Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Crisis (or crises) in the academy

A number of things have recently led me to think about the roles of universities and academics, and whether these are changing and for the better or worse. Obviously being an academic myself, and therefore (by definition) a navel-gazer extraordinaire, such issues have been the topic of many a conversation with colleagues, friends, etc. around the (metaphorical) dinner table. However, what with the start of the teaching looming (this week), recent articles in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper and Rolling Stone magazine, a random email from an American PhD student who's just quit his program, and more besides, I've been thinking about the university as an institution and the challenges facing it over the next few years.

What has primarily motivated this post is an email exchange I had a couple of weeks ago with Brian – he's an ex-PhD student from America who quit his program for various reasons (see email exchange below). His general concern was with the idea that academics engage in activities outside of university, such as social activism – he contacted me specifically because I'd help write an article about this topic for the geography journal Antipode. What Brian is concerned with is the fact that academics frequently engage in activities outside of their 'official' role as teacher and researcher (to which I would add administrator). While I have some sympathy with this view – e.g. I think it's important that academics do stay research active and contribute to intellectual debates rather than primarily concern themselves overly with policy relevance or impact – I'm also keen to see academics disseminate their research and ideas more widely than many do at present. For example, I find it strange (and somewhat annoying) that many academics often see disseminating their research as some gauche-form of self-promotion; as Brian pointed out, considering the readership (very low!) of the average academic publication, we have to ask what are we actually doing with our time if we don't try and get our ideas out there? My perspective is that we need – as a society, culture, world, etc. - people who do and can engage in research and argument with demagogues, ideologues, marketers, profit-obsessives, liars, politicians, etc. who have no qualms at bending and subverting knowledge to their own ends. We need people who can challenge 'common (non)sense' and show how what we think we know about the world is wrong – in my view, that's exactly why academics need to combine research and teaching. We need to always be challenging (i.e. research) what we know and what other people claim in order to show how and why the world is as it is (i.e. teach).

Anyway, that justification for my job aside (!) ... there is definitely a crisis in the academy – see here and here for some blogs on this. It's been brewing for some time; as we've passed the point when it's been steeped for too long (to use a poorly constructed tea metaphor) we're now facing a series of decisive choices and decisions. This crisis impacts both students and academics – I'll leave aside other stakeholders (e.g. administrative staff, communities, etc.) in the university for now.

On the one hand then, students are facing increasing tuition fees and other costs (e.g. accommodation) when pursuing university education alongside the declining value of university education in the current and, probably, future labour markets. Something that should be required reading for every student in this regard is Matt Taibbi's recent article in Rolling Stone magazine; it's a blistering attack on the US student loan system, pointing out some of the truly ridiculous and atrocious implications of student debt that has resulted from the expansion of higher education over the last few years. I also deal with some of these issues in a new book I've written and just submitted to Zer0 Books called We Have Never Been Neoliberal: A Manifesto for a Doomed Youth – hopefully out sometime soon!

On the other hand, there are too many commentators to name here who've written about the worsening conditions, pay, etc. of university teaching faculty and staff, especially the growing expansion of adjunct faculty to nearly 75% of all university teaching staff in the USA – see here for a depressing graph – and increasingly similar in places like Canada. I've written about the implications of these changes here and here. I could go on about this in way more detail, but want to illustrate these issues with a specific and personal example ...

Last week, a Globe and Mail article stated that York University – where I work – would be hiring 200 teaching-only or teaching-focused faculty over the next few years. While there may be very good reasons to make such appointments, including greater security for contract or sessional teaching staff – see here for more discussion by Tanya Noel – there are also reasons to be worried by it. For a start, I don't think anyone I know at York had thought this was a definitive plan before the article came out; it's unclear why this news was released this way since it still seemed up for discussion. Second, it comes at the same time as some faculties are facing significant cutbacks in hiring, including virtual (and, likely, soon to be concrete) hiring freezes. Luckily, my (small) program is one of only three new hires this year in York's largest faculty, Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LAPS) – if you have any interest in critical approaches to business, economies and markets then do think about applying, see here. This is significant because LAPS has a student body (c.27,000 [UPDATE (19 Sept 2013): actually it's nearer 23,000]) larger than most British universities, and hence we're simply not going to be able to replace retirees let alone meet York's stated strategic objective (see here for the document I got this quote from):

The paramount goal for York over the next decade is an increase in the full-time faculty complement.

