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Higher Education

One of my good friends recently got an offer to become a full time professor at a local community college after being an adjunct professor for a year.  Well done to him, given the funding crisis in public higher education.   As a result, hiring in higher ed has been in the back of my mind for a few months now, and this article fits nicely with that line of thinking (thanks to Megan McArdle for posting it).

McArdle and her her readers make some interesting points.  I’ll start with a brief digression before I get to the point, though. An excerpt from her reader:

In making my choice between English and accounting, I listened to the price signal sent by starting salaries and earning potential. Dilute that price signal and many more will opt for a career in the humanities — which makes sense since the humanities is more intrinsically interesting as a field.

I can’t decide if it was Joyce or Hemingway that best evoke the universal human experience of diluted price signals… I would submit, with all due respect, that the academy wasn’t the right place for this particular person.

Anyway, what stood out for me was the quoted fact that 73% (!) of teaching positions are filled by non-tenured professors.  These institutions are entrusting what is (nominally anyway) their most basic function to people that don’t, by design, have a long term connection to the school.  Madness.

If I had answers and epiphanies this is where I’d share them.  I don’t, so I’ll instead offer a couple of observations.

  1. This is a rational response on some level. Higher ed’s tenure system creates a highly inflexible portion of the workforce, so it seems a natural reaction for the system to create greater flexibility where it can.
  2. Workforce planning in this sector sounds like a nightmare to me. This post illustrates the point.  This much volatility in number of students that accept spots in a given school makes it difficult to plan for the long term.

Nothing I’ve been able to come up with explains the 3:1 ratio of temporary to permanent professors though.  I don’t see other professions with numbers skewed that much, and contrary to some of the more breathless accounts, I don’t think there’s a risk of any moving strongly in that direction.

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