Don’t Blame Me!

If you spend much time visiting academic departments, one thing you will likely notice is a strange generational gap that exists in many of them: there are tenured profs, who are usually in their 50s and 60s; adjuncts and a few postdocs who are generally mid-30s; and gaggles of grad students in their mid to late 20s. With time, the remaining profs will retire or die out and, one presumes given the trend towards “adjunctification”, be replaced by the armies of adjuncts and postdocs. Unfortunately, one also imagines that adjuncts (called “sessionals” here in Canada), like most high school teachers, will burn out after a few years in the trenches, teaching courses for a few thousand dollars a pop, without benefits, job security, or even office space in many cases.

Kevin Birmingham, a recent winner of the Truman Capote Award, has argued that the humanities “thrive on the exploitation” of these “contingent faculty”.  In response, Blaine Greteman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has said “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis“. My first thoughts upon reading this were “Yes, but…” It’s not like Greteman is wrong, here, but…

It really is a punishing system and more than a little exploitative. Megan McArdle has suggested persuasively that the hostility many academics feel towards “capitalism” or “corporations” might well come from working in such a brutal system for their entire professional lives. If anything, academia has been a laboratory for employment techniques that are becoming normal throughout the corporate world: short-term contracts, just-in-time labor, doing away with pensions or job protections. The abolition of the social contract between labor and management, in other words. Academics were just proletarianized early.

In response, one could huff “Well, they don’t need to work in academia, do they?” But, plenty do choose to leave. Having made the decision to walk away from the “job market” (which never seems to function thus) and, instead, work as a university cleaner, where the pay is actually better and there is more job security, I am sympathetic to this argument. Nevertheless, undergrads pay entirely too much tuition to be taught by greenhorn grad students and, eventually, universities might well run out of people willing to take on debt and strain their marriages for the chance to become highly trained just-in-time labor for courses that pay $3,000 for a semester.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the current situation, here and in many industries, is that no one is really “to blame” for the structural transformations that have taken place. Tenured academics gain from lightened teaching loads, but they can hardly be blamed, since they can’t hire for tenure track positions if university admins won’t open tenure lines. Administrators benefit from a bloated administrative level at most universities- the “director of student fun” and fifteen subdirectors and so forth- but can hardly be blamed, since they have to “compete” with other universities in the marketplace at the same time as they have lost billions in state funding and enrollments have soared. Meanwhile, state politicians can hardly be blamed for defunding higher education because, they claim, the public is clamoring for it. As for the public, well, I’ve yet to meet a great number of them who actually want the government to stop funding state universities, but anything is possible in these extraordinary times.

The results are what we see throughout academia and a number of professions. Specific policy decisions have brought specific outcomes. And yet, nobody can imagine how to change those outcomes for the better; certainly not through different policy decisions! Since no one is to blame, no one can fix anything.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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87 thoughts on “Don’t Blame Me!

  1. People look for somebody to blame out of a mystical hope that if the guilty parties are punished than everything could be made right again. The golden age of academia that is enjoyed in an indirect matter by many baby boomer professors was a result of the weird and one off post-War boom that lasted from 1948 to 1973. The changing economy required more university educated people and lots of people got tenured professorships in academia as a result. It didn’t really matter what the professors taught and what the students majored in. You just needed that bachelor degree for the most part. When the economy changed again into something possibly more dynamic but less stable than we switched to the adjunct model.

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  2. I’m a tenured prof, in my 40s, at a teaching-centered school. (My courseload, until very recently was 4/3/2 – last summer, because of low enrollment and budget cuts I got paid at the adjunct rate, exactly half my normal pay, for summer, and I said I wasn’t teaching summer again unless I could be guaranteed “full” classes that would get me “full” pay.*)

    But yeah. I find the argument being made “it’s the tenured profs’ fault” or, more commonly, “The tenured profs have to step up and fight for the adjuncts because they have job security and we don’t.” Mmmm, yes, true: but if an administrator really comes to hate you, they will find a way to make your life hellish even if you have tenure, or they sometimes DO find a way to trump up something against you. And also, some of us tenured folks are essentially running like crazy to stay in the same place and just don’t have the energy to take on ANOTHER fight – on my campus we were fighting for our existence last year (that may be a slight exaggerations, but it sure *felt* like it)

    I don’t know. It’s a problem. Adjuncts are less committed to the department because they don’t have job security and the pay is generally terrible (and there are no benefits: most campuses keep their adjuncts at or under the “magic” 29 hours work per week so they don’t have to pay for health insurance). And in the sciences, at least, it can be very hard to get qualified adjuncts – I have heard of adjuncts just leaving mid-semester because they got a better job as a dental hygienist or something like that, and leaving the students hanging (and often leaving one of the full-time tenured people to play catch-up for them, on top of their own classes).

    In my own department we have worked very hard to avoid adjuncts even though that means there’s a floating overload that comes to rest on a different full-time person each semester. (And I am taking on a new class this fall that I have never taught before and am not 100% qualified to teach: pray for me)

    I don’t know. Higher ed is a mess right now and on my bleaker days I wonder if I’ll make it to retirement age (I could retire in 12 years at the earliest) with my job intact. (And I say that as a tenured person). I suspect there was an over-expansion of higher ed in the past 60 years or so (and I say that knowing full well that my job might not exist without that expansion). I suspect a correction is coming, and I just hope to God it comes after I retire, or that I’m somehow insulated by being at a small school known for “affordability.”

    I love teaching but what’s going on in higher ed makes me sad. It’s not how it used to be, not even like it was the not-quite 20 years ago I started teaching.

    (*It is ALMOST as much effort to teach 6 people as it is, for example, to teach 15. You put in more effort in grading but in terms of preparation and wear-and-tear it’s the same. So it’s not worth it to me to work 40 hours a week for about $700 a month take-home pay when I could work on research or do editing work or something else that either earns the same amount for less work (editing) or that will advance me in some way (research)

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    • Thank you for offering this perspective. I suspect the correction might be here already, given that enrollments have declined the last few years- something I didn’t even realize until I looked it up. All the universities around here are expanding and building.

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  3. My uncle quit his PhD program in the late 1970s with an “ABD” because he realized that he would need to move to somewhere he did not want to live for a tenured position. Luckily for him, he was able to get into the computer industry at its infancy.

