Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A couple of alert readers sent me links to this article, in which someone noticed that Gov. Spitzer's (NY) plan to hire 2,000 more full-time professors for the SUNY system – which sounds great in itself – also includes a plan to bring in 4,000 more graduate students to support them.

Apparently, Gov. Spitzer believes that a stronger SUNY system will help the state economy both directly and indirectly, and that raising its academic profile is the way to do that. The grad students are understood to be support staff.

The grad students are understood to be support staff.

They aren't understood to be, say, apprentices. Outside of a few specific fields, there's simply no shortage of graduate students or Ph.D.'s. If anything, there's a terrible glut. Anyone familiar with the higher ed employment stats – or the blogosphere – knows that there's a backlog of doctorally-qualified people looking for full-time jobs. Worse, unless I'm fundamentally misreading the proposal, the hiring would be concentrated outside the fields that need it the most. Since the point of the proposal is economic development, rather than a jobs program for academics, it would mean more money for, say, certain applied sciences, and nothing at all for the evergreen disciplines. In other words, it won't do anything to help, say, folks in English or history.

In that light, the influx of new graduate students makes sense. They work the labs. Hotshot scientists won't go anywhere where they can't get good grad students to fill out their labs. The grad students are there for cheap labor and a kind of bait. Their job prospects, when all is said and done, are quite beside the point.

I don't mean any of this as a criticism of Gov. Spitzer. I mean it as a criticism of the folks who've taken his proposal as some sort of jobs program for academics. Over the long term, it will almost certainly make the existing imbalances worse. If anything, it shows yet again the gap between the dialogue going on in higher education and the dialogue outside it. Outside, the swelling ranks of the freeway fliers simply isn't taken as a major problem. In fact, to the extent that folks outside higher ed care about keeping costs down without their kids having huge classes, they may embrace the adjunct trend (short-sightedly, in my mind, but still) as part of the solution.

In the comments to yesterday's post about the dialogue gap, Sherman Dorn made the point that one of the drivers of fast tuition increases has been cost-shifting from the public sector to the students. To the extent that's true, it implies that there's an eventual limit: once the entire cost has been shifted, that's that. And it's certainly true that the share of many public colleges' budgets covered by tuition – as opposed to state or local aid – is higher than it was ten or twenty years ago. But if that were the major issue, we wouldn't have seen the tuition inflation at private colleges that we've seen at publics. SD's observation is correct, but I'm not sure it's as central as he seemed to indicate.

I suspect that the larger cost-shifting issue is within the public sector itself. Increasingly regressive tax structures have dumped an ever-larger portion of the costs of the public sector on the middle class. They (we) are getting cranky about that, but many don't quite stitch together the cause-and-effect.

There's also a cost-shifting issue by generations within higher ed. We can maintain the highly-paid, senior tenured positions for people with seniority by underpaying their juniors. That's really what the adjunct trend amounts to. We grandfather the first group in, and pay for it by exploiting the hell out of the groups that come after. Other unionized industries have dealt with this through tiered contracts; academe has dealt with it by denying the younger generation contracts at all.

All of that said, I applaud Gov. Spitzer's recognition of the economic value of the creative class. I just hope that we understand which problem it might actually help solve, and which it certainly won't. This is probably a good move for New York, but after the initial surge, it would actually make an already bad situation for academics that much worse.