Are Tenured Faculty Exploiting Ph.D Students?

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In the language of the left, one of the worst epithets is to be called an “exploiter.” Karl Marx famously argued that the greedy capitalist class exploited the working class by overworking and underpaying them. The main reason why the workers should unite was to break the power that the capitalists supposedly used against them.

Economists have been poking holes in Marxist theory since the late 19th century, but the accusation that someone is exploiting someone else remains emotionally powerful. That’s why it is fascinating to see it hurled by one professor against the pinnacle of the professoriate, which is exactly what Harvard’s Kevin Birmingham does in this essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Taking the place of Marx’s factory owners in Birmingham’s piece are tenured faculty members in the humanities. They are running a diabolical system that lures in young people who are interested in books and plays with the hope of one day becoming a tenured professor with a generous salary, insurance benefits, and plenty of time to think and write. Those eager young scholars then labor hard in the system to earn their doctorates, all the while providing cheap labor for the tenured professors by grading papers and teaching undergraduate classes.

In the end, however, few of those young scholars ever grab the golden ring themselves. Instead of tenure, most of them have to settle for the life of an adjunct  (or “contingent”) professor. Why is that a problem? Birmingham explains, “To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be canceled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance.” Pay varies, but if often as little as $2,000 for a semester course.

And yet intelligent people keep devoting many years of their lives to the quest for a Ph.D. that will merely give them an outside chance at a “good” faculty spot. One would think that such a system would have disappeared years ago, but Ph.D. programs in fields like literary criticism keep chugging along. Birmingham explains, “Unlike the typical labor surplus created by demographic shifts or technological changes, the humanities almost unilaterally controls its own labor market. New faculty come from a pool of candidates that the academy itself creates, and that pool is overflowing.”

Increasingly, colleges and universities take advantage of this buyer’s market for academic labor by doing just what other businesses do – they hire people on extremely favorable terms. Birmingham calls this shameful behavior. He thinks that colleges ought to spend much more money on creating good jobs for adjuncts, rather than spending so much on things that school leaders evidently regard as higher priority, such as sports and legions of administrators.

I agree completely that colleges and universities have distorted priorities. Sports consume an excessive amount of money and a great many adjunct professors could get a big raise if schools would eliminate useless administrative positions such as Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Alas, it almost never does any good to complain that other people have the wrong priorities. That doesn’t make them change their behavior.

I’m not sure the “adjunct problem” is really a problem, since the people involved are free at any point to see that the prospects are poor and drop out. If an English Ph.D. is an investment with a low probability of paying off, those who go on have only themselves to blame. Adjunct faculty who find the terms unbearable can seek other jobs. Many of them do.

In this drama, I don’t see the colleges as the villains, but rather the government. How so? Because the easy availability of student loans has both driven up the cost of higher education and encouraged students to undertake risky degree programs where they’d find it difficult to find anyone other than Uncle Sam to front them the necessary funds.

That huge pool of labor that Birmingham laments would dry up quickly if the federal government would stop subsidizing higher education and especially grad school.

But just try advocating that in The Chronicle.

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