The Road to Dystopia

August 28, 2011

Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, depicts a near-future world in which two things matter far more than any other form of human activity: profit-making and genetic engineering. When two of the central characters graduate from their gated corporate community's high school, the one with a talent for bioengineering is admitted to the prestigious, wealthy Watson-Crick Institute; the one with a talent for words is schlepped off to the dilapidated Martha Graham Academy. A lot of what went on at Martha Graham, Atwood writes, "was like studying Latin, or bookbinding: pleasant to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything."

POLITICS AND THE UNIVERSITY: ▶ Views From Experts on Six Campuses

I think the world of Oryx and Crake is pretty much where we're headed in American higher education, with two crucial caveats. Our future will probably contain fewer biodisasters and more systemic financial disasters and dysfunctions than Atwood suggests. And the road to dystopia is going to be weirder and more sinuous than most people think.

Yes, the modern languages will continue to be the preferred first target for downsizers and retrenchers. But the second and third marks might not be so predictable. The University of Louisiana system offers an instructive example: In 2010, Southeastern Louisiana University eliminated its undergraduate French major, dismissing its three tenured professors with a year's notice—and then offering one of them a temporary instructorship. No surprise there, except perhaps for the Dickensian touch of that temp job offer. But then this year, I learned that the University of Louisiana at Monroe had similar plans for four tenured professors of chemistry. I admit that I didn't see that one coming.

Here at Penn State, we have been hit not only by the Great Recession but also by the election of a governor whose first budget proposed a cut of more than 50 percent in state appropriations for dear old State. Since we're receiving only 8 percent of our money from Harrisburg, and the governor's proposal would have reduced that share to 4 percent, some observers were tempted to suggest that the state keep the other 4 percent and let us go private. (My own suggestion was that we could make up the remaining $182-million by leasing the university's naming rights to various corporations in need of a quick PR makeover, like BP or Goldman Sachs, since clearly there would be no reason to call ourselves "Penn State" any longer.)

But so far, nobody has come after the modern languages with an ax. In the arts, the interdisciplinary Integrative Arts program for undergraduates is slated for elimination, and in the humanities, religious studies is apparently being allowed to die by starvation; but the doctoral program in counseling psychology in the College of Education has been cut, and Smeal College of Business's bachelor's degree in economics and master's degree in manufacturing management are being considered for elimination as well. The hardest and most dramatic hits, arguably, are the elimination of the recently revamped Science, Technology, and Society Program (where I hold a courtesy appointment and for which I had been teaching disability studies) and the $10.5-million cut in the cooperative-extension program in agriculture, which will involve roughly 200 jobs lost. My own budget at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities has survived just fine, thank you—it has been cut by only 2 percent. For this I am sincerely grateful. But I am surprised at where some of the deeper cuts have come.

But then, as we (should have) learned from Texas A&M's fiasco last year, when it tried to quantify "faculty productivity," strange things can happen when you open the hood and start poking around in university finances. Especially if you don't understand the first (or second) thing about university finances.

In September 2010, the A&M system posted online a report with detailed data on each professor's productivity—measured simply by grants and/or tuition dollars (purportedly) represented by course enrollments, minus each faculty member's salary and benefits. It was a ludicrous report, both driven by and filled with misinformation about what professors actually do and how much tuition students actually pay. But even by this unreliable metric, it was clear that the arts and humanities were not, in fact, the cash drain some of our critics had suspected. On the contrary, at Texas A&M, as elsewhere, we are among the cheapest dates in town: Our salaries are comparatively low (outrageously so when you factor in adjuncts and graduate students), and we take our jobs as teachers very seriously (we don't blow off our undergraduates so that we can write more grant proposals).

At the flagship A&M campus, it turned out, the College of Liberal Arts took in $21-million more than it spent. And the biggest losers? The College of Engineering and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, $1.8-million and $1-million in the red, respectively. If there were any Texas legislators hoping to play culture-war games with funds for the arts and humanities (and in Texas, it's a safe bet there were), they must have been sorely disappointed.

The one thing I can say with certainty is that as we slide perilously into what looks like Round 2 of a double-dip recession, there will be more aggressive and concerted attacks on tenure. With 13.9 million Americans unemployed and the vast majority of workers stripped of the last vestiges of job security, the resentment toward tenure—for college faculty and for schoolteachers alike—will mount.

It will be stoked by a new wave of anti-union and antilabor politicians and supported by increasing numbers of ordinary people out of work and out of luck. They will be joined by addled faculty members arguing that tenure stifles dynamic change, or that tenure only protects the incompetent, or that tenure depresses salaries, or that tenure has become the preserve of an academic elite and should be abolished on those grounds alone. Eventually we will move more decisively toward becoming a society in which day-to-day job insecurity is the rule for everyone save for our Galtian overlords, and novels like Margaret Atwood's will no longer be called "speculative fiction." But there will be some surprising turns along the way.

Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. He is chair of the Subcommittee on Program Closures of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and in 2012 will become president of the Modern Language Association.