    My friends who are academics are not so lucky. I can think of one person with tenure and one other person who is tenure track in my circle.

    I don’t know whose fault it is. My theory so far is that the world is rich enough to allow lots of people to get graduate/advanced degrees in interesting subjects (and to develop the interest to get said degrees) but not wealthy or post-scarcity enough to produce enough jobs for them.

    Libertarians like to talk about opportunity costs but a lot of my friends who received graduate degrees in academic subjects are not really cut out for the corporate world. I’m a bit of an outlier for being able to handle both worlds seemingly. I can’t help but think that the process to turn an academically minded kid into a business/capitalism minded kid has got to be brutal.

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    • There’s also the so-called “Two-body problem” (as some academics jokingly describe it) for coupled people. It works better if one partner is in a more portable career (like being a businessperson: one of my colleagues married and her husband opened up a variant of the business he had been running elsewhere locally). But for couples where both partners are academics, it can be bad. In the past, some schools would make the effort to find a position for the second person, but nepotism rules have got stricter and budgets tighter…..so one partner often has to decide to have a different career, or be a “freeway flyer” or something equally unattractive.

      I am single, and I am living somewhere that is in some ways less-than-ideal for me, but at least I have a job. (I am both educationally – ecologist – and constitutionally unsuited for the corporate world)

      Sadly, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go into academia right now, unless they’re a super-super-super star who can write their own ticket and is planning on a career in research that has clear and immediate applications, like engineering or cancer-treatment or something related to energy…..

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      • One of my friends with tenure is married. I don’t know the romantic status of the other person in tenure track positions. But I know Erik Loomis writes about living several hundred miles from his wife, also an academic.

        The other adjuncts/lecturers I know have non-academic spouses with good careers mainly.

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        • I’ve long said academics need to be coupled with someone outside the academy. Not because of the “two-body problem” so much as a person NEEDS that outside-the-academy perspective. One of my big problems is I get so deep within my head that problems at work start to look like the ONLY problems and INSURMOUNTABLE and it would help if, for example, I shared living quarters with a plumber who could regale me with tales of the crap (literal) he had to deal with in a day, or something like that.

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    • Libertarians like to talk about opportunity costs but a lot of my friends who received graduate degrees in academic subjects are not really cut out for the corporate world.

      I know folks like that, but the reality is that there will never be enough academy jobs for those people, unless they are top tier in their field. Folks like this are the academic equivalent of kids who never leave the safety of their childhood home. I understand that the academic world is safe and known, and I can understand the appeal of staying close to that, even if all it gets you is the dregs. But I’m not going to have any real sympathy for those folks. Maybe some pity, but my sympathy is in short supply, especially if they’ve never even tried to find success outside of the academy.

      ETA: Economists talk about opportunity costs, libertarians just like to point it out when they see it.

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      • Sympathy is a little beside the point though. The problem exists because too many older academics still see this as a market fluctuation- there are too many PhDs in the pipeline and too few jobs right now, so just wait until there’s a boom cycle again and the market will correct itself. And, hey, if you’re just coming into grad school and won’t even be on the market for five or six years, this makes a sort of sense.

        But this is also bullshit. What’s happened is really a structural transformation of the industry. Tenure is being phased out and the big universities simply can’t function without letting in enough grad students to teach (or grade) the courses that the retiring profs would have taught. Ultimately, grad students are more desirable than even adjuncts because they can be paid less. But it’s become more than a bit like a pyramid scheme and really, if the grad students were all to wise up tomorrow and realize they were sold a false bill of goods and walk away, there are more than a few departments that would cease to function.

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        • And, hey, if you’re just coming into grad school and won’t even be on the market for five or six years, this makes a sort of sense.

          Oh, man, I remember that line in 2000, when I was being encouraged to get a PhD instead of just a Master’s. I knew it was BS back then, and 17 years on, that line is more than a little stale. If a prof or admin still uses that as an argument, they aren’t playing in reality, or they are pulling a con.

          if the grad students were all to wise up tomorrow and realize they were sold a false bill of goods and walk away, there are more than a few departments that would cease to function.

          Reminds me of the plea bargain scam, that if all criminal defendants were to suddenly demand actual trials, the system would collapse under the weight, or be forced to dismiss charges against all but the most serious. It says something about the nature of power in human societies, and how so much of it relies so heavily upon individuals being unable/unwilling to coordinate mass action because of individual risk.

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        • The problem exists because too many older academics still see this as a market fluctuation- there are too many PhDs in the pipeline and too few jobs right now, so just wait until there’s a boom cycle again and the market will correct itself.

          one of the more infuriating things about certain segments of the humanities phd pipeline industry – and something that’s only being addressed in the past few years at a handful of first tier unis – is that this particular trend is, in some places (especially literature) *four decades* old.

          that’s not a fluctuation – that’s a whole bunch of people being dumb in a no dumb zone while no one who should know better bothers to correct their incorrect presumptions.

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      • Yes and no. I agree with you that there are never going to be enough positions for the people who just really like school*. I am someone who really liked undergrad and grad school but saw the writing on the wall for academics. But there is still the part of me that will always have super-fond memories of Script Analysis for Directors and Playwrights and going to the library for research. The aspects of law that I like the most are the ones that closely resemble academic research like reading and interpreting case law.

        Another issue with when some libertarians is that they associate opportunity costs with earning money. Opportunities are not always wallet based.

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        • Don’t get me wrong, I loved university, and I loved Madison, and if it was feasible, I would have stayed there, winter and all.

          But despite Madison having a top engineering school, and top science departments, there was damn little opportunity in the city for engineers and scientists. I mean, there are public and private research labs, but little in the way of industry, and the university and labs would siphon of the cream immediately. You had to be pretty dense, or self-deluded, to think there would be any real opportunity in that town for fresh grads who didn’t have the 4.0’s and multiple internships/co-ops with major labs, and big name recommendations, etc.

          Honestly, the non-cream that did the best were the ones that left Madison, excelled at a private company somewhere else, and leveraged that to get back to Madison.

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  4. When I got interested in theatre my parents, more or less, indulged the interest. They took me to shows, were not censourious of the books I read, sent me to summer programs for the arts, dropped me off at the all-day David Lynch film festival, did not raise a fuss about me majoring in theatre.