Rationale: There is a near-universal consensus within the York community that the essential precondition for achieving the goals of the White Paper is an increase in the full-time faculty complement. This is not to diminish in any way recognition of the continuing important contributions made by the full range of our teaching complement, including in particular contract faculty members. Nevertheless, increasing engagement in our classrooms, on our campuses, and with the broader community, and strengthening the research profile and reputation of the University as well as our ability to provide supervision and instruction to support high quality graduate education, presupposes that we are able to replenish the losses in the full-time complement that have been experienced in recent years. This must be our paramount academic objective in the years ahead.”
The implication in my specific case and more generally, I would argue, is that the left and right hands are simply not talking to one another, or that the left hand has simply forgotten that the right hand exists at all. Like many universities, for example, York's strategy involves becoming a leading research university, yet it seems that we are also meant to better serve the student body with more teaching-focused faculty. I'm not sure any university can actually do both within the financial constraints that seem to afflict the academy. The fact that York can only seem to afford three new hires this year in a faculty the size of a large British university leads to a very pertinent question; where is all the money going? I imagine this question could be asked of any public-funded university, in Canada and elsewhere. See this article by Harald Bauder for more on why this question needs to be answered – i.e. rising student numbers and fees alongside falling faculty costs as proportion of total expenditure just don’t mesh. More students are going to university, those students are paying more, there are fewer and fewer tenure-track faculty (at least in some faculties), and yet it seems difficult to even maintain current faculty levels let alone extend the privilege and benefits to more people. Moreover, this seems to be an across the board problem and not limited to a few universities.

[A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on rising student tuition fees came out the day after I posted this - see here]

Anyway, here is the email exchange that started all this … a big thank you to Brian for forcing me to think more about these issues!


Professor Birch,

I'm a grad student who just quit my program, and came across your writings while reading about academia's troubles. I wanted to write you to let you know how troubled I was by part of this collectively written piece on the Neoliberal university. I agree with most of what you say about academic labor, but as someone who takes the value academia provides to students seriously. They are the ones who are mortgaging their futures for an education (at least in the US), I think their interests need to be primary when thinking about making academia more livable.

With that said, I wanted to point out how entitled it sounds to argue that "mentoring immigrants" or "workshops in activism" should be considered "serious scholarship." Activism and mentorship are valuable, but why should academia be a special workplace where your non-work activities are counted as work? The point of the university is not to provide a living-wage subsidy to wannabe activists; it's to produce research and teaching. I think by putting this laundry-list complaint front-and-center, you look like a group of privileged academics using other people's legitimate social struggle to advance your career stability. And I say this as someone who agrees with you. Please keep up the good work, but consider how your messages read to the indebted students funding faculty and admin salaries.



Dear Brian,

Thanks for the email and apologies for the slow response. Have you thought of posting it on the Antipode website: http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/11/08/critical-dialogue-what-can-we-do-the-challenge-of-being-new-academics-in-neoliberal-universities/

Just in response to your comments: most of us who contributed to that article think that some form of engagement beyond the academy is important for academics. Otherwise we risk becoming irrelevant and end up only using our research and teaching for career progression. In that sense, I think we come from the opposite perspective to yourself. What is important, for us, is what form that engagement takes. We could all be out there consulting for business or government (as many do) or setting up businesses to make money off our research (and no one at our universities or most other places would raise any issue with that sort of money-making, ‘non-work’ activity). We don’t think that ‘activism’ is a “non-work” activity and is actually a more valid form of engagement than the stuff I highlight in the last sentence. It’s also an extension of our service role, which is a part of our jobs as academics alongside research and teaching (whether this is to the university where we work or the wider academy or the community in which we work). This service work, if you like, is informed by our research and teaching, it does not replace it necessarily. We can, however, combine these elements in our activities (e.g. a lot of my collaborators work with community or activist groups as part of their research, they collect their research data from them and feel that it is important to give something back in return).

