Faculty[,] Don’t Run It Like a Business

The subtext of nearly every practical discussion about hiring, promotion, or retention in academia — on the faculty side, that is — is that everyone is replaceable. One might say this is the subtext of any discussion where there is a labour market to speak of, but in academia it is sharpened by the massive disproportion between the number of highly trained, qualified, and professionally accomplished job seekers and the number of available tenure-track faculty positions. The most recent “Jobs Report” from the American Historical Association has only 27% of PhDs awarded in 2017 currently employed in tenure-track academic jobs. There is no reason to think them more talented or capable, as a group, than the other 73%. PhDs are not interchangeable; someone with a dissertation on urban life in 20th-century China doesn’t apply for a job in medieval Mediterranean history or 19th-century American religion. In some subfields, there may be half a dozen jobs listed in North America in a given year. There may be none. There are too few jobs, and too many factors in play, to say anything about the relative quality of those who get jobs and those who don’t. In other words, a thick layer of “luck” — the sheer luck of what jobs fell open the year you hit the market, the manufactured luck of professional connections, the structural luck of your ability to eat debt or forgo income — overbalances the very real work that almost anyone with a PhD has put in. It’s not that the people who have academic jobs aren’t qualified. It’s that many more equally qualified people don’t have jobs, and never will.

This fact is the source of much justified anger as well as some “survivor’s guilt” among PhDs on either side of the job market. It also, however, has immense managerial utility. Bluntly, it makes faculty members dispensable. This is most obvious and consequential where they are already in precarious positions — where adjunct faculty are indeed dispensed with as routinely as meals and in much the same manner, their consumption giving the NextGen university the energy to lurch sepulchrally from one term to the next. But this dispensability obtains at every stage further up the scale, too, starting with probational faculty working towards contract renewal or tenure and continuing all the way up (in principle, if more rarely in practice) to high-salaried senior faculty preaching their importance to their departments or faculties. Pound for pound, in fact, the cost savings and productivity gains of replacing the latter might seem considerably more interesting to anyone who has numbers uppermost in mind. A 20-year veteran with an aging book (maybe) and a few articles, or a fresh PhD with a book in press and the promise of a second — at a fraction of the price? Only the veteran’s tenure makes that a difficult trade to make, from a managerial point of view.

Which is why a selectively managerial view — in which junior colleagues are employees, while seniors are, ineffably, not — is one that tenured faculty members adopt at their own peril. It is one thing to recognize the atrocious situation academics, unemployed or precariously employed academics first and foremost, are in: highly qualified, often highly accomplished, with little prospect of reward, recognition, or even the opportunity to continue doing what they have already shown they do well. It is one thing, too, to recognize the role that safer, senior academic colleagues (that is, we and those who came before us) have played in perpetuating this situation, not least in the way they (we) habitually talk and think and act about hiring. (One might then ask questions like: How many departments have made areas where they use adjuncts an automatic priority for tenure-track hiring requests? How many have then hired, to these tenure-track positions, the adjuncts they have used? Questions I have never, in fact, heard senior faculty ask.) But it is quite another thing to adopt a managerial stance toward this set of circumstances, to weaponize “the market” and the rhetoric of maximal productivity that justifies that same market against people who’ve only lately escaped “the market” and are doing their jobs. As a faculty member, you can be a colleague with colleagues, or you can be one dispensable employee among others; don’t imagine you can be both. There’s a reason real managers don’t get to attend union meetings. It’s a dangerous thing to forget that if the people beneath you on the ladder could be replaced tomorrow, then so, even more profitably, could you.

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