Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Thoughts on 'Diversity'

I’m a diversity officer’s worst nightmare. I’m married, with biological children. I’m white, heterosexual, male, right-handed, from the East Coast, and left-liberal in the way that liberal-arts academics tend to be. Nobody who hires me can check off any boxes on affirmative action forms.

And yet, I’m one of the few of my kind around here.

Logically, those can’t both be true. How can The Majority be so small?

The answer, of course, is that the categories we usually count in ‘diversity’ initiatives don’t begin to capture the diversity of actual human experience. In fact, their omissions can be quite glaring.

For example, my current employer is located in an extremely Republican county, with an overwhelmingly Catholic workforce. Neither political nor religious preferences are counted, though, so my secular/Unitarian Democrat status, while certainly adding to the intellectual diversity of the place, flies below the radar.

More interestingly, almost nobody on faculty or in administration has young children. Many of the more senior faculty have adult children, which is to be expected, but nearly nobody else here has kids under, say, 10. We recently lost one of our few young full-time professors when her first child was born; after trying for a few weeks, she decided that balancing full-time faculty with mothering a young child was too much, so she quit to stay home. I don’t blame her a bit – hell, my wife is doing the same thing – but it does tend to homogenize the folks who stay.

Oddly, we’ve lost several young faculty in the last few weeks. I suspect that cost-of-living is the hidden killer; salaries here go up 3-4% per year, while property values have been rising 20-30% per year for several years. Entry-level people are simply priced out of the county. (In fact, I recently met with the leader of a local philanthropic organization that deals with affordable housing, and discovered, to my bemused horror, that an assistant professor here, living alone, would qualify for ‘moderate income’ housing. Stay in school, kids!).

Where are the faculty brats?

The major issue, obviously, is the overall lack of young faculty. With the recent departures, we now have fewer than 10 full-time faculty under 40. Among those, the only one I knew to have children just left. None of the others, to my knowledge, has kids. In administration, I know one other person (a director of a campus center) with young children. This at a college that enrolls (many thousands of) students.

I have to chuckle whenever the Chronicle of Higher Education runs a piece bemoaning the sexism of the academy, using as evidence the fact that the tenure clock ticks synchronously with the biological clock. From that (true) observation, we are supposed to conclude that women faculty need extra time to get tenure.

I say that’s half right. Parents of young children need extra time. Not all women want to be parents, and many men do. And from what I’ve seen, men in their 20’s and 30’s simply can’t slough off housework the way men used to – women simply wouldn’t allow it, even if we tried.

The even larger point, really, is that there was supposed to be a reciprocal change in home and work. When women started moving into the workforce in large numbers, and men started (belatedly and halfheartedly at first, I’ll admit) doing more at home, the more sophisticated thinkers argued that it was time to make work more family-friendly. The old 40-hour week was based on the model of a husband working and a wife staying home. With the wife working, we’d obviously have to recalibrate work hours, right?


It hasn’t happened, of course, and we’re beginning to see the fallout of that failure. (Arlie Russell Hochschild has written several excellent books on this topic, The Time Bind being my personal favorite.) In order to get benefits (read: health insurance), you have to count as full-time. Employers’ insistence on this point is rational, in the sense that health benefits are hellaciously expensive and rapidly rising, so keeping a largely contingent workforce is necessary to keep costs in line. Employees, then, who have two-job relationships, find their parenting time squeezed beyond reason. Add to that the factors unique to higher education (the extended poverty of grad school, the terrible national job market, and the aforementioned tenure clock), and many of those intent on being parents simply chuck it all. Either they just don’t have kids, or they leave higher ed.

Imagine what national single-payer health care might do to make
employers more willing to hire, to redefine 'full-time' along more
family friendly lines, to allow parents to spend time with children and not starve...

Conservatives like to bleat about how evil liberals dominate higher education in America. They’re wrong and basically silly, but there is something of a cultural divide between college faculty and the rest of the country. I’d wager that much of that divide is based on the almost-complete absence of young parents from college faculty. To the extent that that means that higher ed is unusually open to gays and lesbians, that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but wonder what the almost complete absence of talk about sippy cups, Sesame Street, and carseats means for the cultural climate of the place. Certainly, it drives distance between college faculty and the rest of the country.

