Bad Articles about Grad Student Unionization

by Henry on June 13, 2016

Now that the NLRB is considering the question of graduate student unionization again, we’re beginning to see people write pieces suggesting that academic life would collapse if graduate students had bargaining rights. If there’s any use to this particular one (by Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard), it’s that it conveniently bundles a few of the bad arguments together.

According to Gartner:

If the NLRB chooses to overturn Brown it would fundamentally change the academic environment at universities. In an amicus brief submitted by a group of nine universities (the remaining seven Ivy League schools, MIT, and Stanford), the schools explain that unionization would force universities and professors to negotiate everything from class size to the content of the syllabus.

This is nonsense. It presupposes that the ‘academic environment’ at universities has hitherto been untouched by bargaining, grievances and disputes between labour and management. As it happens though, professors, among other groups of people to be found on campus, are university employees. Certainly, many of them are doing their jobs because they love them, but they are also doing their jobs because they are being paid for them. If you don’t believe this is true, ask them if they would be willing to do their work for free, and see how far it gets you.

This means that their interests inevitably often clash with the interests of management (or, if you prefer ‘administration’), who might often prefer e.g. that they do more things that are remunerative for the university at lower pay. To be clear, the management may sometimes have a point – but so too do employees. That is why administrators and professors bargain with each other, to reach some kind of mutually acceptable result.

Of course, as with all bargaining relationships, bargaining power matters. This is why some of the bargaining that happens in universities happens one-on-one. Tenured professors in high prestige institutions often have a fair amount of personally specific bargaining power – it is hard to fire them, and, especially if they have outside options, they may prefer to strike individual bargains for self-interested reasons than to bargain collectively. Professors in less well endowed institutions – especially those without tenure and in non-tenure line positions – are more likely to want to bargain collectively, since this enhances their strength vis-a-vis the administration. So too, graduate student instructors would plausibly prefer to bargain together than individually, because their strength will surely be enhanced by so doing.

None of this should be exactly surprising: academic institutions are human institutions, in which people have interests that regularly clash with each other. In other words, they are not (or not only) preserves of disinterested scholarly inquiry, but also riven with disputes over who gets what. It seems odd that an entire class of individuals should by fiat be prevented from exercising their bargaining power.

The universities’ fears are not unreasonable; unionization would subject many academic decisions relating to the terms and conditions of graduate student “employment” to collective bargaining or “effects” bargaining. As the universities’ amicus brief outlines, even a situation as simple as a professor changing the grading structure of an exam could become the subject of a grievance or negotiation.

Something that may come as startling news to Mr. Gartner – issues such as class size, grading structures and so on are currently subject to bargaining between professors and the university administration, either informally or formally. These issues are covered by collective bargaining in many universities. Perhaps even more shocking to his delicate sensibilities – professors can sometimes be ever so slightly self-interested in how they bargain over these questions. So far, the academic and teaching missions of institutions with collective bargaining do not appear to have collapsed.

It may also not be apparent to Gartner that a “situation as simple” as a professor changing the grading structure of an exam might impose a lot of extra work on the teaching or grading assistants who actually have to administer or grade the exam. They might, strange as it seems, have an interest at stake.

The proponents of unionizing graduate students often point to certain studies and NYU’s voluntary recognition of a union, as proof that unionization actually improves the academic experience. However, this argument fails to acknowledge the disastrous protracted negotiations at NYU, in which the graduate students threatened to go on strike and disrupt the entire university.

The horror! People threatening to go on strike and disrupt the entire university! Yet again, it’s almost as if they might have interests to defend or something! In contrast to professors, who of course would never threaten to go on strike for fear that the academic mission might be temporarily compromised.

Not only would the introduction of collective bargaining disrupt the academic freedom of professors and universities, it would also negatively impact the university’s educational relationship with graduate students. In Brown, the Board noted that the adversarial nature of collective bargaining would drive a wedge between graduate students and their teachers. “[W]hile teachers and students have a mutual interest in the advancement of the student’s education, in an employment relationship such mutuality of goals ‘rarely exists.’” Essentially, introducing collective bargaining to the university setting would force educators to negotiate academic decisions with unions and follow a rigid contract, rather than create individualized educational experiences for students. As stated in a brief for the Employment Law Alliance’s Higher Education Council, “not only are such decisions inappropriate in the collective bargaining context, the very nature of such an adversarial, economic relationship could undermine the fundamentally academic nature of the relationship between faculty and their graduate students.” Thus, it would be contrary to Board precedent to place the economic relationship between graduate students and universities ahead of the educational relationship.

This is bunk and folderol. I spent two years teaching in the University of Toronto, where graduate students were unionized. I didn’t see one whit of difference between the mentoring relationship between professors and their Ph.D students there, and the relationship in my current institution. Like many relationships, the professor-graduate student relationship involves some interests in common and some interests that clash. When it works, it’s just fantastic for both parties, but it doesn’t involve some sort of numinous and mystical sacred and spiritual bond that would be disrupted by external bargaining institutions. To claim that it does is sheer ideology.

The blunt fact of the matter is that universities rely extensively on teaching assistants to help run large classes. These TAs benefit to some degree from teaching – but no more than do ordinary employees, who learn some of their skills on the job. They also have needs and interests, which universities and indeed individual professors may sometimes be loathe to recognize, because recognizing them might be costly or inconvenient.

When I was at U of T, collective bargaining with graduate students was sometimes a pain in the ass for professors and for the administration. That’s in the nature of things. The administration is sometimes a pain in the ass for professors and for graduate students. Professors are sometimes a pain in the ass for graduate students and for the administration. Different people have different collective and individual interests, and these interests sometimes clash with each other. That’s why people deserve the means to express their interests and negotiate on their basis. The frequently repeated suggestion that the university is somehow so ineffable an institution, and the teaching assistant-professor bond so rarified that neither could possibly withstand graduate student collective bargaining rights is wrong, and obviously so, to anyone who has worked within a university, where intellectual inquiry and economic self-interest are commonly, indeed typically entangled. In fairness, Gartner very obviously may not have worked in a university, and so can’t be fully held to blame for his ignorance if so. However, similar arguments are advanced frequently and consistently by people who should (and sometimes, I suspect, do) know better.

{ 69 comments }

1

JeffreyF 06.13.16 at 4:59 pm

“Teach Grad Students A Lesson”

*closes tab*

2

Former Ivy League grad student 06.13.16 at 5:10 pm

The idea that the individual professor-student bond is so amazing and transcendental and uniformly positive, so that it must be protected from any outside interference, is laughable to anyone who had an uninvolved or actively bad advisor. Faculty members are people, and not all people are great at all aspects of their jobs, or get along well with all subordinates and colleagues. I think the idea that one’s economic present and future should be so dependent on the good will and effort of a single individual is one of the most dangerous aspects of academia as it exists now. I’m not sure how much unionization would help with this, but I think at least a little!

3

Adam Hammond 06.13.16 at 5:52 pm

Organizing a union is a massive time commitment and a pain in the neck (and elsewhere). Graduate students don’t join this effort on a lark. A strong unionization movement is something that an organization EARNS for itself over many years of not addressing legitimate complaints.

If a university has a better idea for addressing the complaints, then they should quickly enact it! They will know that it worked by the evaporation of the aforesaid movement.

