A Modest Proposal for Immodest Times?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 10, 2012

So here's a curious development in academic history. There appears to be a "business plan" circulating among humanities scholars aimed at solving one of the more pressing institutional challenges many colleges and universities now face. This plan (whispered to us recently over drinks at a notable international conference) focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on the graying and balding of academe.

Thanks to an anemic economy and decent health care, the professoriate is working longer. As a result, golden-years walks on the beach, garden puttering, and daily rounds of golf are being traded for what passes for financial peace of mind these days: working until you drop dead.

As best we can tell, the plan's promoter seems to rank among either the grim mob of so-called terminal associate professors involuntarily frozen due to "upper intestinal blockage" (as one sympathetic rumormonger reported), or among people well informed about the now ubiquitous "trouble below decks"—that is, murmuring assistant professors and underemployed adjuncts (as a second grapeviner intimated). In any case, there can be no doubt that the plan's progenitor is profoundly (even pathologically) aware of the tenuous state of higher education.

The plan itself is simple, if macabre: the active "retirement" (think Blade Runner) of hangers-on by "academic wetware professionals." Well trained in skulduggery and the suasive and martial arts, these professionals are hired as a last resort and deployed to expertly sort out the most intractable personnel issues. With bold but seemingly unenforceable guarantees about client anonymity and "humane disposal," the set of contractual agreements—including details such as name, physical description, time in rank, and payment (alleged to be as inexpensive as the cost of a sabbatical)—are said to be exchanged via a complex series of geocaches protected by obscure puzzles that only the client's particular scholarly orientation could possibly decode.

All promises made and prices agreed upon, the rest of the scenario unfolds as a mystery even to the employer: a bit of strychnine in an almond-encrusted bear claw snatched at a late-semester faculty meeting; an unfortunately timed jostle at the top of the library stairwell on the first day of the fall term. "There were so many students around ... it's hard to know how it happened." Perhaps even a tragic roller-coaster accident during the fraternity-sorority charity spring carnival. However things play out, the result is the same: the opening up of a faculty line.

As if that weren't enough, one source admitted to hearing repeated talk of revisions to the plan, most notably the addition of an option for "early" retirement. Whether the expansion of services downward is coming from overworked adjuncts anxious for a crack at the tenure track or senior faculty members boiled over by four decades of salary compression, it seems clear that junior scholars, too, are to be added to the menu.

The culinary reference here isn't accidental. Apparently for only a modest additional charge, one can literally "feast on the flesh of thine enemies" as the holy scriptures ominously prophesy, though the only chosen people to be found in this new and disturbing moral desert are the intellectuals of yesterday and the administrators of tomorrow. Hopefully this promised land does indeed flow with milk and honey; it'll be needed to choke down all those gristled colleagues who are too tough to quit, or the sinewy ones who are too professionally hungry to slow down and give others a chance.

All things being equal, we suspect this plan and its revisions are something of a put-on, though it's hard to be sure given the wild and woolly world of academe.

At the very least, the plan underscores a suite of rather serious problems shaping personal and professional life in higher education, like the retirement issues explored recently in The Chronicle. For starters, it's getting harder and harder to retire to a life that doesn't feature such delightful highlights as canned cat-food dinners, newspapers for shoes, and a second career bagging groceries. Despite spending decades attempting to put the graduate-school garret and prison-quality rations of their youth in the rearview mirror, many would-be retirees are now finding that a faculty pension doesn't necessarily enable a lifestyle much beyond that of the half-decent six-pack (on sale, naturally) and dollar matinees of their student days.

Not that avoiding retirement is all about the money, of course. It turns out that old professors often know they've become obsolete but prefer to be given an office, an honorary title, and slowly forgotten rather than guillotined from the communis corpus. We are in a green era after all—reuse and recycle, as the saying goes.

There is also the love of the job, unquestionably, and the vivifying pleasures of working with bright folks and doing interesting things. It's hard not to feel energized, excited, and committed to the cause after a good class session or an especially productive committee meeting.

Raise such a sympathetic perspective with a newish Ph.D., who ripened on the vine a year or two ago and is now staving off the stink of stem rot, however, and you're likely to get an earful on the virtues of academic retirement communities such as Academy Village and the Forest at Duke. Such increasingly popular places—there are now at least a dozen in the United States—are specifically designed to cater to the intellectual vivacity of our society's geriatric brain trust, offering them not only a passel of opportunities to continue teaching and learning, but also an environment where they are finally rid of the ubiquitous "kid" running the department and the latest crop of students who—unlike back in the day—now hope to pursue baccalaureate degrees without sacrificing their multitudinous illiteracies.

In the end, there is something almost wickedly Hellerian about the situation: Those ready to retire cannot, while those inclined to stay face tremendous pressure to leave.

Yet where Catch-22 concludes on a hopeful note, things in academe appear a bit bleaker. For instance, where are the economic and cultural resources to help with retirement and retention going to come from, especially since today the one often flows from the other?

Certainly not from within the institution. At this point, many universities can barely afford maintenance crews, let alone reasonable faculty inducements for "timely separation." Corporate America might once have been an option, but in a struggling economy, any financial incentives its members might proffer are likely to be carefully calculated research-driven investments rather than expansive philanthropic bequests.

What's left is a faculty growing ever stymied by itself, and from which fewer and fewer folks seem to be getting out—alive or otherwise. And maybe that's the point behind the purported wetware specialist, the rakish rogue who circulates casually and inconspicuously during happy hours at academic conferences, ready to play the coyote to faculty vultures young and old. Why not hasten the process? What are we saving ourselves for?

Ethics and the trappings of polite society aside, we must admit there's something impishly appealing about the aforementioned plan for faculty, by faculty.

For one thing, it would represent the pinnacle of faculty governance: Academicians taking things into their own hands instead of having their problems "solved" by remote administrators who are themselves relatively powerless when it comes to such issues. And then there are the immediate and tangible outcomes:

  • The opening up of faculty lines at various levels (obviously).
  • An end to professorial paranoia (no more wondering if your colleagues are out to get you; of course they are).
  • The intense re-engagement with, or quick withdrawal from, administrative posts by colleagues suddenly aware that ineptitude could be hazardous to their health.
  • A peerless disincentive to request a spousal hire (unless you truly hate your spouse).
  • The potential to offload departmental event planning and catering costs to the families of the deceased (what's a funeral for if not a great opportunity to read your latest poem or share with a captive audience your most recent analysis of race relations in the European spelunking community?).
  • Excessive (if not necessarily genuine) collegiality (who in their right mind would want to make enemies?).

As far as disadvantages are concerned, we're having trouble seeing any, save perhaps an increase in paperwork for human resources. Of course, given our own institutional situations—we're unnervingly located in more than one of the proposed "personnel open reduction classifications" recently described to us by an unfamiliar gent wearing a "Rough Trade Records" T-shirt and a pair of Strike Gold jeans at a regional symposium—we'd likely be among the first faculty to be, ahem, "processed." That might be a point in the minus column.

Of course, we worry that simply by bearing this information to our colleagues we'll raise some hackles. Even (or perhaps especially) in academe, no good deed goes unpunished. Still, that could be good news for two lucky adjuncts somewhere.

Judd Ethan Ruggill is an assistant professor of communication studies at Arizona State University, and Ken S. McAllister is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Arizona.