    There are people who seemingly think this was wrong/bad parenting on my parents part because it put me on a course for a field that is not known for economic vitality. But I wonder what other people would do when their kids starting showing an interest in the arts/humanities? Would they brutally say no, psychological consequences and resentment be damned?

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    • I’ve struggled with this because I’ve wondered if getting the PhD wasn’t one of those “poor life choices” people talk about. Alas,the thing is I really can’t imagine my life without Nerval or Flaubert or Rimbaud or any of the other writers who I wrote about in my dissertation that became part of my mental furniture. I studied the humanities because my grandparents were “great books” people, even though they sold real estate for a living. They instilled in me this idea that these things matter.

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      • The argument isn’t that you should live your life without Nerval, Flaubert, or Rimbaud but that you should have pursued them on your time like other people play video games instead of studying them in a formal academic setting. Like Saul, I’m kind of skeptical of the ability to get academically or artistically minded kids into more practical kids without some level of brutality. The humanities are also where universities started along with law and medicine and it seem wrong to sacrifice them to the world.

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        • There is no need to. My theater/actress friend is mid 40s and is happily running her theater production company and acting. He parents originally invested in her start up (and I suspect have funded her expenses periodically when she’s been unemployed recently) and she’s content in her life. She lives in a studio apt, is very frugal, and takes tutoring/nanny/etc. type jobs to pay the bills. She’ll never travel much, other than to Manhattan, she’ll likely not ever get married, and she’s never live in a big fancy house or drive a fancy car. That’s the choices she’s made. As long as I, as a taxpayer, don’t have to fund her life choices, I’m cool with it. It’s not how I choose to live my life, but it’s not my life is is?

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        • Oh, I know. Truth is I would’ve been reading them in the stock room at the grocery store like I was before university. Can’t say I really regret doing what I did though. It’s not like I would have been junior vice-president somewhere at this point.

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    • My daughter is very talented in Art, she very clearly is gifted and interested. No, we don’t “brutally say no”, but we do point out the economics of everything, and the incomes of everything.

      Her drawing is breathtaking and no doubt will get better, we encourage it, the economics of trying to support herself on drawing are iffy. If she wants to give it a whirl then that’s fine, but my job right now is to make sure her other life skills aren’t lacking so she has options.

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  5. Rufus, I love this post. I love most, if not all, of your posts.

    I was an Assistant Professor of Computer Science in the late 80’s. I left the job in 91, and moved (back) to CA to work in industry, heeding the call, if you will, but really because I wasn’t succeeding at the level I hoped to as an academic. I don’t regret the choice, but I miss the life.

    I think it’s a bit different in STEM, because there is pretty strong and direct competition for the workers. I love, though, how you decided to be a janitor and also read. The career I went to was too intense, I could not maintain my academic interests and also keep my new job.

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    • Thanks so much. One of the great perquisites at my job is use of the university library- I have at least 30 books checked out at present. I’m also about 75% through rewrites on one book and on a third draft of another. If I get them published, I think it would be great if they read “Rufus F. works at Big Giant University, where he is a cleaner.”

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        • I’ve been on a few search committees and found myself amazed at the people who were not really qualified for the job (e.g., someone who was a cell and molecular biologist applying for a spot that required someone with experience in ornithology and mammalogy and who had done field research). The only thing I can say about this is it makes it easy to reject them and justify why to our EEOC officer…..

          I applied to about 30 positions. I got lucky, though it was also nearly 20 years ago when tenure lines were still more common. (I got three offers, took the best one)

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  6. So no one at the university is to blame? I have to ask, who else was there?

    Maybe the teachers are competing for funds with the new $15 million dollar student center annex, a new dorm complex, and 800 administrators with job descriptions that Dr Seuss must have made up, Just because a job can exist doesn’t mean a job should exist. The students don’t need a new annex. They don’t even need a student’s center. Really. They’ll find a place to congregate, quite probably a place that serves beer and pizza for profit. They don’t need dorms. The rest of humanity manages to get by quite well without living in such places. Students can too. Get universities out of the housing business because they’re terrible at it.

    Universities need to remember that they’re not just competing with other universities for students, they’re competing with all of life’s other possible paths.

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    • Well, the irony was a bit thick in that post. I think everyone involved could make changes and get costs way way down, but it’s really a matter of who goes first. Somebody has to pull the brake lever, although it looks like dropping enrollments are going to do that for everybody. It is also amazing to me that I’ll read articles about “Why are college enrollments down?” or “Why do less boys than ever go to college?” and the first line is never “Have you looked at tuition rates lately?!?”

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      • A dog walks into a bar and orders a martini. The waiter says “Hey, we don’t often see a dog ordering a martini in here!” The dog replies “With these prices, I’m not surprised.”

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  7. Like so many of your posts, there’s a lot to chew on here Rufus.

    I’m not sure if assigning blame will help in any case. Now assigning cause, that’s something that could help a lot. One thing that constantly fascinates me about your posts on academia are the administrators. The question I keep circling back to is “why?”. Despite the standard platitudes about making academia “more businesslike” businesses don’t end up with bloated support staff budgets – not the ones that stay in business at any rate. So why have all these administrative staff been hired?

    One possibility is that they are actually adding revenue, either by attracting more students to the university or by shifting administrative tasks from professors to (presumably cheaper) admin staff. But if this were the case, then surely costs would not be exploding.

    But that leaves us with the question of why universities are burdening themselves with high administrative costs in the face of tighter budgets? I get empire-building, but everybody empire-building at once in the same way in the face of budget constraints? That’s like an arms race where everyone starts selling their bullets so they can get their guns gold plated.

    As an aside, this attitude:

    Specific policy decisions have brought specific outcomes. And yet, nobody can imagine how to change those outcomes for the better; certainly not through different policy decisions!

    Is actually really common, most people find it nearly impossible to imagine government policy that is more than slightly different to the status quo, I see this all the time both as an economist and someone who comments on foreign politics. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people declare an idea was impossible or unworkable, when I can think of multiple examples of it working perfectly fine in the real world.

    In a lot of ways, I feel like I have more affinity with socialists than many people who are nominally closer to me in political views. Socialists at least understand that things could be different to how they are, even if I think the specific changes they advocate are a bad idea.

