The ‘Job Market’ That Is Not One

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

December 15, 2014

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the most infamous academic-labor study of all time, "Prospects for the Faculty in Arts and Sciences." The study, led by William Bowen, then president of Princeton University, set itself the task of projecting "demand and supply" for faculty a full quarter-century into the future—forecasting the so-called job market right up into our present decade.

Contrary to the widespread knowledge of permanent retrenchment and adjunctification, the study projected that a huge "undersupply" of people holding doctoral degrees would manifest by 1997. However, nothing of the kind transpired. In reality, the perma-temping of the faculty continued on the same steeply upward trend line as before.

The Bowen study’s misreading of the future raises two questions. What was wrong with the assumptions guiding it? And why did an effort with so many flaws receive such an uncritical greeting? The answers remain surprisingly relevant.

The Achilles’ heel of the study and of similar efforts still published by professional groups like the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association is their mistaken approach to the "demand" side of the equation. If at any point from 1989 to the present you wanted to publish a valid "labor market" analysis of higher-education research and teaching, you would have to begin with the acknowledgment that if it is a market, it is one with steadily increasing "demand" for labor, yes, but contingent labor, not traditional tenure-track jobs.

By 1989 the academic labor system was already two decades into "restructuring" the professorial job. All the evidence then available (data from the National Center for Education Statistics, testimony of job seekers, education-management literature, critical literature, budgeting and workload information, program growth) affirmed that most campus administrations were moving as much work as possible out of professorial jobs.

Since the late 1960s, under the rubric of "retrenchment," administrations had been reassigning the labor previously performed by tenure-track faculty to staff members, postdocs, contingent employees, and graduate fellows. Even undergraduates were already being mobilized to do work previously performed by faculty: grading, tutoring, mentoring, and monitoring of residence halls.

Against all of this evidence, Bowen assumed that the move toward contingent hiring was temporary. Explicit in his projections was the belief that when campus administrations could afford to hire tenure-track faculty, they would do so preferentially.

In order to accommodate this baseless core assumption, Bowen attributed free-market ideology to other data: Faced with the evidence that soaring numbers of grad students were compelled to take nonacademic jobs, Bowen erroneously attributed "free choice" to their involuntary dislocation. This error led to an even larger, and even more fictitious, projected shortfall in job candidates, because Bowen reckoned that doctoral programs would naturally have to expand in order to accommodate all of these people he believed were "choosing" to leave the academy.

To deal with the fact that tenure-track faculty hires were stagnant despite soaring enrollment, Bowen simply attributed a boom-bust pattern to this "market," called the bad years a bust, went looking for a boom—and voila, found one. Surprisingly, this literalization of the "job market" metaphor hasn’t been questioned, even by professional associations like the AHA and the MLA. If the academic-labor system isn’t primarily characterized by the availability of "jobs," it’s also pretty questionable to study it as a "market."

Traditionally, in most professions, the point of professional associations is to govern or regulate the preparation, hiring, certification, and terms of employment for members of the profession. Self-governing professions say who may do what work, under what working conditions, with what standards of education, and so on. Many labor economists look at self-governing professions as market-limiting, even market-eliminating, effectively maintaining a labor monopoly in recognition of the many years of preparation required to enter the profession, and in exchange for maintaining a service ethos with the society granting the monopoly.

So what’s different about higher-education professional associations like the AHA and MLA?

It’s not that the members don’t expect this sort of market-limiting effort: Both organizations, like many similar groups, have constitutions, policy statements, and internal governance motions committing the groups to take action on workplace issues like ensuring equal opportunity for all members (AHA) and recommending a national minimum wage per course (MLA).

Over the objections of their own membership and in conflict with the MLA’s constitutional mission to "further the common interests" of faculty in its fields, the staff members of both groups regard themselves as running "scholarly" and not "professional" associations, with few necessary responsibilities to maintaining professional terms of work. Both staffs see their responsibility as little more than providing information about the job market rather than the more challenging task of shaping it.

As a result of their bias toward quietism, both organizations have continued putting out intellectually untenable "supply side" analyses of the academic labor system and putting out economically naïve boom-bust charts of advertised positions, focusing primarily on what has long been the minority type of appointment, tenure-track hires. Decade after decade, despite mounting piles of serious scholarship looking at casualization (full disclosure: including my own), both organizations ignore the most-cited and significant analysis while pumping out uncritical ruminations regarding what they describe as an "oversupply" of people with doctorates.

This "supply side" analysis is utterly discredited, since any reasonable observer understands that the issues are on the demand side. More teaching than ever before is being done by people without doctorates, while our professional organizations sit on the sidelines.

But remove the preference of academic professional-association staff (and many graduate faculty) for sitting by passively, and an entire vista of normal activity for professional associations opens up on the demand side: Who should be teaching with what qualifications? How many courses should graduate students and staff be allowed to teach? When should part-time positions be consolidated? What is the role of tenure in protecting faculty with "teaching-intensive appointments"?

We don’t want our professional associations to wring their hands and provide information about the "available jobs." We want them to put their shoulders to the wheel and help make more jobs available.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University.