Yesterday we noted that a clear awareness of a crunch-time for university based science and graduate training is 'in the air'. This is the result of an oversupply of doctoral graduates and a shrinking level of research funding. It's leaving young people and even some older ones high and dry. It's associated also with the loss of societal support for higher education as a general societal gain--legislators are backing away from providing funds to state universities. One casualty is the loss of tenure-track jobs, being replaced by instructional serfdom.
These things reflect a more general turn towards individualism in our society--indeed, if you want to go to college, well, pay for it yourself! But it's also a reflection of the self-serving college and university 'bubble' by which we have advertised 'education' and our research findings so heavily, to create societal demand, but without matching substance beneath it.
So many articles and blog posts and so on are being written to hand-wring about this. We mentioned the Albert et al. PNAS commentary yesterday, written by experienced, senior people in science, but there have been many others. We write in sympathy with the views expressed, and have, as have the authors of these and many other commentaries on this crisis, tried to suggest ways to get through trying times.
However, there is another very different way to look at this.
Social change must occur on its own terms
We, and authors of bemoaning commentaries that make recommendations for how to face these problems, are generally senior. What we naturally tend to think of, and to suggest, amounts to ways to return to how things were done in the past--to how it was when we were young, the system we came up in, liked, got used to and which we would suggest make a come-back. We did well during our decades and so tend to think we know what's right. We naturally tend to propose changes meant to maintain the status quo.
But maybe that's wrong. Maybe we should not be listened to. Maybe it's natural and right that we be put out to pasture. We had what we view as halcyon days and they do seem definitely to have been gentler and easier than what is faced today. But perhaps the solutions now will have to be different.
Perhaps lifetime tenure is obsolete. Perhaps dependence on the grant system can't be reinstated, and major shifts in jobs will have to occur, and shouldn't be mourned. Perhaps academic life will become less desirable, or will come to be something very different from what we elders knew and liked. This is already happening, of course, not so much by design but because universities as businesses make decisions based on bottom-line considerations more than they used to, rather than what's best for scholarship or research or educational interests. At least as we elders see those.
Perhaps, even, intensified competition is just the way it'll have to be. Perhaps the capitalistic view that this is the hard-knocks way for society to thrive, trimming fat, intensifying effort and so on will become the norm. Perhaps universities will have to shrink, professors losing jobs that don't really matter in the online world. Perhaps the existence of excess labor pools--instructors who can't get tenure-track jobs and instead work by the hour when and where they can get jobs--is just going to be the way of the world because it is more economically 'efficient' (for society as a whole). Perhaps this is a return not to the way it was for current elders, but much farther back, to the itinerant scholar days, ones who sing for their supper as individuals. That's how it was in much of Classic times and the Middle Ages, after all.
In fact, it will just happen, however it happens. Powers that be will struggle to keep things as they are and newcomers will struggle to change them, all in ways no one can really predict. But perhaps in one way or another, we are already seeing a gradual de facto return to some forms of social and intellectual elitism, along with income inequity, is the path of the future even if we elders don't like that. Perhaps our ideas about 'democracy' are just naive.
Maybe we should just not be the ones invited to write editorials about this 'crisis': maybe it's a crisis only in the mirror on the past.
Perhaps instead, young people will somehow restructure things in a way we elders can't or don't envision, and hence could never recommend. Maybe they and only they should be writing about this---or, more realistically, maybe this needs to be worked out, by them, through the social media rather than the stodgy outlets we elders tend to use.
Given the number of stressors on the system, however, much of the change and the resolution is likely to be unplanned and will just in some meandering or chaotic way be where universities find themselves when the dust settles.
Whatever replaces our type of world will become the new status quo, the one the new elders mourn the passing of fifty years from now, as our generation fades into the sunset of the world we have known.