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Should You Go to Graduate School?

[ 160 ] April 22, 2017 |

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Let’s talk about graduate school.

I’ve spent this year as the Interim Director of Graduate Studies in my department as the usual director is on sabbatical. Speaking of which, I have one more week of teaching until I start my sabbatical. Yes, I am going to enjoy the next 16 months of not teaching, while researching, writing, and hiking as much as possible. Anyway, graduate school. The question of whether to go to graduate school and how to survive graduate school is one I have thought about a great deal. As someone with a PhD from the University of New Mexico, I had to. Not only was nothing ever guaranteed for us Lobos who weren’t ever thought to be able to compete with the Yale and Harvard graduates of the world, but I hit the job market right as the economy collapsed in 2008. The first full year I was on the market, 1/2 of the jobs I applied for were shut down before interviews took place. It was grim. I had a visiting position but it took me 4 years to find a tenure-track job. And I am damned lucky.

It turned out in the end that my fellow UNM people almost all survived the collapse of the job market and either got tenure-track jobs or else good work in professions they wanted, ranging from museums and university presses to federal jobs and permanent positions at community colleges in places they wanted to live. Meanwhile, I heard tales of Big 10 universities having their history programs go 5 years and place 1 person in a U.S. history tenure track job. Why the discrepancy, which was exactly the opposite of what one would expect?

Fundamentally, I think the reason for this is that because we had second-rate funding packages (only 3 years of guaranteed funding as opposed to the 5 or 6 years at supposedly better programs) and because no one believed in us anyway, we had to hustle. So we ended up on the market having done a whole variety of different things that the Yale students never had to do, making us more versatile and allowing us to stand out. I put myself through the last couple of years of graduate school doing work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, making sure it complied with the National Historic Preservation Act. I also put together a climate change report for New Mexico environmental organizations that gave me some early consulting experience. That, plus the blogging, made me different than other candidates. I never quite realized how important that was until I was on a search committee for a job last year for the first time. What became instantly clear to me is that every Ivy League applicant is basically the same–the projects are very similar, the letters are all from the same people, none of them have meaningful teaching experience. You could barely tell them apart. We ended up bringing in 4 candidates from public institutions and hiring two amazing historians.

I say all of this because there are a couple of interesting posts from the last couple of days about graduate school and I think these stories help frame a discussion not only of whether to go to graduate school but also how to do graduate school. There is one basic rule about graduate school: don’t go into debt for it. If someone doesn’t want you or you can’t pay for it in some way yourself that makes sense, then don’t do it.

Now, you might say that it is immoral to send students to graduate school for jobs they won’t get. Possible, but this gets to how to do graduate school and why to do graduate school. The biggest problem right now with Ph.D. programs is that professors don’t know how to get a job as a historian today because they all got extremely lucky to get a job in academia or they did so a long time ago. So when I advise a student on going to graduate school, the first thing I tell them is that they have to assume they will never get an academic job and therefore must prepare for that as well as doing the academic work necessary to get a dissertation and compete for whatever jobs are out there. As part of that, I tell them to keep this in mind even if their advisor doesn’t agree because their advisor may be the absolutely worst person for a student to listen about career preparation.

And then even if you do get a job, be prepared to not live with your partner (mine teaches 500 miles away), have absolutely no control over where you live, not be able to buy a house or have children because of the constant instability, etc. This is a good overview of these issues by someone who has chosen to leave academia, as part of a longer post on what kind of characteristics help someone succeed in academia.

4. You don’t care where you live.

Here, briefly, is how the academic job market works. Suppose you’re writing your dissertation, and the fall of 2018 rolls around and it looks like you’ll be able to successfully defend in the spring of 2019. Because tenure-track academic jobs — I’ll get to non-tenure track jobs below — work on a year-long lead, you need to start applying now, so that you can defend your dissertation in spring 2019 and begin your new job the following fall.

Each academic position will have many, many applicants. Via friends who have served on committees, the number is routinely several hundred. The odds, then, of being offered an interview at any one place are very low (unconditionally, say less than 5%), and to reach a reasonably high probability of receiving an offer you will need to apply everywhere there is a job listing you might reasonably fill.

I have heard early career graduate students or undergraduates considering academia say things like “I wouldn’t mind starting out at a place like the University of Kansas,” or some other institution they perceive to be of similarly low prestige. Let me be clear: you probably won’t get a job at Kansas. Getting a job at Kansas would be fantastic and is therefore exceedingly difficult. For nearly all students outside of the very top graduate programs, a job at Kansas (or similar institution) is almost certainly your best-case scenario. If you have family ties that prevent you from living outside a certain area, or a partner with an inflexible job, you will be very unlikely to find an academic job.

