Sympathy for the Devils

The Great Hamster Wheel of Higher Education

John Laudun

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The American academy is in something of a panic at the moment because there are more people with PhDs than there are jobs. This has been the case since the 90s for the humanities but it has slowly spread to the sciences. The sciences have always had the private sector as a place to absorb excess PhD production, and they still do to some extent, but there is increasing discussion about the uses and abuses of postdocs, which reveals that for those not seeking a non-academic career there are limited options.

The simplest solution would seem to be to stop producing so many PhDs. This might mean for lower-tier schools and/or small programs, shutting down PhD programs. Why wouldn’t you only want top-tier schools producing PhDs? The truth is that top-tier schools largely dominate who gets to stay in the academy and/or who gets to succeed — through citations — but one of the key strengths of the American academy is its diversity of thought, driven by the inclusion of small programs in out-of-the-way places asking what seem like non-central (too often perceived as marginal) questions. It’s the larger whole that has made the American academy so creative, so productive, so innovative … precisely because no question goes unasked!

Driven in part by the funds made available by the G.I. Bill and by the individuals who suddenly had access to higher education thanks to the bill, the publishing output of the American academy exploded.

But as all this was happening, and also because this was happening, university professors were making deals with university administrations that would allow them to be so productive. As professor emeritus of Indiana University Don Gray once reported to me, a university like IU had a standard 4–4 teaching load coming out of WW2. For those less familiar with academic lingo, most universities apportion work loads by the semester, and since most universities work on a fall/spring semester system, class loads are described by the number of classes you teach per semester. A “4–4 load” is considered a teaching-only load. (This load is higher for community colleges and for high schools, but that should not reflect on university faculty so much as the insane disdain the American public feels for teaching in general and our willingness to spread people too thin.)

Beginning in the fifties, Gray told me, faculty proposed a reduction in teaching in exchange for bigger classes and for increased publishing. 4–4 loads of small classes became first 3–3 loads with more students per class and, eventually in the universities where research and publishing were valued most, 2–2 loads with monster classes. These are the stuff of fiction, especially cinematic fiction, where a student enters a giant lecture hall and a “sage on the stage” pontificates (quite literally blessing his — and was usually a he during this period — students with his knowledge). Those lecture halls were a product of faculty negotiating decreased loads with the promise of publishing more.

University administrators loved it: all the numbers went up. More students, more publications. These are the legendary beans that are counted. And as federal spending increased in the sciences, thanks largely to the cold war, additional money came in to supplement reasonable spending by states on public higher education. For the nation itself, it was largely a win-win-win. More students had access to education. More research was being done, producing a wide variety of knowledge, some of which had immediate application and some of which would drive further research.

It was even good for the humanities, which still had to face the conundrum of being tasked with teaching reading and writing. These are two tasks where there is no way to do the work by the hundred. Teaching writing is best done with a dozen students — most studies of which I am aware recommend no more than 16 students to a class. Mathematics faces the same problem, as do som facets of science, which is why they developed “labs,” which could be staffed by graduate students.

Graduate students are the final metric in the formula — metric is executive-speak for “things we can count without having to think about all the things that can’t be counted thus mis-representing the nature of things and probably mis-managing the whole shebang as a result.” (Shebans only come as wholes so far as I can tell.) In short order the American academy had delivered: more undergraduates, more research, and more staffing for universities and university systems that seemed to be ever-expanding — and we all know how much the American economy runs on “growth.”

There are better histories of all this, and I’ll try to track some down and put them in a bibliography below, but the larger point here is that this began with the post-WW2 boom driven by the G.I. Bill and continued thanks to the baby boom, and, aware as we all are now of demographic trends, you can see where this is going.

In addition to the demographic trends, there were some institutional skullduggery beginning to happen. Starting in the fifties, a number of American corporations were not entirely happy with the explosion in scientific knowledge, most notably the tobacco and oil companies (but one shouldn’t discount a host of other industries, like sugar). All this science was beginning to reveal the complexity of things and that things that appeared to have no immediate follow-on effects had indirect, long-term health implications.

