Beyond Anger: Revitalizing the Culture of Higher Education

June 11, 1999

This month thousands of our nation's most talented people -- the ones who overachieved in school, won the highest honors, paid their dues in a long apprenticeships, and rightly believed themselves destined for success -- are graduating into unemployment in the midst of an economic boom.

A decade ago, in the middle of a recession, these graduates were told there would be ample opportunities for Ph.D.'s in a few years. But numerous unforeseen events have blighted the hopes of this generation. Now they feel angry and disillusioned, and they wonder whether anyone in the profession cares about their future.

I will be among these graduates. Like most of my classmates, I did not find a full-time teaching position. Yet I cannot face the alternative of accepting an entry-level job that requires only a bachelor's degree. Instead, I will return to my alma mater as a part-time lecturer and go back on the academic market next fall with my degree in hand, more publications, and more teaching experience, hoping that this time my luck will be better.

During the past year I have been guilty of contributing to the increasingly angry, divisive tone of academic discourse.

On one hand, I think expressing our feelings of betrayal and outrage has been positive. No longer can anyone claim the status quo is satisfactory. National attention has been drawn to the academic labor crisis, graduate student unionization is spreading, and real steps have been made towards reforming the system. (See a story, Graduate Students Win Concessions, from The Chronicle, January 8.)

On the other hand, some of what I said now seems regrettable, particularly my attacks on individual leaders of the profession. The gulf has widened between graduate students and their advisers, between tenured and untenured, and between faculty and administration.

The tenured faculty feel wounded by our accusations. They too rose through a harrowing struggle to their present positions. They too were mocked for not using their considerable talents to achieve a more secure life.

Indeed, almost every professor burns with the belief that ignorant and unethical people are better compensated and more respected. For most teachers, their relationships with students are their primary compensation. To be the target of their students' anger seems the final injustice. How can they see themselves as anything but scapegoats and martyrs?

Meanwhile, administrators are caught between the irresistible force of flexibility and the immovable object of tenure. A backlog of unretireable faculty draw the lion's share of resources, yet they resist teaching the large service courses that produce most of the revenue.

Faced with shrinking budgets, administrators naturally turn to cheaper, more flexible alternatives to tenure such as distance learning, teaching assistants, and adjuncts. And so the downward spiral begins: The resentments accumulate as formerly vibrant departments slide into hostile factions of haves and have-nots.

This culture of mistrust is the most serious obstacle in the task that lies before all of us: persuading the students, parents, alumni, employers, and politicians that we deserve a reasonably secure, fairly-compensated place in higher education. If we are to have any hope of reviving our morale and revitalizing our departments, we must look for a common ground and accept the necessity of compromise.

To this end, I have three general recommendations. The first two are obvious; the last one is controversial:

Rebuild relations with the general public. By rewarding aloofness and obscurity, academia has ceded the public discourse to its enemies. Professors should be rewarded for public service, social activism, journalism, and entrepreneurship in addition to original scholarship. They should be encouraged to expand their networks into the media, politics, and business. And graduate programs should include coursework and internships that foster relationships outside of the traditional academic culture.

Raise the status of introductory teaching. The service courses are the seedbed of future scholars and the primary source of goodwill among non-majors, who will later become our most important base of support. Yet our rewards system encourages the best of us to scorn this work, relegating our most public teaching to those with the least experience and institutional support.

Introductory courses should be compensated at the same rate as advanced courses, and all faculty members (especially the superstars) should be required to teach them regularly. Successful teaching in these courses should be rewarded with substantial bonuses, perquisites, and well-publicized awards.

Introduce a new system of academic employment. With the demise of mandatory retirement, ever-increasing life expectancy, and increasing needs for flexibility, tenure has become too costly for most institutions to sustain. While it provides academic freedom for an ever-shrinking minority, it is also a justification for denying that freedom to the majority of the faculty.

Tenure keeps most of us silent when we should speak, and it keeps us divided when we should unite. All too often tenure is the reward given to faculty members who demonstrate they have little to say about anything that affects their institution.

Although we should allow those who possess tenure to live out their contracts, we should embrace a new system of multi-year contract labor with strong incentives for providing full-time, appropriately compensated positions and universal protections for academic freedom enforced by a more activist profession.

A contract-labor system would break down the two-tiered system, would open the profession to previously excluded groups, and it would offer new career paths for graduate students and existing faculty. Most importantly, it would diminsh the incentive to exploit teaching assistants and adjuncts by enhancing long-term flexibility and redistributing overly concentrated resources.

Much as I would like to preserve tenure, I think we can no longer be absolutists on this issue; the so-called "angry generation" must make this compromise with existing institutions to enable our professional survival into the next century.

Who among this year's class of unemployed Ph.D.'s would turn down a higher-paying, three-year contract in the hopes of gaining a tenure-track position next year that may, in the end, only lead to another shocking disillusionment?

The next decade will be a period of traumatic change. We will finally see large numbers of retirements, an expansion in the size and diversity of the undergraduate population, a contraction in the size of graduate programs, an exponential increase in distance education, and -- I am sure -- the rise of contract labor instead of tenure.

Academia will demand more flexibility, greater technical skill, deeper dedication to teaching and community service, and a better understanding of public relations, politics, and business. There will be fewer lifetime positions, but there will be higher wages, more security, more academic freedom, and greater self-esteem for the majority of college teachers.

If only one or two of these reforms comes to pass, the culture of higher education will never be the same. It will be considerably better. Whether I or any of you -- the last newly minted Ph.D.'s of the 20th century -- will be able to participate in that future remains uncertain.

I think I'll stick around for a while and see what happens.

Bill Pannapacker is now a lecturer in the Department of History and Literature at Harvard University, and a candidate for the MLA Delegate Assembly. He welcomes mail and can be reached through his Web site at