5. You don’t mind moving frequently, or being very mobile in general.

Because finding a tenure track position is very difficult, new PhDs often move from graduate school to a series of short-term positions, either postdoctoral fellowships or, more frequently, visiting or adjunct professor positions. These positions differ from tenure track positions in that they do not offer the promise of long-term employment: generally one would only stay at one of these positions for one or two years. Many times they also do not offer benefits like health insurance. If you can publish enough during this time period, it is sometimes possible to move into a tenure-track position. However, publishing is doubly difficult in visiting and adjunct positions, because you will be teaching a large number of courses.

So while the ideal path leads from graduate school to a tenure track position, more likely is one leading from graduate school to one or more short term positions that will require you to move — often across the country or the world — each year.

A related point here is that academics’ lives are often hilariously peripatetic. I know multiple people who live hours away from their home institutions and commute in to work for 2-3 days each week. If you arrive to graduate school single, you may soon acquire what is known as the “two body problem,” the name given to the deeply unfortunate situation in which one academic is married to another. This either complicates the problem of finding a job dramatically, provides an opportunity for the aforementioned several hour commute, or sets you up for a permanent long-distance relationship.

Again, none of these things are bad. But tolerance for them varies from person to person, and so they are worth pointing out to someone before this person invests six years of their life into a relatively infungible degree.

On a personal note, the last two of these played the biggest role in pushing me out: I didn’t want to give up control over where I lived, and I didn’t want to move frequently. This meant I needed to apply very selectively to jobs, which in turn meant that I didn’t get one. If those sound like dimensions you’re unwilling to compromise on, understand that academia will almost certainly be six to eight years of training for a field you will not find employment in.

Building these alternative skills during a graduate program helps address precisely these issues. If you are from Seattle or New York, do you really want to live in rural Arkansas, just to teach indifferent 19 year olds intro U.S. history? The same goes for the self-exploitation of long-term adjuncting. Reimagining what a graduate program can be opens up opportunities to make your degree useful while also allowing you greater control over your life choices. A couple of years ago, I was talking to some people just finishing up their PhDs in U.S. history at Brown. There was one late job at a decent school in one of Alabama’s less terrible cities. They said they weren’t even going to bother applying for it because they didn’t want to live in Alabama. A reasonable choice, but nothing in their degree program had prepared them to do anything else but get a job as a professor and that wasn’t happening, in part because of the terrible market and in part because their advisors had not prepared them for the real live job market or anything else except getting a job at a school like Brown.

So why go to graduate school? Well, if you aren’t going into debt and you don’t want to work for a corporation, then why not? It’s not like there are tons of great options out there for humanities and social science-minded 22 year olds. At the very least, you will get to meet some interesting people, have your mind blown, see the country some, get a lot smarter, and figure out your life. There really isn’t anything wrong with that if your eyes are open going into it.

But at the same time, it’s critical to reorient the graduate program to these new realities. Because of New Mexico’s unusual placement record, it was selected as one of four schools to participate in a pilot project through the Mellon Foundation and the American Historical Association that seeks to redirect graduate education. I have played a small role in this, coming back to Albuquerque for a couple of events, talking about what I do outside the academy, and eating a lot of green chile. A current student at UNM has a post up at the AHA blog about career diversity and graduate school and it’s worth your time.

The conversation was geared toward PhD students but I wondered, quite selfishly, how it could apply to master’s students. Between my undergraduate and graduate program, I worked in several different industries that appeared to have no relation to my own historical training and background. Whether it was performing administrative duties at a law firm, selling computers, or tending to children at a daycare, I was unsure how these jobs corresponded with the skills I had learned as part of my BA in history and government. In my last position, however, I worked as a legislative analyst for a lobbying firm in Austin, Texas. There I dug through archival materials, read other scholars’ and professionals’ analyses of legislation, and tried to frame my findings in terms relevant to the fast-paced debates occurring in the domed building across the street. Such tasks were fundamental in sharpening my talents as a researcher at the graduate level. Even in the jobs seemingly unrelated to history, I realize now that I learned important skills such as communicating and collaborating with others that are essential to succeeding within and beyond the professoriate. Transferable skills, therefore, are not unidirectional. The training historians receive in the academy prepares them for a surprisingly large array of career paths, but those careers also feed back into how historians work and how they think about their own research, particularly, in terms of how it relates to a wider audience.

