The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

“There is no politics quite as vicious as academic politics…” —Kissinger (apocryphal)

While on vacation in Laos, I got word that one of my old professors was denied tenure and will not be teaching at Columbia anymore. I didn’t have much of a relationship with him, and I’m sure he has no clue who I am. Yet to my surprise, the news really affected me.

This week I am going to apply to a new Princeton-in-Asia post, and I’ve had to think about that whole future thing. I’ve always wanted to do some combination of teaching, writing, and saving the world, and being a professor always appealed me. I guess it still does to a certain extent. But…

when Owen Gutfreund, a fifty-one-year-old expert on urban sprawl and the director of the Urban Studies program at Columbia, was denied tenure, it reminded me how ruthless academia is. Not only was he the director of the department who had been at Columbia for over a decade, he wrote a “groundbreaking” and accessible book on sprawl—which, out of modesty, he didn’t assign to his classes—as well as countless academic articles. On the one hand, his lectures were packed, and on the other, he loved to talk with students one-on-one. While I was waiting for a slice of pizza, he overheard me talking about a couple of urban studies classes, and he quizzed me about my experiences. He really cared about his program, and he listened to my blathering with genuine interest.

Professor Gutfreund is married, middle-aged man who has no idea where he’s going to be next year. He’s done everything he could as an instructor, administrator, and a scholar. I’m sure Owen won’t become some invisible adjunct for the rest of his career, but still, he has to uproot his family (if he has one) and face an unknown future. For someone so involved with local urban issues, it will be hard for him to leave New York.

There’s a glut of cheap labor with Ph.Ds in the liberal arts, and, with a dwindling number of jobs, universities can take for granted the fact that they can keep hiring accomplished lecturers for low-pay. I’m sure Owen’s replacement will also be talented and wonderful. That is until they also refuse to award him/her tenure.

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4 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    That happens at the U of C all the time too, it’s really sad when truly great people get lost because of that. It’s rough out there.

  2. schneider says:

    I always heard that quote as being more along the lines of “The fights of academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low”. That being said, its probably apocryphal.

    There realistically isn’t a “dwindling” number of jobs in academia, (except in certain areas that were vastly oversubscribed compared with present needs, such as Classics). If you look, the number of students in academia as a whole continues to grow, and class sizes are capped in many places, meaning that there should be an expanding market if anything. The issue is not the number of “jobs”, but how many tenured positions or tenure track positions are available. That is what is shrinking, because the Universities know they can hire cheap adjuncts to teach classes, rather than their expensive tenured thoroughbreds.
    This is a classic case wherein students must demand tenured professors teach most classes (cause even when a school will admit how many classes are taught by grad students, they likely won’t tell you how many are taught by non tenured profs), in the same way one demands a closed shop in a union argument. What better topic for student activism than the mistreatment of faculty by administration goons?

    (I should note, that I’m thoroughly agreeing with you, this is just a clarification as to what I think is the real issue you’re outlining. )

    A related problem is that not only do the universities know they can fuck profs like this, its that they continue to increase the number of graduate students they allow in all departments, ensuring a future glut and future power.

    I actually wanted to hear what you were planning on doing next year, so I’m intrigued to hear you plan to stay in Asia. I’d be very interested to hear where you end up.

  3. admin says:

    You’re absolutely right (again, this agreeing with you thing is making me nervous). I meant tenure track jobs not just adjunct teaching posts.

    The structural problems that have created this mess are really unfortunate. The grad students who went on strike at Columbia were fighting to be treated better which is all well and good—but they really need to change the system that increasingly pushes them towards the impoverished nation of Adjunctdom. But who wants to protest letting in more students into phd programs?

    I have no idea where I’ll be next year, though probably somewhere in Asia.

  4. Karisa says:

    Every so often I get myself absolutely convinced that what I really want to do is go get my PhD in English. And then I start looking at school website after school website and compiling a list of the ones that look interesting. And then I read a discussion like this. And I close everything and walk away from the computer in frustration. Sigh.

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