The Last Professors: A Eulogy to “the Last Good Job in America”

Frank Donoghue: The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008)

To illustrate exactly what is at stake in his assertion that faculty work as currently understood will disappear with the current generation of professors – the titular “last professors” – Donoghue draws on Stanley Aronowitz’s claim that the tenured humanities faculty member enjoys “the last good job in America” (p. 60). This is a job of near complete autonomy, of collegial motivation, and of curiosity-driven teaching and research.  As Donoghue illustrates, this job is rapidly and, he argues, permanently disappearing.

Donoghue points to a league of challenges that have converged on the contemporary university that, together, undermine its ability to support this kind of academic work. He identifies a long accumulation of cultural and structural factors within and without the university that have led to the gradual erosion of traditional faculty work in the humanities and, indeed, of the status and relevance of the humanities in general. Although Donoghue values the disappearing fields and the type of work they provide, his goal is not to argue for their continued relevance. Donoghue is distinct from others who have discussed the marginalization of the humanities in that he sees this disappearance, not as an assault on the values of the liberal arts, but as an unintended consequence of much larger changes in the academic system. In tracing the origins of the disappearance of the humanities, Donoghue also extrapolates into the future to describe how the elements that have marginalized the humanities will continue to shape higher education in the coming decades. The disappearance of the humanities from the university is not a self-contained crisis, but simply a very visible symptom of much larger changes in the nature of higher education.

Donoghue points to three main causes for this erosion of academic work in the humanities. The first is the long term cultural proclivities which have haunted the humanities since the establishment of universities in the United States but which have been exacerbated by recent social and economic policies and trends. By tracing the anti-intellectual and utilitarian inclinations from influential early American capitalists like Andrew Carnegie to the contemporary American public, Donoghue demonstrates that the humanities have always fought an uphill battle in a country skeptical of the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Donoghue notes, however, that these historical discussions about the value of the humanities– which, he argues, focus on “what was being taught and how, rather than who was doing the teaching” (p. 21) – have obscured discussions of real relevance to the continued strength of the humanities – issues Donoghue goes on to define and explore.

The second reason Donoghue provides for the decline of the humanist professor is the structural change to institutional types that not only marginalize humanistic subjects but also prevent the kind of autonomous, creativity-driven academic work that Aronowitz describes. In particular, Donoghue points to the increasing stratification of institutional types and, in particular, the explosion of the private, for-profit, managed university. These institutions promise a financial return on student investment and a standardized, employer-driven education. Within such institutions, academic freedom and exploration in the form of curriculum development and curiosity-driven research and teaching is eliminated, academic work is tightly controlled, managed, and standardized, and, Donoghue argues, “faculty are not professors in any traditional sense of the word” (p. 97).

Finally, the third cause to which Donoghue attributes the decline of the humanities is the erosion of the tenure track and, indeed, of the very idea of tenure itself. For this, Donoghue points to the increasing degree by which teaching at the university is provided by sessional and non-tenure-track lecturers who suffer from low wages, minimal job security, and insufficient institutional support. Donoghue’s focus is not just on the plight of these non-tenure-track instructors, though he thoroughly illustrates the challenges they face. Rather, his focus is on the effect of the erosion of the tenure track on tenure and on academic work as a whole and, in particular, on  academic freedom. Within the context of the managerial university, tenure becomes primarily a defense against  managerialism. For those who do not hold  tenure-track appointments or who work in  public or private not-for-profit institutions, tenure  becomes protection against the standardization and loss of autonomy these academic workers face. Tenure, therefore, becomes embroiled in discussions about academic freedom since faculty use tenure to protect their right to choose what they teach and research in the face of the managerial impulse. Donoghue, however, believes that using academic freedom as an argument for tenure makes the problem worse for academic labour as a whole::

Academics should not, of course, turn against tenure. They should, though, stop defending it on the grounds of academic freedom, since that defense, born of compromise, is fraught with logical inconsistencies. These exacerbate the divide between the dwindling number of tenured professors and the growing rank of adjuncts. Given the seemingly inexorable trend in higher-education employment practices, professors need to recognize that divide and work toward closing it. (p. 78)  

The growth of adjunct labour, in other words, is  a problem for those hired as sessional instructors but it is also a problem from everyone else in the profession because it ultimately  connects to the health of their tenure and their academic freedom. Academic freedom should exist for both tenured and untenured faculty, but connecting tenure solely to academic freedom in the context of the increased use of sessionals only serves to undermine both.

