Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Depressing article on “decline of the tenure track”

The New York Times has an article noting that “decline of the tenure track raises concerns.” No kidding.

Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on the country’s campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors….

The shift from a tenured faculty results from financial pressures, administrators’ desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings, and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching basics and preparing students for jobs.

It has become so extreme, however, that some universities are pulling back, concerned about the effect on educational quality….

Three decades ago, adjuncts — both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track — represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private.

One of the more darkly amusing parts of the article comes at the end, when a former department head and a provost at Florida International come up with different figures for the number of tenured or tenure-track faculty in the psychology department. It’s one of those small moments that reveals a lot: academia is a system in which those in charge are justifying the use of adjuncts on the grounds of clear-eyed economic rationality, and they can’t even accurately count how many tenure-track positions there are in a single department. This should not be hard.

It’s always struck me that the rise of adjuncts is not about economics— about the rational distribution of limited resources to achieve the best results– than it is about mere budgets— the avoidance of overspending.

For one thing, the use of adjuncts has tended to start with those kinds of courses where demand is strongest and most predictable: introductory surveys. If the addiction to adjuncts really reflected a desire to create a more flexible and responsive labor market, then we’d have seen a system in which the most secure professorships would be tied to teaching– particularly to the largest and most important classes– and the transient laborers would be the researchers. Research lines ebb and flow, last year’s hot topic is this year’s non-entity (is nanotechnology in the house!), but Econ 101 is forever.

Instead, academic labor markets behave as if there’s an eternal, pressing demand for new insights on obscure subjects, but you can’t know from one semester to the next whether students will need to take Introduction to Classical Physics.

Doubtless it’s pure coincidence that the blossoming of the adjunct market tracks with the rise of superstar faculty, the global equivalent of what the French called “turboprofs,” the professor who teaches in the provinces but refuses to move out of Paris (and who can blame them). Perhaps the most spectacular example is Niall Ferguson, who has faculty appointments at Harvard, Oxford, and the Hoover Institution. The guy is astonishingly prolific, and some of his work is pretty brilliant, but I have to wonder: would anyone be less productive with, say, only two professorships? Or just one? (Or maybe I’ve got it backwards: maybe the wonder is that people like William McNeill, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Peter Gay were prolific despite spending most of their careers at one place.)

Another thing that lets universities drive down wages is that many of the laborers themselves aren’t very flexible, for two reasons. First, something like a third of academics are married to other academics, making hiring decisions incredibly complicated, and making it harder for one party to throw in the towel and go to acupuncture school. Second, Ph.D.s (in the humanities and most of the social sciences, anyway) have a paradoxical combination of high job standards and reduced expectations about their employability: too many think that having a Ph.D. renders them unqualified for non-academic jobs, and that such jobs are kind of, well, beneath them. So they’re willing to take increasingly marginal jobs within academia, rather than see how their skills transfer. In a more rational market, a string of lecturing gigs that pay $40K would be less attractive than a non-academic job that pays more; but this isn’t a very rational market.

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1 Comment

  1. Academic departments need to better prepare their graduate students for something other than academic jobs, and such efforts will probably result in better research. It is certainly possible to do this without compromising the quality of the graduates. The math department at Stanford has lots of students who leave with PhD’s and head to non-academic jobs (I think that it may even be half at this point), and in my view the department is better in every respect than it was when I graduated (as one of the first PhD’s to head straight into industry).

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