Academia’s Caste System

Academia is deeply broken, a product of its wild success and staggering failures. It cranks out the finest scholars, leaders, and minds the world has ever seen. It also buries students in unmanageable debt and breaks many of those same scholars with its insidious caste system. How can a system that is so successful that the rich and powerful from all over the world are willing to spend exorbitant sums of money and even commit felonies to gain their child admittance to even our state colleges also leave so many of the highly intelligent, educated people who perform the main task of the institution in ill mental and physical condition?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this recently. Reading the Atlantic’s piece on the death of Thea Hunter compelled me to put a few of these rough thoughts down on paper. My experiences and research lead me to four main causal factors:

  • Explosive growth/expansion of access
  • Systemic defunding paired with rapidly rising costs
  • Administrative malpractice
  • The traditional academic caste system

None of these factors should look new to a student of American higher education policy. But I rarely see people connect them to explain how this system got so lopsided since the late 1960s.

Let’s start there. The massive expansion of access to education was already well under way in the late 1960s—the GI Bill had been granting working- and middle-class white men access to higher education for over 20 years. The civil rights and feminists movements blew that crack wide-open. Suddenly, in the course of a generation, higher education went from a small, elite centred endeavour to an imagined meritocracy open to anyone with a baseline of intellectual, social, and economic capital. Access remained, then as now, weighted in favor of those with more capital in each area, but laws, changing social values, and economics created an unprecedented expansion of the industry. From 1965 to 2016, total college enrollment increased by roughly 240 percent while the population only grew by 65 percent.


New institutions, for-profit colleges and community colleges notably, would take on some of this increase. These institutions largely view faculty as interchangeable parts. Set a curriculum, choose the books (or make them yourself, if you are a vertically integrated for-profit institution), and then you can treat (and pay) your faculty as glorified guides. State schools would also grow—seeing formally tightly focused schools like state “normal colleges” to become full-fledged universities. These schools shifted the teaching burden in fits and starts, gradually increasing tenured faculty teaching loads, using the nearly free labor of graduate students, and capitalizing on the massive expansion of graduate education by creating visiting professorships and instructor positions. Private colleges, even the most elite ones, did this as well. None of it seems particularly well thought out. Basic economics just does not explain this story though. Schools needed to find scores of qualified teachers; the market was flooded with them. This should not have created a sub-class of teacher-scholar. But it did. Why?

You cannot understand the why without talking about funding. In the public sector especially, states began to systematically defund higher education. In a narrative that would be familiar to the union worker of today, in the 1990s generations of people who received publicly subsidized higher education in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s pulled the ladder up behind them, preferring to horde resources for themselves rather than pay it forward as their parents and grandparents had done for them. This was not the result of shifting economic circumstances. Voters chose to do this during an era of relative economic prosperity. Instead, it took place during a cultural shift, where nearly half of Americans went from supporting the idea that education was a net-positive for American culture and the global economy and instead became a suspect tool of elites (especially liberal ones) seeking to indoctrinate our youth. Decrying waste and arguing that higher education costs should be borne by the people who benefit from them (meaning the student, ignoring the businesses who profit from a much larger pool of skilled labor and the clear social goods derived from their work, taxes paid, among many other gifts), the defunders of public education helped strip the schools of their focus on education as a public good and refocus them as businesses. Costs that had been paid by blocks of tax dollars accountable to the public at large became tuition based. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