Professors attending the session at the annual meeting expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of helping their students pursue other professional possibilities and using them to mold their academic work. Faculty, however, complained that a cultural shift was necessary among those still pursuing their graduate degrees. Participants noted that most graduate students failed to attend career diversity events because of busy schedules and, more jarringly, due to the fear of being tainted as a student considering a path beyond the professoriate. Even considering the possibility of a career beyond the tenure track was viewed as “depressing.”

If master’s students wish to continue on to the PhD, as I do, we need to think of our connections to the nonacademic world in a way that is invigorating instead of threatening. We should seek out opportunities for career diversity workshops, internships, and other programs because they provide real benefits in terms of how we relate to others’ scholarship and how we produce our own. Students should display the same kind of fearlessness when taking opportunities for training beyond the university as we did when we applied ourselves to the rigors of graduate education. To get the career that best suits us we may need to move beyond our comfort zones.

I think this is right and I also think that even at participating schools there are a lot of professors who still see the only legitimate path as one that ends in a tenure-track job. That is a recipe for irrelevance and the death of programs. Graduate school can be a wonderful thing if you are so inclined, but its also the duty of professors to train you to get an actual real job after it is over, not just throw you overboard to be devoured by the sharks of unemployment, depression, and disillusionment.

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Today in Republican Governance

[ 68 ] April 10, 2017 |

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Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico, decided that if she couldn’t slash funding to higher education through the budget, she’d just veto funding it at all.

Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed on Friday the entire higher education budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 as part of an ongoing standoff over the state’s budget woes and how to fund government.

She also vetoed the Legislature’s funding and a bill that would have raised additional money through a number of tax increases. And she reiterated her pledge to call lawmakers back for a special session soon.

“In the coming weeks, I will call the Legislature back to Santa Fe to finish the job they were supposed to do in the first place,” Martinez said. “I believe that by working together, we can balance the budget – without tax increases. While I’m disappointed in them, I am optimistic that we can come together.”

Statements from Democratic leaders suggested coming together may be difficult.

“Governor Martinez has chosen to play extreme political games rather than act responsibly,” said Senate Majority Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “Her attempt to use line-item vetoes to eliminate an entire branch of government and every higher education institution is outrageous.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the governor’s vetoes of higher education and legislative funding “are beyond the pale” and “unconstitutional.”

“Her action also eliminates the path to a brighter future for thousands of New Mexico children who want to go to college and gain a quality higher education,” Egolf said. He added that the governor “is clearly not serious about fixing our state’s budget problems or growing our economy” and is “turning her back on the bipartisan and responsible solution offered to her by the Legislature.”

First, this is what New Mexico gets for electing someone originally from Texas. Second, this is Republican governance in a nutshell: if you don’t get what you want, threaten to destroy the entire higher education system. What’s that good for anyway, bunch of commie professors and all.

Who Knew Racists Were So Sensitive to Ridicule

[ 48 ] January 19, 2017 |

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Above: A Dignified Arizona Republican legislator

I guess I wouldn’t think Arizona Republicans would table their bill to ban the teaching of any course they think smacks of racial justice in their state’s public universities because the faint shadow of what used to be The Daily Show ridicules them, but then I wouldn’t have thought they would have elected a fascist reality TV show star to the presidency either.

The Republican War on Higher Education

[ 47 ] January 13, 2017 |

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Above: One of Many People the GOP Wants to Make Sure Students Know Nothing About

Another year, another set of Republican legislators seeking to engage in a political war on those liberals in higher education. First, Arizona.

Saying students are being taught hatred at public expenses, a Republican lawmaker from Flagstaff is proposing new limits on what and how schools, colleges and universities can teach.

Rep. Bob Thorpe said a 2010 law that targeted “ethnic studies” courses at some public schools, including those at Tucson Unified School District, does not go far enough with its prohibition against teaching anything that promotes resentment toward another race. He wants to expand that list to include gender, religion, political affiliation and social class.

And Thorpe wants a ban on not just classes but any events or activities that “negatively target specific nationalities or countries.”

But it does not stop there.

HB 2120 would extend the new restrictions to community colleges and universities, not just in terms of what’s taught in the classroom but also any event or activity. And it gives the attorney general the unilateral power to withhold up to 10 percent of state aid if he or she determines a college or university is in violation.

Thorpe said Thursday his bill is aimed specifically at things like a “privilege walk” exercise sponsored by the University of Arizona and a course entitled “Whiteness and Race Theory” at Arizona State University.

