Sep 4, 2007

On Academic Nomadism and the Future of American Higher Education

I originally took this photograph of butterflies on my stone crop sedum to post on my photography blog, but I began to think that it might serve as a visual metaphor of the practice of academic nomadism.

I have become a full-fledged academic nomad this semester, performing instructional and academic duties at three institutions of higher learning. As such, I now have to be cognizant and fluent with three non-forwarding email accounts, three distinct institutional bureaucracies, and three lengthy policy manuals.

All of this in exchange for bargain-basement, part-time instructor salaries without benefits.

Now, I would not trade the academic life for another career in the corporate world, as I spent over two decades in middle management and as a small business owner. While the pay in academia is less than I might make working for a multinational corporation, there is much to be said for work with a great deal of intellectual freedom.

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend in American colleges and universities to replace tenure-track, full-time positions with less expensive part-time and short-term instructors. In addition, universities have turned to distance learning and increased course loads as tools to improve efficiency. This collective behavior, of course, is in response to declining financial support by governments and increasing cost-consciousness by students, for whom the rising cost of higher education makes tuition a top-of-mind factor in college choices.

In the long run, though, I suspect that higher education in America - though still currently the envy of most of the world - will suffer from this short-sighted emphasis on efficiency and cost-cutting by colleges and universities. The decrease in full-time career opportunities will make academia even less attractive for talented graduates weighing career options. Why get stuck for years as an academic nomad, stringing together three or four part-time college jobs to scratch out a living, when you can make twice as much money with, say, Morgan Stanley or Samsung?

I will spend the next few years racking up miles on my 1995 Hyundai in my nomadic journeys between local colleges and universities, and I have faith that I will eventually snag a full-time position in my field at a place I can one day call "home." Yet there are an increasing number of academic nomads like me criss-crossing the country in search of gainful employment, and I suspect that our ranks will only rise in an era of downsizing in which quality loses out in favor of price, efficiency, and profit.

Sadly, the much-lauded American system of higher education will be the ultimate victim in this mad dash to the bottom, as short-sighted government leaders are all too willing to sacrifice higher education on the altar of "fiscal responsibility" in their budget cutting.

I feel sorry for the world my children and future grandchildren will be inheriting, and I can only hope that the academic seeds being sown today will not bear the bitter fruit I believe will ripen for the next generations.


HumboldtsClio said...

I am betting about one hundred thousand dollars in student loans that you're wrong, Mike.

historymike said...


You will not have to worry, oh wise one. I suspect that you will be one of those folks who nails a tenure-track job in six weeks after walking across the stage in your doctoral cap and gown.

The last I checked, though, we history PhDs are getting churned out in a quantity twice as large as the number of openings. There are similar dismal projections for most of the humanities and social sciences, as well.

Of course, the good thing about student loans is that they stop trying to collect on them after you are dead, so if you have a few nickels left after you kick the proverbial bucket, your heirs will get them.


mud_rake said...

I'm sure that it doesn't surprise you that the educational system here in America has also fallen to the 'outsourcing' concept which has swept through corporate America.

After all, this is America where the dollar is #1.

Does our nation regard education highly? Are tax -payers eager to fund schools? What is in the national interest regarding education? How do American attitudes on education compare to attitudes in Western Europe and Southeast Asia?

When the 'dilution of America' has reached well into the academic world, then we ought to kiss the future goodbye.

Historychic said...

There is still hope for us academics in finding a job somewhere, even if its in the middle of Timbuktu.

SensorG said...


I read this and thought of you...