The Chronicle Review

Faculty Immobility in the New Economy

Imagine the star system if no one could go anywhere

Jon Krause for The Chronicle Review

July 10, 2011

When Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr. left Duke University for Harvard University's African-American-studies department in 1991, it was his fourth work address in seven years. I remember a waggish response at the time featured a Top 10 list of reasons for his departure. One: "Why do you think they call him Skip?"

Gates's peregrinations were more frequent than we usually saw (even for him: He's stayed at Harvard for 20 years since), but they were broadly typical. Publication historically stamped the passports enabling faculty movement. Departments that sought to "improve" did so by hiring high-profile researchers. Notice that I'm using the past tense here. The academic "star system," as it's been named, is confronting economic weakness in one of its foundation pillars: The recession is now keeping many ambitious senior faculty members—especially those in the hard-hit humanities—in place.

That's because senior-faculty movement has dropped along with every other figure in today's employment market. The American Historical Association, for example, reports a decline of more than 40 percent in tenured openings (including endowed chairs) during the past two years; last fall there were just 52 openings altogether (though not including senior searches aimed at specific celebrity prey that are sometimes not advertised). The situation in English, another discipline that collects and breaks down its employment figures, is the same. Data from the Modern Language Association show an almost-40-percent drop in positions in English advertised at the rank of associate professor or above in the last two years, and only 61 positions at those ranks in 2009-10.

Eminent professors often change jobs—or at least they used to. But what if star faculty suddenly lost the ability to move from place to place? We may be facing that possibility right now.

Let me say at the outset that my goal is not to lament the losses suffered by the more fortunate members of the profession who already have secure jobs. The most distressing result of the shaky academic job market is surely the numbers of unemployed Ph.D.'s that it is creating and the consequent graying of the profession. If scholars with jobs encounter fewer outside opportunities than before, we needn't save many tears for them.

But we still should ask how the newly limited mobility of star senior faculty—and senior faculty in general—will affect the academic workplace. To consider the possible future, let's first look at the past.

Unlike baseball players, professors did not gain the right to become free agents at a specific moment. The change occurred over time, and resulted above all from the 20th-century growth of the American academic enterprise. In 1900 only about 2 percent of Americans attended college, and only 1 percent held a college degree. But education at all levels expanded rapidly in the United States in the early 20th century. About one-fifth of all people born in 1940 would go on to finish four years of college, a twentyfold increase.

Tenure insinuated itself gradually into higher education beginning in the 1920s. But the "publish or perish" ultimatum was still far away, as were thick tenure dossiers and outside referees. Instead, the tenure decision lay with a young professor's direct supervisors. Autocratic department chairmen (and I use the male pronoun advisedly) were the rule rather than the exception, and they could often make tenure decisions by themselves. If a department chairman liked a young scholar's work (or appreciated his attitude), he could make certain that his protégé received tenure regardless of publication record. If not, the chairman could deny promotion.

The academy was parochial by today's standards, and remained so until the 1960s, but it also created loyalty. Stanley N. Katz, the Prince­ton University historian and recent recipient of the National Humanities Medal, once described, in these pages, the faculty then as "a small but fairly coherent group of scholars trained at a few leading universities, committed both to one another and to the institutions in which they taught." Professors expected that they would teach at the same university for their entire careers, and most did. They also taught a lot more. Anthony Grafton, now at Princeton and the current president of the American Historical Association, was at Cornell University in the early 1970s. Senior faculty in the history department, he recently recalled in an interview with me, then taught a heavier course load than their junior colleagues, to aid the career development of younger faculty. In the early 1960s, professors at the College of William & Mary routinely taught five courses a semester, a load we now encounter primarily at community colleges. A survey conducted in 1970 found that barely 3 percent of the nation's English departments taught the light loads we see at most research universities today (a 3/2 load or less a year).

But we shouldn't get caught up in false nostalgia. Not only were tenure-and-promotion decisions a coterie affair, the people being decided on were, as Katz himself noted, almost entirely white and male. Part of the reason that genteel good manners prevailed is that everyone knew each other already. Moreover, faculty salaries were low in those days. The average salary of a full professor at the Johns Hopkins University in the early 1950s (including all fields) was about $8,000, which is just under $65,000 in today's dollars—a lot less than what Hopkins full professors make now.

American prosperity after World War II, the GI Bill, and then post-Sputnik research spending in the 1960s swelled college enrollments—and faculty. As the academic profession grew, research opportunities and publishing venues expanded with it. Learned journals and university presses multiplied, and their proliferation led to new practices that undercut the local power of dictatorial department heads. Peer review became the new standard for evaluation for publication, along with external review for promotion. The new system provided a more systemized basis for personnel decisions, and together the developments formed the basis for the faculty imperative to "publish or perish."

