Universities should be employing surplus PhDs–as administrative staff.
Of the many criticisms I hear levelled at the current state of higher education, I would say that the following four are among the most frequent:
- The current reliance on contingent faculty rather than full-time professors is both undermining educational quality and creating a permanent academic underclass of PhDs working in precarious, poverty-level conditions.
- Over the last several decades, the number of university administrative positions and administrative pay have ballooned out of control.
- It used to be that the professors were the ones to do the administrative work of the university, rather than the professional administrators we have today whose focus is not always on the institution’s educational and research missions.
- PhDs face a tough job market even outside the traditional professorship track, and universities are not doing enough to help.
Taken together, these four criticisms show a pattern: over the last several decades, universities have gone about expanding the ranks of professional administrators mainly by replacing permanent faculty with low-wage contingent faculty, a consequence of which is that a significant number of PhDs can no longer find employment at a living wage.
I know I am not alone in noticing that full-time clerical workers at universities are getting job security, benefits, and wages that approach or surpass those of junior faculty, all the while working 40-hour weeks with (often generous) vacation time. Most of these positions require only a Bachelor’s degree.
So here’s an idea: what if universities were to fill these positions with under-employed PhDs instead? Not only would this significantly increase the chances of stable full-time employment for those who earn doctoral degrees–and let’s remember, universities are constantly extolling the virtues and employability of PhDs in non-traditional roles–but it would also result in an administrative class with a much better grasp on the educational and research missions of the university. Furthermore, these same employees would be perfectly qualified to teach courses when the need arises without departments having to resort to temporary contract hires.
This could even result in an entirely new class of employee: the “service” professor, whose time follows an 80/20 service/teaching formula rather than the established teaching/research/service proportions of traditional faculty. Such employees might not be eligible for tenure, but would at least enjoy the protections and benefits that come along with standard employment contracts and would not be vulnerable to changes in course offerings: if they are not needed for teaching, they can continue on with their other responsibilities until such time as they are needed.
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like an eminently reasonable solution to a growing problem. What do you think?