Friday, January 23, 2009


The economic crisis is hitting home, even at rich universities like mine. My department is replacing three full-time, tenure line positions in modern American history with one non-tenure line two-year lectureship. Harvard's School of Arts and Sciences has announced, in classic Harvard fashion, a "hiring pause." (The usual and customary phrase "hiring freeze" is, I guess, too cold, given that even after a devastating hit by the market, Harvard still has a $27 billion dollar endowment). Many universities have canceled searches altogether. By the best estimate, in my primary field, history, fifteen percent of faculty searches this year were canceled nationwide. Grim indeed.

In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, education historian and op-ed writer par excellence, Jon Zimmerman makes a persuasive case that the economic stimulus package should include doctorates. He looks to the New Deal's creation of jobs for newly minted Ph.Ds and underemployed professors in the arts, historical preservation and research, archiving, and national parks. The whole piece is worth a read.

When asked why the government should sponsor artists and writers, New Deal official Harry Hopkins responded, "Hell, they've got to eat like other people." Hopkins' quip reminds me of a sign that a job seeker carried at a recent conference of historians: "Will Teach 20th Century U.S. For Food."

But he probably won't - at least not at the university level. That's why we need to design other jobs, to put his skills to good use.

After all, our society has already invested untold sums in educating young scholars. And "investment" is the mantra of the day. As Obama keeps reminding us, his goal is not simply to put people to work. It's to invest in a better future, by making improvements in infrastructure, renewable energy and, yes, education.

For our underemployed academics, of course, the investment has already happened. The only question is whether we will save it, or squander it, and how.

One point to add to Zimmerman's argument. The economic engine of dying rustbelt cities for the last forty years has been "meds and eds"--that is hospitals and higher education. As those sectors contract, the economic effects go well beyond a few underemployed Ph.D.s to the whole metropolitan economy. Stimulate education!


Lester Spence said...

Tom I'm going to link back to this and a few pieces I've written on the blog. I just got word that we're freezing salaries, canceling all searches, and cutting budgets by 10%.

I thought about writing a piece like the one you describe here but didn't pull the trigger. I wonder how many others are starting to deal with this?

Tom S said...

Lester--thanks for the link. It's getting very ugly out there, but I don't think that anyone other than Zimmerman has thought this one through. I hope word begins to circulate.

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