Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Letting Go of the Golden Age

I remember my hair.  It was never my best feature, but it did its job.  It even endured some questionable styling choices, including an 80’s mullet of which the less said, the better.  It’s gone now, and I miss it.  But it’s not coming back.

Part of getting older is coming to terms with certain kinds of loss.  I wouldn’t want to be 19 again, heaven knows, though I miss the hair and metabolism of that age.  Middle age brings with it some undeniable drawbacks -- anyone who has heard my knees when I stand up after a while knows what I’m talking about -- but it brings perspective, a certain social standing, and a different kind of confidence.  I will never be The Hot Guy, but I no longer care, and there’s a power in that.  

Serious students of history smile indulgently when they hear people talk about golden ages, broadly defined.  (That’s not to deny that individual people or projects can have hot streaks; most listeners would probably agree that Paul McCartney’s work in the 60’s was better than his work in the 80’s.) Golden Ages rely on partial and selective memory.  Youth brought with it a certain physical invincibility, but also an anxiety that pervaded almost every aspect of life.  Now, when anxiety exists, it exists for a reason.  That wasn’t always true, and I wouldn’t go back for anything.

I’m butting up against some Golden Age thinking among peers, and it’s frustrating.  It’s getting in the way.

In much of the country, community colleges are in a secular decline in enrollment.  They’re up against greater public and political scrutiny than they once were; arguments from professional deference have largely given way to demands for accountability, even as many of the older deference-based rules have remained in place.  Their funding is flat or nearly so, if it hasn’t been slashed or eliminated.  Health insurance costs continue to climb much faster than any revenue source.  Some tuition-driven four-year schools are lowering their standards to fish in our pond, exacerbating the enrollment problem.

But digging in heels and opposing anything new won’t bring the old days back.  In fact, the old days led inexorably to the new ones.  Had the old ways been sustainable, they would have been sustained.  They weren’t.

In looking at ways to adapt to the new environment, I keep butting up against longing for the return of the golden age.  If we just refuse to budge, the argument goes, the universe will relent and it will be 1977 again, only with more diversity and cooler phones.  We can stand athwart history, yelling Stop!

Except that we can’t.  And refusing to engage with the future amounts to giving up any meaningful agency in shaping it.

On a personal level, coming to terms with loss takes time.  The same is true on an institutional level.  My fear is that the longer we spend in denial, the less room we’ll have to move.  I’d rather have some say in shaping the future than in simply having it happen to me.  But golden ages die hard, even when they’re already dead. 

For me, the golden age was the early to mid-1960s. During that time, I was a graduate student in physics at an Ivy League university. Those were good times. Primarily because of the Apollo moon program, grant money was easy to obtain, graduate and undergraduate education was expanding rapidly, and there were plenty of tenure-track positions available at research universities. Most recent PhD graduates were easily able to obtain tenure-track faculty positions at major research universities, they were able to obtain jobs at prestigious government laboratories such as Argonne or Brookhaven national laboratories, or they could land positions at well-known industrial research labs such as IBM or Bell Laboratories. The future looked bright.

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.

My hair lasted longer than yours, but thinner is just as dangerous as none at all. Here is a tip: start wearing a hat, now. Your hair used to protect your scalp from skin cancer, but not any more.

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.
Regarding ArtMathProf's accurate history, the error made at that time was when the folks who got hired thought that situation was normal rather than an anomaly. Before and after, the norm in physics was that about 1/3 got jobs in the academy and the rest went into industry. That is about where it has been for many decades after that period ended almost 50 years ago. Those in the academy are mostly well below the R1 universities that trained them, and those in industry are contingent labor who have to be entrepreneurial to survive, either within a company or moving to another. The worst situations that have evolved are highly popular majors where there are very few jobs (particle theory or astrophysics) compared to the numbers produced, and where no one has prepared them to teach or pursue a career in industry or finance. There is now a vast pipeline of post- post-docs and research scientists that are even further removed from practical research or the classroom. Something similar, including the boom and bust, is happening now in the biological sciences.
"If we just refuse to budge, the argument goes, the universe will relent and it will be 1977 again, only with more diversity and cooler phones."

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.
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