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    • It’s like an insane arms race at this point. The university where I work wants to outsource the facility services department and replace us with contract workers who will make a few dollars less per hour and have no benefits, because “provincial funding is down and we need to save money for the students”. Meanwhile, they’re building three satellite campuses in our city and have amassed a capital expenditures budget per annum of about half a billion dollars because “we need to compete with the other universities in the province”. The answer you get depends on what you’re asking.

      The lack of imagination is definitely a problem in politics too. I’m always amazed that people, when they want to come up with solutions to a problem, never seem to work backwards to figure out what went wrong. Instead, they talk like the results of poor planning are akin to weather patterns.

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    • I get empire-building, but everybody empire-building at once in the same way in the face of budget constraints?

      What “budget constraints”?

      How many Colleges have actually had to *reduce* their costs? Colleges have passed their costs onto students, students pay for them via loans, full stop.

      Further these empires are popular with the students, and the professors, for ideological reasons… and often the colleges have promised to create them at gun point (i.e. do it or we’ll riot) by the students.

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  8. I really wouldn’t say “academics were just proletarianized early.” They are probably among the last types of employees to be proletarianized so far.

    I don’t know whom to blame, either or, like Lee or James above, don’t know whether blame is the right approach.

    However, even though blame is hard to assign–and even though it’s not very fruitful to try to assign it–I think it’s understandable that the more contingent people in academia would complain about the tenured faculty above them. Most of the ones I know personally (with two exceptions) are hard workers and fully earn their keep. But a large number of them (maybe half, maybe more) talk and otherwise act with a kind of swagger that suggests they believe they’re the keepers of truth, and how dare anyone ask them to do something they deem beneath them, whether it’s honoring their own office hours (which they set up themselves) or advising students or coming to campus more than two or three days a week. (I remember several years ago there was a planned furlough day, and the faculty decided to all take their furlough day on a Wednesday, to drive home the point about how much the university depends on them. I suppose if they had chosen another day, people wouldn’t have noticed as much.)

    I say it’s understandable but that doesn’t make it right. What appears to be “swagger” to me might just be an outgrowth of the type of envy or resentment that people reserve for those just above them or for those whom they have to serve or smile at. That’s similar to a point made elsewhere (I believe by the commenter Switters) about how service workers tend not to like their clientele, regardless of what class that clientele belong to. (And to be clear, while I’m technically “contingent,” I’m also full-time, with benefits and a salary higher than I could get in the private sector. To adjuncts or people with less job security than I have (knock on wood) at the moment, I probably convey that sort of “swagger” that I perceive as tenured professors having.)

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  9. The problem I see with things being “contingentized” – it’s the difference I see between shopping at the wal-mart and driving to the quilt shop a couple towns over where the owner is usually the person behind the cutting table and cash register.

    If you don’t have “investment” in a system, if you know you could be let go for no good reason (we had people who were fired “without cause” during the last round of budget cuts, including a colleague of mine who had been there longer than I had but who had never sought tenure), you may be less eager to “go the extra mile.”

    Customer service in the US has suffered in my lifetime. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. What has changed is that people working as clerks or cashiers or stockers or whatever have fewer colleagues (more work added on to each person), the jobs are seen as more “disposable,” they are seen as more “disposable.” I’ve gotten frustrated more than once with someone who either didn’t know how to help me because they were poorly trained, or who didn’t want to provide help because they were disinvested in their job because they were making minimum wage without benefits and reported to a faceless and ever-changing train of managers.

    I don’t know. Part of this may be middle-aged me going “But didn’t the grass use to be greener” but I do think a lot of things have gotten worse and I can’t quite pinpoint how or why.

    (And I try not to have “Swagger.” I agonized mightily over the furlough days – I took Good Friday, already a day we got off, as one, and took afternoons when I had no classes as others. I wound up grading during them even though we were told we weren’t “allowed” do do work, because otherwise, how does the work get done? People have accused me of still having the “scared grad student” mindset because I won’t do things like cancel office hours….I prefer to think of it as “I don’t want to screw over the students” because the students are the ones I’m here for. I could do without the pronouncements and like of some of the higher-ups here, but I try not to snark about it to the students…)

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    • Sounds like academia is suffering the same trust/loyalty rot that has been affecting business for a long time.

      IMHO, the rot in business comes from focusing more on costs/profit/shareholder value & less on “are we doing the task this business was intended to do?”. I could see the same problem affecting for-profit schools. Like above, I’m uncertain what’s rotting out the traditional academy.

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        • If you look back, business has always struggled with trust/loyalty. Back before the labor movement took off, trust/loyalty would rot out the bigger and more capital intensive a business got (a small mom & pop place would have a lot of trust & loyalty, but a large factory with lots of unskilled and easily replaceable workers would not).

          The labor movement kind of forced trust & loyalty to happen, and for a time the value of those ideas was perceived by all. The business started focusing on (IMHO) the wrong thing, and Unions became too concerned with their own power, and the trust & loyalty began to rot.

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          • . Indeed this was the case if you read the second volume of Marry Kliens series on the Union Pacific you see how during the 1910s at least the UP worked to build esprit de corp with bands and the like, Or to take family history, My grandfather worked for Ge and back before 1920 they had swim teams and the like. You see some companies trying this today, others just don’t care.

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      • At my uni, a series of budget cuts and just a general spiralling down of funding and enrollment, while trying to keep tuition in check, means many, many departments are understaffed. Mine is, and it’s not even as bad as some (we are short two full-time people. There are some classes that get taught once a year or once every two years that perhaps could be taught every semester, and there are the floating overloads).

        I dunno; I chalked it up to “the gradual crappification of everything” but then again, you’re right, there has to be some cause, but I don’t know what it is. Maybe the dilution of the value of a degree? Maybe the loss-of-confidence by the general public, when they see (for example) people with Master’s degrees working (not by choice) as baristas?

        There also has been a lot of mission creep in the academy, which might be related to the “are you doing the task” question: we do a LOT more “hand holding” and lifestyle stuff for the students than when I was a student. I can’t tell for sure if that’s the difference of 30-some years of time or the difference between a Public Ivy (my alma mater) and the commuter/underserved groups school I teach at now.

        I do know no one did any kind of “exam week stress relief” activities for me when I was a student. I think a couple people in the dorm organized an ad hoc primal scream session one evening, but that was about it.

