As many of you know, I went to Santa Fe last week as the invited speaker of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities Council of Academic Affairs national conference.* Translated, this is a conference of provosts (and a few vice chancellors and the like) from public R1 and R2 institutions.
I was very anxious about this talk, because I have no experience with provosts. I don’t entirely understand their role in the new, corporatized university, and I had no idea–to tell the truth–why I’d been invited to speak on this panel on the “Faculty Life Cycle,” on mentoring and support for new tenure track hires.
But, never one to turn down a challenge, I wrote a talk, and I went. And I prefaced the talk with a disclaimer: “I am flying completely blind here. I have no idea what provosts talk about, and if what I’m about to say totally common sense and preaching to the choir, or anathema that’s going to outrage you all. I’m just going to say my piece, and I’ll be interested to hear your response.”
And then I spoke about what I call Job Market PTSD (yes I know many of you object to this term; the arguments for and against are played out in the comment thread to this post). I called my talk, “Job Market PTSD: Adjuncts, Assistant Professors and A Broken Faculty Life Cycle.” My point was, tenure track hires today are often harmed by the destructive conditions of the job market, even when they have been successful in it. They are harmed by the years of anxiety, the pervasive sense of panic and uncertainty, the indignities of years of adjuncting at poverty wages, by 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars of debt, and by a kind of ‘survivor’s guilt’ vis-a-vis all their friends and comrades still laboring in the adjunct trenches.
I spoke of a pervasive “loss of faith” in the ideals of the university, specifically:
- The university is fundamentally good and worthy
- The university is a realm devoted to something other than money and profit
- An academic career is possible
- An academic career is morally defensible
- The Ph.D. was a financially responsible choice
- My sense of self (as a scholar/academic) is secure
Then I proposed four interventions:
1) Stop growing the traumatized population—cut Ph.D. programs
2) Institute mandatory career training in all Ph.D. programs
3) Stop hiring adjuncts and improve conditions for the ones hired
4) Mentor new tenure track hires in new ways
To me it was essential to intervene in the idea that there continues to be a “faculty life cycle” that is organic, unchanging, and predictable in a time of 76% adjunctification.
I also wanted to point to the new needs of assistant professors –always at risk of feeling isolated and overwhelmed — when they are coming in in drastically reduced cohorts, and dependent on mentoring from increasingly overburdened and disaffected tenured faculty.
I did provide some specific recommendations for mentoring assistant professors, around perennial questions like supporting writing, protecting from excessive service, and illuminating the mystery of the external tenure reviewer (who are they, where to find them, how to cultivate them).
But, while my primary request was to stop hiring adjuncts, I ended with the exhortation to create a larger campus community that included both adjuncts (who will continue to be hired) and new assistant professors. I said that a caste system in which one group was viewed as the “untouchable” was damaging and traumatizing for everyone, including those occupying the privileged tenure track position.
That was my talk. Now here’s the surprise: the provosts seemed mostly pretty open to this message. Those who spoke in the Q and A and privately to me afterward did not dispute my argument at all. Mostly, they wanted to share initiatives on their campuses to replace adjuncts with longer-term instructors with benefits. While in an audience of 60 or so I’m sure there was a range of opinion, not always expressed, by and large the reception was amazingly non-defensive, open, and interested in change.
“We’re chief academic officers!” one said. “We are constantly fighting a battle inside ourselves. On the one hand we must be the leading proponents of the corporatized model. On the other hand, we come from faculty, and support faculty, and support the academic mission of the university. Every day is a battle between the halves of our brains.” The audience ruefully laughed.
I must say, it never occurred to me that upper administrators would be struggling (or would admit to struggling) with the corporate model in quite this way. It was heartening.
While I know that one panel talk won’t change the world, I’m glad I went, and I did see some glimmers of possibility, at least from one corner of administration. The one thing I learned is that it isn’t quite right to tar all “administrators” with the same brush. Yes, they’re all complicit, and all earning large salaries as part of the escalation of administration at the expense of the educational mission. But they don’t seem to all feel exactly the same, or totally positive, about it.
*If you’re curious, here is the program of panels:
Efficiency Studies, Administrative Costs, and the University Narrative
Data Analytics for Student Success, Advising and Alerts
Relationship with Community Colleges
Metrics and Indicators of Institutional Quality
Human Resources and Reform and Shared Services**
Faculty Career Life-Cycles
Whither Competency-Based Education
**I sat in on the end of this one, and the upshot was—provosts and others on the side of academic affairs, trying to support the educational mission of the university, find themselves in constant state of disconnect with HR, which is imposing generic legal policies from the world of government and business that simply do not work. One provost told the story of her new faculty orientation, run by HR on her campus. “It was four days on parking and benefits! I have no idea how they filled four days on parking and benefits! It covered NOTHING that new faculty actually need, like tenure policies, how to use Blackboard… I eventually had my office take it over.” Another remarked, dryly, “These offices need to understand they are in SUPPORT of a larger mission.”
Provosts have some pretty familiar struggles–who knew?