My Future in Philosophy and Philosophy’s Future: The Pessimistic Case, Jamming, 23/05/2014

This Sunday until Wednesday, I’ll be at the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings at Brock University. This is the annual conference of Canadian philosophers based in universities, which I have attended every year since 2009, having presented a paper or commented on another’s work each time. I plan on updating each morning throughout the week with news, events, and reflections from the conference.

However, this year offers a bittersweet occasion for me at the CPA, as this past academic year has been the first one where I haven’t been a doctoral student or employee of a university. This time last year, I was honestly uncertain if I would ever gain employment in a university again. Tenure-track and even contractual faculty positions were drying up at the time when a generation of retirements would supposedly open them up. As for sessional/adjunct work being paid per-course, the terrible lack of job security in that field has resulted in the unionized units of the universities in my region* doubling down on seniority protections for their current employees. Essentially, the previous generations of PhD graduates have rigged the system to prevent the current generation of graduates from securing the work that we have spent years training to do.

* If you think it’s worth immigrating to the United States for adjunct work, then you haven’t done your research: sessional positions elsewhere in North America pay one-third of what they do in most of Canada. Canadian per-course instructors usually skirt the poverty line even when, as in the best case scenarios, they can acquire teaching gigs at multiple universities.

What makes me truly sad about this state of affairs is the mercenary atmosphere it creates. The desperate expression of self-interest has killed any community values among academics. The problems of the current faculty job market lie in massive cultural and economic shifts in the university sector. Government funding for universities has fallen as enrolment increased. Rising tuition rates have attempted to make up the difference, but they are inadequate in most cases to cover the shortfalls. And because tuition has increased so much faster than inflation or average middle-class income, students have become increasingly dependent on very large loans to finance their education. Even those lucky enough to secure a solid income shortly after graduation carry a debt burden that is often unsustainable.

To cover the shortfalls, universities have increasingly turned to corporate partners in its research. However, these corporate relationships come with their own, ultimately destructive, effects. Sometimes, corporate partners purposely interfere with research to cover up crimes, or health and environmental hazards. But more often, the influence is more subtle. Corporate partners often make demands for capital developments, equity assets that justify their investment. However, these only put universities themselves further in debt through maintenance costs on new facilities, and servicing the debts they owe on the construction costs themselves. 

This has resulted in an unfortunate cultural shift in the university sector, what I’ve taken to calling, mostly facetiously, the Ghost of Thatcher. More often, it’s called the growth of neo-liberalism. This is an ideological concern, as the university sector has transformed how its leaders and workers think of themselves. The notion that universities supply a public service that is funded by public tax dollars and investments has disappeared. Instead, students are conceived as customers, faculty as service providers, and senior administration . . . well, I’m not exactly sympathetic.

While protests like this played a key role in bringing down
the President
responsible for the Buckingham disaster, they
arrive too late to repair the larger institutional damage
to the university system across North America.
A situation like the Robert Buckingham crisis at University of Saskatchewan is only the clearest case of the everyday injustice and unfairness that this new approach to the university as an education business creates. If the top priority of a university’s leaders is balancing its budget, then cuts will be inevitable. Comprehensive universities are not financially sustainable without public support: corporate partnerships bleed them dry with debt service and equity maintenance, and tuition can’t cover their costs without ruining a generation of students with their own personal debt. Since government will no longer support these essentially not-for-profit institutions and corporate clients insist that they be run for-profit, the public university as we know it simply cannot survive this trend.

And I think the practitioners of humanities and social science disciplines like myself have to face the possibility that we and our disciplines will not have a place in the privatized university. Our research does not make money. Researchers in the social sciences quite often uncover injustices that are committed in the process or the name of making money. Researchers in the humanities, especially philosophy, are at their most relevant when they develop the theories that allow people to understand and critique the various orders that underlie their generally chaotic lives. These activities can’t be monetized because they critique the very relations that are largely responsible for monetizing things. Even when philosophical ideas are used to make money, that activity happens outside the university.

Inside philosophy departments, the situation is even worse. As the job market tightens, the desperation to find a simple steady job at any cost often becomes a detriment to innovative research. Any projects that are risky, eccentric, or especially critical of disciplinary norms are often forgotten as the new generation takes as few chances as possible to avoid excessive boat rocking. Of course, such tendencies result in departments that only reproduce the most ordinary teaching and research, making the content of undergraduate programs merely dumbed-down copies of specialized doctoral research. This only feeds into the stereotypes of corporate managers that the humanities are a useless field that teaches nothing of practical importance. As a result, when the inevitable cuts come to make an inherently not-for-profit institution profitable, they are the first on the chopping block, as they were at University of Saskatchewan.

In such an atmosphere, it’s impossible for me to see how philosophy will survive much longer as a university-based discipline. To be continued . . . 

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