Friday, June 20, 2008

What If...

A commenter to yesterday's post about compensating staff made a point I've wondered about before. It's worth contemplating – not advocating, just contemplating – at some length.

Given the crazy-high ratios of applicants to full-time faculty jobs in many disciplines, why not lower the wages to a 'market clearing' level?

Or, to make the same argument from the left, why not give adjuncts salary parity? Right now, higher-than-market full-time faculty salaries are subsidized by astonishingly low adjunct salaries. As a result, there's a chronic surplus of applicants for full-time roles, and a chronic scramble for good adjuncts. If we established both 'parity' and 'market-clearing levels' as guiding principles, I'd expect to see per-course salaries fall considerably higher than current adjuncts get, and considerably lower than full-timers get, depending on the field.

(Of course, in fields with a shortage of full-timers, something like this happens already on the high end. I'm talking here about the fields with far more applicants than jobs, like English or history.)

Over time, the uninspiring salaries for full-timers would probably lead fewer people to get graduate degrees in those disciplines. This is probably a good thing. It's 'pricing' as 'signaling,' which is how a market is supposed to work. Eventually we'd have fewer underemployed Ph.D.'s, which strikes me as a humane change.

Different disciplines would have very different pay scales, much more so than they do now. For example, professors who teach Broadcasting would make much more than professors who teach Composition. Those who teach Nursing could command substantial premiums over those who teach French.

Of course, to make the market a market, tenure would have to be banned as cartel-like restraint of trade. In a competitive marketplace, there's no such thing as tenure. Your monetary worth rises and falls with both the market value of your discipline and your relative standing within it. Resting on laurels wouldn't be an option. Is seniority worth what we pay for it? Let the market decide.

I could see an easy attack on this position: “this is yet another attempt to impoverish faculty.” Well, no. That attack only makes sense if you ignore what adjuncts currently get paid. If you count adjuncts as faculty, the objection evaporates, since they would almost certainly get more than they get now.

(I read somewhere – Freakonomics, maybe? -- that most criminal gang members make less than the minimum wage. The reason they work for so little and accept such horrible risks is for the shot at the big payoff. It's a sort of winner-take-all tournament. I think that's a reasonably fair description of the academic job market. Why are so many people willing to adjunct for so little? Many of them do it to stay in the game for the shot at the Golden Job. If the Golden Job suddenly tarnished, many adjuncts would probably walk away altogether. Supply and demand being what they are, wages would have to rise to compensate.)

Another easy attack: “students don't know what they want. Trendy stuff would supplant The Classics.” There's some truth to that, but honestly, that ship sailed some time ago. (Undergraduate business majors, anyone?) And as long as employers want students with actual skills, I suspect there's a market-based limit to the number of people who will major in YouTube Studies.

A more thoughtful attack: “graduate school takes years and years, during which time the market can change. How are people supposed to know what will be hot in seven years?” That strikes me as a damn good argument for streamlining graduate programs, and forcing them to pay some actual attention to the realities of their fields. It might also dissuade people from piling into overcrowded fields, which would make the endless reproduction of the reserve army of the underemployed much harder. That's a good thing.

Another thoughtful attack: “specialized study requires extended time and minimal disruption. This would privilege the quick-and-dirty.” Again, there's some truth to that, but there's also a difference between 'specialized' and 'actually good.' They aren't mutually exclusive, but they aren't synonyms, either. I'm constantly struck at the ratio of crap-to-quality published in my scholarly discipline, and it's hardly unique in that. And the private sector seems to do 'specialization' pretty well, one way or another, so market conditions obviously aren't fatal to it.

This is all much less hypothetical than it might seem. Yes, the transition within existing tenure-based institutions would be wrenching, if it happened there at all. Instead, the transition is happening with the emergence of new institutions – proprietaries, notably – increasingly at the expense of traditional ones. Which means that those of us who care about education as a public good – who don't just want to cede it to the Apollo Groups of the world – need to get serious about questioning how we do things.

That's a long response to a short comment. Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?