This is of course nothing more than a politicized attack on higher education. Republicans want people like myself and the other members of this blog fired for teaching anything that does not confirm whatever the conservative talking points of the moment may be. And that takes us to Missouri.

College graduates in Missouri should be able to find jobs that correspond with their degrees, and their professors should help them do so, says State Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican.

To make that happen, Mr. Brattin says, he would eliminate tenure at Missouri’s public colleges and universities. House Bill 266, introduced this month, would outlaw awarding tenure in Missouri after January 1, 2018. (The bill would not apply to faculty members awarded tenure before January 1, 2018.)

HB 266 would also require public colleges to publish more information, including the estimated price of individual degrees, employment opportunities expected for degree earners, and a summary of the job market for each degree, among other things.

But let’s be clear, for Brattin, a man who never attended college, this is about politics, not job prospects. The link also included an interview with him.

Q. Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job.

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

Q. Specifically, what do you mean “things aren’t being done” according to a professor’s job description?

A. When we have college graduates making up 40 percent of unemployed Americans, after they have been promised if they come here and they receive this degree, they’ll be able to do this, that, and the other, and they find out it’s an out-of-date degree program or degree, it’s an injustice to our youth.

Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. Because they have tenure, they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong. It’s an abuse of taxpayers dollars. If you want to go get grant money, or you want to be privately funded to do your endeavors of whatever, that’s fine. When you’re on the taxpayer dollar, I don’t think that’s a proper use of the taxpayers’ money.

Q. Let’s say a geologist at the University of Missouri is tenured and his responsibility entails research. Part of his job is to do research on publicly funded dollars. Do you think that should be publicly funded?

A. If that’s his job and he was hired by the university to do x, y, and z, and he’s performing x, y, and z, that’s what he was hired to do. It’s when these professors receive tenure that they are all of a sudden allowed this astronomical freedom to do whatever they wish, and they’re virtually untouchable, I’m sorry, it’s taxpayer dollars.

There should be accountability with whatever you’re doing. And it’s quite clear by the numbers that what’s being done is not at the best level and the highest echelon that it should be.

Of course this guy doesn’t know anything about how higher education actually works. Since research is part of the job of a tenured and tenure-track faculty, maybe he could find out that his bill makes no sense. But then the issue is not “professors doing research” but rather “professors doing research conservatives don’t like.” You also have to love the a priori assumption that it is un-American to be able to speak your mind at work. This guy is a real peach.

I don’t know what the chances of passage of these bills are in the respective states, but given that Arizona already banned ethnic studies in K-12, this is certainly scary. And we can certainly expect many more bills like this as conservatives seek to destroy the American institution where liberalism remains the strongest.

The Cuomo Gambit

[ 76 ] January 3, 2017 |

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo makes a point during a meeting on tax cut proposals in the Red Room at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. Cuomo has proposed cutting the state’s corporate income tax from 7.1 percent to 6.5 percent and eliminating it altogether for upstate manufacturers. He also has proposed paying more state aid as an incentive to any of New York’s 10,500 local governments that impose hard 2 percent spending caps and cut their costs by consolidating services with other towns, villages, cities and counties. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Here’s the thing about Andrew Cuomo. He will happily veto a bill that would grant the poor legal services and then just a few days later announce a plan for free college tuition at New York public universities for any family making less than $125,000 a year. What’s going on here? The short of it, I think anyway, is that Cuomo really wants to the be the presidential nominee in 2020. At the same time, he has no interest in challenging the power dynamics of the nation. He is a Clintonites Clintonite. So embracing middle-class rhetoric and middle-class welfare state expansions that get a lot of big publicity is something he can very much get behind while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to challenge Wall Street, the criminal injustice system, or the Republican Party. And in case you say that the free college tuition will help the poor too, we should remember that Cuomo is going to nothing useful to help improve the possibility that the poor and people of color are actually going to go to college. It will help a few, but it will not change a system that inherently discriminates against people with the least power in our society.

It’s completely fine for the left to get behind expanding free college tuition. Supporting this initiative is absolutely something I will do. But Andrew Cuomo is still a complete non-starter for the Democratic nomination and let’s be careful not to give him too much credit and legitimize his ambitions.

Bad Liberal Ideas?

[ 252 ] October 28, 2016 |

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Catherine Rampell is EXTREMELY CONCERNED that Democrats are going to think they have a mandate after the election. She wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. So she lists all the horrible ideas of “the left,” although she means liberals.

