On Tuesday I attended a card-signing event on campus that was the formal launch of the voting process for the University of Oregon faculty union.
The faculty union has been a long time coming, and this time it looks like it might actually happen. I had already signed my union card of course. I attended the reception because I was curious to see the turnout. There is more resistance than I ever expect on college campuses to unionization efforts, even among ostensibly leftist or radical faculty. It pisses me off.
The turnout was pretty good.
While I was at the reception (where I got an earful about the shameful erosion of our health benefits this year—likely costing a typical family of four an additional $1600 annually just to start, not counting any catastrophic medical events) I found myself in conversation with a rep from the AAUP. I told him all about the upcoming New Faculty Majority Summit, “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education.” and its connections to faculty unionization efforts.
We got to talking about my business, The Professor Is In, and about the crisis of Ph.D. hiring. I spoke about the shame of Ph.D. departments and faculty that continue admitting graduate students all the while knowing the majority of them have no chance of work in their field. My AAUP friend demurred. “It’s not an issue of oversupply,” he said sternly. “Departments don’t have control over the size of their Ph.D. programs. That is determined at the Dean’s office.”
I told him he was wrong, of course. In my departments we certainly had control over the size of our graduate admissions each year. The Dean’s office didn’t dictate a minimum size! On the contrary, it dictated a maximum, by virtue of chronically inadequate TA and fellowship funding. We could easily have admitted fewer students each year, and funded the ones we did admit better. Did we choose to do that? Absolutely not. We continued to wheel and deal and finagle to leverage the maximum number of new Ph.D. admittees out of the circumscribed funds we controlled.
Never, ever, at any time, not even once, was there a discussion of the question: do these Ph.D. students we’re admitting have a reasonable chance of using their Ph.D.s for employment after leaving our program?
That question was entirely irrelevant to our deliberations. The ultimate professional fate of the graduate students had absolutely no significance in their value to us as faculty.
Instead, their value to us as faculty hinged on:
- Our egos. The “best” (ie, most successful and famous) faculty members had the most students. The quantity of a faculty member’s Ph.D. students boosted the faculty member’s status vis-a-vis colleagues and conferred bragging rights.
- Our teaching needs. The department quite literally could not run without the teaching labor of the graduate students. In one of my departments the entire first, second, and third year language programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (some 30,000 credit hours annually) were handled entirely by graduate students.
- Our legitimacy. A department without a Ph.D. program is a second-class department nationally and on campus. A department with a smaller Ph.D. program is a “lesser” department than one with a larger Ph.D. program. No faculty member would willingly work to reduce the size of the department’s graduate program, because it would reduce the status of the program, and thus the status of the faculty members associated with it. Ultimately, it would reduce the standing of those faculty members for things like raises and research funding.
“You can’t blame individual faculty members for the crisis,” said the AAUP representative. Au contraire, my friend. You can. You should. Until individual faculty members individually and collectively confront the ways that their own economic self-interest and social capital is fundamentally tied to the recruitment of Ph.D. students who have little or no chance for meaningful, permanent academic careers, this exploitative system will not change.
Some people argue, of course, that the problem in academic hiring is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s, but an “under-demand” of tenure-track lines, given the wholesale shift from tenure-track to short-term adjunct labor.
It is true that demand has plummeted. But so has demand for blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Would anyone have sympathy for a system stubbornly determined to turn out thousands of blacksmiths and switchboard operators a year? Why this defense, then, of a system that turns out thousands of unemployable Ph.D.s?
The difference in the case of the academy is that apparently the evaporation of demand is hidden, even to the workers themselves, who have somehow let themselves be hoodwinked into believing that the academic workplace needs them, and will provide them with permanent, meaningful, reasonably compensated work.
Nobody is facing or telling the truth here. Certainly not the self-interested faculty. They have no incentives to do so.