In an April 27 New York Times opinion piece, Columbia University Religious Studies professor Mark C. Taylor offers his prescription for the ills besetting American university graduate programs. He begins with a quip: “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.”
This mordant bit of humor, while timely, might not sit right with folks in the rust belt. Yet it fairly captures the nature of the particular institutional dysfunction, which does indeed resemble that of the Big Three auto makers. Like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, “[m]ost graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues),” Taylor writes, “all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).” Just as SUVs continue to roll off the assembly line despite gas-price volatility and negative popular sentiment, so too does a host of newly minted PhDs no one seems to need pour out of graduate programs every year.
This problem, chronic in the best of times, has become only more acute as trickles of funding ebb or dry up altogether, forcing already poor departments into even greater austerity. “Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now,” writes Taylor:
But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. [German philosopher Immanuel] Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”
As bizarre as the idea of “learning by mass production” strikes people in 2009, breaking work into a set repeatable, easily performed tasks was as much the rage in Kant’s time (industrialization’s infant years) as concepts like “distance learning” or “asynchronous interaction” are for folks in the Internet age.
At any rate, the mass production of learning remains something yet to be completely realized. Admittedly, there are, as any hapless graduate or undergraduate can attest to, many rote and mechanized elements to matriculation — monolithic bureaucracies, timed exams and suchlike — but the core structure of the university remains something far more ancient than Henry Ford, or indeed than Immanuel Kant. This core structure is a vestigial medieval set of practices, in which a graduate apprentice is initiated into trade mysteries by a guild of learned adepts.
And just as guilds in the Middle Ages worked to restrain competition and to optimize demand for their art by controlling access to their ranks, so too does their modern equivalent, the tenured professoriat, work toward a similar end. One need only look upon the plight of adjunct lectures, today’s equivalent of the journeymen of old, to see that this is the case. Adjuncts enjoy no job security, few benefits, low pay and even lower professional esteem. Theirs is a grubbing, jobbing sort of life, one which neither university administrators nor tenured faculty find much impetus (beyond, perhaps, the occasional vague qualm of conscience) in the way of reform, precisely because adjuncts are both cheap and disposal.
The classic justification that tenure encourages and protects academic freedom collapses in light of prevailing conditions. If anything, enormous competition for precious few tenure-track positions has made for a Jonestown-like conformity of thought. Aspirants parlay fashionable shibboleths into a plumb post (if they’re lucky), where they can then goldbrick nigh unto dotage. A better recipe for institutional conservativism one would be hard pressed to find.
The only justification remaining for tenure is its unmatched ability to deflect away from a privileged few the downward pressure on wages which cheap and disposable adjuncts would otherwise exert on the entire profession. Taylor himself appears to recognize this in his call for tenure’s elimination:
Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.
These latter duties fall instead to assistant professors keen on securing tenure, and who are thus eager to please tenure committees comprised of (you guessed it) tenured faculty members. The picture which emerges is the very antipodes of everything years of popular discourse has instructed us about new work realities in an era of globalism. Where in the corporate world one finds dislocation, in the academic world one finds ossification. Where in the corporate world one finds innovation (not always of a useful sort, it bears mentioning; consider structured investment vehicles, for example), in the academic world one finds stagnation.
Indeed nothing about the academic profession bespeaks of the cardinal corporate virtues of flexibility and mobility; aspirants either languish as instructional sharecroppers or play it close to the scholarly vest until tenure licenses them to rust in salaried repose. Along these lines, Taylor makes this recommendation:
Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.
To see American universities goes completely down the road of corporatization fill one with regret, to be sure. But to see them go only partly down this road fills one with outrage. And only partly down this road have they gone. They thus distill in their institutions the worst tendencies of the medieval and modern eras, as some labor today just for the chance to labor tomorrow, while others labor not at all.