Friday, August 20, 2010

Towards Answers

In this week's kerfuffle about the New Faculty Majority – from which other administrators seem to have learned that such things are best ignored, since engaging just brings flame wars – several commenters asked, with varying degrees of civility, what my answer was.

It's severalfold.

First, if you're adjuncting and you feel like you're being exploited, stop adjuncting. Just stop. Walk away. You are an adult, responsible for your own choices. If your college didn't specifically promise you a full-time job after x semesters of adjuncting, then it does not owe you one, no matter how badly you want it. Colleges don't exist to provide jobs for academics. It's not about you.

Second, I strongly encourage all second- or third-tier graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines to stop accepting new students. This is what keeps replenishing the reserve army of the underemployed. If we don't get a handle on this, we will never bring things into alignment. The basic arithmetic of this is so obvious that I'm amazed that the compass-direction-state U's of the world still get funding for graduate programs in history and English and sociology.

Third, don't blame the culture at large. The cost of higher education is much higher now than it has ever been. Given the cost trend, I don't see a fundamental attitude shift between, say, forty years ago and now. The culture valued education at x forty years ago, and still does now. The problem is that the cost has gone from .5x to 2x. The culture didn't turn its back on us; we just mistook respect for open-ended entitlement. Raging at the booboisie is easy, self-flattering, and doomed to fail. You don't gain the support of the public by calling it stupid or philistine.

Fourth, and this is why I wrote my posts the way I did, don't give people false hope. It's precisely that false hope that keeps luring bright young people into a dying career. I don't simply think the NFM proposal is naïve, though it is; I think it does active (if unintended) harm. It does harm by perpetuating the myth – I should say, the lie – that there's a full-time job owed to every adjunct, if they just stick around long enough. There is not, and there never will be. Let people come to grips with the economic – yes, economic – reality of the situation, instead of trying to dress up wishful thinking as high principle.

Fifth, let's retire the tired “it's all the fault of the administrators” line. The cost spiral and the adjunct trend have been gone on for decades, in every corner of higher education and every region of the country. Thousands of administrators have come and gone in that time, with no discernible effect on either trend. Good administrators help the institutions do what they do well, but at the end of the day, the drivers are mostly structural. And the changes will be structural. The only question is whether we will make the changes, or they will be made for us.

It's time to have some serious discussions about structure. I've mentioned before that this needs to include such costly anachronisms as the credit hour, tenure, and the agrarian calendar; I'm increasingly convinced that it also needs to include the notion of the “comprehensive” college. The era of “all things to all people” passed decades ago in most other industries. At a really fundamental level, it's time to rethink the “diffuse mission, few funding streams” model in favor of a “diffuse funding streams, focused mission” model. Instead of counting on an ever-stingier state to support ever more programs, let's diversify the funding streams and channel them into fewer, stronger programs. At the community college level, I see that boiling down to the liberal arts, criminal justice, and nursing, with some regional variation. Let the proprietaries handle the vocational stuff; it's what they do, and we can't keep adding boutique programs on ever-declining revenue. Let's get the benefits of specialization, and do a few things well rather than a lot of things just a little bit worse every year.

Of course, we don't have to have those difficult conversations. Instead, we could simply continue the unthinking slide of the last forty years until the for-profits and various online companies eat our lunch.
I would consider that non-decision utterly tragic, but it's the path of least short-term resistance. If I wanted to make my readers happy and enhance my career prospects, I could just write the umpteenth peroration on the joys of tenure and the wonderfulness of academia and our collective misunderstood tragic beauty, but I didn't start blogging to lie. I care too much about higher education to let it die of neglect without at least trying to save it. But it has to want to live. It has to stop pretending that it isn't badly sick. It has to stop pretending that eating its young is a viable long-term strategy.

I'll admit becoming increasingly impatient with positions that amount to trying to squeeze ever more people onto the Titanic. It's the wrong battle. And I'm too young for fatalism. This isn't about defending the current system; it's about bending it so it won't break. If higher education is going to survive in a form worth having, it's going to have to change in some pretty dramatic ways. We in higher ed can take leadership roles in driving those changes, or we can let the University of Phoenix do it for us.