4

Ebenezer Scrooge 06.13.16 at 11:56 pm

I’ve been both a graduate student and a professional student, and I think that the distinction is significant. Grad student unionization makes sense, for all the reasons Henry said.* I can’t see the argument for professional student unionization. Professional students may do some useful work for their professors, but their labor is pretty incidental. In contrast, graduate students are apprentice academics. Apprenticeship is all about labor.

*And let me add another. The strongest union in America is probably the baseball players’ union–which is rigorously meritocratic. I doubt that unionized graduate students would be any different.

5

Clay Shirky 06.14.16 at 1:42 am

It’s amazing how much of academic politics can be explained by asking ‘Which outcome would hurt tenured faculty’s feelings?’ (and I say this as a tenured faculty member at NYU.)

Part of what’s at stake here in the supposedly ‘amazing and transcendental and uniformly positive’ relationship between grad students and professors (h/t FILgs #2) is the idea that our interests are completely converged with what’s good for the academy. We have not just created the most amazingly dualized economy this side of investment banking, we demand to be regarded as virtuous actors to boot.

It is of course regrettable that our enviable teaching load comes at the expense of poorly compensated graduate students and other contingent labor. It is also to be deplored, in a sincere but wholly non-actionable way, that our apprenticeship model prepares far more Ph.Ds than there are good jobs.

The self-love of the senior faculty (the engine of the whole enterprise) demands that we think of the institution as being divided into faculty vs. administration, rather than as insiders (senior faculty and administration together) vs. outsiders (everyone else, from clerical staff to graduate students.)

The threat of graduate student unionization isn’t just that they will be better able to press their interests collectively, as Henry notes, but that unionization will make it clear where their interests diverge from the interests of the senior faculty.

If being a TA is just a shitty job, rather than a hazing ritual on the way to a tenured position of you very own, then our faith in ourselves as the only just and virtuous participants in the system will be…tested.

6

JeffreyG 06.14.16 at 2:32 am

“our interests are completely converged with what’s good for the (relevant social unit)”

i.e. ideology
(great comment)

7

Jeremy 06.14.16 at 3:03 am

I’m appalled Gartner’s arguments are still being floated. They were all deployed back in the mid-90’s when I was TAing at UC Irvine. They were fearmongering bullshit then, and still are. (Not that anyone here’s disputing that.)

Maybe my acquaintance was just too limited, but I don’t recall any faculty opposing grad student unionization. Clearly the administration did, and floated these arguments in the hope, I guess, that TA’s would fear for the quality of their most important relationships–those with the faculty, whose approval we needed to graduate, get rec letters, etc. The administration’s reasoning was so lame I could only think they were grasping at straws in hope of saving money.

8

Tabasco 06.14.16 at 3:37 am

Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard

As I recall, in the film The Paper Chase, the protagonist, a law student at Harvard, is relentlessly bullied by his professor who has hired him as his research assistant. Yes, it’s fiction, but Cesar Chavez himself couldn’t have put together a better case for unionization.

9

Clay Shirky 06.14.16 at 6:38 am

Jeremy #7: Maybe my acquaintance was just too limited, but I don’t recall any faculty opposing grad student unionization.

You may want to read Corey’s piece: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/when-professors-oppose-students-unions/

(And related, for the arguments it advances, a site by some faculty at UW arguing that faculty, full stop, should not unionize): http://www.uwexcellence.org/the-case-against-unionization.html

The case against

No premier research-intensive university in the U.S. – no true peer of the University of Washington, and no institution of a quality to which we aspire – has a unionized tenure-track faculty. If we unionize, we will stand alone among premier research-intensive universities, private or public. Why have campaigns to unionize tenure track faculty at our peers and our aspirational peers failed? And, if a unionized tenure track faculty is an advantage, why aren’t lesser institutions that have unionized racing ahead in the rankings? We argue throughout this website that unionization is likely to diminish our excellence by damaging the environment in which our diverse activities flourish. Absent compelling arguments in favor of unionization, why risk it?

10

christian_h 06.14.16 at 6:45 am

I spent 7 years at UCLA and supervised a number of (unionized) grad students. It in no way shape or form interfered with the advisor – student relationship. In fact I was happy to know my grad students couldn’t be robbed of all their research time just because a course instructor decided they had to write three pages of comments on every assignment the graded.
On the other hand a colleague who was department chair at an Ivy League school whose adjuncts had gotten unionized complained that this outrageously meant they couldn’t make adjunct teach 80 minutes for every hour scheduled like they used to, and grad student unionization would have similarly pernicious consequences. So yeah… boy are these arguments bad.

11

Z 06.14.16 at 9:08 am

Might as well be blunt: the faculty members who oppose unionization are the faculty members who make the most noise in the faculty assembly (or equivalent) and are also the faculty members most likely to exploit those who work for them rather than fostering a mutually beneficial relationship.

These days, being a PhD student in most fields is a lot like a “real” job and very little like being a student. This is even more true for PostDocs. What were once positions lasting 1-3 years now routinely stretch past 6. I’ve seen countless examples of university administrations failing in their responsibility to respond to faculty misconduct… honestly I can’t remember one example where a university did the “right” thing with respect to HR standards in every other field… and only a few examples where universities did the “not-completely-horrible” thing.

I’d like to give some specific examples from my own university, but even posting anonymously here I’m afraid of retaliation. When I bring up unionization as a tool to address chronic faculty misconduct (as well as contract negotiations and more generic union activity) the answer is always: “Most will not join a union because they’re afraid of what their boss will do to them.”

12

Z 06.14.16 at 11:25 am

the adversarial nature of collective bargaining would drive a wedge between graduate students and their teachers.

Of course, it should be pointed out that many countries allow or even encourage student unions (at all level) and give them an official role in the management of the University. Where are all the horror stories about how this makes impossible mentoring, advising and the like?

13

John Quiggin 06.14.16 at 11:54 am

I’m a bit puzzled about the way the question is being posed. As I understand it, the question isn’t whether grad students qua grad students should be unionized but whether teaching assistants should be entitled to unionize regardless of whether their job is bundled with enrolment as a grad student or whether, as in the case mentioned by Christian, they are non-student adjuncts. This seems like a n0-brainer, only marginally different from the case where, say, a university cafeteria offers jobs to undergrads. Have I misunderstood something here?

14

Marc 06.14.16 at 12:02 pm

The underlying problem with graduate student unions is that the department, not the university, governs their environment. It’s why science students are far harder to unionize than humanities students, and it explains why it’s complex to design a negotiating strategy that is universally helpful.

15

Z 06.14.16 at 12:14 pm

@Marc “It’s why science students are far harder to unionize than humanities students”

Science students are sometimes better compensated and also, I think, tend to be more vulnerable to what was mentioned above: “that one’s economic present and future should be so dependent on the good will and effort of a single individual.” For research assistants, joining a union is viewed as opposing your PI and this is a step that many are afraid to take.

16

T 06.14.16 at 2:15 pm

“If being a TA is just a shitty job, rather than a hazing ritual on the way to a tenured position of you very own, then our faith in ourselves as the only just and virtuous participants in the system will be…tested.”

This is exactly the problem. When even the Ivies can’t guarantee a tenure track position, being a graduate student becomes a shitty job. And, particularly in the humanities, a 9-year shitty job. The senior faculty are at the core of this fiasco. Every one of them knows most of their grad students are unemployable yet continue the lie to each new entering class. They get someone to grade their exams, teach their sections, do the scut research, and confer on to them the prestige and higher incomes granted to a prof at a PhD granting institution. The implicit contract has been broken when the 9-year apprenticeship doesn’t yield the promised tenure-track job.