When was the last time you saw a minivan in a faculty parking lot?

I’m glad that issues of racial and gender diversity are getting their due. I’m just concerned that reducing ‘diversity’ to those easily-counted variables is missing a fundamental point. In becoming more representative of the population in a few ways, we’re becoming much, much less so in others.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Thoughts on Tenure...

At my new deanship, I’m confronted again by the same silly economics I’ve seen throughout higher education. In the face of a budget crunch, we can buy computers, hire secretaries, and expand our most expensive programs (the ones students are breaking down the doors to enter), but we can’t hire full-time faculty.

There’s something fundamentally wrong about this. If college provides nothing else, it should provide opportunities for students to interact with professors. Professors are the one category of expense I am expressly forbidden.

How did this happen?

Part of it has to do with the availability of alternatives. We can ‘adjunct out’ classes – hire adjunct instructors at $1600/course to teach what used to be taught by full-timers – much more easily than we could hire temps as secretaries. Ph.D.’s with teaching experience are thick on the ground, but do you know how hard it is to find a good secretary these days?

Stay in school, kids…

Part of it has to do with the fatal combination of tenure and the repeal of the mandatory retirement age (last set at 70, until the Supreme Court killed it). Despite what the AAUP says, tenure really does effectively guarantee employment for life. Unless the professor commits a felony (or sexual harassment), the cost of the process necessary for actually discharging someone with tenure is so extreme that it’s simply not worth it. Whatever the merits of the tenure system as a way to protect freedom for controversial research (its original purpose), it kneecaps institutional flexibility. When you combine it with the lack of a retirement age and seniority-driven raises, a college can easily find itself laden with an expensive, unproductive, top-heavy full-time faculty, whose costs it can’t cut.

All of the cost cuts, then, are borne by the next generation. Since we can’t trim costs on the high end, we simply stop hiring entry-level full-timers instead. Young scholars are frozen out of full-time employment, despite frequently having better qualifications than their elders (and being willing to work for about half as much). The institution is stuck with unmovable, expensive employees at one end, and highly mobile (because badly exploited) casual labor at the other.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at work here. The idea of tenure is considered sacrosanct, but the institutional costs of tenure have become intolerable. Rather than facing the dilemma squarely, colleges have been taking the easy way out for the last twenty years by effectively grandfathering one generation and exploiting the next. Tenure isn’t being repealed; it’s simply being rendered inaccessible. Repealing it would run the risk of dampening the enthusiasm of prospective professors, who might turn to more lucrative fields, and thereby dry up the pool of available adjuncts. Better to hold out the mirage, to keep the desiccated survivors crawling across the desert floor. After all, someone has to teach freshman comp.

The dangers of continuing down this path are several. Obviously, the more adjunct-heavy an institution gets, the more difficult quality control becomes. With constant turnover, a department chair frequently has to roll the dice to staff that last section. Students lose, since their younger instructors come and go (making them useless as sources of letters of recommendation, academic/personal advisors, etc.), and the older ones taper off as they head towards the finish line. The younger generation of scholars loses, as it has to try to pay off its student loans on adjunct or “visiting assistant” (read: temporary) wages.

More subtly, it’s not at all clear where the next generation of deans, provosts, and presidents will come from. Historically, they have come from the faculty. However, most of the current full-time faculty have either already been there and done that, or have reached a stage in their careers where additional responsibility simply holds no interest. Behind them, the pipeline is dry. So few tenure-track faculty have been hired over the last decade or two (and the few who were got those jobs by being single-minded research machines) that new candidates are simply not developing.

Presidents can come from many different areas, including outside of academe altogether, and I expect that non-academics will quickly become the norm. As college presidencies have become defined almost exclusively as fundraising positions, it makes a certain amount of sense to look to people who are well-connected to wealth, as opposed to teaching. Deans and provosts, though, deal with the internal machinery of the institution, and really need to be conversant with academic realities. They need to have taught.