        Also there’s SO MUCH MORE paperwork we all have to do. Not just profs; staff and admins too.

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        • I do not understand the excessive focus of schools deciding to act in loco parentis. Perhaps it’s source is ill-conceived government mandates, or maybe it’s just too much caving to student demands, or a combination thereof. Very little of the ideas a school offers are bad, but why is the school expending resources for it? Yes, a school should support Exam Week Stress Relief and maybe allow it to happen on campus in some fashion, but should it have a full time staff to plan and direct it?

          Seems like a loss of focus on the core mission.

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          • Lawsuits. That’s what I’m blaming it on.

            I admit I’m kind of shirty about the whole “comfort giving” thing because a few semesters ago, they sent around an e-mail requesting faculty volunteers to serve “breakfast at midnight” to students during exam week. Never mind that faculty have their own exam-week stress (it was a fall semester so I had 20-odd computation and essay intensive biostats exams to grade, on top of the more-objective ones in my other classes). My bigger objection was the expectation that I’d willingly give up that kind of sleep, and that (as a single, live-alone woman) I’d be comfortable driving up to campus late at night, parking the distance from the cafeteria I’d have to park, walking there, and then walking back to my car.

            I ignored the e-mail. They didn’t ask next semester and I’m wondering if that’s because they had too few volunteers.

            There are some folks on my campus who are very fast to go “You know what would be great? If the faculty just did X” where X is some time-consuming thing outside of our regular duties/hours or that requires us to invest our own money to make it happen. There’s no consideration that faculty get tired too, or have budgets they have to stick to, or maybe have stuff going on outside of campus life.

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            • Lawsuits. That’s what I’m blaming it on.

              That’s my recollection. There were enough decisions finding schools at fault for not properly looking out for their younger students in particular that it became a matter of risk management. “We did all of these proactive things” may not be a winning argument all of the time, but it’s a whole lot better than any of the alternatives.

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              • But how can the school be liable, unless the school is enforcing a restriction somehow that implies liability?

                Or are you saying that courts actually decided that because a school insisted a student take an exam to get course credit, the school was liable if the student freaked out and tried to commit suicide because of it?

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                • As I recall it, the big thing was when juries started finding that the schools were responsible to some degree for the mental health of their students, especially the younger ones, outside of the classroom. Keep them away from alcohol; see that they learn critical skills like time management if necessary; identify and try to fix social isolation; control harassment.

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                  • I’d say it’s a combination of lawsuit fear and the idea that it adds some sort of quality to the college experience that might boost enrollments slightly or justify tuition increases. Heck, we’ve had students complain indignantly that they pay too much to attend university for the low quality of toilet paper we put in the bathrooms!

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                  • That’s insane. I can understand an organization like the military being required to be responsible for such things, since the military imposes significant restrictions upon it’s membership; but unless a campus is doing something similar… Maybe it was the whole freshman residency requirements, or were those born out of the lawsuits as well?

                    Note: I was a transfer student and a vet, my college experience was probably very different from the kid straight out of high school.

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      • Oscar Gordan: I’m uncertain what’s rotting out the traditional academy.

        They’re an uncompeditive rent seeking monopoly who hasn’t been subjected to normal market forces. They have political/legal support, subsidies, etc.

        Rot is expected.

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        • Wrong rot. A rent seeking monopoly free from market forces would tend toward internal protectionism (employees are secure absent criminal conviction), e.g. police departments.

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          • A rent seeking monopoly free from market forces would tend toward internal protectionism (employees are secure absent criminal conviction)

            Runaway empire building is exactly that. UofM (University of Michigan) has roughly 41k employees (news) for 44.7k students (wiki).

            The employees poorly served by this are the ones who deal with the students (adjuncts) because they’re not part of anyone’s empire. That this poorly serves the students and the people who interact with them is expected. It’s gotten bad enough that (long ago) the U(s) decided to cut muscle to increase fat.

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    • If I had had more time this morning, I would have added a coda to the effect that your comments (here, at Hitcoffee, and your solo blog) have driven home for me the types of stressors tenured faculty face. So what seems like “swagger” to me is probably (often) better viewed as “how people act when faced with the challenges of their position.” My perspective is also probably skewed because most of my higher ed experience (save for 2 semesters of adjuncting at a university that liked to claim it focused on teaching and “social justice”) has been at research universities.

      I agree pretty wholeheartedly with your point that contingentization creates a strong incentive for the contingents not to invest themselves in the institution. When I (briefly) served as an adjunct, I made a point at the end of the semester to give students my personal email so they could contact me for recommendations, etc., in case/when I would no longer be affiliated with their school. But I had almost no institutional knowledge of or investment in that school.

      I hesitate to say it scales to customer service in the way you suggest. My reasons for saying that are partly irrational (or at least emotion-laden) because of my own customer service history and listening to people explain why the service I provided wasn’t as good as they thought it should be, even if they were right about the reasons. (In part, they were probably mostly right. In part, I just got resentful because I usually–but not always–tried to do my best to help people and sometimes one makes mistakes or has an off-day.) I also have a very complicated relationship with and views of employers and business owners that makes me wary of the romanticism about smaller business owners who supposedly treat their customers well. They do (at least sometimes), but there’s a lot of pressure on the worker to be grateful or s how loyalty, and that can be stifling. (Or not….it might be my own complexes at work.)

      That said and putting aside all my prios, you might very well be right that making jobs more disposable probably results in lower quality customer service.

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      • Honestly, my bar for “good customer service” is pretty low. The examples I give of “poor service” were the young woman at the makeup counter in the department store who raised a finger to me (the index, not the one you’re thinking) to make me wait so she could finish what was pretty clearly a non-emergency phone conversation before helping me.

        And the person at the make-up counter in another store, after I waited for 10 minutes for help and then started wandering off, yelled that she was “busy” and there “weren’t enough people working”

        (I go to Ulta now; I can buy my makeup without people having to get it for me)

        And the woman in the department store who was too busy having a conversation with a co-worker and made me wait five minutes, with her back turned to me, before ringing up the coat I was buying. Again, from what I heard, it sounded like a gossip-conversation, not an essential one.

