Harper's handwringing?

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Two items in the March 2010 Harper's Index™:

Projected percentage decline in U.S. job listings for tenure-track language and literature professorships this year: 37
Total percentage decline in those disciplines since 2001 this will represent: 51

This is implicitly  contrasted, in Harper's Index style™, with the next two items:

Number of U.S. university presidents who currently earn more than $1 million per year: 24
Number who did in 2002: 0

The job-listing numbers are sourced to the Modern Language Association website, and I believe refer to its Job Information List.  According to the 2009-2008 report, last year's numbers were 897 for tenure-track jobs in English and 669 for jobs in foreign languages, for a total of 1,566, down from 1,244 + 905 = 2,149 in 2007-2008.

A further decline of 37% in 2009-2010 would imply a total of 986, which is 54% down from the 2007-2008 figure. This graph (which shows total job listings, not just tenure-track listings) implies that 2000-2001 (though a local maximum) was not as high as 2007-2008:

And the projected decline will bring job totals below the level of the trough in the mid-1990s. According to David Laurence's preface to the 2008-2009 report:

The financial crisis of 2008 made its consequences painfully evident in the 2008–09 MLA Job Information List (JIL). After trending upward between 2003–04 and 2007–08, the number of jobs advertised in the JIL in 2008–09 declined since 2007–08 by 446 (24.4%) in English and 453 (27.0%) in foreign languages. In the English edition 1,202 ads announced 1,380 jobs; in the foreign language edition 1,106 ads announced 1,227 jobs (ads that departments later marked “search canceled” have been excluded from these counts). In both numerical and percentage terms, this year’s declines mark the largest single-year decreases in the thirty-four-year history of the JIL counts.

If the projection cited in the Harper's Index holds up, the declines for 2009-2010 will set a new record, at least for declines in percentage terms.

It's plausible to see this as nothing but a reflection of the same poor economic conditions that are leading throughout the economy to high unemployment and poor job creation relative to job loss. But one of my colleagues in an English department has been wondering out loud whether this might also be part of a longer-time trend, associated with static or declining overall faculty sizes;  increase in the proportion of adjunct, part-time or other non-tenure-track instructors;  lower retirement rates; and shifts of resources away from (certain areas in) the humanities.

One reason that this matters is that projections of future job numbers (ought to) inform choices about the size of graduate programs.

These specific numbers are only marginally relevant to PhD programs in the field of linguistics, since few of the MLA listings are likely prospects for new linguistics PhDs, and many if not most academic linguistics jobs are advertised elsewhere. Also, a significant fraction of linguistics PhDs take industrial or other non-academic research jobs.

Still, the problem of matching supply and demand exists in one form or another, all across higher education. Most of the time, there are either too many of a given specialization, or not enough; and the feedback loop has a delay of 5-7 years in it (allowing 5 years for graduate school and a couple of years for undergrad preparation).  Economic oscillations with a period of a few years can be managed, somewhat painfully  — students can choose to leave school earlier or later, for example. But large-scale trends are harder to deal with, especially if people don't recognize what's happening.

The worst example that I've ever seen was the boom and bust in the computer-science job market associated with the dot-com bubble, and the associated rise and fall in undergraduate enrollments and graduate-school demand.

As for the rise in the salary of upper-level university administrators, I'm not sure what to make of it. The most obvious thing to say is that it's related to the general rise in upper-management salaries across the economy, and that it's generally smaller than what's happened to CEO salaries in other organizations of similar size. In neither case is it clear to me that society as a whole is better off than if this reallocation hadn't happened, but I don't see any reason to complain about university presidents in particular.

[For some information about the supply side, there are various reports on the web site of the Association of Departments of English, including the Report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006.]


  1. jfruh said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    One reason that this matters is that projections of future job numbers (ought to) inform choices about the size of graduate programs.