My own career path is an anomaly. I was able to move quickly into administration because I did an (unintentional) end run around the usual procedures by working first in an institution that was not bound by a tenure system. Since nobody had to die before I could move up, I was able to gain relevant experience at a fairly early age. That experience got me hired at an institution where I am younger than 90% of the full-time faculty in my division. (Literally. I counted.)

This year I’ve lost (to retirement) four tenured professors from my division and one secretary. We’re replacing the secretary.

The tenure system’s pathologies are so deeply entrenched by now that it’s hard even to imagine alternatives or solutions. The obvious answers – long-term (3-5 years) renewable contracts; national single-payer health care (health insurance is the budget-buster for hiring full-timers); a return to a mandatory retirement age – are just not politically feasible, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

From a budgetary perspective, labor is such an overwhelming part of the budget (over 90 percent) that there just isn’t another way to achieve meaningful cost cuts. By the time you factor in fixed overhead (electricity, HVAC, office supplies, etc.), the remainder is trivial. Technology doesn’t help, since computers don’t grade papers. Unlike most private-sector enterprises, technology is almost a pure cost center for us.

What makes all of this more than just idle ranting is the simple fact of mortality. Mandatory retirement may have been repealed, but physical frailty hasn’t been. When the current crop of full-timers starts dropping in large numbers, colleges will finally have to start making the tough decisions they’ve been putting off for twenty years. My worry is that we’ve grown so accustomed to adjunct-ing everything that we’ll simply continue to do so. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, we won’t even notice as we boil to death.

Better to step up now.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

In the beginning...

Having done the politically-aware-graduate-student-of-the-1990’s thing (no money, but enough moral snobbery to more than make up for it), my 30’s have been a series of rude shocks. Physical decline (who has time to go to the gym with a three-year-old and a working wife?) is part of it, but financial reality has been the real killer. I had simply taken for granted that professors make enough to be comfortably middle class – all the professors I’d ever seen were! Sure, they bitched about money, but to someone pulling in a big $12k (before taxes), what did that mean?

The Wife, bless her, had already experienced sticker shock before I met her. She lived at home for several years after college, saving money for a condo. The appreciation on that condo made it possible for us to buy our house four years ago. Had she taken the route I had, we’d be renting.

I emerged from grad school in 1997, with a real doctorate in a real field from a real university, but with no real job. I cobbled together the rent by teaching SAT prep courses to 14-year-old Korean kids in a storefront operation an hour away. My hatchback’s air conditioning had gone the way of vinyl records, so I arrived home from those days a sweaty mess. I made just enough to get by if I didn’t buy much, and nothing broke, and I didn’t think about my student loan deferments running out.

That obviously offered no future, nor was it where I wanted to be, so I plied my trade as an adjunct at two local colleges – the respected state university where I had just graduated, and a local for-profit technical college. The technical college was in a growth spurt (the internet bubble was in its early stages) and it needed Ph.D.’s to keep the state licensing agents happy, so I was hired to full-time faculty within a few months.

I worked there as full-time faculty for slightly over three years. It wasn’t a sweatshop, in the strict sense of the term; the air conditioning was actually pretty good, since the computers had to be kept cool. Still, a teaching load of 45 credits per year (15 per term, 12 months per year) with students who had gone there specifically to avoid the liberal arts, did a number on my efforts at writing. I was just too beat at the end of the day to think about any kind of serious scholarship, and too impatient to get what I considered a real job at a real college to spend very long on any one thing. For the first time, I developed a kind of scholarly ADD. Getting lost in research was a luxury available to people who don’t have 45-hour loads.

It wasn’t all bad. The growth spurt there, and the catastrophic lack of hiring in the rest of academia, meant that I had a pretty good cohort of young faculty colleagues. We all shared a sense of grievance that we were reduced to working there, but at least we validated each other as talented. I used to refer to it as The Island of Misfit Toys.

More importantly, the paycheck (such as it was) allowed me to move into the adult world for the first time. At age 28, I was finally paying my own freight. I was stunned at how much the tariff was – despite earning triple what I had made in grad school, I still had to keep a running tab in my head at Stop’n’Shop. My furniture was still ratty and secondhand, the hatchback wasn’t getting any younger, and singlehood was starting to get a little old.