        I get annoyed when the assumption is I have infinite time for things like waiting for someone to help me – I get a few minutes at a busy time but 10 or more when the store is not busy? I’m gonna walk out of the store.
        ****

        I’m probably TOO invested in my institution, and my usual response to the stressors of my position is to work even harder or, deep inside myself, curl into a little ball and rock back and forth. I tend to worry too much about how I look to other people and have too much concern about seeming “perfect” which has the side effect of too many people apparently thinking I have things under control, which I so do not.

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        • Honestly, my bar for “good customer service” is pretty low.

          Ah, Texas is catching up to NJ. I lived in NJ from 1978-1988 and customer service was atrocious. I was regularly tempted to hop across a counter, grab a clerk by the shirt front to get their attention, and yell, “Take my money!” When business travel took me west of the Mississippi I had to be careful to avoid grossly overtipping for normal service that seemed extraordinarily good by comparison.

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        • I get touchy about these issues and frankly can’t look at them dispassionately, which makes me come off as self-righteously indignant at any and all criticisms against “the workers” even when such criticisms are well-deserved. I can’t deny that those things happen. Perhaps part of this is that I grew up in the part of the West where Michael Cain now lives, and perhaps customer service culture was (a little) different from what you experience. (Still, that state is right next to yours, so it’s probably not that much different. Maybe things have gotten worse.)

          As for your other point about investment in the institution and feeling as if you have to appear perfect and competent–that is rough. I’m probably not as invested in my institution as you are in yours. But then, I’m on a year to year contract, and there’s always the chance that contract won’t be renewed, which on some level might lead me to be more “invested” but on another level hampers my desire to invest fully. (There’s also my mixed feelings about my institution’s mission and the way it goes about implementing it, but that’s another story.) I do experience the pressure to try to appear perfect. Being on contract is part of that. If I’m less than perfect in the wrong ways, then I’ll lose my job. Or at least that’s the feeling.

          I realize we were talking about you and I just started talking about me. Sorry for that. From what you’ve written here and elsewhere, it does sound like the pressures you face are somewhat different from mine. And because I’m usually on the other side of things, perspectives like yours are something I need to understand.

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          • Nah, that’s okay. I talk too much about myself here sometimes.

            The whole “investment and must be perfect” thing is really more “my stuff” – I care far too passionately what people think of me, and also, some days it feels like my career is ALL I have (a definite downside to never having married or had children) and so if things are going badly there, it makes me question my entire life.

            And I often feel like my diligence is the only thing I am above average at….so I lean heavily on that, perhaps more than I should, as evidence that I’m “okay.”

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  10. I think from the perspective of your concerns, it’s going to get worse. There is going to be less tenure. Though I’m not sure if that will equal more adjuncts.

    Higher ed is too expensive and, though no one can accurately predict the future, is ripe for some kind of Uber like transformative moment. I suspect it will involve more online education and greater use of learning management systems like Blackboard such that individual instructors will be able to handle more students.

    I’m hoping to survive it. Though I teach a great deal of online courses in my load.

    Textbook publishers, by the way, will go first and have their Uber moment. Look up “Open Educational Resources.”

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    • I think it’s coming. I know some of the sessionals and postdocs in my city are talking about offering the same courses we have at universities at a local lefty co-op mostly to see how cheaply we can do it. There is a definite distinction between the students who want the education for itself and those who need a degree for a job. For the former sort, it might end up with something like the original universities where the students basically passed a hat at the end of the course.

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      • A very much back to the future idea. The European Universities started out this way. Perhaps set up a testing only institution as the University of London first was to provide credentials. No credit hours residency, just can you pass the exams.

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    • Higher education has some unique features that might make it immune from uberization. Many STEM courses and vocational courses require lab or field work. You can’t really teach this online. There is also the prestige factor for the highest levels of government, corporate, and legal work. I’m not even sure if medium or lower level employees are going to want to higher somebody with an Uber equivalent of higher ed. There is a big collective action problem in who goes first. A lot of people are still going to want the college experience in person rather than online.

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      • Oh, we COULD Uber-ize. The question is, is the loss in quality of skills of graduates worth the cost savings? Especially for STEM type classes or things like music, though music would also lend itself well to a more of an apprenticeship model (Well, probably everything in higher ed MIGHT, but I suspect an apprenticeship model would be even more expensive than current higher ed)

        My father is a retired professor and whenever I worry at him about MOOCs and “everything going online,” he reminds me about how IETV was going to be the wave of the future back in the 1970s. (Filming the prof and then broadcasting it to distance sites, or showing the films on local PBS). I am not quite as sanguine as he is about online education being no more successful than IETV was, but then again, he’s drawing two pensions from two separate schools, and I’m out here still trying to make ends meet on my regular salary.

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    • Stuff like textbooks (which are an actual racket) and some lower level STEM programs that should be more vocational anyway maybe able to Uberized via streaming and paying people $10/hour to review tests or whatever, but as Lee said, there’s lots of math & science course that kind of require in person contact and from my own anecdotal research, people involved in the humanities don’t do great getting the info just watching an hour lecture on Youtube, then doing the readings.

      Could you streamline the community colleges to be something like that? Maybe. But as much as some people don’t like it, part of the college experience, even fifty years ago, was being among a community of people your own age, growing and changing yourself, not watching a bunch of lectures via streaming options and discussing it on a message board provided by the college.

      Plus, there’s the underlying message of “Uberization” meaning “lower labor costs and move the extra profits to private hands” to me.

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      • Online labs are a thing. I think it will come down to whether or not people are willing to give up the competency lost in not actually manipulating whatever the thing is in a “real” lab for the cost-savings of online labs.

        We get transfer students who took their intro-level courses all online, including simulated labs. Their lab technique is generally terrible, and I find I have to go back and do a lot of re-teaching of stuff like “No, you do not use a beaker to measure out a quantity of liquid; they are not sufficiently accurate” and “this is how you use a pipetter”

        They are also very unsure of themselves working with “stuff” and I think that doesn’t bode well for their future employment if they have to work with ‘stuff.” I have a colleague who says he can tell which students played with Lego as a kid (or similar) and which did not by comfort level with trying stuff…

        I wouldn’t go to a doctor whose basic experience was all online, but I don’t know that we’ll be able to check that in the future.

        A few years ago a lot of people here were saying we needed to move heavily into the realm of MOOCs. Never mind that the point of a MOOC is that a “superstar” at a big name school can do it better and cheaper than we could, and of course people will go for the big name. And then the Eeyores came out pointing out that MOOCs will mean massive unemployment for the non-superstars like us.

