and I will admit to being a bit nervous as I write this. Still, I believe that the issues raised by the publication of the data are important and that if we are to address them, we must all be allowed and willing to participate in the conversation.

Harvest Moon
Author's email:

Harvest Moon is an adjunct in sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.


Whom to Invite

The recent controversy over the work of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, highlights the risks universities take in inviting famous people to campus and raises the question: Is it worth it?

Until recently, Mortenson was among the most popular guest speakers on campuses nationwide. He rose to fame by campaigning on behalf of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has built schools that he says not only give them an education they would otherwise not receive but also help reduce the influence of terrorists. Then CBS's "60 Minutes" and other media outlets charged, among other allegations, that he had exaggerated the number of schools he had built and violated IRS laws as he accrued millions of dollars in speaking fees and book sales telling his story.

My university was among those that had already scheduled Mortenson to speak when the controversy broke, and the task force that had invited him, which I chair, was among those that rescinded the invitation. Such decisions put a fine point on the issues colleges face time and again about who qualifies as an appropriate guest. The question is made even more potent in the midst of commencement season, as visiting speakers of every kind address thousands of graduates at a time. As ephemeral as speaking events are, these choices are flashpoints for debates about university values.

Here at Bucknell, as at many campuses, we host speakers several times a year in a range of public events, including commencement, an annual literary arts series and a national speaker series, for which Mortenson had been scheduled to speak.

In 20 years of being involved in such choices at various institutions, I have found that three kinds of speakers are easy for colleges to select: scholars, serious authors and performing artists – such as Elaine Pagels, John Edgar Wideman, Edward Albee and Twyla Tharp. To oversimplify nuanced perspectives, whether we are traditionalists who believe universities should provide a model of intellectual thought or generalists who believe universities should engage the popular culture, we typically agree that universities should be forums for diverse ideas. The issue becomes which visitors are worth paying extra to bring their different ideas to campus. These three types of speakers are the most readily accepted because they use the vocabulary of the liberal arts mission, of the intellect, or of the arts, all of which are inarguably part of a well-educated life.

Now the choices get messier, as the experience with Mortenson shows, because campus speakers often are perceived as a shorthand for what we want our university to be.

First we have so-called public intellectuals, known for their authorship of widely read serious nonfiction, such as historian David McCullough, finance writer Niall Ferguson and physicist Brian Greene. It is no surprise they are popular on campuses, since besides drawing crowds they use many of the methods of scholarship, if not the language. They thus are tolerable to academic traditionalists, since a popular intellect is better than no intellect all, while generalists are thrilled. Someone like Elie Wiesel -- author, public intellectual, and Noble Laureate humanitarian -- hits the sweet spot where (almost) everyone agrees.

Second are celebrities: talk-show hosts, television journalists, actors, comedians -- the TV and movie stars. Here the lines of distinction grow sharper. Outside schools of drama or journalism, traditionalists often see celebrities’ language as superficial, while generalists have a harder time explaining their suitability to a university’s mission. In either case, the language of celebrities isn’t typically perceived as a language of academe, let alone the language, in part because they bear the stigma of popular entertainment as shallow, fairly or not.

Celebrities, however, can be hard for campuses to resist, because students will turn out to see them, and some will ask what is the point of having speakers on a campus if students don’t attend. So students frequently put celebrities first on speaker lists, forcing a choice: Can traditionalists trust that the particular celebrity will be thoughtful enough for them to accept, or is the speaker so purely a celebrity that generalists won’t fight for them? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most desired celebrity speakers because their wit is seen as erudite. Either way, those who extend campus invites to celebrities often crouch as they do, especially if it’s for commencement, with its singular importance to university culture.

This leaves the final two categories, which are separated by just one factor: publication. The easiest of the two to debate, because the lines are so clearly drawn, is the accomplished professional, known for doing something in the “real world” beyond authorship, the arts or entertainment. Traditionalists often don’t see the point, while generalists see them as exemplars of action. Politicians fall in this category, and force the question into the simmering realm of ideology. Business executives fit the bill nicely, though, especially if a market-driven philosophy doesn’t clash with campus views too much.