Donoghue’s book draws on American institutions and ideologies. There are elements of his argument that do not easily translate for Canada, although many of the fundamental issues Donogue explores, including the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty and increasing market pressure throughout the university, are  issues in Canada. In particular, Donoghue argues that the future belongs to two types of institutions: the private, for-profit, vocationally-oriented institutions and an elite of generally private, not-for-profit institutions that will continue to offer a  humanities-focused education. Donoghue argues that in this new landscape, large public universities will face the most difficulty.He writes that these large public institutions “risk becoming gradually obsolete. The institutions at opposite ends of the higher education spectrum – the for-profits and the elite universities – will occupy the key positions in the future,   for each will exert tremendous influence on all the colleges in between the extremes”(p. 93). These are, of course, the institutions that make up the overwhelming majority of the university sector in Canada. But a further element that makes Donoghue’s future academic landscape difficult to map on to Canadian higher education is the presence of our various college sectors. The college sector, in many provinces, relieves some of the vocational pressure on universities and fulfills the demand for shorter, employment-oriented programs. At the other extreme, our relatively homogenous university sector may be an advantage in preserving the humanities for a population larger than  the  elite sector that Donoghue foresees in the United States. The tremendous diversity and differentiation of the American higher education system has been lauded as the reason for its global reputation but, according to Donoghue’s arguments, it is exactly this diversity that has ultimately endangered the humanities. In fact, by Donoghue’s logic, the postsecondary system that could best protect the humanities would be one very much like Canada’s: one that is somewhat deliberately homogenous and where there is some expectation that institutions will collectively fulfill the educational needs of their province.

Indeed, if there is one message to be taken from Donoghue’s book, it is that the postsecondary world functions much better when understood as a system – however informal – than it does if each institution, instructor, and student perceives themselves as an agent in pursuit only of their own self-interest. Donoghue’s most interesting and challenging arguments in particular address the effects of academic socialization on the problems he identifies. Donoghue could never be characterized as blaming faculty for the changing nature of academic work, but he does suggest that particular elements of the academic socialization process reinforce the widening gaps in academic labour and in the academic world in general. In particular, Donoghue points to the challenge of the  way in which academics  define their own work and how this definition had led new faculty to accept the limited and managed positions available to them. The result is that existing faculty are relatively complacent in the face of these changes to the university.

Donoghue notes several contributing factors to the ways in which this socialization process has exacerbated external threats to the humanities. Each of these has its origin in the increased competition faced by humanities PhDs on the job market. He argues that since the 1970s, “the academic culture of the humanities has been forged…in conditions of extreme hardship, defined by the constant prospect of unemployment or underemployment and suffused with an atmosphere of brutal competition” (p. 25). This competition left PhDs and faculty with the sense that they were part of a highly competitive but functional market. Within such a market, success or failure is simply based on an individual’s ability to distinguish themselves from other applicants. As Donoghue notes, “According to [market] rhetoric, markets determine fair value, so if searching for an academic job means that one enters a market, then the market itself will sort out the more valuable candidates from the less valuable” (p. 36). The result is that “Ph.D.s are…taught to take that market personally, to view success or failure not in terms of uncontrollable fluctuations, but in terms of individual preparation and qualification” (p. 40). But this market is an illusion: Donoghue argues that “Universities do not prefer to hire the best or most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers, thus the ‘market’ demand for Ph.D.s is permanently and artificially suppressed” (p. 34). This market rhetoric dampens discussions of broader systemic challenges to academic work and suggests that those who end up as adjuncts suffer not from changes to the structures of academic work but of their own insufficiencies.

These problems would be relatively easy to solve through collective action on the part of PhDs, current faculty, and graduate programs – if only, Donoghue notes, these groups were willing to understand themselves as part of a labour market in the first place. The consequence of the false meritocracy of the academic job market is that it makes its victims complicit in maintaining the inequality of the system. Donoghue writes:

[N]o profession more fervently believes in the myth of meritocracy than academics. … For adjuncts, the academic meritocracy creates a state of mind in which giving up hope signifies something far worse psychologically than a sensible change of careers….In response to this intense pressure, adjuncts have evolved success narratives that give purpose to their professional lives….Adjuncts cast themselves as self-sacrificing artists. (p. 63)

Indeed, Donoghue draws on the research of Andrew Ross who argues that “academics of all ranks, along with artists, are uniquely willing to tolerate exploitation in the workplace” (p. 62). However, Donoghue argues that this belief in the unique qualities of academic labour makes academics – both those in enviable positions and those left out – reluctant to organize. As he notes, “the willingness of academics to think of their work as its own reward and thus not to concern themselves with money or think of themselves as a class – will always work against the impulse to organize” (p. 69).

Donoghue’s book makes clear that academics – and in particular academics in the humanities – have, for the most part, accepted and, on hiring and tenure committees, have even encouraged the increased competition and marketization of their work environments and their academic work — even as they recognize the challenges this all poses to the long-term status of their profession.  The external challenges to the university – government policies to encourage market behaviour or the increased costs of education that lead students to make increasingly pragmatic educational choices – are very substantial threats to academic work as we know it. But Donoghue is right to also highlight the need to modify our own expectations for academic work and evaluate the socialization processes that produce these expectations if there is to be any hope to disprove the title of his book.

Emily Gregor Greenleaf is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education Group at OISE/UT and a research assistant for the Office of Teaching Advancement at the University of Toronto.