17

rea 06.14.16 at 2:36 pm

in the film The Paper Chase, the protagonist, a law student at Harvard, is relentlessly bullied by his professor who has hired him as his research assistant.

Nope, Hart is just an ordinary first year law student.

[My contracts professor gloried in having been a technical advisor to the film, but was a much friendlier guy than Prof. Kingsfield; he would, however, occasionally offer students dimes]

18

Yankee 06.14.16 at 4:05 pm

“create individualized educational experiences for students”

Entitlement to your own facts?

19

Mdc 06.14.16 at 5:52 pm

Aside from the odd jerk, I don’t think it’s in faculty’s interest that TAing be a “shitty job,” or “hazing.” So here’s to solidarity.

T: What “lies” are being told? Placement records for departments are not hard to find, and to verify.

20

T 06.14.16 at 7:24 pm

@mdc

I don’t know about you. I don’t hire 22 year-old BAs at $15hr. for a 9-year commitment when I know they have a 1 in 10 chance of getting a job when they’re finished.

21

J-D 06.14.16 at 10:00 pm

I’ve never forgotten seeing a notice posted on a noticeboard in the history department at the Australian National University (this was about twenty years ago) stating that the number of candidates enrolled for PhDs in history in Australian universities was (at the time, I suppose) greater than the total number of positions for academics in history departments in Australian universities.

22

David R Stong 06.14.16 at 11:29 pm

I’m a bit shocked to find this. I did graphics for the GFTEO at Penn State in the late 1990s. It’s still an issue? If a TA isn’t professional, annotate their student’s degrees so the sub-par level of their education is obvious. If the TA is competent, pay them and give them benefits as if they’re faculty. Really. My god this discussion is from 1997.

23

Jeremy 06.15.16 at 6:30 am

Clay #9: Thank you for the info. I stand corrected.

24

Elizabeth Anderson 06.15.16 at 2:44 pm

The absurdity of fears about unionizing graduate student instructors is impossible to exaggerate. Here at University of Michigan, graduate student instructors have been unionized for decades. They are also, by and large, supremely dedicated and creative teachers. The union has done nothing whatsoever to damage relationships between graduate students and faculty, or to undermine the quality of instruction. I value the union’s activities in delivering better benefits to graduate students and imposing constraints on their exploitation. Excessively large class sizes impair graduate students’ progress to degree and undermine the quality of undergraduate education. Union activities to impose limits on class sizes and work loads helps not only the graduate students themselves, but the quality of graduate and undergraduate education. Treating workers with respect is good for everyone.

25

Corey Robin 06.15.16 at 3:14 pm

Elizabeth Anderson:

Ah, but you don’t understand. Michigan is a public university. Public universities are not private universities. Private universities are different. They’re not…public.

Virtually ever anti-union faculty member at a private university that I’ve spoken to will actually say some variant of this. And when you try to point out, politely, some version of that basic rule that you try to teach your undergraduates — that any explanation of A has to involve terms that are not A — they go blank. Or change the subject.

26

Will G-R 06.15.16 at 4:05 pm

@T #16:

Exactly this. Many of the senior faculty who perpetuate these arrangements are much less innocent than they’d like to depict. Being able to foist a dozen projects onto half a dozen grad students (whose names may or may not be listed before yours on the eventual publications, depending how generous you’re feeling) is a wonderful way to pad your own nominal research output, even if those grad students are essentially being trained for a single job opening that probably won’t even exist by the time you or someone like you gets around to retiring. These professors have a symbiotic relationship with the administrative bean-counters who rely on an abundance of cheap student labor and a reserve army of underemployed PhDs, and the more self-aware of such professors at least know it.

Of course, some of these professors are no doubt sincere in their motivations, which if we’re being uncharitable makes them utter naïfs who shouldn’t be entrusted with mentoring a toddler on the rules of Candyland. But since Clay is here, this point can be made by repurposing an old chestnut from Jay Rosen:

Deciding who does and does not legitimately belong within the academy is—no way around it—an economic act. And yet a pervasive belief within academia is that professors do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As someone like Gartner might as well have said about why people make it to grad school, “We think it’s important academically. We are not allowing ourselves to think economically.” I think he’s right. The academy does not permit itself to think economically. But it does engage in economic acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.

27

Clay Shirky 06.15.16 at 4:07 pm

T #16, I think what a lot of graduate unions end up doing is restructuring the deal with their employers so there’s not an assumption that the ‘hard work/low wages’ phase of their academic career is an investment for a later, tenured job. Teaching is just the job they have now, with nothing specified about the (low) likelihood of a later, better position. (As Louis Menand pointed out some years ago, the granting of a Ph.D. ends the teaching careers of most of the recipients.)

However, you said something else that interests me: “The implicit contract has been broken when the 9-year apprenticeship doesn’t yield the promised tenure-track job.”

Is this still true? (I ask from a place of genuine uncertainty.) The quit-lit genre has been going for a couple of decades now; Pannapacker/Benton’s 2003 “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” (http://chronicle.com/article/So-You-Want-to-Go-to-Grad/45239) suggests that the mismatch between the number of Ph.Ds and professoring jobs had become a topic of conversation in the 1990s. And there seems be be a Next Big Thing in quit-lit every few years, like Rebecca Shulman’s 2013 “Thesis Hatement” piece. (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2013/04/there_are_no_academic_jobs_and_getting_a_ph_d_will_make_you_into_a_horrible.html)

So I wonder about the story of innocent lovers of Electra or Natty Bumppo being lured into ~decade-long commitments, because they were led to believe that there were jobs aplenty for Classicists or students of early American Literature. I mean, by 2016, who would tell them such a crazy thing?

And if they read Schuman and even afterwards stick with apprenticeship in their peculiar trade, aren’t they behaving like performers who know that moving to Hollywood guarantees nothing, but decide to chance it anyway?

28

T 06.15.16 at 6:41 pm

Clay@26

I think there is a combination of informational asymmetries and delusion. At one extreme, the for-profit universities have made a killing recruiting poor city kids, loading them up with gov’t debt, and watching them fail. How many years did that go on before the gov’t said enough? In contrast, law schools have seen a student revolt when jobs were unavailable, esp w/degrees from 3rd tier schools — law school enrollment has declined significantly. Of course, those law students were also taking out loans unlike most PhD students.

In the case of (esp.) 2nd and 3rd tier humanities programs, you have the faculty’s income, workload, and prestige tied to having graduate students while the faculty knows full well their students have no tenure-track job prospects. In addition, the university garners more prestige from being a research institution. So, it is in the interest of the powerful to perpetuate the con. While I hope that humanities faculty aren’t actively selling great career prospects, they sure aren’t telling prospective students that they will almost certainly be unemployable in their chosen field. And the whole con has become considerably worse as the time to degree has increased by 3-4 years. Now you can take Mdc’s view and your conjecture that the information on poor or nonexistent job prospects is out there and buyer beware. I’ll take the view that 22 year-olds are a bit delusional. It would be very interesting to have survey data on this issue.

I’m not sure the Hollywood analogy is apt. It doesn’t seem that MGM’s business model is to attract interns for 9 year stints to do the job of management.

