Great Colleges to Work For

The Ivory Sweatshop: Academe Is No Longer a Convivial Refuge

Sarah Kiewel for The Chronicle

Luis Ponjuan, an assistant professor of higher-education administration at the U. of Florida, calls himself an "intellectual entrepreneur" in an era of heightened competition.
July 25, 2010

With standards for tenure at major research universities rising year by year, professors say academe has become such a pressure-cooker environment that faculty jobs barely resemble those of a generation ago.

Gone are the days when academe was considered a convivial refuge from the corporate world, a place where scholars had ample time to debate ideas—often during lunch or over drinks after class. Professors, particularly those at research universities, are simply working much more and much harder these days. They are competing for scarcer grant money, turning out more articles and books, coping with the speedup in communications afforded by better technology, and traveling the globe to establish the kind of international reputation that's now necessary to thrive.

"What I'm seeing now is junior faculty really just putting their noses to the grindstone," says Frank Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, who earned his Ph.D. in 1986. "It's had the effect of transforming the culture of the academy into one that is much more businesslike."


MORE ON THE ACADEMIC WORKPLACE: Buy The Chronicle's Special Report


The frenetic atmosphere has led to a decline in collegiality. Not only do professors have less time to pursue professional relationships, but the rise in standards for earning tenure has caused resentment between young scholars and older ones.

"Assistant professors are producing article after article and research study after research study," says David D. Perlmutter, who directs the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. "Then they're looking at the promotion-and-tenure committee and they're going, Wow, I've actually published more in the last six years than all of them combined."

Not everyone agrees that academic jobs are all that different than they used to be. Professors at research universities have always taught classes, published articles and books, and served on university committees. Indeed, as the demands of research have risen, faculty members at major universities often spend less time in the classroom than did their predecessors 20 years ago.

"I'm always skeptical of framing the past as a golden age," says Abigail J. Stewart, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "I think there is a nostalgia and a sentimentality, especially from senior men about the good old days when they played cards at lunch and wandered down the hall to shoot the breeze."

Ms. Stewart has been teaching for 35 years. "I never experienced any of that," she says.

Academic careers are also still among the most flexible. Professors at research universities may work more hours than many people in the corporate world, but they do some of that work at home and almost never spend eight hours a day, five days a week in their offices. Indeed, many longtime adjunct instructors and professors at less-elite universities would gladly accept a prestigious research-university post, despite its headaches. Still, there's no question among many scholars that life at the top has gotten more difficult. What it now takes to secure a tenure-track job and move up the ranks at a large university is substantially greater than what it used to be. That's partly because the tenured ranks in academe are shrinking, as universities rely more and more on adjunct instructors. Professors who teach at community colleges and at less-elite universities are used to contending with hardships like budget cuts, rising enrollment, and a growing number of unprepared students. Now, with a squeeze on tenure-track jobs, even those at the top of the academic food chain are feeling big changes. The Chronicle spoke about the topic with more than two dozen professors.

John B. Conway, chairman of mathematics at George Washington University, certainly remembers a time when getting through graduate school and finding a faculty job was much simpler. He earned his Ph.D. in 1965 after just four years and never completed a postdoctoral fellowship—a virtual requirement these days for scholars who want to work at a research university like his.

Mr. Conway secured his first academic job, at Indiana University, without even applying for a position. His adviser put out some calls to department chairmen, and the deal was done. "I tell the students about that now, and they think this is some kind of story from never-never land," says Mr. Conway, who plans to retire next year.

Robert G. Bergman, who holds a distinguished professorship in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees that times have changed. "This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out," says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967.

It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline. "When I was starting out, one of the premier journals in my field, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, came out once a month, and it was relatively thin," he says. "Now it comes out once a week, and it's much thicker."

Because of declining state and federal funds, professors also spend more time trying to raise money for their own research. In fact, Mr. Bergman recalls a time during the late 1960s when someone from a federal agency called a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, where he was teaching, and said, "Please submit a grant. We want to give you money."

Now, if something like that happened, everyone would think it was a joke. "We have people submitting a large number of proposals just so one or two will hit," says Mr. Bergman. "That means a massive amount more work."

Scholars also routinely spend much more time away from their campuses now than they ever did in the past, he says. They travel to present their work at far-flung seminars where they might meet luminaries who could give their work a nod come tenure time. "There used to be much more confidence that just in publishing stuff, your work would be known."

A study of work-life issues conducted by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education found that Generation X professors value efficiency over face time. The study, which consisted of conversations with about a dozen research-university professors born between 1964 and 1980, found that younger professors didn't want to become workaholics.

But none of the young scholars who spoke with The Chronicle about faculty workload seemed to believe that dialing down was an option. Luis Ponjuan, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, refers to himself as an "intellectual entrepreneur," even though he studies higher-education administration, not business. He doesn't think of his job as affording him time to ponder big ideas with interesting colleagues and students.

"I identify pockets of opportunity that other people will buy into, support, and fund­—to lessen the state's responsibility," he says of his research. "That kind of thought process simply would not have existed 20 years ago."

The more calculated approach is the result of heightened competition, he says. "There's a finite number of faculty positions, a finite number of grants, and a finite number of journals."