These are proposals such as bringing back Glass-Steagall, a banking law whose repeal actually had nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis. Its resurrection is perplexingly popular on the left.

Or banning genetically modified organisms.

Or instituting a $15-an-hour minimum wage nationwide, even though that’s higher than the current median wage in four states and three territories.

Or free college for all, including rich people.

Or arbitrary tax carve-outs for items such as tampons (which constitute a giveaway to rich people, too, and ultimately require raising tax rates on everything else, which can disproportionately hurt poor people).

Well that’s a weird list. I hope we can all agree that indeed banning GMOs would be a stupid idea. Anti-GMO activism is second only to anti-vaccination as the worst idea floating around the left. Of course, there are problems around GMOs based around patent rights and corporate monopoly and that’s part of the GMO worries. But what motivates most of these people is concerns about pure bodies, which should be shunned.

But otherwise? Arbitrary tax carve-outs is a major goal of liberals? I mean, I don’t mind ending taxes on tampons, but no one is saying this is a major policy goal. Plus, a) we already have all sorts of arbitrary tax carve-outs and b) more important we have all sorts of ways rich people avoid paying taxes which should receive significantly more attention than small ways to help the poor.

Glass-Steagall? Is there any actual downside to bringing back this law? OK, it might not have stopped the housing bubble and Wall Street collapse, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. I don’t see how this is a terrible idea.

And as for the $15 minimum wage and free college, these are GREAT ideas, including for the rich. Yes, raising the minimum wage high enough to reduce inequality is something that should happen. If that requires a serious raising of other wages, then great. That’s precisely what has to happen if working people are going to live a dignified life. And including the rich under programs of free public college is exactly what needs to happen to get such a program passed. There is nothing wrong at all with that idea, unless your real concern is low taxes for the upper class. It’s not like Rampell doesn’t do quality work at times, so I don’t really get what this is all about except her own delusions about what the left is actually advocating.

Pennsylvania Faculty on Strike

[ 70 ] October 19, 2016 |

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Early this morning, 5500 faculty members on the 14 campuses of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, including my wife, went on strike because of PASSHE’s refusal to offer a fair contract. The university system has sought to effectively destroy these schools. They want to commit to even more adjunct teaching while also lowering adjunct pay up to 20 percent. The schools are offering pathetic pay rates and seeking major health care givebacks. 477 days after the last contract expired, the union (APSCUF) was willing to continue meeting, but as the hours wound down, PASSHE refused to come back to the table. APSCUF is trying to argue for binding arbitration. But the schools, with a weak hand because of the absurdity of the offer, refuses to agree to that. The strike will end if PASSHE agrees to that binding arbitration. Until then, the corporate war on higher education has forced 105,000 students to not get an education.

I know this isn’t Yale, Harvard, Columbia, or any of the New York schools that the lefties who went to those schools teach at since many couldn’t imagine lighting out for the territories. So this strike probably won’t get the kind of attention that we saw at Long Island University. But it’s equally important. More will be forthcoming.

…Since there seems to be some confusion, this has nothing to do with Penn State University. These are the affected schools.

Shorter STEM Experts: Please Invest in the Humanities!

[ 151 ] September 25, 2016 |

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It sure would be nice if politicians and university administrations actually listened to people in the STEM fields and invested heavily in the humanities and social sciences. The editorial board of Scientific American makes this point powerfully.

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants students majoring in electrical engineering to receive state subsidies for their education but doesn’t want to support those who study subjects such as French literature. Bevin is not alone in trying to nudge higher education toward course work that promotes better future job prospects. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a former presidential candidate, put it bluntly last year by calling for more welders and fewer philosophers.

Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities may seem like a good idea, but it is deeply misguided. Scientific American has always been an ardent supporter of teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But studying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation. The unparalleled dynamism of Silicon Valley and Hollywood requires intimate ties that unite what scientist and novelist C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences.

Steve Jobs, who reigned for decades as a tech hero, was neither a coder nor a hardware engineer. He stood out among the tech elite because he brought an artistic sensibility to the redesign of clunky mobile phones and desktop computers. Jobs once declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

A seeming link between innovation and the liberal arts now intrigues countries where broad-based education is less prevalent. In most of the world, university curricula still emphasize learning skills oriented toward a specific profession or trade. The ebullience of the U.S. economy, which boasted in 2014 the highest percentage of high-tech outfits among all its public companies—has spurred countries such as Singapore to create schools fashioned after the U.S. liberal arts model.

But hey, bullying students to avoid majoring in theater or Spanish is fun! And really, what would the knowledge of a foreign language or the ability to write effectively add to a employer?

Behind the Scenes at LIU

[ 46 ] September 15, 2016 |

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Read this interview with Long Island University librarian Emily Drabinski for some behind the scenes insight on the horrible attempt by the administration to lockout the faculty and crush the union.

It’s really important to note that the administration locked out the faculty at Long Island University Brooklyn before the faculty had a chance to review and vote on the contract as proposed by the administration.

When we met on Tuesday, September 6 — which seems like a year ago now — we had already lost our health insurance, we had already lost our wages, we had already been locked out of our communication systems at LIU Brooklyn. Longstanding tradition at LIU has been for negotiations to continue up until the final day of the contract, August 31, and then for the faculty to meet and ratify or not ratify the contract on the first day after Labor Day.

They knew that was the plan. I’m the secretary [of the union], I know that I had emailed and we had reserved a room [for continued negotiations]. They knew that was coming and they locked us out before that could happen.
Why do you think they took such measures?

Labor and employer relations at LIU Brooklyn have always been contentious — that is the task of a unionized workforce. We knew that things were going to be difficult.

When I arrived at LIU Brooklyn, there we six unions on campus; right now there are four. This is the president who has been hired to bust the unions, and she’s been successful so far. We knew she would be coming for us next.

But I don’t think any of us anticipated a lockout. It’s unprecedented because the lockout was so disruptive and so harmful to the reputation of the university as well as to the workers who were locked out. I was talking to my partner and asked, “What’s going to happen?” As we got down to the end — and we’ve been bargaining since April — the administration had not been moving, almost at all.

They’ve been meeting with us, they had been sticking within the letter of the law. They clearly know how to go right up to the line of bargaining in good faith, and they just stuck there.

They began advertising for replacement workers in July on Monster.com. Monster.com is I guess where you get your best higher education faculty to replace us. We assumed that was in the event of a strike, which of course we hadn’t and haven’t called.

My guess would be that they have been preparing for the lockout probably since the president arrived.

They told the press that the reason that they locked us out was to prevent a strike. We are a fairly militant union. We go on strike for working conditions, we go on strike for wages. That might have happened in this event — I don’t know, it’s hard to know now what would have happened had they not locked us out.

What they don’t say is that the other option was to negotiate in good faith and bargain a fair contract for the faculty workforce.

Just really amazing and brazen effort by the university president and no doubt the Board of Trustees. This story remains extremely important as if they succeed in busting the faculty union in the future, it sets a horrifying precedent for other schools to follow.

LIU Lockout

[ 92 ] September 7, 2016 |

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This is deeply disturbing.

Locking out a university’s faculty right before the start of classes seems like a drastic step, but that is just what Long Island University (LIU) did this weekend, when it barred all 400 members of its faculty union from its Brooklyn campus, cut off their email accounts and health insurance, and told them they would be replaced. The move came three days after the union’s contract expired. Now, the faculty is furious, and planning rallies and pickets with support from the American Federation of Teachers. On Tuesday, faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject a proposed contract from LIU, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no-confidence in the university’s president Kimberly Cline, 135 to 10. Faculty rallied outside the university’s Brooklyn campus Wednesday with a giant inflatable rat as classes began, taught by non-union members.

Labor historians say they can’t recall an example of a university using a lockout against faculty members. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell professor of labor relations, says they’re particularly unwise in the service sector, or any sector where a company has clients such as students and donors to placate. More typically, she says, lockouts are used in the industrial sector, where customers are removed from labor practices.

Why did the faculty reject the contract? Because it was pure union-busting all the way:

Arthur Kimmel has been an adjunct at LIU’s Brooklyn campus for more than 20 years. Under the terms of the proposed contract, he would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent, he said. That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.

“I think that what the administration is doing, and has done from first day of the current president’s administration, is gutting the university and creating the archetype of the corporatization of the university, where the interest is not in education, but is purely financial,” he told me.

First, I really struggle to see how this turns out well for LIU. How do you replace an entire faculty? I know there is a massive oversupply of teachers out there since the same union-busting administrators now prefer to build themselves nice offices and give themselves 5-figure pay raises rather than hire faculty. But there are also lots of potential faculty who aren’t going to be scabs. This is awful for the students as well.