29

jgtheok 06.15.16 at 11:41 pm

Clay@26

Don’t forget, the relationship with an advisor is intended to be apprentice/mentor. This cannot be an equal partnership, so it requires a certain level of trust. One of the mentor’s duties is to have The Talk with an overly-optimistic student (once convinced that the student is unlikely to benefit from continuing the program). Not doing so is, in fact, a betrayal of responsibility and trust.

“Buyer beware” before entering a department would save some grad students a lot of grief. But, plausibly, most simply lack the context to distinguish between real and advertised career paths. Several years into a program… well, it should be easier to recognize that they’re deeply invested in a pathological situation, and need to do damage control. Rather like mulling over whether owning a firearm would forestall domestic violence.

People make choices. Bad people profit from convincing others to make bad choices.

30

Barry 06.16.16 at 12:32 am

Clay, every year a fresh crop of young people are born, enter college, and graduate. They start off not knowing that much. And the people admitted to (regular) graduate programs are those who excelled in undergraduate studies, and have little idea of what graduate school is like, much less what academia is like.

Get in the Wayback Machine, and set the dials for ‘The Invisible Adjunct’ blog.

31

Matt 06.16.16 at 12:48 am

Clay@26,
Grad students mostly know that the odds of acquiring a tenure-track job in general are pretty low. However, these statistics are difficult to interpret in their own personal context.

Suppose you know that 1 in 8 PhD graduates get a tenure-track job in your field. Your cohort has 16 people, but you’re never actually ranked in any meaningful way–I doubt 1st year grads have any meaningful career impact–so you have no idea if you’re on track to be one of the lucky two from your class.

So should we rank everyone? I’m not even sure that’s doable in practice. One fortuitous discovery in a trendy field is often enough to jump-start a career, while a history of solid contributions on a niche topic might not help much. The trendiness is, of course, relative to when you go on the market, which can be 5+ years away from when the decision of what to work on has been made.

Most of the statistics you see are also averaged across departments. How do I interpret the fact that my university and department are above average but my subfield has fallen out of fashion? I could look at the statistics from people like me coming from my department, but these data are going to so sparse as to be misleading.

So, how do you reconcile the depressing general statistics with the fact that individual people are telling you, specifically, that you’re smart and will be fine?

32

Tabasco 06.16.16 at 2:11 am

The number of graduate students in every department in every university is there for anyone to see, including applicants to PhD programs. The placement record of newly minted PhDs in (just about) every department in every university is there for anyone to see, including applicants to PhD programs. The typical time to completion is also freely available. It’s just not that difficult to work out that, on average, only 1 in 5 (or whatever the number is) new PhDs, having taken x years to get the degree, is gets a tenure track job.

Now it might be that all applicants to graduate programs think they are well above average, and they probably were well above average in their college cohort. But it doesn’t take very long to figure out, having started a PhD program, “hmmm, these people are a lot smarter than I am”.

33

Matt 06.16.16 at 3:24 am

Tabasco@31,
I just looked at my PhD program–there is an alumni list, but it’s not particularly up to date, there’s no graduation date or current position, and, of course, it doesn’t indicate which students wanted a tenure track job (or how badly). I took a quick look at a few other programs’ websites and they are similar. Still, let’s pretend that we can find that data. It still does not do much.

We graduated 5-10 students/year and about half seem interested in academia. Let’s say we observe that 20/100 of those have tenure-track jobs. The binomial confidence interval for that placement rate is somewhere between an 1/8th and 1/3rd, which I’d argue is a pretty wide range for planning purposes. Going back 27 years (to get 200 students) is going to do weird things to your data–the 1989 job market was a lot different than the current one. Many fields also have (nearly) mandatory postdocs, which adds a layer of indirection.

As to your other argument, I’m not sure it’s that easy to figure out where you fall in your class. The people in my program did a huge range of things and, to the extent it even makes sense, it is very difficult to figure out if you’re a better psychologist than someone else is a biochemist.

34

Tabasco 06.16.16 at 4:15 am

The binomial confidence interval for that placement rate is somewhere between an 1/8th and 1/3rd, which I’d argue is a pretty wide range for planning purposes.

I’d argue that this confidence interval tells you all you need to know, which is that almost certainly (where 95% is “almost certainly”) your chances of placement range between unlikely and highly unlikely.

This doesn’t mean people should not do a PhD. If they really have that itch, they should scratch it. But they shouldn’t count on winning the lottery aka being placed in a tenure track position, much less a tenure track position in a top (say) 50 department in their discipline.

35

JW Mason 06.16.16 at 5:26 am

The idea that job prospects for PhDs have gotten worse over time is a myth. The ratio of new PhDs to full-time post-secondary teaching jobs is almost exactly the same today as it was in 1970. Around one to eight — so if the average teaching career lasts say 30 years, there will be jobs for about one-quarter of PhDs. That may seem low, but it’s no lower than it was 50 years ago. There is no reason to believe that someone completing a doctoral program today has a worse chance of getting a tenure-track job today than in the past.

What *has* happened is there has been a vast expansion in the number of part-time adjunct teachers. But very few of these have PhDs.

36

Marc 06.16.16 at 12:37 pm

It’s also true that alternative careers in the sciences pay quite well. We’ve tracked how well our graduate students are doing (it’s a reasonably highly ranked physical sciences program.) Roughly 60% are in careers directly related to their degree, 40% are in some variant of finance / big data / etc. and doing well financially. Of that 60%, perhaps 20% are in traditional research faculty jobs and 40% are in long term science support / staff positions or in teaching positions at liberal arts schools. The differences between disciplines in academe are really quite a bit larger than a lot of people realize.

For what it’s worth, I’d agree with JW Mason that the outcomes I described are very similar to the pattern when I got my degree more than two decades ago.

37

Marc 06.16.16 at 12:38 pm

@31: We certainly track all of this information and provide it to prospective students.

38

T 06.16.16 at 1:39 pm

JW@34 Matt@22 jgtheok @28
2 points —
Non-academic jobs have increased considerably in many disciplines — not in the humanities. The booby prize in physics is working on Wall St. In stats, it’s working for Google and the like. In econ, there is the gov’t and the expanded economic consultancies. In English, well nothing.

The senior humanities faculty have taken it upon themselves to increase the apprenticeship period out to 9 and 10 years. There is pretty much no alternative employment and the departments have not worked to establish relationships with non-academic employers, as difficult as it may be, and to try and develop alternative career paths. (I’d be happy to be wrong on this point.)

Matt — Check econ dept websites. The alumni are listed by year and institution of first employment. It would be interesting if humanities departments did the same thing with “unemployed” or “adjunct” or “temp” listed as first placement.

jgtheok @28
The problem is that even a fully qualified class will have very high unemployment. In essence, “The Talk” needs to be given to 80% of the class. Maybe 70% of the class should be given MA degrees after 2 years and let the rest continue. That would be honest and save 8 years off a lot of peoples lives.

39

T 06.16.16 at 1:48 pm

@34 JW
Do you have data on the average length of an academic career? With no mandatory retirement age, my impression is that it’s longer than 30 years.