    Good luck with that. It may be in the interest of academia as a whole to reduce the number of PHD students to match potential academic job openings for them, but it's not in the interest of any individual school or program to do so, since (a) they need the cheap labor and (b) cutting back on the size of your department says to the university at large that you don't consider yourself to be important, which will result in further cuts in resources.

  2. Bloix said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    "I don't see any reason to complain about university presidents in particular."

    As the father of two college-age boys, I see a reason. Tuition has risen 2 to 3% above the rate of inflation for almost half a century now. The extra money I pay compared to what my parents paid for my education is not going to pay instructors, who are paid less after inflation than my teachers are paid. It goes to pay inflated administration salaries who provide no value to students as far as I can see.

  3. MJ said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 8:35 pm


    I doubt it's the administrators who account for any significant portion of the exorbitant tuition rates you're paying. State of the art technology and the people who know how to run it and train others in its use costs a lot. Universities attract students with high speed internet, dorm room wi fi, computer labs, online courses, "smart classrooms", etc. Every year it costs more to upgrade, and every year there are more upgrades than one can upgrade to. It's always worth it for the school, because that's what the undergrads want; and it's never a poor decision, because parents will pay what they're told to pay. Cutting every university president's salary by half does nothing to cut your tuition bill. $500,000? That's what 25 students pay in tuition a year at big state U, what 10 pay a year at fancy-pants U, which is probably where those high-paid presidents are employed anyway.

  4. Jonathan Badger said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    I know that people don't like to think of it this way, but a large reason for the existence of professors is to bring money to universities by getting grants funded by federal and other external agencies. This is particularly true in the US where the system of "overhead" means that institutions get to skim 50% or more of the money brought in by faculty as "indirect costs".

    [(myl) This is not quite right quantitatively. A university with a 50% indirect cost rate adds a 50% "tax", in effect, to (some but not all) sponsored research "direct costs". Thus if the researcher spends $1.00 on a research assistant, the university charges the funder $1.60. But in that case, the "skim" is 50/150 of the total "money brought in", or about 33.3%, not 50%. This is supposed to pay for rent, utilities, administrative and other support (which is not supposed to be charged to direct costs), and so on. For some grants, this may be too much, but for others, it may be too little. The overall indirect cost rate is the subject of extensive negotiation between the university and the government, and is supposed to reflect the university's actual "indirect costs". Of course universities have an interest in covering as much of their infrastructure this way as possible; but it's by no means entirely a racket.

    I should also mention that corporations, consulting firms, etc., also charge indirect costs on government grants and contracts, and the rates that I've seen in these cases are higher (sometimes by a substantial multiplier) than typical university rates.]

    Humanities and social science professors don't get as many grants as professors in the natural sciences and engineering, and what ones they do get tend to be on the order of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. So from this standpoint, a professorship in the humanities or social sciences isn't a good financial investment by the university. (Cue the angry diatribes on the subject of "but education shouldn't be about money").

    [(myl) From what I've seen of my own university's budget information, grants in the natural sciences are not always (maybe not usually) a net plus from the financial point of view, since faculty in physics, chemistry, biology etc. tend to require large start-up packages, lab facilities that are expensive to build and to maintain, etc. (Of course, once the infrastructure is in place, failure to support it with grants income would be a disaster. But at the margin, you can't necessarily expect a net gain from hiring a new natural scientist.) It's true that humanities faculty are generally not much of a source of grants, though there are some exceptions. And the social sciences are mixed. But on the other hand, humanities faculty generally have higher teaching loads, sometimes twice as high.]

    This doesn't explain the increased salary of university presidents though, unless there is some evidence that paying a better salary brings in people more capable of bringing in funding (or recruiting more people who can).

    [(myl) The funding that university presidents are involved with is generally from large private donors, not the kinds of government or foundation research funding previously discussed. At major universities, such fund drives can bring in hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, so that differences in fund-raising effectiveness could certainly make a difference.]

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:31 am

    @MYL: "At major universities, such fund drives can bring in hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, so that differences in fund-raising effectiveness could certainly make a difference."