While tax dollars were drying up, costs were skyrocketing. There are a lot of causes for this. The simplest one is easy to explain. Having a 240% increase in humans on campus meant massive physical expansion. Have you looked at real estate increases over this period? Or construction costs? Surprise—they shot up drastically over this period too. Shocking that schools got more expensive, right? And it wasn’t simply enough to buy up more land to put up 1950s style barracks dormitories and massive lecture halls. Consumers demand more amenities for their dollar—better, more private and comfortable dorms! Technology laden classrooms! Labs with the latest equipment. Huge rec centers! Top flight auditoriums and small, flexible learning spaces. Likewise, the technology to run schools became exponentially more expensive. Just since my freshman year in 2000 the technology necessary to teach and learn in the 21st century has changed in ways massive and largely unpredictable ways. IT infrastructure alone accounts for huge budget lines that simply wouldn’t have existed in 1965, let alone all the staff and subscription costs associated with the hardware. Who would send their kid to a college that still uses typewriters (hipster college?) or Windows 98 machines with dial-up internet? How competitive do you think your child would be on the job market with zero experience with Microsoft Office products? Could he or she even write something resembling full, complete sentences without auto-correct or Grammerly? Consumer demands have made college more costly. Yet this has not stopped the public from complaining about how expensive college has gotten. States have mandated tuition freezes or maximum tuition increase rates to slow this growth (and many private institutions are pressured not to in order to remain competitive), but that does not actually make it cheaper to run a school! So, if costs are going up while funding is dropping and tuition cannot be raised high enough to meet it, what are schools to do? Easy. Control costs where you can. Especially in labor…

Higher education is not without blame here. Many of our administrative practices have exasperated the situation. Presidents and provost who run universities like businesses are a big part of the problem. They ignore the core mission of the institution, the teaching and learning, and focus on revenue streams and risky growth strategies centred on marketing schemes and learning scams (the vast majority of online degree programs are barely a step above for-profit degree mills). Worst of all, they create a culture where risk aversion and compliance nearly always win out over innovation and excellence. There is undoubtedly administrative bloat—a mandarin class who exist for few reasons outside of the perpetuation of their office. Many were created by poorly thought out government mandates, from the kangaroo courts of the Title IX to the utterly incompetent offices of disabilities services who spend more time trying to stamp out creative and innovative learning than they do finding good solutions for students with physical and/or learning disabilities. Others exist as part of the “efficiency” of the business class. Each college inside the university needs its own HR staff that is larger in number than the number of people supporting instructional activities, no? Most damning of all, higher education administration has had a comprehensive failure to lead. Presidents, deans, and chairs rarely talk with their faculty and students. Even more rarely do they make transparent decisions. Because they do not trust their faculty and staff they are unable to make the tough public decisions necessary to keep guide growth. How many liberal arts colleges have been able to sell their faculty on the need to consolidate disparate humanities disciplines that fractured off from one another in one of the many schisms of the past 50 years? How much stronger is the bargaining power of a history department that has women studies, black studies, African diaspora studies, and cultural studies folded in rather than each of these disciplines standing alone? I know why they broke off. I get the scholarly reasons for it. I am even sympathetic to some of them. But in a world of scarce resources, how do you justify such small departments that have practically no major enrollment and play a tiny part in the general education curriculum? You cannot. Yet few leaders have had the courage to push for these common-sense measures (or wipe out the departments if they will not). Instead, we get death by a thousand papercuts. Likewise, most institutions have lost any overarching sense of purpose they once had. Unlike a successful business (or any other institution), too many schools try to be everything. Rather than focus on core majors that the school has traditionally excelled at or recruiting ground-breaking scholars in tightly focused areas, they often try to present themselves as the “Harvard” of where ever the hell they are. Don’t. If you are a former normal school that still pumps out a ton of teacher ed majors lean into that. Restart the laboratory schools. Pay top dollar for the best education faculty who will push the boundaries of learning and school leadership in the 21st century! Stand for something. Instead, most schools exist as interchangeable “meh” options for the stupid children of the global rich and the above average working and middle-class students of the region. These self-inflicted wounds keep many schools from controlling their costs and raising their revenues.