A final point … aside from myself and a couple of other contributors to the article, most of my co-authors are actually in very precarious positions (e.g. phd students, contract faculty, researchers) where engaging in this sort of activity will not actually help them get a permanent job. It might very well do the opposite if (as you argue) it takes away from research (getting published gets you a job basically). It’s also likely that most of my precarious co-authors will not get permanent jobs in academia as those types of jobs are increasingly rare.

Anyway, thank you for the stimulating comment and as I suggested please do think about posting it or similar on the Antipode website.

Why did you quit your programme, by the way?




I appreciate your lengthy, thoughtful reply. I think a big part of where we disagree is in a fundamental premise about what "the academy" ought to look like. I'll add here the caveat that this comment may only apply to the system in the US, as this is the only one I have any in-depth knowledge of.

Right now, universities are massively over-inflated. A big part of this problem is the colonization of new spaces by administrators. But I think the professoriate sometimes misses how much their lives also depend on bloat. I'm all for high-minded discourse and embiggening the hearts of gender-neutral men, but that is not what happens in the required "diversity" class that I TAed for. The professor and TAs spent a semester lecturing and leading discussions with students who had no interest and were frankly resentful that their very expensive credits were being spent on this required class they had no interest in. I could blame them for having narrow horizons, but I don't think they're wrong. And these kind of required, university classes are the only reason my department existed as a unit within the university; without these rather bullshit courses we'd have to cut our faculty in half. They fought cuts, but they also fought attempts by other departments to get a slice, for reasons they portrayed as noble but were blindly territorial.

In short, I'd love to have an idealistic vision of a nice academic world that every precarious adjunct could join, but that place doesn't exist, and it's not all because of evil administrators. Many departments (especially in the humanities and softer social sciences) are living off a massive subsidy from students who don't want to be there, and don't want to be paying absurd amounts to be there. I went to a small liberal arts college; I chose to pay for a broad education. My students at university want to get training as an engineer. If they want to learn about a social science discipline, they can buy a handful of books. It's about $5000 cheaper. I think that most of the arguments for making them take these classes are paternalistic, and worse just inaccurate given how many research-focused or just publish-or-perish-pressured professors give short-shrift to these "crappy" teaching assignments.

And don't get me started on the research. Something like 50% of articles are never cited. Something like 80% of them are terrible.

As someone who only recently abandoned a future on the academic job market, I feel for the precarious folks. But my wife has 6 figure law school debt and is facing a similar job market, and no one thinks we should indebt the next generation of kids just to subsidize her chosen career. Sometimes people have to change paths. Given the overproduction of PhDs has been a problem for decades, they never should have been admitted to grad school. I shouldn't have been either, or should have been encouraged to leave rather than making my own choice when I saw my future.

Finally, a note on activism: real activists are out on the street living precarious lives. Activism is important, but not one deserves to be paid for it based on some inherent worth, and more importantly professionalized activism (see: the non-profit economy) often abandons the interests of the people it serves in favor of the interests of funders.

I wish the university could look like what it used to be, but the world requires more specialized skill sets, and most of our students won't be professors or even grad students. The standards of an older time applied to a university that was a granter of privilege, something most activist professors want to tear down. Applying that model now means that low-income students get conned into 6-figures of debt for a degree that's economically worthless. That deal is ok for children of privilege, but that's not a type of access I feel comfortable demanding on behalf of the poor.

Again, I hope you understand I come to this dialogue from a place of love.


PS: I quit my program because I'm not that great at grad school and getting an academic job is super-hard, and I'll never be the right kind of productive to get tenure.

PPS: I wrote a lot of this very late at night so if it's a little ranty in parts...


Hi Brian,

Thanks for the email, which will take some time to digest!

While I do, you might “enjoy” (but probably not) these two articles:




I feel like these two pieces further the point I was making; in yours, there is a desire to "ensure that everyone who wants a secure academic job has one." Taibbi's seems to explain who will be paying for all of those secure, tenured positions: students, through ever-higher debts. This seems like a real conflict that the pro-tenure/anti-adjunct academic left needs to deal with if it wants to claim solidarity with indebted students rather than the narrow self-interest of advanced degree holders.



