The Questions That We Ask Determine the Answers That We Get

When I was entering graduate school in 1978, there were 29 new Ph.D.’s for every tenure-track job opening in English. It was the period in which anecdotes about Ph.D.’s driving taxi cabs became commonplace.

I didn’t know that information at the time, but it became very apparent as I made my way through the Masters and doctoral programs. Very few students in the cohort ahead of me stayed on to pursue a Ph.D. The cohort that included me essentially vanished. And the cohort that followed me has a much more nuts-and-bolts point of view about graduate education. They seemed to feel very little of the joy that I felt about simply being in graduate school and, instead, to be focused immediately and intently on doing everything that they could to enhance their chances of securing a tenure-track position.

I started graduate school in the transition between the baby-boom years, when states rapidly increased their outlays to higher education and institutions created new faculty positions in a sort of desperate effort to keep up with rapidly expanding enrollments–until they ultimately found themselves over-staffed with faculty. I had been born in the middle of the baby boom, which meant that the most marked increase in postwar births had preceded my birth. My father earned a blue-collar wage in a munitions plant, and because my older brother was also attending college when I enrolled, I received very generous federal Basic Educational Opportunity (BEOG) grants as well as state grants. My entire four years as a baccalaureate student at a private university ended up costing cost me $400. I was, in short, among the last middle-class students who could idealize the opportunity of earning a college degree, who could separate it from its cost because its cost was not an issue.

The graduate students in the cohort behind me were the first to face the twin realities of diminishing direct federal aid to undergraduate students and diminishing state subsidies to higher education. In hindsight, those initial decreases were, on both counts, very minimal. But the fact that there had been any decrease at all had a huge impact on how institutions began to redefine their management.

Furthermore, the shock of the “rust belt” recession of Reagan’s first term, the most severe and extended economic downturn since the Great Depression, was profound. It facilitated the corporate focus (and excesses) of Reagan’s presidency and intensified the demand that colleges and universities be operated more like businesses. On education, as on trade, the Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, have moved away from Progressive stances and toward the “middle,” embracing the assumptions that have accelerated the corporatization of higher education.

But now, it seems to me that the pendulum has finally swung almost completely to the other extreme from where it was during the “baby boom” years. The cost of a college education has been shifted almost entirely onto the students themselves, creating a “crisis” in student-loan debt that is going to have an impact on those students’ financial bottom lines and therefore on the nation’s economic growth for decades to come. Less than a third of faculty are tenured or on the tenure-track, barely half are full-time, and the rest are being paid not much more than the typical “temp” worker—though their graduate educations make them very atypical among “temp” workers. Meanwhile, the number of administrative positions, the compensation received by those administrators, and the size of administrative support staffs have all continued to increase dramatically, as if there is no “crisis” in the funding of higher education in America.

As I will illustrate in a state-by-state survey in an upcoming series of posts, the pattern of increasing administrative bloat has actually accelerated since 2009, when deep cuts in state subsidies were imposed and despite the fact that much of that lost funding still has not been restored.

And yet we keep hearing the same questions that were being asked at the beginning of the Reagan presidency three and a half decades ago. For instance, why are so few classes, and in particular introductory classes, being taught by tenured faculty? Whatever the answer was three and a half decades ago, the answer now is simply that, at many if not most institutions, there are no longer enough tenured faculty to go around, to cover both the lower-level and upper-level classes.

Before a whole host of you rush to explain to me how tenured faculty have been complicit in this arrangement, let me assert that I no longer care if they have been. The priorities of tenured and tenure-track faculty may have contributed to the worsening of the problem, but they are no longer the problem. When salaries for all faculty—tenured to adjunct—constitute 20% to 25% of the typical mid-level institution’s budget, and when that percentage keeps shrinking as “savings” continue to be squeezed out of those budget lines, what faculty are doing or not doing has become a side issue, very nearly irrelevant. It’s comparable to explaining any decrease in WalMart’s or McDonald’s quarterly earnings as the result of the wages that they “have to pay” their employees.

And that’s just one of the old questions that keeps being asked. Each of us can just as easily rattle of a half-dozen more. And if you keep asking the same old questions, you keep getting the same old answers, which are no longer any sort of answers at all.

To be clear, I don’t think that no one has been asking the right questions. But I do think that we need to find a way to push those questions more clearly to the forefront of both institutional and public discussions of the present and future states of higher education. And the first step to accomplishing that shift is the need to identify any hackneyed questions as irrelevant—and as self-servingly so for those who keep asking them. For, if we start focusing on answers to the truly relevant questions, a lot of people making very high salaries are going to have to start worrying about their job security.

Likewise, it is time to focus much more specifically and pointedly on the “priorities” that legislators have decided are more important than public education. Typically, we simply complain about cuts in funding, and the public then perceives the complaints as expressions of frustrated self-interest. It is time to point out that most state budgets aren’t decreasing–that, in fact, most have been increasing–and that much of the revenue once allocated to supporting public education and other public institutions is now being funneled directly or indirectly to private, corporate interests. “Corporate welfare” has more than replaced social welfare, and the abuses are much more rampant, deleterious,  and unconscionable than the Far Right’s worst imaginable incarnation of the “welfare mom.” One of the questions that keeps being asked is how states are supposed to fund everything when there is not as much revenue. But, even when revenues have rebounded, allocation to public education have often continued to be reduced. That’s a choice, not an inescapable fiscal conundrum.

Crises are inconvenient realities, but “crisis” talk has very often become a convenient rhetorical exercise in misdirection.

2 thoughts on “The Questions That We Ask Determine the Answers That We Get

  1. Great post, especially how the pressure to find a job has skewed the graduate school experience for many students.

    I do have a question: What explains the rise in the number of administrators? It seems that a lot of hires are a result of federal mandates (e.g. to provide data) or consumer demand for certain services (e.g. fitness, psychological, career). I certainly would prefer that schools hire more faculty than administrators. But my worry is that certain people point to administrator hires as proof that universities should be run more like corporations that have no hesitation firing dead weight.

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