Thorstein Veblen Was Right?*

Not your area, get back to work

Tangentially related to Simon’s last post about the use of metrics to rank universities . . .

I am not one who subscribes to the idea that academic employment is the pursuit of a “life of the mind.” I find no satisfaction in constructing my self-identity around my job. But others do. So off we go on another stroll down the yellow brick road.

According to a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fewer people are obtaining graduate degrees in the humanities. The number of humanities master’s and doctoral degrees peaked in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Walk backward from these peaks using average time to degree: more people enrolled in graduate school to avoid the terrible labor market caused by the 2008 market collapse and subsequent recession. Although the numbers of awarded master’s and doctoral humanities degrees have decreased substantially from their peaks, the number of advertised tenure-line jobs in these fields has fallen by much more — 40 to 60 percent.

Focused study of the humanities has also dropped precipitously at the undergraduate level, for the reasons detailed by the author of that linked essay. Fewer students majoring in these fields means fewer PhD-holders are needed to teach them.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the metaphorical disciplinary aisle, we have a study showing that less than 30 percent of people awarded PhDs in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics were in tenure-line academic positions. Most were in nonacademic careers. For these folks, the grass outside the Ivory Tower is greener.

But you might be thinking: how does this relate to me, given that I’m in the social sciences? Let’s take a look at the work environment for the people, regardless of academic specialty, who do become university faculty. Last year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published the results of a survey on faculty governance. AAUP images of the results are embedded below. Respondents felt that they were in charge of evaluating student performance and generating curricular content, but thought that they had far less authority over program delivery, IP, and admissions policies:

The picture is far worse when it comes to faculty perceptions of managerial hiring, planning, and budgeting processes:

It seems that a large portion of university faculty in the USA see their work environment as one in which they are told, “You do the teaching and grading, we’ll make all of the important decisions ourselves.” This bifurcation between how faculty would like universities to operate and how they actually operate is, for me, additional evidence of higher education’s long-term structural transformation.

*For those of you who don’t get the reference, a summary.

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