Monday, January 11, 2010

Remains to be Seen? A Response to Marketplace

As regular readers know, I listen to Marketplace podcasts faithfully. But this story nearly made me drive off the road.

It was ostensibly about the difficulty new liberal arts Ph.D.'s are having in finding tenure-track jobs, using the latest numbers from the American History Association as a starting point. Okay, fair enough; the AHA numbers indicate that a bleak situation is getting bleaker, and it's hardly news to some of us that tenure-track positions haven't grown on trees for a long, long time.

But the discussion goes badly off-track.

The bulk of the story consists of an interview with one Katharine Brooks, the director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas, Austin. A few excerpts:

Brooks: Back in 1960, about 75 percent of faculty were full-time tenure; now, it's only about 27 percent. So if you're getting a PhD in history this is a tough market.

Okay, fair enough. But she quickly follows that with:

I think what remains to be seen is if this sort of a temporary shift, due to the economic climate? Or is this more of a permanent trend?

Um, temporary since 1960? Temporary for fifty years and counting?

Bookending those sentences was this weird exchange:

What about schools? How are they responding to this? Are they cutting back on the number of -- just to keep picking on history for a second -- history courses and adding more mechanical engineering and you know, stock portfolio theory courses?
BROOKS: There are fewer tenure track positions available, certainly. In fact, I think the number of tenure track openings for history dropped about 24 percent this year and I believe at this conference, something like 15 percent of the interviews were canceled.

Wow. I almost don't know where to start.

First, no, the issue is not a sudden surge in mechanical engineering. (I wish!) In fact, at my cc and many others, the liberal arts are doing just fine. It's just that the "just fine" they're doing is with a significant cohort of adjunct faculty. (Astonishingly, the word 'adjunct' doesn't appear once in the entire story.)

Second, this year's drop -- as real and calamitous as it is -- isn't new. The shift from full-timers to adjuncts has been going on for decades, driven primarily by the cost difference. (I've read assertions on the blogosphere that it's about administrators wanting people they could bully. That may be the case somewhere, but in my near-decade in administration, I've never seen a dean or vp who believed that. If anything, we want more full-timers, both for quality and for predictability of staffing. The issue is cost.) This year's drop is as painful as it is because it comes from an already-low starting point. The Great Recession simply sped up the decline.

Third, there's a basic structural mismatch between short-term market fluctuations and the length of PhD training. In most of the liberal arts fields, five years would be considered pretty quick; seven or eight seems about average. That can encompass entire swings of the economic cycle. And it's not like someone in the late ABD stage can decide on the spur of the moment to switch from history to finance. It just doesn't work like that.

Fourth, as Marc Bousquet has made great hay of noting, there's a structural mismatch between the need for fewer Ph.D.'s and the constant demand for new graduate assistants. Graduate departments rarely reduce their admissions for any length of time, since they need the cheap labor. When that cheap labor graduates, the adjunct problem gets that much worse. Until the supply side gets addressed in some serious way, new PhD's will face a rough market.

And all of that is without noting the two-body problem, fashions and fads in scholarship and hiring, etc.

Mechanical engineering and "stock portfolio theory" courses aren't the issue. Neither is a turn away from the liberal arts, if you actually look at the number of classes taught. It's the shift to adjuncts, and that's driven by cost. New Ph.D.'s are up against it to an even greater degree than ever, and that's saying something, but the direction isn't new, and doesn't remain to be seen. It's painfully visible.