11.2.06

I'LL NEVER LACK FOR WORK. A few days ago I mentioned a lengthy essay on "The Post-Welfare State University." I have now had time to read it in full. It exemplifies the limitations of scholarly inquiry untrammeled by any obligation to develop refutable implications or engage data. The proposal of five epochs of evolution of the university as well as the taxonomy of five identifiable forms that books about the academy might take is perhaps of some use. But when I dig into the analysis, I start to see problems. Start with the source of The Crisis in the Humanities.
It is now clear that the Golden Age waned through the 1970s and 1980s. Although some of the terms are still fuzzy, the university was part of the strategic defunding of the welfare state from the Reagan Era onwards, and universities have come to operate more as self-sustaining private entities than as subsidized public ones. This has taken a number of paths, most familiarly the pressure for donations, private grants and capital investments (business "partnerships"), and other sources of external funding. Three in particular stand out as departures from the welfare state model. First, the production of directly marketable goods (even if called "knowledges"), enabled by innovations such as the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which permits universities to hold patents and thus profit from them. (Before, they reverted to the granting agency and were publicly held.) Second, the exponential increase of tuition, construing higher education more like any other service that requires consumers or clients to "pay as you go." (Before, the state subvented far larger percentages of tuition.) And third, the casualization of labor, largely through the use of temporary faculty, who now staff, by some estimates, 60% of courses.
It didn't begin with Ronald Reagan. Ominous signs proliferated. James Michener's Kent State suggested that the use of temporary faculty, particularly graduate assistants, was tantamount to using "sweated labor." The Progressive, looking beyond the prisons, Latin American plantations, and packing houses that usually provide its material, concluded a 1975 article with "Ph.D., the new migrant." Economics research on the regressivity of tuition subsidies by state universities began in the late 1960s.

But never let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good rant.
For faculty, the so-called Reagan Revolution overwrote the Academic Revolution. The shift in labor has had the most impact on the traditional liberal-arts disciplines like English, where we rarely garner significant grants or produce commodifiable products. Given that their primary source of revenue is tuition or full-time equivalencies (FTEs), disciplines like English and foreign languages have resorted to a bipartite system of one-half permanent faculty to maintain and administer departments, and one-half temps (without benefits, at low salaries, and so forth), whether called teaching assistants, adjuncts, or lecturers, to cut costs.
So where is the National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts money going? Wouldn't a best-selling novel or some readable poems be "commodifiable?"

Oh, that's right, Anne Rice or Tom Clancy couldn't get tenure.
For those fortunate enough to hold permanent positions, the university has internalized the market protocol of intensified productivity, in the humanities through the largely symbolic productivity of books and articles (hence the inflation of publication requirements for tenure), as well as the ensuing pressure for service, given that there are fewer fully franchised faculty mmbers to keep departments running, to make curricular or staff decisions, and other sundry tasks that faculty invisibly do.
That might play with a non-academic audience, but tenure criteria originate with faculty committees, as do changes in catalog language and the drawing up of short-lists for the job meetings. The former are vetted by college and university committees, the latter by all manner of administrators. Buy me a coffee if you want stories about campus politicians whose profundity is in inverse proportion to the length of their statements in meetings. The most productive thing some of them might do is zip it. (This Inside Higher Ed column has some concluding suggestions that recognize faculty responsibility for some of the university's problems.)

But it's when Professor Williams attempts to deconstruct economics that he really gets into trouble.
The most misguided commentary, it is now clear, was about academic jobs. Despite the rollback of full positions from around 1970, there were still projections, most notably the William G. Bowen report Prospects for the Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987–2012 (1989), that there would soon be not only an increased number of professorial jobs but a shortage of Ph.D.s to fill them. As Marc Bousquet has shown in "The Waste Product of Graduate Education" (2002), Bowen mistakenly relied on the shibboleth of supply and demand; given the demographic projections that the World War II generation would retire and that the children of the Baby Boomers would crowd college classrooms through the 1990s, the reasoning went, there would be a marked increase in demand for professors. What happened, of course, is that the iron law of supply was reconfigured in plastic ways, and many full positions had been replaced by casual positions. I would add that the problem with Bowen's predictions was not only the assumption of the sanctity of the market but the tacit expectation of the welfare state university.
No. It is one thing to construct a model of a phenomenon judging it entirely by the tightness of its reasoning. It is quite another to produce one that makes sense of empirical phenomena. (Philosophers, literary critics, and some Austrian-libertarian economists have trouble passing that second test.) There is no "shibboleth" of supply and demand; rather, it is a model that explains behavior tolerably well as long as one accepts its limitations. One such limitation is its difficulty in explaining adjustment to a new equilibrium. Lyapunov's methods provide sufficient conditions for convergence. At best, they will provide a phase space, but not a solution for a trajectory.