    However, it's worth noting that, in the commercial world, there is precious little evidence that increasing executive compensation brings any value to the enterprise, since most executives at most companies have very, very little influence on the organization's overall success or failure. I suspect (but lack evidence) that the same thing is true in academia. At my place of employment, I don't think there's any evidence that the more modestly-compensated presidents and provosts of the recent past did any worse a job at fundraising or actually administering the university. (And I don't recall the president of the time getting a huge salary increase the last time we had a pay freeze due to big endowment losses….)

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:21 am

    I didn't mean to imply that overhead was a racket, but, for example, universities in Canada (where I did my postdoc) have no concept of overhead in NSERC (their major funding agency) grants and yet the lights seemed to stay on, the floors were swept, and administrative assistants kept the departments functioning. So there are other ways to fund such things, apparently.

    [(myl) The same could be said for e.g. English departments in the U.S., where total indirect cost recovery is negligible. However, I'd guess that in Canada there are other ways for the national and provincial government to subsidize infrastructure costs for academic research in science and engineering, even at private universities.]

  7. Graeme said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    How many linguists in the million-dollar President league?

    Or in any Presidential positions?

    (Not a leading question. Just a curious foreigner. Contemporary Vice-Chancellors in Australia seem only rarely to come from outside backgrounds in business/law or managerial careers rooted in engineering/'hard' science. Then again Australian unis almost all qualify as what you might call 'big State U's).

  8. grosloup said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    To my knowledge there are no private universities in Canada, let alone private universities conducting substantial research in science and engineering.

    [(myl) That's the situation in many countries. It solves some problems and creates others, as can be seen in France over the past few years.]

  9. Philip said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Tuition in publicly-funded institutions of higher education, whether they're community colleges, state colleges, or state universities, is going up faster than inflation because these institutions are getting fewer and fewer tax dollars. It's as simple as that.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    @Philip: No, I don't think it is as simple as that. I think the factors MJ outlined in his/her response above are a significant factor as well.

  11. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    My take on the cost of tuition (or the value of a particular university employee's salary) is that we should be asking whether the institution is conveying knowlege to students effectively and efficiently. I want students who graduate to have a solid body of knowledge in a specific field and exposure to fields outside that specialization so they can appreciate the breadth of knowledge, plus the ability to use and apply what they've learned to solve problems they encounter at work.

    A couple of years ago I went to a presentation where a professor talked about using technology to get immediate feedback about whether the class members understand a concept. He wanted to focus on educating all the students in the class, not on "weeding out" certain students by failing them. At the same time, he wanted to intervene with those students so they didn't slow down the majority of the class. He no longer regarded certain tough introductory courses as a form of hazing for freshmen.

  12. Ken Grabach said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    In regard to private universities in Canada and whether they seek funding for research. I thought McGill University in Montreal, and University of Toronto are private universities? Do they not seek grant funding from sources available to them in science or engineering? Does UT not conduct such research? If they do, how is the research funded?

  13. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    No, neither McGill nor the University of Toronto are private, but really, I don't understand why the private/public distinction is relevant for this. In the US, overhead is charged by public and private universities alike — it isn't merely a feature of privatization, although I suppose it is possible that private universities have higher overhead levels on average than do public.

    In regard to research in Canada, certainly Canadian universities do research. There have even been several science Nobel Prizes that have gone to people doing research there. Research is funded through competitive grants, just like in the US, with NSERC being their version of the NSF.

  14. Adjunct Prof said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    This unprecedented tuition race feels like a bubble resulting from a change in the social/political value of a college degree which has exceeded not the physical, but ideological limits of our traditional higher education system. This education structure wasn't designed, it evolved. Until recently, we've been processing a demographic that was consistent in their means and motive for attending school. Our students are different, with different needs, but our ideology and process and structure have remained static. What gives? The most fluid thing that can: money.

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