        I dunno. I fall somewhere closer to Eeyore than I do to Tigger on that spectrum and I just hope I can see teaching in person through until I hit 60 and can retire.

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        • Do you think teachers in your field could teach at home, or at least a dedicated lab/facility at their residence? Maybe a much reduced class size, with a head count of around 4-8?

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          • The cost of retrofitting my house to be a lab would take a v. long time to recoup. Not to mention many places, zoning would prohibit that – there are places where zoning prevents stuff like house-churches because people don’t want all the “strangers” parking in their neighborhood.

            My house is too small, anyway. I’d have to buy a bigger place. And also, because of my personal issues, I would be unsettled having my students in the place where I eat, sleep, and relax: I’d rather rent a studio type setting somewhere.

            Also, there are OSHA laws to be complied with, for things like the soils lab I teach. Compliance is doable in an institutional setting; it would be a real effort to keep up with all the paperwork and inspections on my own.

            I think for lab classes there is an economy of scale having a dedicated facility has that doing it out of your own space would not meet. Different in the arts, perhaps, certainly different in humanities and music and the like.

            (But even in the arts – stuff like pottery glazes have MSDS sheets, too)

            My campus is actually going the opposite direction: unused office space is rented out to some small businesspeople. That makes sense, I think.

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      • Being part of a community of people your own age has been part of the college experience since they first appeared in the Middle Ages. Uberizing academia sounds like making what everybody hates about the current model and putting it on steroids.

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        • That’s true for some people, maybe even a majority (and it was mostly true for me), but there are a lot of non-traditional-aged students for whom that isn’t true. The same classroom might have “traditional aged” 18-22 year olds, others in their late 20’s and early 30’s, and still others even older. That’s probably not necessarily a bad or good thing. It probably depends on the person(s) and instructor(s).

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    • I have to agree with the others, there is a certain amount of hands-on learning that has to happen in the STEMs, and even in some of the arts, so those facilities will always have to be available.

      And I agree with that engaging in a community of peers with similar interests is also very important, and it works much better if that engagement is IRL.

      That said, the longstanding model of lectures is something that could be done online, with labs and in-person discussion sections rounding it out. This would reduce a lot of the facilities overhead for campuses, &/or encourage campuses to become more diffuse (instead of one massive central campus, you’d have more smaller satellite campuses that host the labs and discussion sections – thus allowing for more commuter students).

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      • Agreed, in fact you could even have the lecturer not be from your institution but instead be someone who could communicate well in lecture. An example might have been to have online lectures from Feynman for Intro Physics (although we do have parts of these in the Feynman Lectures on Physics).

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  11. I just ran across something relevant in a Camille Paglia interview published today.

    How should young people preserve free speech?

    Stand up, speak out, and refuse to be silenced! But identify the real source of oppression, which is embedded in the increasingly byzantine structure of higher education. Push back against the nanny-state college administrators who subject you to authoritarian surveillance and undemocratic thought control! I sent up a prophetic warning shot about this in my 1992 article, “The Corruption of the Humanities in the US,” which was published in London and is reprinted in my new book. The rapid, uncontrolled spread of overpaid administrators on college campuses over the past 30 years has marginalized the faculty, downgraded education, and converted students into marketing tools. Administrators are locked in a mercenary commercial relationship with tuition-paying parents and in a coercive symbiosis with intrusive regulators of the federal government. Young people have been far too passive about the degree to which their lives are being controlled by commissars of social engineering who pay lip service to liberalism but who are at root Stalinist autocrats who despise and suppress individualism. There is no excuse whatever for the grotesque rise in tuition costs, which has bankrupted families and imposed crippling debt on students trying to start their lives. When will young people wake up to the connection between rampant student debt and the administrator-sanctioned suppression of free speech on campus? Follow the money—the yellow brick road leads to the new administrator master class.

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    • I enjoy Camille Paglia’s books and agree with what she’s saying here. But, there’s a flip side of this that we haven’t touched on (I think because it’s an uncomfortable topic in general in academia.) The overgrown canopy of administration that has blocked out the light to those of us lower down in the academic jungle has also done much to standardize grade inflation through the back door simply by making adjuncts’ continued employment contingent on positive student reviews and pushing this customer service mentality. It obviously varies from school to school and instructor to instructor, but I’ve seen it often enough to know that it’s a dirty open secret.

      Ultimately, the customer service mentality is what has to go, and that will starve the “administrator master class” she talks about- what others have called the “accountability regime”- that tries to micromanage all aspects of college life. But, the general watering down and commercializing of education has helped plenty of students who wouldn’t still be in college otherwise.

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      • “making adjuncts’ continued employment contingent on positive student reviews and pushing this customer service mentality”

        Ouch. Of course it did. And we’ve got rumblings of problems with credentialism and diploma inflation.

        Except, of course, in the STEM departments.

        I’m guessing that the STEM departments are somewhat more robust when it comes to the ability to protect adjuncts for this thing… but I don’t know.

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      • This isn’t a comment on Paglia (I haven’t read her books and I haven’t read that link), but I’d like to say a little about the “customer service mentality is what has to go” view. It probably does have to go, especially when it means that a student, by virtue of being a student and paying his or her tuition therefore deserves a B or an A. But there is something to be said for the fact that without the students, the instructors wouldn’t have a job in the same way that without a customer, a customer service rep wouldn’t have a job.

        Too many instructors act in such a way that undergraduates can be forgiven for believing the instructors hold them in contempt. Some instructors cancel office hours (or office “hour”) on a whim, or they leave early, reasoning that because no one showed up during the first 45 minutes, no one will show up during the last 15 minutes. Some of them make jokes about the “snowflakes” who are in their classes and repeat online funny things their students said in term papers. It would help for these instructors to show more awareness that they have their jobs as instructors thanks to the “customers” who are paying tuition.

        None of this necessarily means the students are right to interpret their instructors’ actions as contemptuous. It does make a certain amount of sense to suppose that a student won’t be coming to the last 15 minutes of office hours (and there’s a certain ridiculousness in assuming that one or two hours of availability a week really represents meaningful access to the instructor in the first place). It also makes sense to me that instructors might vent about the people they serve. It’s even healthy if kept in bounds. And of course, if the instructor is an adjunct who’s paid too little and has been given no reason to invest himself/herself in the university/universities they work at, it’s understandable that they’re not as available to their “customers” as a full-time adjunct or tenure-track professor might be.