Furthermore, the 1990s witnessed a convergence of several phenomena: the questioning of the welfare state university was one, the lower enrollments as the smaller Thirteenth Generation slouched through college another, the business fad of downsizing (despite the loss of institutional memory and flexibility) a third. But to lay all the blame on a (poorly foreseen?) combination of events during the late 1980s and early 1990s is, again, to overlook evidence. University administrators have long viewed "tenure depth" as an intolerable rigidity. They have a number of strategies to deal with it. The most famous departments are often large enough to make multiple hires in a year, with perhaps one person qualifying for the prize. The smaller departments might run afoul of a tacit tenure quota or be authorized only a temporary appointment.

It is when the essay attempts to make policy recommendations that the writer's limitations become clear.
Part of the problem might be the protocols of criticism. We are trained, when we look at poems or cultural phenomena, to "read" them, spotting unities or unpacking inconsistencies. We do not expect to fix them or to offer prescriptions for poets to follow. We tend to take a similar stance toward the university: we read and interpret the events and ideas they suggest, spotting inconsistencies or showing how ideas deconstruct. We need to switch stances, I believe, to a more pragmatic, prescriptive mode. In some sense, even the archetype of formalism, Aristotle's Poetics, is unabashedly prescriptive, because it sees poems as human products that humans make in better or worse ways. I am content to leave poems to poets, but, for the university in which we work and have a stake, we need to distinguish how it is made and what would make it better—without the conceit that only we hold the true ideal but with the confidence that it might be a more democratic institution.
Blah, blah, blah. I have a proposition for English faculty. Teach students to write, so I don't have to. Let the economics department think about the incentives.
An overriding problem of the university, as I hope no one forgets after reading this, is student debt. I have adduced some of the statistics about student loans, but we should consider what debt actually means in students' lives and how it impacts their futures. If they are traditional college ages of 18–22, their debt will weigh them down until they are 37 (41 if they take the maximum forbearance). If they are older—and the average age of college students has gone up to the late 20s—then they will be encumbered until they are well into their 40s or 50s. Debt permeates many of their lives not only with the shackle of monthly payments but also with the possibilities that it delimits, governing the kinds of jobs they might take and the careers they might imagine. It enforces a rational choice not to become a schoolteacher making $21,000 per year, nor a social worker making $26,000, nor a fledgling writer or artist waiting tables for $12,000 to have writing or studio time during the day. Rather, it enforces the rational choice of going to business school or law school instead of graduate school in literature, so that they will start at a sizeable salary with prospects of yet more. The death of the humanities and the disciplines that promote "thought"—the majors in which have declined in real terms to less than 10% of college majors, with business expanding to 22%—results not from a loss of interest in the humanities but from the material interests that confront students.
Working backwards: A simple explanation might be that what goes on in the humanities is neither interesting nor remunerative. Alternatively, the current compensation for one composition or drawing course as an adjunct pays about the same as that table waiting, without the obligation to dress well or be kind to a demanding but potentially big-tipping diner, and with the writing and painting time available on days the class isn't meeting. Do I really have to remind readers that perhaps that $21K starting salary for schoolteachers, as well as the obligation to "accommodate" unruly students, might contribute to the teacher turnover, particularly in weak districts? Begin at the beginning. Hasn't Professor Williams conceded that the benefits of a degree are private benefits? Why not get the state out of the business of subsidizing people to get rich?

The professor has a different idea, free tuition.
My own variant on [author Adolf] Reed's proposal would be to extend [free tuition] to graduate students and to establish a national job corps or other form of public service linked to the abatement of undergraduate and graduate student loans. In North Carolina, where I taught for a number of years, there was a program through which students received a full scholarship and living expenses in return for teaching for three years in understaffed public schools. On the postgraduate level, there are similar programs for medical doctors, who receive tuition or loan abatements in return for practicing in areas without sufficient healthcare. This is particularly urgent for graduate students, since postbaccalaureate debt is now estimated at around $50,000. This would also benefit faculty, not just to do the right thing but in terms of our own labor. The university experienced better labor conditions after World War II not because it adopted a better idea but because so many people went to college, found it useful, and thus valued it.
Again, working backwards. What people valued was a somewhat more rigorous experience than the therapeutic mush that has displaced the core curriculum. And, to use Professor Williams's metaphor of debtors prison, his proposal really does turn a university degree into a form of indentured servitude.

If anything, the coexistence of large graduate school debts and small tenure-track prospects are a signal to prospective Ph.D.s to look into other endeavors.

No comments: