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Academia as multi-level marketing scam

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Here’s a very interesting essay from Anne Helen Petersen, on the many ways in which so many institutions in our culture, and specifically the job market for higher ed faculty, look like multi-level marketing scams:

Everyone I met in grad school had some version of this story. Once the aptitude was discerned, it morphed in our minds into something like destiny. You ask for letters of recommendation, and your professors write them. You apply to grad schools, and some accept you. Instead of thinking about should I go to grad school, it becomes which grad school should I go to? And because you’ve already made the decision, it’s difficult to divert when the road conditions become more and more difficult.

Bad funding situation? You’ll make it work. Too many MA and PhDs means you have to “professionalize” (go to many conferences, publish many peer-reviewed papers) on your own dime? You’ll make it work. Take out loans to cover that conference travel; take out loans to live over the summer because there’s no funding available; take out loans to finish your dissertation because your school ran out of it; take out loans to travel to MLA to be one of 15 people interviewing for a job you don’t want. Again: You’ll make it work. You’re already too far down the road.

Job market’s so tight that you have to move away from your partner for a year of a post-doc, then another post-doc across the country, then a job in a place far from family that pays less than a high school teacher? Again, you’ll make it work. You get to do something you love, the refrain goes. All jobs are bad, someone will tell you.

To give up is shameful, but why? Where does that shame come from? We internalize the failure as our own, instead of a failure that was set up, save for a select few, from the start. Put differently, getting spit out by the contemporary academic establishment isn’t a mark of failure; it’s a sign that the system is working as intended. Those who aren’t spit out are absorbed into the pyramid — as adjuncts, as non-tenure track. And no matter how much they advocate for ethical treatment, no matter how much they support graduate unions, there’s only so much you can do when your university keeps admitting graduate students.

It’s important to recognize how much this system is product of the last couple of generations, when higher ed all but explicitly has become a quasi-for profit business, that doesn’t pay taxes. In 1970, nearly 80% of faculty were full-time; now that figure is on the verge of dropping to below half, and well more than half of all college instruction is carried out by non-full time faculty (Note we’re not only talking about tenured and tenure-track faculty here: the full-time faculty figure includes the growing numbers of full-time non-tenure track faculty.

When I first suggested that yoga teacher training was an MLM, someone rightly responded: “it feels like everything today is an MLM.” That’s what happens when an industry is fully enveloped by capitalism: when a hedge fund buys a yoga company — or when universities are figured as money-making businesses, with actual consultants hired to lead them.

Just so. But Petersen’s otherwise excellent analysis stumbles somewhat at the end:

You can blame massive constructive initiatives intended to lure students, and the competitive summer-camp-ification of private institutions trying to out-prestige each other in an attempt to win a dwindling number of applicants is certainly part of the problem. But the bigger problem is that higher ed used to be understood as a public good: like roads, and sewers, and elementary schools, we understood it was sustainable only through significant investment of public doors. But right about when Black and brown students began matriculating in larger numbers, that understanding of higher ed began to falter, and public funding was slashed (again, and again, and again). It doesn’t matter how much the head of a graduate department wants to increase graduate pay when the budget has been squeezed so tightly and tuition has already exponentially risen to counter it.

The fault with thinking of academia as a pyramid scheme is that there’s no one at the top — just the increasingly ambivalent structure, the ever-reproducing base. You could say highly salaried administrators profit, or football coaches profit. But it increasingly feels like a system in which no one wins: not the students, not their parents, not the graduate students, not professors facing increased belt-tightening, axing of departments, and continual fights for whatever meager resources remain.

Petersen has fallen for the phony narrative that absurdly overcompensated high-level college administrators love to sell: Don’t blame us if you teach six classes per year at three different institutions for $20,000 and no benefits! We just don’t have any money left, given all the “cuts” to higher ed funding.

In fact higher ed in America is pulling in way more money than ever before, on a real-dollar, per student basis. Some of this is a product of constantly rising tuition, but some of it is because public subsidization of higher ed (from all sources, not just state appropriations) is also at an all time high.

Thus you could say that highly salaried administrators are the class of people getting almost all the spoils of the contemporary higher ed system, because that happens to be true, and in the most extreme sort of way. While full-time faculty salaries have barely budged from where they were a half century ago — they have risen one-quarter as fast as the wages of the average American worker over this time frame — university presidents are paid on average three times as much now as they were then. This doesn’t even count the explosion in preposterous fringe benefits for the academic aristocracy — and the ripple effects of that fact have similarly pumped up the compensation of the ever-increasing number of high level administrators on university campuses.

Still, Petersen’s basic analysis, and especially her take on the psychological factors that keep people chasing after increasingly improbable dreams of a decently-paying career in college teaching, is very much on point.

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