The End of the Golden Age of the American Academy

Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, has written a great piece that attempts to chart the reasons for the rise and fall of what he calls the “Golden Age” of the American academy.

First the drastic change in the student body:

Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Though the landscape of higher education in the U.S., spread across forty-six hundred institutions, hosts considerable variation, a few commonalities emerge: the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete. One in three won’t complete, ever. Of the rest, two in three will leave in debt. The median member of this new student majority is just keeping her head above water financially. The bottom quintile is drowning.

And of course, the drastic change in the faculty:

The faculty has stopped being a guild, divided into junior and senior members, and become a caste system, divided into haves and have-nots.

Caste systems are notoriously hard to change. Though tenured professors often imagine we could somehow pay our non-tenured colleagues more, charge our students less, and keep our own salaries and benefits the same, the economics of our institutions remain as they have always been: our major expense is compensation (much of it for healthcare and pensions) distributed unequally between tenured and contingent faculty, and our major income is tuition.

I recently saw this pattern in my home institution. Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.

Now NYU is relatively well off, but we do not have a spare quarter of a billion dollars per annum, not even for a good cause, not even if we sold the mineral rights under Greenwich Village. As at most institutions, even savage cuts in administrative compensation would not allow for hiring contingent faculty full time while also preserving tenured faculty’s benefits. (After these two proposals, the AAUP also advocated reducing ‘the student debt burden by expanding needs‐based financial aid’. No new sources of revenue were suggested.)

* * *
Many of my colleagues believe that if we just explain our plight clearly enough, legislators will come to their senses and give us enough money to save us from painful restructuring. I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak. If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

So what’s going to happen? Large-scale low-cost education:

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Read more.

H/T: Shira of The Fruits of Kamma Tumblr.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Vicar

    Some of this is new, some of it isn’t. The dependence on “contingent faculty” has been going on since the 1960s. (I’ve got relatives who gave up on becoming college professors back then because the “come teach most of our classes for us on a yearly basis at low wages and if we like you we’ll offer you another year only we won’t because it’s cheaper to get someone else so they can’t claim any increments” scam was already in force, at least in some fields.)

    What IS new is the descent of wages for adjuncts down from “entry-level job” into “grinding poverty”. That, and the loss of government funding.

    Most of that loss is directly linked to the Republican Party, and I don’t think most people who pay attention would deny that. What would surprise a lot of people, though, is how deliberate the cuts were. It wasn’t a case of “we need more money to pay for our long series of expensive military adventures in countries inhabited by brown-skinned people”, which is stupid and evil but at least unintentional. It was a case of a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of people who had a broad education, an awareness of current events, and a willingness to protest. The Republicans saw the protests of the 1960s as a direct threat to the ability of the right wing to act with impunity, and spent a great deal of thought on how to destroy higher education.

    The agitation to cut education funding was started under Carter but mostly put into practice under Reagan, and was the brainchild of a group of Reagans backers, a group who were also shills for the Apartheid government in South Africa during the ’70s and who also helped the tobacco industry devise its strategy of claiming that there was controversy within the medical field about whether or not smoking was bad for your health, a technique which has been reused by essentially the same group of advertising companies and think tanks on the subject of global warming.

    (That said, naturally the Republicans couldn’t have gotten as far with their project as they did if the Democratic Party hadn’t become complicit; when the DLC — which of course included the Clintons — decided in the mid-1980s that henceforward the Democratic Party should move as far right as possible in search of corporate money, it made these funding cuts easier than the Republicans had ever dreamed.)


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