Worst-case scenario, for the university, would be that the National Labor Relations Board could decide that the university has committed the lockout in an environment of unfair labor practices, at which point LIU would have to pay back wages. But even the best case scenario probably isn’t great: Even if the school reaches an agreement with the union and the 400 faculty are given their jobs back, LIU will still be facing budget problems, which may be exacerbated by students staying away. And worse, it will be remembered as the place of higher education that was the first to lock out its faculty. Those wounds could last a long time.

But if it was to succeed, this is extremely frightening. This is a Gilded Age union-busting tactic used against a vulnerable sector in the New Gilded Age. Moreover, it is my sector. The precedent this would set would be titanic. It’s hard to see it happening at a place like my institution, which is very large and without a pool of eligible replacement faculty, but at smaller schools especially, I could see entire faculty unions being wiped out, pay lowered, and conditions worsened significantly.

You can donate to the LIU Lockout Solidarity Fund here.

Is It “Irrational” for People to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities (Or Even in the Sciences)

[ 211 ] August 28, 2016 |

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No, no it is not. After all, the job market for college graduates except for a very few fields is pretty terrible everywhere, at least in something having to do with the field of choice. What, are they supposed to go to law school? Go become teachers and be attacked by politicians? I guess they could drive for Uber! What a future!

But we have a national narrative that the humanities are worthless and that people are “irrational” for getting a Ph.D. in those fields. Aaron Hanlon in the L.A. Review of Books:

In a fascinating way, the NSF data challenges a long-standing narrative about job opportunities by field of study. We’re used to thinking of — more accurately, maligning — humanities students as idealistic, unsystematic dreamers prone to “Peter Pan syndrome,” irrationality, and reality avoidance. Humanities PhDs struggling to find sustainable employment don’t garner much societal sympathy, largely because it’s considered axiomatic that a person with a humanities PhD has no business thinking she possesses economic value. But when the scientists and engineers — the ones confirmation bias demands we view as rational and pragmatic — are caught in a rough job market flirting with something that looks like quixotic delusion, we’re forced to rethink our assumptions. Once it appears that it’s not just humanities students making unadvisable career choices, it suddenly becomes more difficult to victim-blame unemployed doctors (of philosophy) as a whole.

Indeed, when it comes to explaining the seeming contradiction of increases in earned doctorates alongside diminishing job prospects for PhDs, we’re still wedded to the irrationality narrative we’ve unfoundedly ascribed to humanities PhDs. This is the case even though 75 percent of earned doctorates in 2014 were awarded in science and engineering.

The irrationality narrative has accompanied even some of the best analyses of PhD job prospects. As a follow-up on an earlier attempt to explain why people keep pursuing humanities PhDs, Jordan Weissmann provided a telling compilation of Atlantic readers’ responses in 2013. Weissmann’s own conclusions include, per the familiar narrative, the idea that “arts and humanities students aren’t necessarily the most career-minded or pragmatic individuals,” and PhD seekers “aren’t aware of how much debt they might take on in the process of earning their Ph.D.”; readers responded along similar lines. In fact, of the 11 categories Weissmann’s roundup uses to organize reader responses, three deal with suggestions about asymmetric information (people do PhDs based on some form of ignorance or misunderstanding), three deal with suggestions about student irrationality (people do PhDs because love of subject, or of being a top student, blinds them to harsh economic realities), and two are corrective points of information that don’t offer a theory.

If we compare the tenor of Weissmann’s findings in 2013 with that of Laura McKenna’s 2016 Atlantic piece on “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s,” we see a common premise in spite of the new data: there must be something lacking or irrational about the choice to pursue a PhD. McKenna’s concluding set of questions, simultaneously genuine and rhetorical, suggests as much:

Why hasn’t all this [employment] information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors — why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary […] ? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside the university?

The problem is not people getting a Ph.D., whether in English or Chemistry. The problem is not that schools are producing too many graduates. The problem is that we are engaging in a national disinvestment in valuing the graduate degree and thus there aren’t jobs.

We’ve presupposed a scenario in which there really is a massive oversupply of PhDs, and thus PhD students must be irrational for treading into an oversupplied labor market. But that’s simply not true. PhD “oversupply” is just a euphemistic way of talking about the fact that colleges and universities haven’t met student-generated demand with a commensurate supply of full-time, tenure-track faculty. Instead, we’ve rendered the majority of faculty contingent, increased administrators and administrative staff by 85 and 240 percent, respectively, over the past 40 years, and created a massive holding pen of temporary postdoctoral positions in STEM. If we look outside of academia for good measure, we see similar evidence of increased dependency on contingent labor, decades of stagnant wages, and no increase in leisure time to accompany increases in economic productivity. In this light it becomes harder to claim that PhD students are especially irrational or shortsighted, since so much of the broader US workforce is facing similar problems.