The final and most complicated category of all, then, is the published professional, which happens to be Mortenson’s category. We’ve had our share here: former South African president F.W. de Klerk, peace activist Jody Williams, and, at this year’s commencement, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. To stand apart from the merely accomplished professional, the published professional authors at least one book, earning special credit in the written language that is academe’s prime currency. While traditionalists debate the merits of the book, generalists have greater firepower for their view.

But in entering this special terrain, published professionals also doubly expose themselves to credibility gaps, as Mortenson’s story shows. He became such a sought-after campus speaker because his book made him so famous that students would show up in droves to hear him, almost as if he were a celebrity. How enticing: real accomplishment, authorship and a guaranteed audience to boot.

With the media reports, all that is suspect. But the central problem they raise for campuses isn’t that his nonprofit may have done less good than he claims or that he may have skirted tax obligations. By even his critics’ accounts, after all, he has helped many children, and neither his books nor his speaking contracts claim to fund his nonprofit.

The core dilemma is that he became an especially sought-after campus speaker because of his book’s success. His attractiveness as a published professional visitor came to hinge not on the fact that he’s a great speaker, humanitarian or trailblazing school builder, but on the fact that he presented himself in writing as doing it all for children. If the media reports are true, though, he novelized the children’s story for his own gain. On a core principle, traditionalists and generalists agree: In the language of a university, intellectual honesty is paramount. Not even celebrities get a pass.

In this commencement season, Mortenson’s problems also aren’t his alone; they’re a problem for all public intellectuals, celebrities and professionals. It would not be surprising if everyone, traditionalists and generalists alike, wonders with new intensity during this year’s commencement speeches why universities need such guests. The values debate has a new lightning rod.

Pete Mackey
Author's email:

Pete Mackey is vice president for communications at Bucknell University.

Showing Up

That special day in May has arrived. The students in their graduation robes assemble by the administration building or the stadium or the largest parking lot on campus. They mill around, excited that they’re about to leave the place where they spent the last four or more years, and anxious over the same state of affairs. A few administrators walk by in their regalia, the band or sound system starts up, and soon everyone will march.

So where are the faculty?

“Sorry,” a veteran professor from the English department told me the day before, “but I never show up for these things.” When I ask why not, he just shrugs. He’s taught there for over 25 years. A few other professors respond similarly. The point is, they’re not alone. I’ve taught at three different schools, and faculty attendance at commencement has always been dismal. This year, I was the only faculty member in my department to show up at graduation, and I find that -- let’s be kind and say “puzzling.” Why would you spend years helping your students and then refuse to attend the culmination of all that hard work?

Yet to ask that of most faculty seems to annoy them. They’re independent-minded and don’t like being told what to do, or even be questioned.

“Look, it’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the administration here,” a colleague of mine tells me. “This is my way of flipping them off.” He’s not an evil guy, and this is his rationale for staying away from graduation, year after year.

“But you’re mainly hurting the students,” I reply. “When they’re ready to graduate and none of the faculty show up, what do you think that says to them?”

He shrugs, and the conversation ends there.

Another non-attending teacher puts her hands on her hips when I ask her. “The students don’t show up, so why should I?”

This observation is partly true, so I choose my words carefully. “How about for the students who do show up?”

Another shrug. That seems to be a popular response.

“Hey, I work for my students during the school year,” a colleague from a previous school once told me. I didn’t answer this point, mainly because I’d heard about his terrible teaching evaluations and recognized a self-serving argument when I heard one. “I’m too busy grading finals,” a history professor from the same school told me.

“It’s just too big,” says another faculty member. “I might show up to see the students I taught, but I don’t really feel a part of this...” he searches for the right word “...undertaking.”

In fact, many institutions have both commencement exercises and individual school convocation ceremonies and departmental parties to see off their graduates. But attendance isn’t great at those events, either, and anyway, that’s still not a compelling reason for staying away from graduation.

