Editor's Note: It's academic jobs season again, a time of anguish, shattered dreams, and crushed hopes. It is also a time when even the president, a former academic himself, has been demanding universities to do more with less. I wrote this in a different form back in early 2008, and find it to be even more relevant today in light of the worsening market, the treatment I've seen of adjuncts, and the political attacks on university faculty. Of course, this post's proposal is entirely Swiftian in nature.
Dear august presidents of American universities,
Although some still try to deny it, you know as well as I that dire economic conditions and the corporatization of the university have led to a large number of PhDs going without employment. You also know that universities are under pressure from the highest levels to cut costs and increase efficiency. Yet we should not fret, we can turn this situation to our advantage, and even use it to solve other problems bedeviling our profession at this time.
In order to give these poor overeducated souls some security and a job, I propose that we establish a system of indentured servitude for those PhDs unworthy of the lofty tenured heights that we occupy. Many might protest that this is a barbaric and unequal institution. Fair enough, but the current system has only lead to job insecurity and a dangerous potential for revolutionary agitation, wouldn't it be better to accept reality and deploy an unequal system that will result in bountiful new opportunities? In any case, if we are to reduce costs as political leaders demand, we dare not take funds from the many hard-working administrators whose salaries reflect their worth on the open market, or the building projects we need to advance our enrollments. How shall we ever do so without big time athletics, luxury dorms, and rock climbing walls ensconced in new student recreation centers? Temporary faculty come a dime a dozen, yet we still offer them as much as three thousand dollars a class, which is hardly a bargain when they could work for nothing.
Make no mistake, the indentured PhD solution would certainly be mutually beneficial. As you well know, each year in departments around the country we scramble for warm bodies to fill out the course schedule, which often means press ganging graduate students or the burdensome and expensive process of hiring adjunct and "visiting" professors. Often we don't even know who will be teaching certain courses semester to semester. With my new proposal our indentured associates (I think "associates" sounds more attractive than "servants," don't you?) would always be at the ready to teach whatever course we ask them to. For example the biggest survey courses are in the field of history are American History and Western Civilization, and since most of the jobless are in the fields of US and European History, it should be easy to plug them in. Furthermore, we on the tenured side would no longer have to deal with the maddening business of educating freshman students and can thus focus our energies on pursuits more important than the shaping of young minds, such as writing monographs for a specialist audience.
Moreover, a system of indentured associates would help allay the fears of our pesky critics in the political arena. Politicians complain about the rising cost of tuition, but this system will save plenty of money in the long run and save us from having to spend any of our precious endowment money on such piddling trifles like undergraduate education.
This system will also ensure a great level of flexibility, something our friends in the corporate world usually benefit from but we, with our arcane rules dating from the Middle Ages, do not. For instance, many of our colleagues without graduate students lack people they can browbeat or pressure into housesitting or providing child care for them at below market rates. Others actually have to stoop to the indignity of taking their own books back to the library and proctoring and writing their own exams! Contracts of indenture could include clauses that would make this kind of labor part of the overall servitude agreement (although the rather ugly word "servitude" is to be avoided.) We all know how hard it is to get good help these days.
Lastly, this system would reduce a lot of the social awkwardness in many departments stemming from a desire by non-tenured labor to be treated as social equals. The ambiguity of their current positions often confuses them into thinking that most of their tenured colleagues actually care about them as human beings, rather than seeing them as space fillers on the course schedule. Believe it or not, some of them even have the cheek to presume they could get hired on permanently! To make things easier on them, the position of "indentured associate" will clarify their position in the hierarchy and certainly reduce hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
Your humble and obedient servant,
Dr. Arrogantus Ivy