[Marxism] The Last Professors

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 11 07:16:19 MDT 2008

http://insidehighered.com/news/2008/06/11/lastprofs.June 11

‘The Last Professors’

Two much-discussed trends in academe — the adoption of corporate values 
and the decline in the percentage of faculty jobs that are on the tenure 
track — are closely linked and require joint examination. That is the 
thesis of a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and 
the Fate of the Humanities, just published by Fordham University Press. 
Frank Donoghue, the author, is associate professor of English at Ohio 
State University. Donoghue recently responded to e-mail questions about 
the themes of his book.

Q: What prompted you to write this book? Does your career fit these trends?

A: More than any other factor, the career decision that prompted me to 
write The Last Professors was my move to Ohio State in 1989. I’d spent 
my prior academic life (undergrad, graduate school, my first teaching 
job) at elite private universities. Coming to a public, land grant 
university meant working at an institution that has no vast endowment, 
that is often strongly affected by the state’s economy and politics, and 
that is frequently forced to make very tough financial decisions. This 
new climate gave me an unmediated look at “how the university works,” to 
borrow the title phrase of Marc Bousquet’s new book. I reacted by 
reading everything I could find on the topic of academic labor (not much 
in 1990, other than Richard Ohmann’s English in America and Evan 
Watkins’ Work Time), and then began teaching courses on the subject. The 
book really grew out of those graduate seminars on academic labor, and 
I’m deeply grateful to the students who took them.

Q: What are the main reasons for the erosion of the tenure-track career?

A: I believe that tenure and the kind of career it makes possible are 
disappearing largely for financial reasons. Opponents of tenure are less 
likely to make political arguments against it — except in very 
inflammatory cases like Ward Churchill’s — but instead are now inclined 
to argue that professors’ labor costs too much. The casualization of 
labor is the global norm, practiced by employers everywhere. Academia is 
one of the last workplaces to come almost completely under this 
management philosophy, where payment by the job replaces the traditional 
salary, benefits and, in the case of professors, job security. Medicine 
and the law are currently engaged in less acute versions of this 
transition from one management system to another. Among the professions, 
only the clergy and the officer ranks of the military seem to be immune 
to the erosion of tenure or its equivalent.

Q: Many advocates for adjuncts say that tenure-track (and especially 
tenured) professors did nothing or far too little as academe was 
restructured. Is this true? Why do you think this happened?

A: Certainly most tenure-track professors were oblivious as the teaching 
workforce was restructured, and very few predicted how dire a problem it 
would become. Had we identified the casualization of the teaching 
workforce as a problem when it began to take hold in the 1980s, we might 
have been able to correct it. Paul Lauter referred to the misuse of 
adjuncts as a “scandal” in 1991 in Canons and Contexts, and he may have 
been the first to use language that strong. That we could have done much 
about it over the past twenty years presupposes that professors set 
hiring policies. At most institutions, professors have a lot of input in 
the hiring of other professors, but not in the hiring of adjuncts, 
either the people themselves or the terms of their contracts. Decisions 
about adjunct labor have, by and large, never been made by faculty, but 
have instead been part of larger administrative policies.

Q: How have humanities professors fared, compared to those in other fields?

A: The liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, suffer the most 
because they lack any connection to sources of funding outside the 
university. Humanists typically don’t do consulting work, they don’t 
compete for large corporate or government grants, they don’t have the 
option of working in the private sector (and thus insisting that 
universities pay a competitive wage). These factors conspire to put 
humanists in a bad bargaining position: We depend entirely on our home 
institutions not only to pay us a fair salary but to determine both the 
kinds of work and the amount of work we have to do (publishing, 
teaching, service, outreach) in order to earn that salary.

Q: You have a chapter on the role of prestige — how does this figure 
into your analysis?

A: For a hundred years, humanists claimed to follow Matthew Arnold’s 
exhortation to promulgate the best that has been thought and said. As 
universities have more and more come to function as occupational 
training centers, places where students come for vocational credentials, 
this charge has been emptied of any real meaning. It’s no longer 
relevant to the mission of most universities. And at those institutions 
where the liberal arts still flourish, prestige has taken the place of 
the Arnoldian mottoes. That is, the best universities now steer 
prospective students away from the content of the curriculum 
(literature, philosophy, history) and toward the signaling power of the 
institution itself. U.S. News & World Report has, since its annual 
America’s Best Colleges issue debuted in 1983, fixed this new principle 
by implying that the abstract notion of prestige can be converted into 
an assortment of rank-ordered lists. As a result, many universities 
present the narrative of their ambitions as a quest for prestige. It’s 
now one of the principal organizing fictions of American higher education.

Q: What are key steps that could be taken to restore the tenure-track 

A: The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors 
seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the 
hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly 
to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a 
great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, 
the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 
40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward 
vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced 
shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History 
majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a 
strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new 
higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never 
considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last 

— Scott Jaschik

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