Get Out While You Can

Tenured professors should make alternate career contingency plans before the higher ed system collapses, writes James D. Miller.


August 19, 2011

Tenure won’t save us from a higher education collapse. Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.

Among middle- and upper-class Americans, almost every intelligent, hard-working person attends college. Knowing this, many employers use college as a cheap and efficient sorting device and consider only college graduates when hiring for professional positions.

Not having a college degree sends a negative signal to employers. Unfortunately for professors, this signal could dissipate. To see why, consider an extreme example in which students go to college only because of signaling concerns. If something happened to cause fewer highly capable high school graduates to attend college, the stigma of not attending college would slightly decrease.

But as this stigma fell, fewer people would pay for college, which would cause the stigma of not going to college to fall further, which in turn would reduce the percentage of highly capable people who went to college which would…. In a world in which college functioned purely as a signal of quality of the graduate, the percentage of people who attend college could quickly plunge.

The self-made technology billionaire Peter Thiel, who wrote a book attacking political correctness at Stanford, is attempting to weaken the negative signal of not attending college. This billionaire held a competition to find 20 of the smartest, hardest-working and most accomplished people under age 20 and is paying them to “stop out of school.” Although these 20 couldn’t make a difference per se, Thiel is using them to send a message that talented young people shouldn’t need to pay (in cash and time) for a college degree. When evaluating Thiel’s chances of success, keep in mind that he was the key financial backer of Facebook and LinkedIn.

Computing technology poses an even greater threat to colleges than Thiel does. Computing power is driven by the well-established trend known as Moore's law, an implication of which is that the amount of computing power you can buy per dollar approximately doubles every year. Let's say you're 40 years old and are wondering what kind of artificial intelligence programs you'll be competing with in 20 years. When deciding this, take into account that 20 years from now computers will likely be around a million times more powerful than they are today. Over the long run you don't want to go up against Moore's law, yet I fear that this is my profession’s fate.

If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this.

Don't let your childhood memories of this

fool you into underestimating the mortal threat information technology poses to our occupation.

Many governors face enormous fiscal shortfalls, forcing them to choose which public employees to anger. Tenured professors, I suspect, have a lot less political clout in most states than do policeman, nurses, prison guards and public school teachers. If online education keeps improving, then I predict that some governor is going to propose firing most of the tenured faculty at his public colleges and replacing the high-priced teachers with online courses. Since Republicans consider academia to be a creature of the far left, many Republican governors would undoubtedly take joy in decimating the traditional higher education market.

Students gamble on the future when they fund their education with debt. Our current economic difficulties, however, are making Americans pessimistic about the long-term fate of our economy, and it wouldn't surprise me if many parents are no longer willing to let their kids load up on debt. That is especially true if the parents have sent another child to college only to see him moving back home after graduation and taking a job that didn't require a college degree. Unfortunately for professors, every capable kid who doesn’t go to college reduces the stigma of not pursuing higher education.

If you have tenure and therefore think that your college would never get rid of you, consider what would happen if most of your school’s peer institutions replaced expensive tenured faculty with cheap online courses and used the savings to cut tuition by 50 percent. Even if your school has a healthy endowment, many members of your Board of Trustees or Regents probably have business backgrounds and would consider it financial malfeasance for the school to bear costs that the majority of its competitors had shed.

I'm far from certain that the higher education market will disintegrate. But the reasonable chance that it might should be enough to get young and middle-aged tenured professors to think about what we would do if forced out of academia. And bear in mind that if academia suddenly collapsed, the job market would be flooded with former professors, making it extraordinarily challenging for us to get jobs, such as editing and teaching high school, that are well-suited to many professors' skills

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.


James D. Miller is a tenured associate professor of economics at Smith College and is currently writing a book speculating on the future economic impact of enhanced human and artificial intelligences. He hopes the book will land him consulting work that he could use to provide for his family should Smith College terminate his employment.


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