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New monies are unlikely to flood into departments. There will be no fresh batch of hiring lines. Older faculty members are unlikely to retire, thereby slowing the organic creation of job openings. The cavalry is not coming.
We in history — and in other similarly afflicted humanities fields — must play the hand we have been dealt. What can we do?
1. Decrease the Number of Ph.D.s
First, we must accept fewer graduate students each admissions cycle. This would relieve much of the supply side of the problem. Already, we have seen at least 140 university programs restrict or suspend graduate admissions for the fall of 2021 in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As some have observed, this development, while obviously heartbreaking for prospective graduate students, is good for the profession as a whole, because it will reduce the supply of Ph.Ds. But reduced graduate admissions must outlast the pandemic if they are to gradually improve the state of the job market through artificial scarcity measures, which will simply bring the level of supply closer to that of demand.
It brings me no pleasure to suggest that fewer people should have access to graduate education in history. But I do not see any other viable option.
2. Reinvest in Tenure-Track Positions
Second, the monies saved by cutting the number of graduate students should be channeled into creating tenure-track hiring lines and/or improving graduate-student funding packages.
While the need to reduce the number of graduate students and increase the number of tenure-track positions has been noted by others, the two are rarely directly tied to one another. By using the savings from cutting the number of graduate students to finance the hiring of more tenure-track faculty, universities could drastically alleviate the supply side of the problem while also increasing demand, inching the job market closer to a healthy supply-demand relationship.
The average salary of a full professor (in any discipline) at my school, the University of Texas at Austin, was $183,800 in 2019–20. That’s the ninth-highest out of all public colleges and universities; private institutions, unsurprisingly, sometimes pay far more. Specific numbers for the history faculty at UT suggest a lower average salary when we include tenure-track faculty below the rank of full professor. We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that a new hire would cost an average of $150,000 per year (obviously most new hires will start lower than this but could hypothetically earn more at higher levels of the professoriate). History Ph.D. stipends at UT — not including insurance or tuition benefits — are $24,000 per year. Let’s just round that up to $25,000 to make the math cleaner; this is around the average I have seen at top history departments (though some elite East Coast schools pay $30,000 or more).
Under this plan, creating one new tenure-track hiring line would require cutting six Ph.D. lines.
Although there is some (slightly old) data on Ph.D. completion rates in history, the American Historical Association’s annual job report does not discuss completion or attrition rates, instead dealing strictly with the number of Ph.D.s awarded and jobs advertised in a given year. This means that we do not know exactly how many admitted Ph.D. students complete their Ph.D.s, which is when they become a data point in the larger supply-demand problem. Because a decrease in Ph.D. admissions would require departments to be more selective, it seems safe to expect some increase in completion rate. Thus, if a reduction in Ph.D. lines had the effect of increasing the completion rate and decreasing the overall number of students accepted into a program, it is reasonable to assume that the decrease in overall Ph.D.s would not occur at a 1:1 (or 100 percent) ratio, but rather at a lower ratio, for example 3:4 (or 75 percent).
In short, for every four Ph.D. lines cut, there would be a net of three fewer Ph.D.s awarded several years later. Therefore, funding one tenure-track position in each of the top 50 history graduate programs in the United States (by cutting six Ph.D. lines for each hiring line) would mean a reduction of 225 Ph.D.s and an additional 50 tenure-track positions.
Of course, there are far more than 50 history Ph.D. programs in the United States — 142, to be exact, as of 2018 — of varying sizes, levels of funding, salaries, and so forth. For smaller schools, which typically do not fund their students at the same level as R1 universities, it would make more sense to use reductions in the number of Ph.D.s to better fund those students that the program takes on, offsetting costs of living and enabling them to conduct research, thereby better preparing them for the job market.
Let’s assume that for the “bottom” 92 history Ph.D. programs in the country (in size and resources, not necessarily in quality), it would take two Ph.D. funding lines to better fund one student, essentially cutting cohort sizes in half. (This is roughly equivalent to the top 50 programs each cutting six Ph.D. lines to one tenure-track position.) Let’s also assume this would improve the completion rate, meaning the decrease in overall Ph.D.s awarded would result in a ratio of, say, 3:5 — that is, for every five lines cut, there would be three fewer Ph.D.s awarded. If we further assume that such a policy leads to a decrease of 300 Ph.D. lines from the “bottom” 92 history Ph.D. programs, there would be about 180 fewer Ph.D.s awarded, for a reduction of almost 500 Ph.D.s over all per year. (Program size is not perfectly correlated with university resources, as there are large programs at institutions with comparatively poor resources, and small programs at well-resourced institutions. I simply use the “top” and “bottom” designation to assume a degree of correlation between program size and quality of resources for illustrative purposes.)
