The wreckage

For those who have not seen it, this piece from Inside Higher Education on the personal and professional consequences of “precarious” is unflinching in showing the costs of the neoliberal university in both personal and professional terms.

I particularly like the call for those who made it to tenure to reflect on this.  My own career, despite all the hard work, was significantly built on chronological luck of entering the professoriate when it was a possible vocation and not a fee-for-service job overseen by armies of non-academics.  What obligations do the tenured now have to the “wreckage”? If there is an obligation, how is it to be met?


6 thoughts on “The wreckage”

  1. Thanks for this, Davydd. My view is that tenured faculty can at least start by reducing graduate program admissions — that, at least, lies squarely in their power — and they can try to improve the hiring process. (For instance, I think it’s unethical to not disclose the existence of an internal candidate when advertising. I also think it’s unfair to penalize people who have been unemployed or worked outside academia, though I know this is more of a utopian view…)

    I’ve also just written a short essay on teaching about precarity that you might find interesting. It’s in a forum at the Cultural Anthropology website. Anyway, I try to set out more of a considered analysis there.

    It’s very hard to have these public discussions from the perspective of anyone besides tenure-stream “successful” academics — people keep asking “What should *we* (the ones who made it) do about *them* (the ones who didn’t)?” Part of my thought is that this whole politics of representation and legitimacy needs to go.

    1. Thanks, Eli, and for the link to your essay on teaching precarity. I had not seen the essay before. I don´t want to make an extended comment yet because it could turn this into a dialog rather than a forum. So one short thought.

      Doing what is in “our power” is pretty vague. Reducing graduate admissions has immediate consequences in terms of the allocation of TAships and other resources to the departments. And such reductions also may well lower the national ranking of the department. The rules that create these consequences are now fully built into the structure of neoliberal higher education administration. I don’t see a way out through departmental voluntarism. Without cross departmental organizing and solidarity involving the repudiation of the rules made by deans, vice-this and that’s, and so on. Obviously we agree that this perverse system must stop but we are far from a realistic strategy. And, by the way, these administrators now have coopted the right to speak for all of us as “we”. That, at least, you and I can repudiate.

  2. I’m not saying departmental voluntarism is a magic bullet, but I can easily find cases where it does occur and is important. Carole McGranahan’s essay in that forum notes that at U. of Colorado they have a yearly debate about how many to accept. At UChicago the Anthropology faculty voted to reduce admissions sizes to those who could get full funding packages (though there was however also pressure from management to reduce grad school sizes across the university, so they probably had a permissive context).

    I think it’s a major strategic error to avoid a given strategy purely because it is not able to lead to the large-scale transformation we want. If minor positive changes to internal policy are within faculty purview, they should do those, voluntarily, even though they are not sufficient interventions into large-scale structures. No one really knows how to effect large-scale social change in a fully intentional way — PAR is not a method that scales non-trivially to tens of millions of people, which is the scale of U.S. higher ed — and in any event it does seem clear that one has to start *somewhere* and can’t start *everywhere*.

    I liked a proposal I saw recently for a national grad student union. Other countries have something more like this.

    I might add that I am (of course) in general very skeptical that those who have no personal incentive to change will be those at the forefront of change. So I see institutional pressure as likely to come more from young and marginal people (esp. if they organize into labor unions, pressure groups and the like). Or perhaps even from top administrators in moments where they really find that their strategic situation has become untenable for some reason (financial, enrollment, etc). I think it’s fair to say that too many tenured faculty people are deeply institutionally conservative and committed mainly to defending their own institutional position, when it comes down to it.

    As always, I think we probably agree in general here.

  3. I do think we agree in general but our age and experience differences do play a role. I spent 44 years doing just what you say: making incremental changes where I could including founding a bunch of multidisciplinary programs, running international programs, creating a new major. The result: All the efforts erased by authoritarian and self-interested leaders pursuing their own careers. So I no longer think incremental change, while necessary for personal sanity will lead to any transformation.

    I agree about unions as a source of hope.

    As to the powerholders not wanting to change, when I started out over 60 percent of the faculty in universities had a reasonable hope of getting a tenured position. That number is variously put at 20 percent and clearly the drive is to eliminate tenure once and for all. When the powerholders finally wake up to see they no longer have any power, perhaps they will understand precarity better and be more supportive? It will take a while because there seem to be few professionals as unwilling to try to understand their own organizational environment as are academics.

  4. Thanks for this, Davydd.

    One time when I was about 16 years old I persuaded my high school to let me enroll in a class at the nearby state university on the sociology of revolutionary movements. The teacher’s theory of revolutions (enshrined in this book) was beautifully simple — so simple that I still remember most of it decades later. He had identified five basic preconditions for the twentieth century revolutions we were studying: discontent among the elites, mass frustration among the masses, a severe crisis of the state, a “permissive world context,” and a “unifying motivation.” What these meant was of course potentially all a bit vague, but I have always liked the class analysis part — that you need mass discontent plus some support from among discontented elites.

    Of course, universities aren’t nations and it is obscure what an academic revolution would really mean. But I think there may be a useful intuition here about the sorts of cross-status alliances that are necessary for systematic change. In that sense, I am happy to see “elite discontent” among the dominant sector of my discipline faced with the demise of their own system of disciplinary reproduction — it probably isn’t enough for much by itself but it may be a precondition for something else later down the line.

  5. It may turn out to be more relevant than we imagined. The 61 British universities going on strike over a 10% reduction in professorial pensions versus the over 500K Sterling salaries of many Vice-Chancellors suggests that greed may actually push more people into action.

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