Last week in New York Times Stanley Fish wrote about Frank Donoghue’s recent book, The Last Professors. Fish doesn’t so much review the book as summarize it, noting briefly and unhelpfully at the end that he timed his life perfectly so as not to be shut out of the professoriate. I won’t repeat the summary, but it’s worth reading, as is Donoghue’s book.
I would only add a couple of points that Donoghue raises but Fish doesn’t engage. To me, one of Donoghue’s most vexing suggestions is the connection he proposes between the research mission in universities and their current corporatization. Research expectations ballooned, he suggests, as universities competed for ranking scores. In some ways, Donoghue astutely notes, this pressure became particularly intense at state schools that could not rely on traditional forms of prestige. (As part of their alternative they also “branded” themselves through sports teams.) This research inflation certainly rings true from my own experience: when I started as an assistant profession at Florida State University in 1990, one could earn tenure on a book OR a series of articles, an option that had completely dissolved by the time I left twelve years later. Junior faculty, in fact, in the old days were encouraged to write articles so as not to put all their eggs in one basket.
At this year’s MLA, the Delegate Assembly voted to request that the Executive Council form a committee to address the situation of increasing reliance on adjuncts. In the many discussions I have seen over adjunct labor, the issue of the research mission rarely comes up. But if you follow Donoghue’s argument, there is a direct connection: the research mission increased demands on the faculty on a competitive model. This and the excessive reliance on contingent labor are part of the same demand by a professional class of administrators for a corporate-style “constant improvement,” in one case for prestige and in the other case for cutting costs.
But even though Donoghue is distressingly convincing that these developments come out of the same educational-industrial complex, it also seems that at some point those two forces would collide. Unless the climate changes radically, any institution that abandons research will lose considerable prestige. Donoghue’s answer, in part, is that certain kinds of institutions have indeed stopped competing for prestige and focus exclusively on offering practical skills in exchange for tuition (Phoenix University, for example). But it’s hard to imagine this happening at more elite institutions. Universities and colleges between Harvard and Phoenix, then, will continue, I imagine, to be pulled between the two models, maintaining at least some tenured/tenure-track positions to advance institutional ambitions. Further, the contingent workers who teach most of the classes will need still some kind of advanced degree, so there will be the need for at least a few tenured professors to teach in graduate programs.
Of course, the model of a tiny graduate faculty enabled by a mass of underpaid adjuncts is cold comfort. Some unlikely alliances might be in order. While a speed-up in the research production line may have had less to do with the ideal of advancing knowledge and more with attempts to move rankings, the possibility of becoming more Harvard-like and less Phoenix-like might continue to appeal to some administrators, some parents, and some students. Further, while learning outcomes assessment has undeniable ties to corporate-style quality management, recent studies have suggested that, as one would expect, students taught in departments where many instructors do not have secure positions learn less. This case can only be made, however, by studying outcomes.
For Donoghue, though, we have already reached the point of no return. What do others think?
Even though Fish doesn’t offer much of a response to Donoghue’s findings, it is still interesting to see this issue discussed in such a high-profile venue.