The Future of the Profession
Benjamin Alpers, December 2012
History is practiced in many settings, but the historical profession retains a special relationship to higher education. Colleges and universities educate professional historians and provide most of us with our employment. To a great extent, then, the future of history depends on the future of the academy, and the conditions under which historians study, train, and work there. Unfortunately, American colleges and universities seem increasingly under threat in ways that are of particular concern to historians.
Two recent news stories have highlighted these threats. The struggles over the firing of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan and the closing of the University of Missouri Press seem both to present institutional threats and to suggest that, when faculty respond in an organized fashion, we still have some power on our nation's campuses. But both situations also highlight some of the weaknesses in the way that faculty have responded to broader changes in higher education. As was the case at UVa and at UMU Press, tenure-track faculty have generally played defense, responding fairly vigorously to direct threats to tenure, academic freedom or, in these cases, faculty governance or university presses.
But the more serious threats to the practice of history on our nation's campuses are often less spectacular and more gradual. The conditions under which most academic historians have worked have deteriorated over the last few decades. If we as faculty reserve our concern for dramatic confrontations, we may find ourselves winning some very public battles, while quietly losing the war. In order for the field of history to have a future as productive as its recent past, historians in the academy must take a more active role in understanding the threats to our working conditions and forging responses to them, in organizing to achieve a greater measure of faculty governance within our universities, and in advocating for college and university faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to those outside the academy.
Due in large measure to shifting funding models that have forced both public and private institutions to dramatically increase tuition and have forced even public institutions to seek ever more money from the private sector, many, both inside and outside of the academy, now understand the task of higher education in narrowly economistic terms. "Parents, officials, and students themselves view education more and more as a matter of profit and loss," former AHA president Anthony Grafton recently noted in the New York Review of Books, "All that really matters in evaluating an education, from this point of view, is the first job a new graduate obtains."1 Similarly, too many universities have come to see research largely in terms of how much money it produces, a metric guaranteed to undervalue history. As the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has recently documented, faculty have progressively lost power to administrators with a fundamentally bureaucratic vision of the university.2 Tenured and tenure-track faculty have come to be seen by administrators, government officials, and outside critics as an unconscionable fixed cost that interferes with rationalizing the operations of the university. Even Vice President Joe Biden recently repeated the myth that faculty salaries are driving tuition cost increases.3 Due in part to attempts to cut costs, non-tenure-track faculty have come to comprise a growing percentage of the academic labor force.
In 1970, about three-quarters of faculty were tenured or tenure-track; by 2007, nearly 70 percent of faculty were non-tenure-track.4 Most of today's non-tenure-track faculty do not have PhDs, though many of them are pursuing the degree. The literary scholar Marc Bousquet, a trenchant observer of the current state of academia, summarizes the situation grimly, but not entirely inaccurately, as one in which PhD recipients are the system's waste products.5 Far from preparing them for an academic career, graduate school is, for many PhD candidates, the academic career itself, as they become less employable once they receive their PhDs.
Changing the structure of academic employment will not be easy. The first step involves educating ourselves about the actual state of the academic labor system. As Bousquet points out, academics, including historians, have been trained to think about employment in terms of a semimythical "job market" involving competition among PhDs for the shrinking number of tenure-track positions. In fact, these positions form a very small part of an evolving academic labor system that also includes the non-tenure track faculty majority, as well as a sizable reserve army of unemployed PhDs and MAs. For tenured and tenure-track academic historians to think in terms of the larger labor system entails, among other things, recognizing that graduate students who teach are fellow faculty members, not simply our apprentices. It also involves realizing that the working conditions of these graduate students and our other non-tenure-track colleagues ought to be of concern to us all. To solve the problems facing the future of historians in higher education, we need to first better understand those problems.
Solving those problems will also require organizing. Unions, disciplinary organizations like the AHA, and academic professional organizations like the AAUP and the New Faculty Majority (the organization for non-tenure track faculty), all have important roles to play in improving working conditions for historians. Of course, these efforts begin with individual faculty joining these organizations. Increasing the power of faculty within our institutions and attending to the needs of all faculty will be necessary parts of this effort. But I have yet to see any entirely convincing formula for restructuring the academic labor system in a way that benefits both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, now and in the future.6 One of the first goals of such organizing must be crafting solutions.
Finally, historians need to become advocates, within the academy and beyond, for the importance of our field. We need a positive vision of higher education, not narrowly based on the college wage premium, that faculty can take into the public sphere. In the recent Chicago teachers' strike, polls showed a majority of Chicagoans supporting the teachers. We need to build a similar level of public support for our profession.
None of these things will happen unless we encourage our graduate students to take an active role in changing the profession they are entering and reward our colleagues for their doing so. Working to reverse the continuing decline in the working conditions of most academic historians is a vital part of securing the future of the field.
Benjamin Alpers is associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. His publications include Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s–1950s. He wishes to point out that the article had its origins in a talk he gave at the University of Texas at Dallas and was substantially revised from a blog post he wrote for the blog of the U.S. Society for Intellectual History.
3. Aubrey Williams June, "Professors Seek to Reframe Salary Debate," Chronicle of Higher Education (accessed online April 9, 2012).
4. AAUP Report on Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments (2010), (accesssed September 30, 2012).
5. Marc Bousquet, "The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible," Social Text 70, 20: 1 (spring 2002). Bousquet's book on academic employment issues, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press, 2008) is essential reading on these issues and has deeply influenced my thinking on them, especially the importance of thinking in terms of a broad academic labor system rather than a narrowly conceived job market for tenure-track jobs.
6. Marc Bousquet's solution involves using the tools of labor organizing to increase the cost of non-tenure-track faculty so that the advantages of such positions from the university's perspective would collapse, and non-tenure-track jobs would be replaced by tenure-track ones. But the legal barriers to labor organizing are tremendous at many institutions. And while creating relatively more tenure-track jobs is a fine goal, it is not clear to me that such demand side solutions can entirely solve the problems with the current academic labor system. (Bousquet, How the University Works, 208–210).