Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Letting Go of the Golden Age
Then things started to turn sour with the wind-down of the Apollo program in the late 1960s. Grant money became more and more difficult to obtain, existing grants were harder to renew, and universities were now tenured-in, with fewer and fewer openings for new tenure-track faculty. Corporations became a lot more skittish and much more ultracautious, and weren’t doing very much hiring. The only chance you had to get an R & D job at these corporations would be if the subject of your PhD thesis happened to match exactly with what these corporations were planning to develop. The job market for fresh graduates got so tight that the job fairs at physics meetings came to resemble a Depression-era longshoreman’s hiring hall, with hundreds of people wandering around seeking out only a couple of dozen openings.
I graduated right in the middle of this downturn, and I had to go through a few years of temporary post-docs before I could land a tenure-track gig. I ultimately failed to get tenure. Just about all of the PhDs who graduated at the same time I did ultimately washed out of the research-oriented mill for one reason or another. Either they failed to get tenure, they got laid off from their corporate positions, or they got tired of the tenure rat race and bailed.
I gather that things have not gotten much better in the physical sciences. You are unlikely to be able obtain a tenure-track gig at a research university unless you show signs of being a superstar who is likely to be able to attract a ton of external grant support money. Those who seek an academic career are doomed to having to spend years and years as freeway-flying adjuncts, while they vainly seek out that elusive tenure-track gig. In the sciences, there is always the option of “going into industry”, but you are unlikely to be hired unless your thesis was in a subject that the company is currently working on. The entire physical sciences scene looks pretty dismal. The golden days of the early 1960s are unlikely to return anytime soon.
Nice take on physical invincibility and anxiety, but there is also hubris and the belief that the one BIG IDEA early in your career will actually be viable. I try to get my students to keep me honest and relevant.
I don't think the golden age of the CC sector was the 60s. They were just being born at that time. As an observer in higher ed from around the time you were born, Dean Reed, I would say that your guess of 1977 is also a bit early but likely represents the leading edge. I base that on retirement rates at my college. The huge turnover took place as folks hired in the 1980s, often with quite a bit of contingent experience teaching low-level classes at universities, reached retirment over the past decade. They were hired in droves, and have been (mostly) replaced in the same way.
I also disagree a bit on what changed. The problem isn't just the lowering of standards by the 2nd tier state universities, they have been in that game all along. (I think the Cal State change is more about absorbing students who can't get into the underfunded CCs -- because of their bizarre world funding scheme -- than it is about raw enrollment numbers. It will make the legislature happy right up until their graduation metrics decline.) The problem is the increased expense account at the flagships. I know how my alma mater has changed and I know how the flagships in this state have changed. They are no longer run efficiently because they control the legislature with law schools and football. Construction and faculty funds go to them, because the emphasis is not on teaching undergrads, it is on profiting from spin off research done by faculty who rarely see an undergrad except in their lab. In my state, we are also hurt by construction funds that are going to build charter schools, because education dollars are education dollars when the top level of the appropriation bill is across K-20.
The secular decline in enrollment is no surprise. In my experience, the only people who were surprised were at the vice president level and above. Would you believe that my college invested in architectural studies of how to grow the campus based on projections of mid-depression enrollment growth unrelated to the number of kids coming out of high school? Of course you can. And do they (or the legislature) know what is coming out of those high schools? Unlikely.
Our problem is that we want to do things a new way but don't have the physical space to do them. Our classrooms were built for industrial assembly-line lecture production of graduates. Active learning can't be done (or, I should say, done effectively) in nice tight rows of seats that are bolted to the floor. Changing that requires resources that we don't have but, for reasons noted above, universities do have.
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Sounds good. Son of Sam could have used cooler phones to call Jimmy Breslin instead of sending him letters after he killed people in my neighborhood. More diverse people could have looted cool phones during the blackout in my neighborhood.
For me, 1977 is not an example of a golden age. It was the worst year ever in NYC.