Scholars like Mr. Ponjuan who have been on the job for only a few years have already noticed an upward creep in standards since they were hired. "There's been a major escalation in terms of what CV's look like for people being considered for a position," says Greta R. Krippner. By the time she finished her doctorate in sociology, in 2003, she had completed four publications, none of them in the field's two flagship journals: the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review. Her work was good enough, though, to get her a starting job at the University of California at Los Angeles. Since then she has moved to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she is up for tenure next year.

"Now it's kind of normal that you see a graduate student with a paper in one of those top journals," she says. "Just last year, we looked at someone who already had a book out, plus a handful of articles." In fact, that job candidate—who hadn't even finished his Ph.D.—had already completed what at Michigan would now be a very respectable tenure file, says Ms. Krippner.

Indeed, the tight job market has given top universities the luxury of choosing candidates who have already demonstrated an ability to attract grants and churn out papers. Particularly in the sciences, universities invest so much in start-up packages for young scholars that no department any longer wants to take a chance on an untested hire. "Departments can afford to hire people who already have what they need to do to pass at least their third-year review," says Diana B. Carlin, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas who was dean of the graduate school until 2007.

That third-year review has also become a much more formal evaluation process than it was 10 to 20 years ago. Jennifer Ng, who just earned tenure in the School of Education at Kansas, says one of her older colleagues told her that his own third-year review had consisted of the department chairman's pulling him aside and saying, "You're looking good." Ms. Ng, on the other hand, had to document her work in a package that resembled a miniature tenure file.

Young professors are reluctant to complain publicly about how much harder they may be working than their senior colleagues did when they were starting out. But professors who are in midcareer hear the comments.

"My younger colleagues feel they don't have the same opportunity as previous generations to sit and really think and let ideas germinate," says Gregory M. Colón Semenza, an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. "What used to be a truly enjoyable intellectual process has become a very professionalized model of efficiency."

Meanwhile, experienced scholars say their own workload has increased as well. The pace doesn't necessarily slow down anymore once a scholar gains tenure. Young professors are typically protected from committee assignments and departmental duties while they are on the tenure track, but then those burdens get dumped on them, too.


MORE ON THE ACADEMIC WORKPLACE: Buy The Chronicle's Special Report


"People are freaked out about the amount of work they have—there's just no time," says William A. Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College. "Once you're tenured, suddenly you're given way more administrative responsibility really fast, and you have no training for it, and you have no idea what you're doing."

L. Pamela Cook, an associate dean of engineering and a professor of mathematics at the University of Delaware, says she works more now than she did when she started at Delaware, 25 years ago. Back then she had two young children and had to put work aside during the evenings and on weekends. Now, she says, "I work all the time."

Nora Berrah, a distinguished professor of physics at Western Michigan University, has worked in academe since 1987. She still devotes most of her waking hours to her research, and spends about half of her time traveling to national laboratories, where she collaborates on projects. Back in her office at Western Michigan, she usually keeps the door closed. "Sometimes I avoid my colleagues in the hallway," she says, "because I'm afraid it's going to take awhile to say, 'Hello, how are you doing?'"

Campus social life does seem to be a casualty of the work speedup in higher education. A couple of decades ago, it wasn't unusual for faculty members to have lunch together during the workweek and attend parties in one another's homes on the weekends. "I started out at Caltech, and there were several faculty members who said, 'We want to have you over for dinner,'" recalls Mr. Bergman, from Berkeley. "People you knew at work were a major part of your social circle, and that, I think, has really changed."

Nowadays few faculty members seem to have time to socialize with colleagues. That's partly because of the rise of dual-career couples. Since both spouses work, each must take a turn tending to children and completing household tasks, which takes away time for socializing. In addition, with both spouses working, people often live further from their offices than they used to and are less likely to return to the campus for evening events.

Louis Menand started his academic career in English at Princeton University in the early 1980s. "We all went to lunch together each day, not just junior people but the senior people," he says. "We lived near the campus. There was a lot of hanging out together."

Mr. Menand, who is now an English professor at Harvard University, has been back to Princeton several times in the last few years, and notes that things have changed. For one, "half the faculty live in New York." And even in a college town like Cambridge, he says, the culture has changed. "You make a lunch date two weeks in advance, but you just don't all gather at noon and head off."

Many research universities have cut teaching loads to help their faculty members make time for increased demands in research and publishing. Mr. Donoghue, the associate professor of English at Ohio State, says faculty life changed there three years ago, when professors saw a one-course reduction in their teaching load—to four per year. That's when faculty members started clustering their teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. "It used to be the whole faculty was in the building, running into each other, having lots of conversations," he recalls of the years when faculty members taught five courses a year. "Now the Monday/Wednesday people never see the Tuesday/Thursday people."

Mr. Bergman says the breakdown of social relationships among professors is more important than people might think. "You're less willing to get into conflict with people if they are part of your social circle as well as your professional circle."

And Mr. Menand says faculty work looks a lot less attractive to prospective academics than it used to. "I think the demands have come to be experienced as all-consuming, 24/7," he says. "That's bad because of the quality of life and because it discourages other people from getting into academe."

He adds: "You don't want smart college students taking one look at what we have to do to keep our jobs and saying, That's not how I want to spend my life."