There was, as Thomas Rid notes in Active Measures, a kind of active partnership between American corporations and Russian information operations who, aware just how far behind Russian science was and just how important this giant knowledge machine America was building was likely to be, were trying to find ways to instill what we now know as FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

This “war on science” as it became to be later called found a home in conservative politics, which had decided that the academy was not only antithetical to its own ends but also an easy punching bag. After all, if you’re in the business of selling simple solutions, your best enemy is one that believes things are complex. Looking back, we can now see that Ronald Reagan’s call for higher education to focus on training people for jobs was a natural pairing with business’ “the science isn’t clear on this.”

One way to bring any organization to heel is to through its funding, and beginning in the 80s that’s exactly what states began to do, though the reductions in subsidies would be trivial compared to the cuts that would come later. It’s also the moment, looking back, that some of the demographic trends that had seemed to suggest unlimited growth began to reveal that the higher education bubble was shrinking.

The notion that there were “jobs for all” began to wobble, but universities were now measured by state funding formulas by their production of graduate students. Measuring knowledge production is really, really hard. It’s not very “bean-able.” Graduate students however are clearly beans. University administrators ran things by undergraduate and graduate student counts because that was in the formula that decided how much money the state provided. University faculty were stuck because not only were administrators demanding they either maintain, or even increase!, graduate student production, but there was the ever present threat that should they cap, shrink, or dismantle a graduate program they could always go back to higher teaching loads.

For a portion of faculty who prefer teaching to research and to a great deal of the American public that has enjoyed the explosion in knowledge production without ever realizing from whence it came, teaching is what universities do. Most of us only encounter faculty in the classroom, and so we think that’s what faculty do, teach. The rest of the work that faculty do to maintain the university (service) and the work faculty do to create knowledge and distribute it not simply in the classroom but to a broader public (research) goes largely unseen. (This is one of the drivers behind getting undergraduates involved in research or at least having distinct “research experiences”: to let them see behind the curtain.)

But there are also faculty who are deeply committed to the twin engines of research and teaching, either for philosophical reasons (e.g., the best way to teach curiosity is to be curious yourself) or for practical reasons, they recognize that without research, administrators will only be interested in student numbers. (Sadly, too many administrators only see beans.)

This results in a kind of hamster wheel in which administrators and graduate faculty cannot get off because this is not the time, with state legislatures and governors increasingly using universities as punching bags (e.g. centers of “wokeness”) to re-build the wheel such that the formula that determines the monies that come in is adjusted to a more sensible number of graduate students. A variety of other institutions, like Carnegie-Mellon which maintains the category system by which universities are judged and funded, play a hand in this.

So, there are multiple players in the current over-production of PhDs, and at least one of those players, state politicians, have no real reason to be sensible. After all, devaluing the PhD by producing too many of them plays right into their hands. Faculty made a deal with their local devils, administrators, and then faculty and administrators in public higher education made a deal with the devils just above them, state boards.

I have yet to see anyone on the boards or anyone else in a leadership position either at universities or in state systems call for re-consideration of graduate student production. It seems more like a game of musical chairs in which everyone is eyeballing everyone else and aiming not to be the last man standing. In the mean time, universities continue to attract truly talented people, often gift them student debt, and then leave them standing in line at career centers with not much of an acknowledgment that the purpose served was not their education nor their success but the university meeting its funding formula metric.

With any luck, there are environments in which the relationship between funding agencies, administrators, and faculty are such that a genuine conversation can be had. Right now, there is a great deal of hand-wringing, but the only people who have been able to slow the hamster wheel are the well-endowed private institutions or public institutions where the culture wars are not actively destroying public education in general and higher education in particular.

Elsewhere, deals struck with devils remain in place. Some of us look in the mirror and suspect we glimpse protuberances lurking above our hairline. Pleased to meet you!

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John Laudun

Cultural Informatics Researcher focused on Stories, People, Networks