40

T 06.16.16 at 1:56 pm

JW and Marc — maybe things are getting worse:
Today’s Wall St Journal:
The percentage of new doctorate recipients without jobs or plans for further study climbed to 39% in 2014 from 31% in 2009, according to a National Science Foundation survey released in April. Median salaries for midcareer Ph.D.s working full time fell 6% between 2010 and 2013.

41

Z 06.16.16 at 2:04 pm

@T “Median salaries for midcareer Ph.D.s working full time fell 6% between 2010 and 2013.”

At least for my field this decrease isn’t surprising at all depending on how they define “midcareer” since the average length of a postdoc is increasing at at least that rate and probably faster (I guess some at +10 years from their PhD in their 2nd or 3rd postdoc position is “midcareer”). There are a few reasons for this beyond a tight job market for postdocs.

42

T 06.16.16 at 3:52 pm

@Z
I think you raise an interesting and larger question. Why isn’t industry and gov’t creating enough STEM jobs? Is it that the Congress refuses to adequately fund NIH, university grants, and the like; that process technology has moved offshore with production; or some other reason? With respect to the humanities, it’s pretty plain. Unless the humanities departments make a concerted effort to convince the private and gov’t sectors that their degrees are valuable outside of academia, there is just a massive oversupply of English, history and language PhDs.

Back to the OP, the increasing time to acquire a PhD weighs strongly in favor of unions. When a PhD was 5 years and led to a good job, the argument to unionize was weaker.

43

Jonathan Gilligan 06.16.16 at 7:04 pm

I think it’s a mistake to cast this in terms of job prospects at the end of grad school. Even if there were lots of good jobs waiting at the end of the tunnel, I can’t see how that would justify denying T.A.s the right to organize if they are being exploited during their time in grad school.

44

T 06.16.16 at 8:28 pm

@42 JG
No one should be denied the right to organize. I’m just saying that 5 yrs. of mentoring followed by a recommendation letter that leads to a job for life is less likely to cause grad students to organize than a 10 yr apprenticeship leading to unemployment or adjunct work. The prize isn’t a PhD, it’s a tenure track job asap.

45

JW Mason 06.17.16 at 5:00 pm

Even if there were lots of good jobs waiting at the end of the tunnel, I can’t see how that would justify denying T.A.s the right to organize if they are being exploited during their time in grad school.

I agree with this. I also am not convinced that grad students who are less confident about their future job prospects are more likely to join a union. They might just as easily be more worried about not jeopardizing their chances, less willing to take risks, more afraid of antagonizing faculty. It may be the students who are most confident of getting a good job when they are done, who are least willing to accept crappy conditions in the meantime.

It seems to me the implicit logic here that grad students are unionizing because they are no longer protected by the guild system of academia, is exactly backward. Graduate employees, unlike most other workers, still successfully unionize precisely because they still do benefit from the guild system. Certainly my own experience as an active member of a graduate employee union (GEO/UAW 2322) was that the craft character of academic work was a huge asset. First, because graduate employees have a strong shared identity and social tis, and second, precisely because there is an expectation of a more humane model of work and therefore less acceptance of being used as casual labor. The fact that most faculty enjoy strong job security and control over their own working conditions is what makes it possible to make similar demands on behalf of graduate employees. If they were just casual labor and nothing else, they wouldn’t be organizing. The real precariat is not in a position to join unions.

46

T 06.17.16 at 9:14 pm

@45 Graduate employees, unlike most other workers, still successfully unionize precisely because they still do benefit from the guild system.

As Clay pointed out above, it’s really senior faculty and administrators that are management (insiders in Clay’s terminology) and then there is everyone else. Graduate students are training to become management and want to become management. They aren’t training to be journeymen and masters like the skilled trades. It seems the gestalt has shifted from grad student qua future management (insider) to grad student qua worker (outsider). And as the time to degree increases and job prospects flounder we’ll see more unionization efforts. And if management tries to cut health benefits and increase the historical workload, we’ll see and should see more unionization efforts. My two cents.

As a general question to current academics, has the graduate student teaching/grading workload increased over the years? (I recall starting by running a section of a large lecture class taught by senior faculty/grading exams/office hours and then moving up to teaching my own class.) Have the benefits and pay decreased?

47

Clay Shirky 06.19.16 at 11:32 am

JWM at 35, I’m having a hard time squaring the ‘rough stasis since 1970’ with the NSF’s 2014 survey “Doctorate Recipients From U.S. Universities”:

JOB MARKET

Science and engineering

At any given time, the job market will be better for new doctorate recipients in some fields of study than in others. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2014 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or a postdoc position was at or near the lowest level of the past 15 years (figure A).

Non-science and engineering

The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoc study declined in 2014 for the fifth time in the past 6 years in every broad non-S&E field of study. The share of doctorate recipients with definite commitments reached 20-year low points in each of these non-S&E fields (figure B).

(Emphasis mine.)

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsf16300/digest/nsf16300.pdf

Where is the steady state argument laid out?

T #39, this paper on adacemic job length may interest you: Nonfixed Retirement Age for University Professors: Modeling Its Effects on New Faculty Hires
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737001/

48

mdc 06.19.16 at 1:37 pm

“Graduate students are training to become management and want to become management. They aren’t training to be journeymen and masters like the skilled trades. It seems the gestalt has shifted from grad student qua future management (insider) to grad student qua worker (outsider). And as the time to degree increases and job prospects flounder we’ll see more unionization efforts.”

I don’t really get the relevance of these categories. A large portion of those former grad students who end up with faculty positions are at schools with no graduate program, and therefore do not “manage” any grad students. Are they outsiders? Even at universities, do faculty have the power to act as a bargaining partner for TAs? It seems like they typically do not hold the pursestrings when it comes to many of the union’s important demands like health care, pay levels, child care. (Maybe faculty should have authority over these budget matters. Would that make things better or worse for grad students, do you think?)

Or let’s say grad students employees are really management trainees, not workers. Why wouldn’t they want to organize, in order to make their traineeship a less shitty job? I don’t see what explanatory work the “insider vs outsider” distinction is doing.

I’m also interested in the facts about time-to-degree in different fields. Anyone know for sure whether this has increased, and by how much? And if it has, why has it? Have coursework requirements increased? Have TA teaching loads increased?
Have years of assistantship funding changed? How long should it take to get a graduate degree as a student employee, anyway? If it’s not a shitty job, its not clear to me that it should be as short as possible.

49

T 06.19.16 at 3:57 pm

Clay@47
Grim. So you have a senior faculty that 1) retire later thereby diminishing the number of tenure-track openings and 2) require humanities graduate students to more and more time — 9+ years and counting — before entering the tenure-track lottery, a lottery with low and diminishing odds. On top of that, both the administration and faculty at all schools, but especially the 2nd tier and below, recruit and accept grad students to the benefit of themselves when the student’s professional prospects are known to be abysmal. Sounds about right.

You raised the interesting question of why would anyone go to grad school in the humanities or other field with dim job prospects for PhDs? In law, for example, enrollments have fallen and schools are closing. (See yesterday’s NYTs) The answers by commentators on this forum fits my priors. The students have not gathered the available data, the schools and faculty have no interest in explaining the job market, the students have “won” the undergrad tournament and are overconfident about their prospects, and the students don’t have to pay out of pocket unlike professional schools. Of course, it’s not like this across the board. Certain fields outside the humanities have created high paying non-academic alternatives keeping their disciplines in a relative state of equilibrium. These fields also have shorter times to completion.