At one institution where I taught, any faculty who didn’t own their own gowns were obliged to pay for their own regalia, and that was the reigning reason for poor faculty attendance -- until the administration waived the fee, and faculty still stayed away.

At some schools, attendance at graduation is written into the faculty contracts. I gather this measure is necessary because otherwise, faculty representation would be pitiful. Why this should be so, I still can’t fathom. I didn’t enter this profession for big bucks or prestige -- if I had, I would’ve been misinformed -- but because I liked teaching and research. For all its pious platitudes, graduation still celebrates those aspects of academe.

It was many years ago, but I still recall the day I got my doctoral degree: an overcast afternoon that never quite rained. My department was, to put it charitably, ill-represented. My dissertation adviser arrived late and grumpy. I heard him telling another professor that the only reason he showed up was to hood someone -- “and I’m sorry I came because it looks like rain.” At my undergraduate commencement, a few of the faculty from my department came, but none stayed around afterward, though my father asked me to point out some of my teachers.

So I show up at graduation, part of a small cadre. “Hey, professor!” shout a couple of students who see me in my gown. I get a lot of handshakes and a few hugs. With a few, I discuss plans for after graduation, though a handful just want to chat. After the ceremony, some parents want to take pictures of the graduates alongside their professors, which is hard to do without faculty attending.

One student asks me point-blank, “Where are the other professors?” All I can do is shrug -- sympathetically. When it’s over, I pack up and leave the school, still a little emotional, though I’m usually not that type. I’m proud for the students. I’m also upset at my colleagues.

Professors instruct in all sorts of ways. This method is called setting a bad example.

David Galef
Author's email:

David Galef is an English professor and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.

Two Moments

As the eraser arced through the classroom, I realized with a petrifying shock what a horrible mistake I had made. The student was sleeping in class. She was too far away for nudge or comment. Grabbing an eraser from the blackboard chalk tray, I had lobbed it upward, expecting it to fall gently in front of her or in her lap. She would wake up, everyone would chuckle, class would continue. Such was my fatuity. And now I could see that the eraser, in its arched trajectory would land right in her face. It did exactly that, knocking her glasses off, startling not only her but the entire class.

That happened 36 years ago. Shame has mostly purged my memory of what I said or did immediately after the eraser landed. The class, the term, the year went on. Neither my victim nor I ever brought the incident up. At graduation she introduced me to her mother as one of her teachers. Had she forgotten? Was she just being kind? It seemed better not to ask.

Years went by with no communication between us. I continued teaching (without further eraser misuse) until retirement. At the same time I contracted a mild form of Parkinson’s disease. Its main symptom is a tremor of the right arm, which I can usually hide, plus some loss of strength and dexterity. It did not keep me from agreeing to lead an alumni tour, a cruise on the waterways of Holland and Belgium, in May, 2009.

To my surprise, my erstwhile target signed up for this cruise, along with her mother. To my further surprise, the tone of her pre-trip correspondence was wistful and apologetic: "he may not remember me…. I was not one of his star pupils.” Calling her by her undergraduate nickname reassured her, I hope, that I did in fact remember her. Of course I did not bring up the most indelible episode of our relationship but I began to see the cruise as a possible site for redemption. That did not exactly come about but something much more fulfilling did.

Late in the cruise it became her and her mother’s turn to dine at the tour leader’s table. She was seated next to me. Our conversation:

"Do you have Parkinson’s?" (She had sussed me out.)

"I do."

A little later:

"Are you having trouble with that meat?"


"May I help?"


And then the woman, at whom I had lobbed an eraser 35 years before, cut my meat.

Lauren Soth
Author's email:

Lauren Soth is professor of art history emeritus at Carleton College.

Motivating the Reluctant Retiree (Singular)

Smart Title: 

Colleges' incentives for older professors often woo those the institutions really want to keep. U. of Colorado found a way to single out individuals.

Federal Inquiry on Women in Science

Smart Title: 

Education Department plans review of whether colleges' treatment of female students and faculty members violates Title IX.


Subscribe to RSS - Life
Back to Top