Then there is the traditional caste system that has long existed in higher education. Teaching has always been second to scholarship in higher education. Teaching is considered a labor, while research is a calling. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of “they pay me to teach; the research is for me.” In order to preserve the research time of scholars as enrollment numbers soared, schools started hiring faculty who would focus primarily on teaching. These instructors would carry 4/4 (or higher) semester course loads of the general education and introductory courses while the tenured faculty taught an upper division or graduate course or two. Teaching assistants would help carry the grading load (basically for free). In most disciplines, tenured faculty start off making between 2 to 3 times more money, and this grow exponentially over time. While the tenured faculty will get pay raises as they go and change pay brackets with promotion, most instructional faculty are locked into their low pay scale and at best receive meager cost of living increases. Most receive no benefits. They are not eligible for unemployment if they are not retained or if there are not enough students enrolled for say summer courses (because despite being highly educated professionals state’s classify them as seasonal work, like they are mall Santa’s). Many tenured faculty shrug their shoulders at this. After all, this is nothing new and we all faced the same risks. Some scoff that “too many people are earning graduate degrees today,” implying that people working as instructors and adjuncts are not their peers (the amount of luck and social capital involved in landing tenure-track roles is a whole separate subject worth looking at some time—but it suffices to say that most faculty really are little different than their non-tenured colleagues). Others treat it as a badge of honor, like they are wearing a “I survived the adjunct/instructor/tenure-track life of an academic in their 30s!” Like most labor groups, tenured faculty are rarely willing to give up what they have in the name of someone else’s well-being. Bean counting administrators see the value in cheaper labor who do the bulk of the work that makes the university money—which is why the use of adjuncts and full-time instructors has been rising steadily. All of this ignores the open secret of academia—the overwhelming majority of faculty come from wealthy families. Pursuing graduate education is still viewed by many as a “luxury” for the rich. Working- and middle-class students need “practical” educations in directly applicable fields like nursing, teaching, or accounting. Booker T. Washington would be proud. More esoteric or abstract subjects are for people who need not concern themselves with the vulgarity of money. This is how it has always been. Why should it be any different? Because having the academia largely staffed by elites creates real restrictions on what is studied. Few people spend their adult lives dedicated to subjects that they have no connection to. Our life experiences profoundly shape our work. The decline of tenure-track jobs and the rise of the adjunct creates a horrible dilemma: leave academia to the rich or take a virtual vow of poverty in order to join its ranks.

By all accounts, Thea Hunter was a more than capable academic. Her work was sharp and interesting. Her willingness to work was clear. She was good at the job. Outside of being unwilling to abandon home, yet another sacrifice academia demands from those who would join it, nothing should have prevented her from finding a stable teaching position with benefits. Not wild riches mind you—trust me, basically, no academic historian is living high on the hog from their university salary—just a decent middle-class existence. Instead, she is dead.

This should not have happened. But it is happening all around this country on a regular basis. No other industry this successful or with this much money flowing through its coffers has such problems. Find me a story of a promising and productive young accountant who studied under one of the greatest accountants in the world who dies young because they couldn’t find fulltime work that gave them health benefits. Substitute accountant with finance professional, nurse, or plumber. This does not happen. But it keeps happening in higher education.

What can we do? We have to change how we fund higher education. There is no going back on access. The horse is out of the barn and the modern economy basically demands a large, highly educated workforce. The jobs of tomorrow almost all require skills and knowledge sets best developed in college. For funding, we must either open up the floodgates to tuition increases and market competition (I promise you no one will like the result of consolidating schools that offer smaller and smaller numbers of majors at extremely high costs) or return to public funding for state schools. The current model fails everyone. Demand better administrators. Much like the K-12 system, higher education today is plagued by lazy, unimaginative administrators who lack vision, empathy, and the sense god gave a goose. Boards need to stop promoting fundraising-oriented Presidents and high-ranking officials who focus too much on external narratives and too little on the quality of the product they are producing. Teaching needs to be given equal footing with (if not outright promotion over) scholarship, in both pay and social standing.

Maybe disruptions, like digital learning, will break us out of this deadly inertia. Perhaps. But it will require bold investment and a long term commitment to losing money before it can start to deliver. And it is rife with challenges of its own (I’m working on something about this now). In the meantime, how many Thea Hunter’s have to die because we accept this as “the way it is?”

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