50

T 06.19.16 at 4:29 pm

mdsc@48
“A large portion of those former grad students who end up with faculty positions are at schools with no graduate program, and therefore do not “manage” any grad students. Are they outsiders?”

No they are insiders. They get to hire and fire the department staff, hire and fire the junior faculty, have significant control over their work schedule, have nearly complete control of their curriculum, have complete control over their research, can’t be fired themselves, and have significant leverage over other insiders, the college/university administration.

“Or let’s say grad students employees are really management trainees, not workers. Why wouldn’t they want to organize, in order to make their traineeship a less shitty job? I don’t see what explanatory work the “insider vs outsider” distinction is doing.”

If you think you have a good chance of becoming an insider, you’re less likely to organize against the insiders. Similarly, the shorter the period to “insiderdom” the less likely you are to organize. This is not saying you should organize. If people feel the conditions are intolerable, unfair, or deteriorating then have at it. But most folks are willing to put up with more crap if it’s going to be over quickly and there is a big prize at the end. Not so much when it takes forever and you’re likely to lose. Also, give me some examples where management trainees organize. It’s labor that organizes.

“If it’s not a shitty job, its not clear to me that it should be as short as possible.”

It’s a shitty job in the sense that you get paid 5 times less for doing almost the same thing as the tenure-track faculty, especially in the final 4-5 year of the degree. Pretty much all the older senior faculty spent less time to degree than their grad students and had shorter post-docs. Ask them if they would have preferred another 4 years at low pay.

51

Mdc 06.19.16 at 5:19 pm

As a side note, I would not recommend anyone go into a humanities grad program unless they see it as worth doing for its own sake. So if it seems like hazing or drudgery possibly redeemed by a prize at the end, don’t go. If it seems like a worthwhile way to spend your time, relative to the alternatives, go for it. Most of the undergrads I talk to going on to grad school look at it the latter way (and I’m not sure they are ‘delusional’). Once you’re there, by all means organize to improve your pay and working conditions.

On the insider vs outsider thing: how do people imagine faculty governance is related to the treatment of non-tenured teachers? For example, I’d bet schools with a more powerful faculty have seen less adjunctification.

52

T 06.19.16 at 8:28 pm

mdc@51
In fact, research institutions — where tenured faculty have the most influence — have the highest percentage of contingent instructors of 4-year and greater institutions: 74.5% in 2011 and surely over 75% by now. They substitute grad students for adjuncts to a considerable degree. Table 5. Fully 93% of the increase in instructors from 1975/6 – 2011 has been in contingent faculty. Table 2.

https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/AAUP-InstrStaff2011-April2014.pdf

53

mdc 06.19.16 at 9:41 pm

“research institutions — where tenured faculty have the most influence”

How are you measuring that?

54

T 06.19.16 at 10:07 pm

It’s just my prior based on observation. Biggest names + most mobile + least substitutaible + highest paid + biggest grant generators = Most leverage. That’s R1 faculty relative to R2, MA, an liberal arts faculty. Maybe some political scientist or sociologist has studied this issue. Do you think differently?

55

mdc 06.20.16 at 1:34 am

Do you think differently?

That does make sense, but I was thinking less of powerful individual faculty members than of the institutional power of the faculty as a body: control of courses of study, class sizes, assessment standards, admissions, significant hand in administrative appointments, some real say in pay structures. The strength of the guild, as it were. The weakening of the guild (and so the weakening of the median member) could be compatible with (furthered by?) the rise of jet-set superstars.

56

Clay Shirky 06.20.16 at 10:04 am

MDC #52: On the insider vs outsider thing: how do people imagine faculty governance is related to the treatment of non-tenured teachers? For example, I’d bet schools with a more powerful faculty have seen less adjunctification.

Nope, as T #52 points out.

For a brief period — 1960 to 1975, roughly, we lived in academic paradise. After Sputnik, state and Federal governments were briefly panicked into funding us like we were missile silos instead of monasteries. States increased our ‘$s per $1000 of tax revenues’ appropriations by 150% in 15 years, and the system went autocatalytic. When the student population increased by ~3x, so did the professoriate, and since labor was cheap and money was abundant, tenured faculty lines (and whole new institutions) increased by roughly that amount as well.

That decade and a half was the least characteristic period in the four centuries of higher education in North America, an unprecedented and unsustainable burst of Cold War funding. The last thing anyone should do, faced with windfall subsidy like that, would be to re-form institutional norms around an expectation of constantly rising funds. This is exactly what we did.

Instead of pinching ourselves at our luck that education had briefly become weaponized, with the attendent flow of money, we told ourselves it was the least society could do, given our vital contributions to society etc etc, and we would never be poor again.

Starting in 1975, states began withdrawing their previous generosity. This completely predictable turn of events struck us as a bolt from the blue. We understood how there could be more money next year — our very way of life was predicated on this — but how could there be less money???

But less money is what there was. There have only been two kinds of years since 1975: years where the states, on average, reduced our ‘$ per $1000’ appropriations, and years where they haven’t. Contrary to the ‘The financial crisis done us in!’ narrative, the reduction in higher education as a state priority has been the norm for 40 years.

The actual dollar amounts schools received have fluctuated over the years, because when you get $6 per $1000 in revenue (roughly the current amount) you get more $6s when the state collects more $1000s. However, the underlying change — the withdrawal uncharacteristically high levels of support — has been the trend for four decades, and though it has hit the publics far harder than the privates, only a handful of schools with $1B+ endowments have been spared.

Surveying the steady reduction in financial support, senior faculty linked arms with our junior colleagues, accepting a loss in resources for ourselves as the price we needed to pay for intellectual solidarity lol jk we decided to fuck everyone else and save ourselves.

Since the reduction in funding began, we have looked for complementary adaptations that would preserve senior faculty’s privileges. You can see at a glance how we would do this if you reflect that there are only two possible responses to a lowered average salary — a forced move, given changing state priorities. The first way would be to reduce the richest pay packages. The second way would be to increase inequality.

As befits people who are committed only to the life of the mind, and think nothing of our own comfort, we opted for method #2. Hiring more TAs, adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty have allowed us to increase the number of admitted students without significantly increasing our workload or decreasing our salaries. (Places that have forced senior faculty to teach more are generally places where faculty governance is weaker, usually public institutions with state governments who regard teaching and not research as the rationale for handing over tax dollars.)

The opening up of the dualized economy of senior faculty with safe, well-paying jobs vs. everyone else who teaches at our institutions has happened on our watch, and with our permission. Any department at a research institution could come out in favor of heightened bargaining power for people who merely teach, but few do, because why negotiate against our own interests?

57

Will G-R 06.20.16 at 2:54 pm

Clay, I don’t know if you intended it this way, but “people who are committed only to the life of the mind, and think nothing of our own comfort” works just as well if framed as an earnest criticism: people so religiously devoted to ignoring the economic underpinnings of their chosen lifestyle that they literally refuse to think about the disparity between their own comfort and others’ misery. In fact this was how I interpreted it at first before realizing some folks would be inclined to assume a compliment to professorial magnanimity, albeit in this case a sarcastic one.