So why do people pursue PhDs despite grim job prospects? For one, because job prospects elsewhere haven’t been great either. Though PhDs are a skewed sample for all kinds of reasons, they also have a lower unemployment rate than master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s, and high school diploma holders. Accepting the five to seven years of employment and insurance benefits that come with a PhD is hardly an easy decision, but in light of deteriorating stability in nonacademic jobs, and the low unemployment rates of PhD holders, it’s hardly an irrational one either. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that a society continually touting the value of STEM research, a college education, and the “knowledge economy” does value PhDs. It would be irrational to think otherwise.

Perhaps the most compelling reason one pursues a PhD, however, is what it means beyond the immediately commodifiable. When we say it’s irrational — and worthy of ridicule — to pursue any kind of education that doesn’t maximize earnings, we’re effectively pathologizing healthy desires to learn and teach, and to pursue a course of research with long-term benefits. In fact, prestigious funding schemes like the MacArthur Fellowship offer no-strings-attached funding precisely because they get better results by untethering fellows from immediate financial pressures. This is also the idea behind no-strings and open-access funding developments in biomedical science: if you want results, you have to think long-term in ways that markets don’t always support. The PhD is hard work, typically with day-to-day teaching, grading, or lab responsibilities, but it’s also a rare opportunity to pursue research that you care about but the market doesn’t, all while keeping the lights on.

Instead of hiring people with a Ph.D. as a tenure-track professors, colleges and universities instead have to build some new buildings, provide some ever fancier dorms, and most importantly, take the money for themselves to their escalating salaries, perks, and new administrator positions.

It’s completely fine to get a Ph.D., although at this point one should understand that a) you should never go to a program without a good funding package and b) you aren’t going to get an academic job at the end of it unless you are very, very lucky. But there also needs to be pressure for universities to invest in hiring these people, including in the humanities. But the managerial MBA class that runs the universities and especially the Board of Trustees has no interest in this.

The University: Brought to You by the Same People Who Brought You the Housing Bubble and the Great Recession

[ 55 ] June 9, 2016 |

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Hiltzik is of course right on every point:

But Katehi’s activities point to a disturbing trend in higher education, especially among public institutions such as UC: Universities are getting cozier with businesses and industrialists, and less discerning about the pitfalls of these relationships, which include accepting donations with strings attached. What’s worse is that universities are adopting the corporate model of profit and loss as though they’re businesses themselves.

Students already are losing out. They’re not only saddled with an increasing share of the direct costs of their education, but are offered a narrower curriculum as universities cut back on supposedly unprofitable humanities and social science courses in favor of science, engineering and technology programs expected to attract profitable grants and offer the prospects of great riches from patentable inventions.

In one of the most extreme examples, the State University of New York at Albany moved in 2010 to ax its French, Italian, Russian and classics programs. That left the institution looking like a glorified vocational school for engineers and research scientists.

But the issues swirling around Katehi, a Greek-born engineer, have exposed the same rift within UC Davis, where members of the science and engineering faculties defend her as an effective supporter of diversity in science and technical education, and members of the humanities faculty tend to see her as an avatar of the “privatization of the public university,” as three dozen humanities faculty members put it in a letter to the Davis Enterprise newspaper.

These developments, however, are based on fundamental misconceptions of the purpose and the economics of higher education.

For most of the post-World War II period, it was well understood that universities, whether public or private, operated under a model distinct from business. That began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s as American culture became fixated on the virtues of private enterprise, says Christopher Newfield, a literature professor at UC Santa Barbara and a leading critic of the corporatization of academia.

“Until then, the private sector wasn’t the model for the public sector,” Newfield told me. “But the prestige of the private sector now requires imitation by the public sector. It’s almost as if we’re intimidated.”

The corporatization of higher education is destroying it, high paid administrator by high paid administrator, exploited adjunct by exploited adjunct. For years, people have said that universities should be run like a business, as if that would be a good thing. And now they are run like businesses. Therefore, resources are concentrated at the top, dissent from mere employees like professors is not tolerated, students pay more and more to be taught by overwhelmed and tenuously employed professors, and dictates from the top tell universities to train students for precisely the jobs state corporate leaders want to hire in right this minute as opposed to training them to be flexible members of the workforce and society for the next half-century. It’s a disaster and it gets worse every year.

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