What Is Free? Elitism and University Careers Advising

I wrote last week about my good times at the American Academy of Religion conference. And it was indeed a very good time. But there was one incident that I can’t stop thinking about, and I want to share it here. Because, it gets at the elitism that creeps into some efforts to assist with Ph.D. professionalization.

As I mentioned, one member of my panel at the AAR was a representative of ImaginePh.D., a newly launched career-guidance tool that is the brainchild of the Graduate Careers Consortium.  The Graduate Careers Consortium is an organization of graduate level careers advising staff at universities around the country.  When I first learned of the GCC in about 2013, I immediately got in touch. How great, I thought—an organization that is entirely devoted to Ph.D. career advising! I’d love to join! But when I inquired, I was told, “sorry, no, no people running businesses allowed at present.”  “Really?” I responded. “That seems a shame!” “Yes,” said the director of the time, “we’ll be raising this for further discussion, so please check back.”

I promptly forgot, until I think last year, when encountering a column written by GCC members in Inside Higher Ed,  I decided to check back in.

“No,” I was told, in no uncertain terms this time, “no businesses.”

Huh, ok.

Fast forward to my AAR panel. When it finished, I turned to the representative, and said, “you are here from the Graduate Careers Consortium, right?  That’s the group that won’t allow people like me to join, yes?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I think they need to change that policy,” I said.

“They will,” she replied tartly, “NEVER change that policy.”

“Why not??” I asked.

“Because GCC members provide services,” she responded with great self-righteousness, “for FREE!.  And they do not want to include any members who provide services that have to be paid for.”

Huh, ok.

“You do know that careers centers services aren’t free, yes?”

“Oh no, she said, with wide eyes,” they are COMPLETELY FREE to the students!  No student has to pay ANYTHING for the help.”

Errrr… ok…

Let’s just unpack this a bit, shall we?

What, exactly, is being called free in this scenario? First off, students have already purchased access, or membership to the career services office at their institution, through some form of financial transaction through their tuition or labor or both. At many institutions, post-docs are excluded, adjunct or visiting faculty are excluded, as are students on leave.

And the thousands upon thousands of Ph.D.s who lack the institutional affiliation—well, they are out in the cold.

Career services are not even like (public) university libraries, where one can go in and read a book or a magazine.

The do not serve the larger academic community. They serve only the students who pay into that institution, and nobody else. Money = access.

And the five or six figure debt that the majotiy of currently enrolled graduate students accrue for this “free” service? Well, let’s quietly sweep that under the rug here, just like their academic departments do.

Let’s go further.  University career services departments are subsidized by the exploitative financial structure of the institution as a whole. Their staff salaries are paid by virtue of students who TA and adjuncts who teach at poverty wages and academic departments staffed almost entirely by the contingent. And their lights are kept on by virtue of the endowments that yield the bulk of operating costs for virtually all higher education institutions. And where does endowment money come from? Oh, right, corporate profits.

Universities are parasites on corporate profits, as salaried faculty and staff are parasites on tuition paying and TA-ing students and on precariously employed adjuncts and contingent faculty.

But never forget, they are “free.”

Now let’s examine the way that “free” here is weaponized as a synonym for “virtuous.”  As if, the purveyors of this advising are operating in a sphere entirely free of self-interest.

Do these advisors work for free? Are they volunteers? Do they do this work out of the goodness of their hearts?

Would they continue if the paychecks stopped arriving?

I didn’t think so.

As a current student, you…

Why is salaried work, paid through institutions that operate based on labor exploitation and endowment earnings,  somehow less self-interested than work that is openly charged for?

More broadly, how exactly is the system of labor exploitation and debt peonage that underwrites the contemporary neoliberal university imagined as a place of ethical “purity”? What self-serving mystifications, what delusions of elite status make this possible?

Answer: the very same self-serving mystifications, and delusions of elite status that characterize the faculty and advisors in Ph.D programs, who persistently, even in 2018, refuse to consider the Ph.D. as vocational training for a wage-paying job, and insist on keeping their graduate students in a state of enforced ignorance and dependency on ivory tower illusions of scholarly “purity” – ie, the illusion that academic work is somehow separate from concerns of money, financial gain, and profit.

University faculty and staff believe that because an intermediary institution takes corporate gains and doles them out into monthly paychecks into their personal bank accounts – obscuring the exploitative and predatory financial foundations that make those salaries possible –  they are somehow independent from capitalist relations.  The resulting state of denial then allows faculty and career advisors to abnegate their responsibilities for the actual job training that Ph.D. students desperately need to confront the catastrophe of the academic job market, minimize debt, and prevent financial disaster.

GCC members would, I assume, not encourage their Ph.D. job seeking clients to work for free (or would they?)  But they then in their organizational practices characterize only certain forms of getting paid as proper, and other forms as unseemly, or debased.

This attitude ignores (or deliberately mischaracterizes) the impact of mission-driven post-ac businesses like my own and many others (Beyond The Professoriate, ScholarStudio, Beyond The Tenure Track, JobsOnToast to name just a few) that have generated countless pages of free information available to anyone with a computer and internet. This information is literally available to all, no affiliation needed.

But we are the ethically suspect.

(Speaking just for myself now, it is indeed my independent small business model that is what allows me to openly critique the depredations of the Ph.D. training apparatus as well as the abuses of the academic system. I can only name and shame institutions and individuals, expose the scandals of Ph.D. Debt and Sexual Harassment in the Academy, call out the self-serving politics of graduate training, and generally speak truth because I enjoy an independent income stream, and am bound by no institutional obligations that would limit my speech.)

“You do realize that post-ac businesses like mine and many others provide loads of targeted professional and career information for free?” I asked.

Her, with finality: “We’re. Not. Going. To. Include. Businesses.”

Me, emphatically: “Well, I think that is a wrongheaded policy.”

Her, tightly: “Well, [avoiding eye contact, gathering up her papers] “I’ll be sure to pass that message along.”

And there it ended.

Relating this conversation later to another postac business owner, I learned that the GCC does allow businesses into its conferences – but only in a segregated category, as “vendors.” In other words, a professional organization that purports to prepare PhDs for nonacademic professional careers others the world of businesses in its own professional practice.

Only in the minds of salaried staff and faculty  – and those graduate student still fondly invested in the “life of the mind” goods they are shilling – are university teaching and advising services “free.”  Only for those whose identities depend on elitist proclamations of the “anti-capitalist difference” of the academy is academic wage work innocent of the profit motive.

But more importantly, the rhetoric of “free service” weaponized by the GCC reinforces the self-serving academic delusions that have left Ph.D. students so vulnerable to the existing economy in which they must survive.  This is the attitude that quietly communicates to desperate Ph.D.s that some career options are ignoble and wrong. It is the attitude that works to sustain their investment in the self-destructive dead-end of adjuncting because adjuncting on food stamps is “noble” while running a business is corrupt. This attitude is pervasive, it is bullshit, and it keeps people trapped in an exploitative cycle of precarious labor. It is time to expose the lie behind what the university and organizations like the GCC call “free.” Graduate students deserve better.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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