I gather the CT commentariat is generally familiar with at least some version of the broader economic narrative about a shift in global capitalism in the early to mid ’70s, either Harvey’s or Piketty’s or Varoufakis’s or Graeber’s or whoever’s. The parallel between this timeline and Clay’s “end of higher ed’s Golden Age” timeline would seem to suggest at least a crude parallel between the behavior of senior professors toward their junior colleagues when faced with such pressures, and the behavior of relatively privileged white Western workers (the people an old-school Marxist would call the “labor aristocracy”) toward their disempowered minority, immigrant, and Third-World counterparts. I can’t imagine anything more offensive to the cultural sensibilities of professorial labor aristocrats than such a comparison (Make Academia Great Again?) but there it is.

(Incidentally, in that NPR segment about the “blue-collar aristocracy”, the reporter’s first use of that term is directly followed by a snippet of a German professor who begins by repeating the German term “Arbeiteraristokratie”, which historically means “labor aristocracy” in Marxist theory. Is there any reason the producers would leave a random bit of German in their segment, except as a wink to any listeners who’ve read their Engels and Lenin?)

58

T 06.20.16 at 7:23 pm

Will G-R@57
“Clay, I don’t know if you intended it this way, but “people who are committed only to the life of the mind, and think nothing of our own comfort” works just as well if framed as an earnest criticism: people so religiously devoted to ignoring the economic underpinnings of their chosen lifestyle that they literally refuse to think about the disparity between their own comfort and others’ misery.”

This is literally impossible when you have graduate students for 10yrs. that are then unemployable. And you’re also on the admissions committee making sure you have enough new “candidates” to both justify your position in a PhD granting research dept. and teach the classes. I agree that there is a lot of sublimation going on to not confront this reality every day but it’s all but impossible put it aside altogether.

I would put some of the early funding woes to the state of the economy in the 70s and the beginning of the end of gov’t support as the Sputnik-type scare finally subsided. But I agree that some of the later funding woes are bound up in the neoliberal turn as it were. When the elite deny the public-good aspect of higher education and then convince the legislature (through contributions or otherwise), the state is seen to have no role in higher ed and funding is withdrawn. Of course, this only goes so far. As Scott Walker destroyed institution after institution in Wisconsin, the Republican legislature stopped him from starting the dismantling of the UofW system. Many of those legislators were UofW alumni. Similarly in CA, the people voted to increase taxes to support the higher education system. But the structure of the insiders v outsiders has remained the same.

59

Clay Shirky 06.21.16 at 9:29 am

T #58, the current state system does treat the value of higher education as a personal rather than a public good, to be borne by the individual and not the state. That seems to me to be an accurate assessment of the way the economy works now.

The old model that enforced some inter-class transfer — high marginal tax rates; college graduates running companies that offer high school graduates lifelong employment — has largely broken down, and most of the lifetime value of a degree is indeed captured by the degree holder. This is an awful state of affairs, but I’m inclined to think the academy is a lagging indicator here, not a leading one.

In addition, there is the famous urbanization of the creative class/symbolic manipulators/Sancerre-swilling coastal elites etc etc. The net out-migration of B.A.s and B.Ss from states that forgot to house L.A. or New York City disinclines state legislators to put forward tax dollars to subsidize Arkansas’ best and brighest moving to Silverlake.

Will #57, I am not clever enough to have thought of that version (or to have intentionally intended it or however we characterize the authors consciousness post-Lacan-&-Bloom), but I like it.

Many of my fellow tenured professors believe that the solution has to be for poorer academics to be rewarded as handsomely as we are, not for our compensation and benefits to become less generous. This is a conceptually neat solution — We’ll all be in the upper quartile! — with the only downside being its total unworkability.

Like many insiders who also demand to be regarded as just and virtuous, we can’t afford too frank a conversation about distribution, because the numbers don’t work out in our favor. For any college whose annual disbursements are limited by (X Students * $Y tuition), raising the salaries of the lowest paid employees will necessarily require further tuition increases, or reducing the salaries of the highest paid ones. Spelled out like that, it seems a bit ‘well duh’, which is why we never spell that out.

Instead, we insist that somewhere out there, some unspecified but not insubstantial chunk of money is being wasted on the Assistant Vice-President for Vice-Presidential Assistance. If we just fired all the dead wood, we could raise contingent salaries and lower tuition! (You can see an example of the form in the AAUP’s demands of NYU earlier this decade, where salary reductions at the top are spelled out as a specific percentage, while reduction of faculty income inequality is described in comically anodyne terms: https://facultydemocracy.net/category/american-association-of-university-professors-aaup/)

These demands never get made in much detail. Like the Republican faerie dust of ‘fraud and waste’ in the Federal budget, we insist that ‘administrative bloat’ sucks up all the money. This argument is synthesized out of two accurate observations — some administrators are wildly overpaid, and non-faculty headcount is growing — into one inaccurate one — most non-faculty hires are overpaid.

On any campus, most non-faculty hires do work faculty actually approve of — student health services, research institute staff, IT — at moderate salaries, with only a few wildly overpaid administrators. Those peoples’ salaries should be reduced, but on principles of fairness, not fiscal responsibility, because cuts in the salaries of even dozens of overpaid administrators wouldn’t be enough to raise the salaries of hundreds or thousands of contingent faculty.

Though my coddled bretheren and sisteren bang on about administrative bloat, we rarely say (also like the Republicans and the budget) who should actually be fired and who should take a salary haircut, and how the money should be redistributed, because, if we actually went through with the economic exercise, it would become clear that the size of the readjustment required can’t be undertaken on the backs of administrators alone, but would have to be accompanied by retrenchment in senior faculty compensation as well.

That would be unthinkable. So we never think about it.

60

mdc 06.21.16 at 11:31 am

Have there been corresponding reductions in faculty compensation where grad student employees are unionized?

61

Clay Shirky 06.21.16 at 3:10 pm

mdc #60, hard to say, for a couple of reasons:

1. Most studies of unionization have asked whether unionization benefitted union members (surprise! It did) and whether the bruited damage to mentorship by senior faculty occurred (surprise! It didn’t.)

2. The most expensive part of faculty compensation — tenured faculty salaries and benefits — is largely fixed, admitting of adjustment only in the reduction in future cost-of-living, benefit, and merit increases. It might be possible, with a large pool of comparable state institutions in states with similar funding models, to compare ones with and without unionized grad students. I don’t know of anyone who has done this work.

3. Institutions of higher education have many overlapping teaching job categories — grad students and TAs and adjuncts and Professors of Practice as well as all the ranks of tenure & tenure-track employment, so the question of managing the budget is often a question of substitution rather than clawback.

There is some evidence that #3 is happening. At schools in the U.S. and Canada…

…the share of higher education faculty who teach off the tenure track grows. One might expect that faculty unionization would limit this process, but the data examined here indicate that this is not so. […] Union strategies that institutionalize divisions between tenure-track and non-tenure-track, and/or between part-time and fulltime faculty, probably play a role in this outcome.

The Erosion of Tenure and the Unionization of Contingent Faculty
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~eian/Reorg_Higher_Ed_LSJ.pdf

That paper goes on to argue…

A third line of argument suggests that there could be a positive correlation between union density and reliance on contingent faculty. If, in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the organized faculty were tenure-track and the focus of those unions encompassing both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty was mostly on advancing the interests of the tenure-track majority, then unions might have increased the incentives to hire more contingent faculty by increasing the gap between the cost of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. If that effect were stronger than the effect of union efforts to restrain non-tenure-track growth by the means noted above, then we would see a positive correlation between union density and levels of reliance
on contingent faculty.