        I’m not condemning these instructors. But I am suggesting that their students are giving them an opportunity to do something and that too often the instructors, or some of them, act in ways that seem to take those students for granted.

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        • I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand, I did instruct for four years and I always made sure to be available to the students. I did work with some people who seemed to take out their frustrations in snark about undergrads and I did hold them in contempt, frankly. I see teaching as a sacred duty and, perhaps somewhat ironically considering how little I think of this form of measurement, my evaluations were always stellar. I mean, honestly, it’s fun to get to geek out about things and create a constituency for the subjects you love!

          The problem is too many admins behave as if the student is responsible for paying and the instructor is responsible for everything else. Just walking the halls of the university where I work as a cleaner, I can pick up on the fact that a good number of the students would rather be anywhere else and would be anywhere else if their parents didn’t insist on this. On top of that, I’m not the first to notice that they come out of High School with a very, very low level of education and thus readiness to be there.

          To some extent, it’s always been that way, but when admins take the attitude that a successful business model requires high retention and a sort of maximum flow through of students- they actually called them “basic income units” at my grad university- it can put the instructor over a barrel in the event that they wind up with a required course for undergrads who don’t want to be there and, in a many cases, just don’t come. I’ve a friend who is TAing for a course with exactly this problem- a majority of the students don’t come and so the midterms were fairly bad, and so the instructor for the course- a sessional- bumped up the grades by 20%. So my friend has been arguing with the instructor and the department heads who are not terribly concerned about the grades being inflated.

          Once upon a time, universities expected a good number of freshmen to drop out and maybe return when they were ready for university. But, if we see the student’s role being to pay- in most cases pay a LOT of money- it raises the blasphemous question of whether an instructor who asks a lot of their students and gives them a rigorous education isn’t doing a bad “job” in the same way as the one who mentally clocks out along with their students.

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        • “Some of them make jokes about the “snowflakes” who are in their classes and repeat online funny things their students said in term papers. ”

          If you think this is bad, I hope you never hear what people work in call centers or at most retail places think of their customers.

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          • I’m a veteran of a call center job and many face-to-face customer service jobs. I’ve heard quite a lot. I’ve also said quite a lot. I do think there’s some room even for instructors to vent, and perhaps I’m being prissy about it.

            ETA: I’ve just now grokked your point. I was making an analogy to customer service and you were pointing out that customer service reps aren’t necessariiy any better. That’s true enough, especially when it comes to carping about the customers outside the latter’s presence. Still, in most customer service jobs I’ve had, there seemed to be a sense of, “we have to do something to keep our jobs and that means making sure the customer is satisfied.” A lot of times that attitude is BS–and I realize I risk romanticizing something that oughtn’t be romanticized–but there’s some truth to it.

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      • Yes.

        And not just adjuncts: people on the tenure track, if their evaluations aren’t high enough, maybe don’t get tenure, especially at teaching-heavy schools.

        And the “accountability regime” is what makes my life the most miserable at times – all the paperwork we must fill out, the fact that a lot of things the students probably should be responsible for (e.g., monitoring their own grades rather than us having to push e-mail monthly reports to them) falling on us. At times it feels like a grand experiment in “how much additional work can a person take on before they crack” – like something out of Modern Times.

        At one point they were asking us to write twice-a-year reports on our level of “community engagement” -i.e., what kind of volunteer work we did out away from campus. Because apparently there’s some kind of accreditation check box for that. I found it slightly annoying because that half-hour or so I spent writing up that report could have been a half-hour I was working at the food bank or doing literacy tutoring or something. The problem with expecting heavy documentation of stuff is it takes time away from doing the actual stuff.

        And editing to add, for Gabriel:

        Yes. I tend to put “service to the students” at the head of my list – I hold all my office hours (unless, for example, my furnace is broken and I am having to wait at home for the repair dude, and then I have a note up on my door and the secretary has my phone number and will give it out)

        The “contempt” of students is bad and shouldn’t be done.

        But at the same time, I have had students do stuff like request extra meeting times and then never show up when I made the effort to be there…

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  12. Ran out of editing time, but it is a two-way street, and sometimes it feels to me like the pendulum has swung so far to the “professor as servant of the student” model.

    That may be my own stuff talking, and my own need to be “perfect,” but after having a student be upset because he showed up at 6:45 am one day during exam week and I wasn’t there (my office hours started at 8), it can be frustrating.

    I suppose it boils down to: people make themselves hard to love, sometimes.

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  13. Re: some of the STEM stuff in the comments. I know of a tenured physics professor at a state university who thinks there is a serious PhD overproduction problem in the STEM fields, too, (and is almost certainly right, based on the data the professor provides and the professor’s personal experience he discusses)

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    • Interesting. When I started college in the early 1970s I declared a double major in math and physics. I later left physics, but was there long enough to hear faculty advising students to stay in for their PhD because the faculty nationwide was aging and there would be a huge wave of tenured physics profs retiring in just a few years. The wave never grew beyond a steady trickle as the profs stayed in their positions into their 70s and even 80s. Instead, there was a glut of physics PhDs.

      While I was at Bell Labs in the late 1970s, one of the jokes that went around was that the Labs hired 25% of all the new physics PhDs (true in some years), and that one or two of them even got to do physics.

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      • I think once upon a time, a greenhorn (a person who immediately started grad school after undergrad) STEM PhD was seen as a safe-ish bet. Having one might not help, but it would never hurt. When I graduated in 2000, a greenhorn PhD was a lot riskier for STEM. It was required if you wanted a job in academia, or at one of the big labs. But if you didn’t have a rock solid ‘in’ for either world, a PhD could very easily be a liability, since employers would always assume that you’d just be itching to leave the moment a PhD worthy opportunity came up, and they weren’t willing to bump the pay for a PhD holder when a BS or MS was just fine for most positions.

        Although, I’ve found one caveat to this, and that is the STEM who gets their PhD later in life. So if you got the BS/MS, spend a 5-10 years out in the world, then go back for the PhD, for some reason, the PhD reverts back to “it can’t hurt” status.

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