The demand for faculty meant that most departments couldn't afford to be very choosy, however, so not much perishing took place. Instead, the large numbers of job openings for professors created a level of faculty mobility unmatched before, or since. A retired faculty member reminisced to me about what it felt like to be a professor during academe's halcyon era. It was like a fantasy land, he recalled. Jobs were so abundant, "you could choose what region of the country you wanted to work in." If you didn't like where you were, or if you just wanted a change, you could readily move. The growth of American academe and the development of markers of achievement that could transfer across institutional borders thus enabled a shift from department to discipline, from institution to field of study. As Gregory S. Jay, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, recently wrote in the American Quarterly, for today's professionalized faculty, "it's not 'a job,' but a career, with which they identify."

Professors who published a lot gained the opportunity to move from one institution to another. As we all know, however, in the zero-sum game of academic workloads, an increased emphasis on publishing has meant a decreased emphasis on institutional service and teaching. That's because research is global, while "teaching and service are profoundly local," noted Grafton.

That game of musical chairs suddenly stopped in the 1970s. The economy tightened, the production of doctoral degrees outran undergraduate enrollments in history, and the straitened contours of the modern academic job market quickly took shape.

But the game didn't stop for everyone. Some senior faculty members could still move if they gained enough distinction—and they didn't need to attain the reputation of a Gates, either. Elite institutions continued to hire at the senior level, and so did many other large universities. A faculty member who wanted a change of scenery or to move to a university higher up the food chain could, albeit with difficulty, write himself (or herself now) out of one job and into another. That is the central feature of the star system: free agency for professors.

The standards of the star system have rippled across all departments and all institutions. Even colleges that don't hire at the senior level may lose faculty members to those that do. Faculty mobility, Grafton pointed out to me, is "an ecology," a system in which disruptions at one level cause changes throughout—like higher salaries for everyone. The norms of the star system have consequently penetrated all of academic culture, and the universal currency of publishing has gained in value everywhere. I'm not sure when the phrase "my own work"—used to describe one's publishing agenda, as opposed to one's teaching or service—arose, but it's certainly of relatively recent vintage.

Will the balance between department and discipline reverse if tenured-faculty movement stops? If they no longer have a chance to move elsewhere, will professors go back to identifying with their home departments instead of their discipline writ large?

First of all, star-faculty movement won't stop entirely. Field-defining intellectuals like Judith Butler—who is being courted by Columbia University and will soon leave the University of California at Berkeley for a visiting appointment there—will always be able to move. And as long as demand for diversity exceeds the number of faculty members who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, those professors will retain mobility as well.

The exceptions notwithstanding, academic mobility has surely decreased, and it shows no signs of resuming. So again, will the loss of movement change professors' priorities?

Not very likely, and economics is the reason. The intramural gold standard remains publication. One need not be a published economist to conclude that if most raises are awarded for publication, then most professors will direct their energies toward publishing. And the entire academic value system is built around publication: All of those vexed ranking systems that everyone complains about, but that everyone looks at anyway, measure faculty value mostly through publication and citation records. Publication is still the attainment that is most easily understood across institutional borders—and within them.

In 1992 the Modern Language Association charged a Commission on Professional Service to break down the traditional "research/teaching/service" boundaries and reconceive of service (certain kinds of service, anyway, like curriculum development or program evaluation) as intellectual work that cuts across the categories. "The basic principle of this new model," wrote the commission in 1996, "is that the quality, significance, and impact of faculty work are more important than the category to which the work belongs." The commission proposed two new categories: "intellectual work" (centering on the "advancement of knowledge and learning") and "academic and professional citizenship" (which sustains "infrastructure"). Guess which one still counts more in the calculation of merit pay at most institutions?

The MLA report, like other such studies, generated interest, but it didn't change the system. Nor will decreased faculty job movement change it. A current project, the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, financed by the Teagle Foundation to prepare academic leaders in the liberal arts, showcases the latest attempt to foster academic community, noting that tomorrow's leaders need to understand "performance measures" and "market forces." Sarah Igo, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University and one of the co-directors of the forum, told me she hopes that it will lead to a rethinking of institutional priorities "so that other work, like service, might be weighted more heavily." She adds: "We all work by incentive."

If the current economic situation persists, we'll see a lot of professors who will publish a lot even if they won't be able to go anywhere. That won't change until colleges reward faculty service more tangibly. Or to put it another way, I accrue more benefit from writing this call to service than I would for spending the same amount of time actually performing service within my institution.

Indeed, the repercussions of the employment market may heighten an existing disconnect between rhetoric and reward at many institutions. It already strains morale when research trumps service so thoroughly. An old saw tells us that academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Well, now they're getting smaller.

Maybe senior openings will come back when institutional confidence revives, but maybe they won't. Some commentators worry that today's situation may be "the new normal." But my guess is that a lot of things about the new normal won't be very new at all.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University.