Hi Brian,

I think you also need to see the wider picture as well. It’s not the fault of tenured faculty that all these things are happening.
  1. Rising student fees are not determined by faculty, but by US states (public unis) and / or senior management (public and private unis); this is largely to do with the effects of the financial crisis (for public unis) and not because tenure-track faculty or PhD graduates are narrowly self-interested. We could, quite reasonably, blame the banks for rising fees. 2. Governments have been complicit in all this (not just in the USA); they have extended student loans and changed the law to make it difficult (if not impossible) to declare bankruptcy from these debts. That has nothing to do with tenure-track faculty either. That’s more to do with securing the interests of lenders and governments.
  2. It’s not the security of the tenured job that causes these problems either. Moreover, I don’t think it’s a good political aim to attack ‘secure’ jobs; it’d be better to fight for greater job security for all in my view, especially since the US has seen low-paid work rise to about 40% jobs. Without well-paid work, students simply can’t pay back their debts.
  3. Most PhD students and PhD graduates end up with poorly paid sessional work (now 70% of uni teaching); so they’re not really benefiting from rising student fees and debt either. [There’s a good graph here showing these changes]
  4. Rising student fees and debt have not been accompanied by rising numbers (or wages) of tenure-track faculty; in fact there is a real disconnect between proportion of tenure-track teaching staff and rising student fees. In 1970s about 50% of teaching staff were tenure track, now it’s about 30%. So, rising fees don’t reflect faculty self-interest; it’s more to do with unis the cutting costs of teaching, driven by government underfunding of unis (sometimes quite deliberate).
  5. The proportion of tenure-track faculty has been pretty stagnant over the last few decades; on the other hand, the number and pay of administrators, management and coaching staff has risen dramatically. So, fees are not really going to faculty but to these other uni staff.
  6. In the USA, tenure-track faculty in public unis aren’t paid as well as some people think (faculty can be paid well in private ones, but depends on the subject); starting salaries range around 50-60k for social science / humanities. While this may be a good salary, it’s also dependent on having spent 10+ years in higher education, not earning anything until you’re in your early 30s, and there’s only a 30% chance you’ll actually end up in one of these jobs.
  7. There have also been significant cuts in salaries in some places because of the ‘furloughs’ imposed by governments so faculty have actually lost wages recently.
  8. On a practical note, most US tenure-track faculty also only have 9-10 month salaries, so they’re not paid for 2-3 months of the year (summer) which means (going back to your first email) they should be allowed to do whatever they want when they’re not being paid. Actually getting involved in activism in this case is pretty admirable, when you think that it’s probably as easy to get a nice consulting job for the summer.
  9. Finally, students never get to do whatever they want, even if they do only courses they choose; it’s always (and necessarily) down to instructors to determine what should be in a programme of study. I actually think engineers and scientists should do courses from the social sciences or humanities (and vice versa); it’s where they are weakest and where they sometimes need the most input in their working lives (I’ve been talking to engineers recently and they even point this out). If they don’t cover and discuss things like gendered landscapes, the needs of people with disabilities, the social, political and economic impacts of climate change, etc. then they are worse off, as are we since their decisions affect us.
Anyway, I better get back to work … thanks for the stimulating emails!



[I asked Brian if he would "approve" this post and he emailed me the comment below]

I wanted to clarify my point about activism: I love that there are activist professors. I love that tenure protects them. What I originally took issue with in the Antipode piece was that the collective seemed to assert that activism should be rewarded by tenure committees. That seems like a recipe for disaster given that every dissenting academic is aware of the politics of their institution. If activism based in research is to be rewarded, I think it needs to come through the higher-profile of the research. Selling your work by promoting your and your allies success is great, but I think for the tenure committee it should come down to the value of the research. Whether current practices fairly determine the value of research is a great question, and probably a great cause for activism. On a related note, some academic activists need to get together with librarians and penny-pinching administrators to screw up the current affairs of academic publishing. If a few high-profile research universities got together the right parties, I think they could really cut into the monopoly of some of the worst rent-seekers in the academic world.

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