William Deresiewicz at The Nation says that the PhD problem in the US — that there are too many PhDs for the number of academic jobs available — all boils down to "efficiency." In an article slated to appear in next week's issue, Deresiewicz says that because they are "cheaper to hire and easier to fire," contingent academic employees — such as non-tenure-track faculty — save institutions money. Deresiewicz goes on to analogize that over the few decades "what has happened in academia is what has happened throughout the American economy. Good, secure, well-paid positions — tenured appointments in the academy, union jobs on the factory floor — are being replaced by temporary, low-wage employment," he says. That there exists a glut of PhDs in the US benefits institutions on two additional fronts, Deresiewicz adds. "Graduate programs occupy a highly unusual, and advantageous, market position: they are both the producers and the consumers of academic labor, but as producers, they have no financial stake in whether their product 'sells' — that is, whether their graduates get jobs," he says. In discussing the merits of hiring, firing, tenure, and market turn-arounds, Deresiewicz suggests that rather than remaining close-lipped over the issue, tenured professors — who he says "enjoy the strongest speech protections in society — ought to pipe up. "If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to ... organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole," Deresiewicz says.
A Return to Decency
May 20, 2011