British academics refer to the current season of top-down austerity as “the cuts,” but in the U.S., we might speak of lingchi, “death by a thousand cuts.” Faculty lines slashed, programs eliminated, course seats lowered, graduate student aid reduced, the decentralized U.S. higher education system has struggled to maintain quality across the disciplines. Humanities programs, in particular, have appeared threatened.
Yet, in this same time we are in the first phase of a digital revolution in higher education…
“Humanities in the Digital Age,” Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III
Stereotypes are ugly but I can’t help but wonder what it is about administrators that makes so many of them oblivious to recent history. Consider the list of problems compiled by Liu and Thomas, both experienced department chairs from major universities. In one sense, their list is correct, at least as long as it’s limited to the last 4 years and the Great Recession. In a more important sense, it’s profoundly short-sighted.
What missing from the list is the white elephant in the academic room: the transformation of the labor market in higher education and the ongoing shift away from full-time employment for professors. Liu and Williams seem to suggest that the problems of the last 4 years are unrelated to the problems of the last 30, and their proposed strategies say nothing about labor policy. Their solution isn’t about people, it’s about technology.
Imagine an alternative universe in which faculty respond to cost-cutting pressures by eliminating thousands of administrative jobs and replacing them with part-time workers without pensions or benefits. In this universe, I am certain that Liu and Williams would have a different perspective on the strategies we need to “maintain quality across the disciplines.” We can’t deal with the technology until we deal with the people.