Such massive cuts in Ph.D. lines would, of course, be the most extreme version of this measure; milder reductions are possible, like removing fewer Ph.D. lines to offset part of the cost of hiring new faculty members, or consolidating Ph.D. lines at a ratio of 3:2 instead of 2:1. Indeed, one could argue that it is good to have supply outstrip demand by some margin, as it means colleges have more choices and can hypothetically select the best job candidates. It would make sense, therefore, to enact less-extreme cuts in Ph.D.-cohort size; I only use large reductions here to demonstrate the potentially drastic changes resulting from this portion of my proposal.
Two final points here. First, my math does not consider unfunded Ph.D. students, because their lines cost the department nothing and therefore cannot be converted to tenure-track hiring lines. Second, some departments’ graduate-student stipends come from gifts earmarked for such purposes — this is a complex issue that would have to be addressed by individual departments.
3. End the Gerontocracy of the Professoriate
Third, faculty who are not positively contributing to the field through teaching or research — with different measures for each — should be encouraged to retire.
Since the mandatory retirement age was outlawed as age discrimination in 1986, the professoriate has gotten much older, with the number of faculty members over 65 nearly doubling between 2000 and 2010. Worse still, many seem reluctant to retire at all, resulting in something of a gerontocracy of the professoriate. Older professors’ resistance to retiring stymies the advancement of their younger colleagues and jeopardizes the development of cutting-edge scholarship by taking up what could otherwise become open tenure-track hiring lines.
I propose two measures to address this problem: a program of moral suasion by a professional organization, and a variation on post-tenure review to provide continued evaluation of faculty performance.
The first option, moral suasion, would involve a campaign by the AHA or Organization of American Historians to increase the discussion around faculty retirement. This approach could involve roundtables at conferences and discussions in journals and higher-education publications. Such a program should focus primarily on the question of when it is time for faculty members to retire, with special attention to student outcomes. Ideally, it would prompt older faculty members to consider the quality of their work and the effectiveness of their mentorship and teaching, pushing some to think more seriously about retirement.
Because it has no teeth, this measure is unlikely to produce a dramatic increase in faculty retirement. A more assertive, but doubtless more contentious, possibility is to institute a revised form of post-tenure review. It is no secret that post-tenure reviews can be tremendously controversial. But the fact that faculty members rarely enjoy them does not mean such reviews are bad. An external-review system, like that used by many universities to evaluate departments as a whole, could be quite useful here, though this of course has its drawbacks — such reviews are expensive, and the AHA does not currently have the capacity or authority to manage them.
Is a renewed, external post-tenure review process likely to catch on immediately? Of course not. After all, what tenured faculty member in their right mind would intentionally remove some of the protections they worked so hard to earn? To speed the implementation of such measures, universities should consider offering retirement bonuses or other incentives.
4. Convert Contingent Jobs to Tenure Track
Finally, departments must stop hiring contingent faculty to teach their courses.
Over the last few decades, universities have increasingly hired outside of the tenure track. All too often, departments bring on contingent faculty to teach their courses — only to deny their promotion or tenure applications or opt not to renew their contracts. The most-recent AHA jobs report indicates that although there was a slight decrease in contingent-faculty positions, postdoc and fellowship advertisements increased instead. Departments must resist these damaging trends, pushing for tenure-track hiring lines rather than contingent ones.
To date, universities have not managed these shifts on their own — so it may be time to devise new, external incentives. One promising model is former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s proposal, which would require that all federally funded public colleges have 75 percent of their courses taught by tenure-track or full-time tenured faculty. Such legislation could very well be necessary to reverse the adjunct turn and fix the jobs crisis.
The jobs crisis in academic history is not going to fix itself, and it requires creative thinking and bold action. I propose four measures to be implemented across the discipline: admit fewer Ph.D. students; channel those funds into either hiring faculty members on the tenure track or improving graduate-student funding packages; encourage retirement; and convert contingent positions to tenure-track ones. What might this four-pronged approach look like in practice?
My first recommendation, reducing the size of Ph.D. cohorts, would begin to affect the job market in five or six years, as students from those smaller cohorts begin to graduate. By 10 years from now, the pool of new Ph.D.s would be significantly reduced, more closely approximating the number of available jobs. Implementation of the adjunct-to-tenure-track-conversion proposal would likely also take several years.
If my second recommendation (channeling funds saved from Ph.D. lines into tenure-track lines) is implemented, the number of job advertisements would likely tick upward quickly, then fall to a middling level as those new jobs are snapped up.
The first two recommendations would be most effective in the short to medium term, although they would also increase the absolute number of potential jobs in the long run. My third suggestion, mandatory retirement, would help stabilize the number of job openings over the long term.
Many of these changes are less than ideal; some are unfair. But they are necessary if academic history is to survive.
If we do not act now, our profession will continue to eat its young. Today, graduate students produce innovative scholarship — a few articles, perhaps a book — and then are forced to leave the field for lack of gainful employment.
We can no longer brook such cannibalization.