The facts in both countries—particularly in Canada, given the higher level of
organization of tenure-track faculty there—fit this third explanation.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is a narrower claim than the one you are looking for. It concentrates on union bargain by tenured faculty, not graduate students, and merely shows that unionization of any one faculty type still leaves substitution from other non-tenured faculty types both open and practised by existing institutions. I don’t know of anyone who has studied the degree to which this sort of complementary casualization is a side-effect of academic unionization generally (though obviously I expect it is.)

I also do not believe we will see many schools do what the Vancouver Community Colleges did, which is to organize people doing all forms of teaching, and adjust their pay pro rata to a single scale (part-timers get paid 50% of full-timers etc https://goo.gl/TnrmUy). I further believe that we will see 0 research universities doing this, because of the insider/outsider conflict alluded to above.

62

Clay Shirky 06.21.16 at 3:12 pm

BLOCKQUOTES FOR THE BLOCKQUOTE GOD.

What I meant to say was…

There is some evidence that #3 is happening. At schools in the U.S. and Canada…

…the share of higher education faculty who teach off the tenure track grows. One might expect that faculty unionization would limit this process, but the data examined here indicate that this is not so. […] Union strategies that institutionalize divisions between tenure-track and non-tenure-track, and/or between part-time and fulltime faculty, probably play a role in this outcome.

The Erosion of Tenure and the Unionization of Contingent Faculty
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~eian/Reorg_Higher_Ed_LSJ.pdf

That paper goes on to argue…

A third line of argument suggests that there could be a positive correlation between union density and reliance on contingent faculty. If, in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the organized faculty were tenure-track and the focus of those unions encompassing both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty was mostly on advancing the interests of the tenure-track majority, then unions might have increased the incentives to hire more contingent faculty by increasing the gap between the cost of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. If that effect were stronger than the effect of union efforts to restrain non-tenure-track growth by the means noted above, then we would see a positive correlation between union density and levels of reliance on contingent faculty.

The facts in both countries—particularly in Canada, given the higher level of
organization of tenure-track faculty there—fit this third explanation.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is a narrower claim than the one you are looking for. It concentrates on union bargain by tenured faculty, not graduate students, and merely shows that unionization of any one faculty type still leaves substitution from other non-tenured faculty types both open and practised by existing institutions. I don’t know of anyone who has studied the degree to which this sort of complementary casualization is a side-effect of academic unionization generally (though obviously I expect it is.)

I also do not believe we will see many schools do what the Vancouver Community Colleges did, which is to organize people doing all forms of teaching, and adjust their pay pro rata to a single scale (part-timers get paid 50% of full-timers etc https://goo.gl/TnrmUy). I further believe that we will see 0 research universities doing this, because of the insider/outsider conflict alluded to above.

63

Will G-R 06.21.16 at 4:38 pm

Clay @59, I appreciate any time someone zeroes in on this style of vaguely utopian yet inadequately empirical defense of existing institutions, especially when the institutions in question are social-democratic safety-net programs designed not to abolish and replace capitalism but merely to mitigate its worst excesses, and academia definitely qualifies as a prime example. While admittedly many of the people who produce independent/radical thought in Western society owe their un-blacklistability to the safe harbor of academic tenure, this doesn’t change the fact that academia is ultimately an institution of liberal capitalist society and not some inherently subversive revolutionary underground. At best academia’s role as a shelter for the Kantian “public use of reason” is incidental to the reasons its various state and private patrons continue to support its existence; at worst these patrons point to this very role itself as a prime case of inefficient bloat waiting to be cut. (C.f. your point re: newspapers, about Walmart ads funding the NYT Baghdad bureau.)

Or to put it another way, I was quite entertained a while back when I first noticed the back-and-forth between you and the loud-and-proud radical Aaron Bady on the topic of MOOCs and higher ed, because if only you’d added some impenetrable 19th-century German philosophical jargon and dozens of obscure political-economic references, your position could have easily been the authentically Marxist stance to Bady’s authentically liberal one.

64

mdc 06.21.16 at 4:57 pm

The Vancouver system sounds great- it’s alot like what I work under, not including seniority increases. I note that the linked book argues that existing tenure benefits were a necessary condition of winning those arrangements.

65

Matthew Caswell 06.21.16 at 5:06 pm

And now that I’m citing real-world information about myself, let me step out of anonymity.

66

Clay Shirky 06.22.16 at 2:11 am

Will G-R, thanks.

And yeah, I have this conversation at NYU basically all the time, because I shouldn’t be here. Through an improbable series of accidents, I managed to become a tenured member of the FAS without a terminal degree, so I was never socialized to believe that senior faculty are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Instead, I just think we’re workers who have a particularly sweet gig. (This is not a popular position.)

I like Bady’s work a lot, and though armchair psychologizing is always risky, I think he may be less committed to the idea of the existing university system as eminently defensible after having gone through the hiring process (which seems to have worked out for him, fortunately.)

And though being authentically Marxist is a compliment in some circles (including home, as my wife is a Marxist scholar), I really aspire to be authentically Rortian. (Rortarian? Rortylicious?) Anyway, I have “REDESCRIBE ALL THE THINGS!” tattooed on my left bicep.

mdc yeah, I had the same reaction when I read about the Vancouver system, and it’s great that your system is like that. That sort of whole-system logic is almost never undertaken in higher education.

Somehow the Vancouver tenured faculty was on board with the idea that they would stamp out teaching arbitrage, which is also an infrequent occurence. It is for me one of the things that highlights how rare tenured support for n.t.t. labor is in most institutions.

67

Eli Rabett 06.22.16 at 8:54 am

As an addition to John Quiggin’s comment above #13 it should be realized that a student supported on a grant has both stipend AND payroll taxes AND tuition AND fees paid out of the grant as well and at some places there is overhead on the stipends and payroll taxes.

That means that a grad student RA is often more expensive to support than a postdoc (even with the recent overtime rule change) a situation which is changing how PIs view grad student RAs

68

M Caswell 06.22.16 at 3:23 pm

‘That sort of whole-system logic is almost never undertaken in higher education.’

How many schools have whole-institution compensation structures? That is, where there is a settled, publicly available system of distributing of the whole teaching compensation budget according to general criteria (like years of service and full-time vs part-time status)? And how many schools, to the contrary, allow or encourage faculty members to bargain for their own salaries individually?

The former practice would seem to be more resistant to strong boundaries between tenure track and non-tenure track status. The Vancouver system looks like it undermines the distinction pretty thoroughly.

69

Clay Shirky 06.22.16 at 11:25 pm

M Caswell, I think the official answer to that question is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Beyond knowing that there are very few institutions that have the economic equivalent of ‘rule of law’ — a predictable payment system that applies to elites and non-elites equally — there’s a surprising lack of comparative research (or, for the privates, even visibility) on questions of compensation.

And I think boundary work is a great frame for thinking about this. In a way, the story of of academic history in the U.S. 1945-1975 can be told as a period of massive, well-funded expansion — everyone could be an insider, because the boundaries could be easily expanded to fit the new arrivals.

The current difficulties are not results of recent events, though those events helped change the landscape. They are the result of the long, painful unwinding our our having reshaped both our institutions and our sense of self around expectations of constant and rising generosity from a grateful society.

Comments on this entry are closed.