The Wife and I got married in 1999. The wedding and honeymoon were lovely, and I gave myself permission not to obsess over their respective costs. I moved into her condo, which was, to me, unimaginably luxurious. It had central air! A pool! A dedicated parking space!

The hatchback threw its mortal coil (actually, a rod) within my first month there, so I traded up to, wonder of wonders, a new car. Always forward-thinking, it’s a four-door sedan, ready for the eventual kid.

We started house-hunting, which is probably when the trouble started. We picked a target price out of the clear blue sky, and started shopping with it in mind. Then we bumped it up, and bumped it up again. I think we both saw a house as a badge – once we lived in a real house, we would be real adults. We would have clawed our way back to the class into which each of us was born.

Also, a one-bedroom condo isn’t the best place to have a baby. We didn’t know much, but we knew that.

As I crunched numbers and we saw more places, I started to wonder how we’d ever do it.

We finally found a newish house in an older neighborhood, well-located relative to our jobs. We bought it, stretching our resources farther than I knew at the time.

Without daycare costs, we could sort of do it. I was concerned, but not overly so, because my employer had an onsite day care center that was subsidized and, from what some other parents told me, not bad.

As the internet boom peaked, my employer decided to evict the daycare center to make room for more computer classrooms. The daycare shuttered the same month my son was born.

We had to look to private daycares in our area. We discovered that most of them were unsatisfactory (if not simply awful), and yet, every last stinkin’ one of them charges the same rate. We picked the least offensive one, and started paying $250 a week for daycare. That was more than I had made as recently as four years earlier.

Shortly before The Boy was born, but after we had bought the house, an administrative position opened up at my employer. I had seen that we would be fiscally strapped when The Boy arrived, and I had finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to write my way out of there while teaching 45 credits. I decided that since I couldn’t teach my way out (since teaching doesn’t count in your favor after the first year), and I couldn’t write my way out, maybe I could administrate my way out. Get that Dean title, and go on the market for deanships.

I spent a year and a half as Associate Dean there, followed by a little over a year as Dean. I arrived at work each day at 8:45, and left, on good days, at 6:00 (except for the one night a week I taught, or anytime my boss felt chatty). The work was grueling, long, frustrating, maddening, sometimes-immoral, and generally hellish.

The college was one location of a national chain, with a central command-and-control center (Home Office) in another state. Home Office liked to change policies on a dime, and demand immediate compliance. Home Office’s dictates frequently conflicted with the regulations in our state, so the deans’ jobs involved constructing increasingly baroque compromises to satisfy two mutually-indifferent masters.

To make matters worse, the boom started turning south just as I got into administration. I got to manage decline, which is much less fun than managing growth.

I’d get home around 6:45, by which point The Boy was impossible and The Wife at her wits’ end. I was wiped, and in desperate need of quiet; The Wife was wiped, and in desperate need of rescue; The Boy was an infant.

Things started looking up when my manage-my-way-out strategy finally worked. I escaped the technical college for a deanship at a community college 45 minutes away. The pay was better, I got home much earlier, and we were both able to calm down somewhat, since I was able to relieve her earlier (and in a better frame of mind) than before. That, and The Boy’s maturation, lowered the daily stress level palpably.

Now, we're taking the next step. With The Girl due in another month or so, The Wife is staying home. (We're reserving the call on whether she goes back until her FMLA deadline hits.) The Boy is reducing his daycare to two days per week -- the reduction will partially lower our costs, but will still give The Wife some breathing room. When The Girl arrives, she'll need it desperately.

Ironies abound. As the son of a divorced Mom, a card-carrying veteran of feminist theory seminars (ovulars?), I'm the sole breadwinner with a wife and two kids. When did this happen? How did this happen?

The cultural winds blow strong. If this were Sweden, we wouldn't have to make some of these choices -- daycare would be highly subsidized, parental leave would be paid, etc. Here in America, even cultural-studies vets like me are pushed into Ward and June territory, pretty much by default.

I'm hoping that staying home will relieve some of The Wife's sense of guilt. If it does, we'll all benefit. We may have to subsist on mac and cheese for a while, but hey, I used to be a grad student. Grad school didn't prepare me for being a suburban dad, but I make a mean mac and cheese.