One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2007, if Dave will have me given our wildly divergent world vews and periodic contretemps, is to write a bit more for Ephblog. We’ll see how long this resolution lasts.

Today’s Boston Globe has an article on the graying of the American professoriate. The debate comes down to a fundamental question: Does the increasing prevalence of over-70 professors limit job opportunities for younger scholars?

Any young professor, and perhaps more to the point, any young unemployed scholar, is well aware of a largely mythical bubble of senior faculty who for decades, we have been told, have been poised to retire en masse, leading to jobs for all. But if these people are not retiring, where do the jobs come from?

The reality is a bit different. Yes, the abundance of retirement-created jobs has never materialized. But this is not what is costing opportunities to young scholars or professors who desire upward mobility within the profession. As America grows, so too does its need for places in community colleges, colleges, and universities. Blaming senior professors — almost always our most accomplished folks — is too facile by half.

Such a mindset also places blame where it does not belong. Administrators would love to believe that there is a simple supply and demand formula at work, and that if only senior professors (with their higher salaries and pools of research and travel monies) would retire there would be ambrosia for all. But those same administrators, especially away from the ranks of the elite colleges and universities, in the places where most professors teach and most students learn, are the ones most likely to countenance the outsourcing of higher education to hordes of adjuncts and visiting lecturers beholden to a miserably competitive job market.

There is another factor at work as well, and that is, in many disciplines, the overproduction of PhD students. Having a PhD program is a sign of belonging to (or of wedging one’s program putatively within) the ranks of the elite. A PhD program confers status. Professors want to teach in a PhD-granting department. Chairs want to head PhD-granting departments. Deans want to oversee as many PhD-granting departments as possible. VPs and Provosts and Presidents and Chancellors and Trustees (Oh MY!) want their universities and their university systems to be granting as many PhD’s as possible. The problem is that much of this pressure for producing PhD’s occurs independently of whether these PhD’s are able to go out and get jobs in academia or in the private sector. That is to say, too many departments are granting too many PhD’s without regard for whether or not there is an actual need for those PhD’s.

There is no easy solution to this last problem. It would be shortsighted and foolhardy for only a tiny, Ivy-covered elite to produce all of the PhD’s. And it would go against many fundamental principles of freedom and liberty to encroach upon either an institution’s desire to grant PhD’s or a student’s desire to receive one. Nonetheless, those departments that grant PhD’s ought to be looking closely at their job placement rates to determine if they are granting too many doctorates.

Think about our own experiences as students in thre Purple Valley. Williams has had enough legendary professors whose classes we have taken. Surely none of us would want to jettison some of Williams’ most senior treasures in the vague hopes that a new generation of scholars need their shot and will prove as enduring as their predecessors. (Furthermore, I’ve seen no sign that Williams is not doing a fine job of balancing senior folks with vibrant junior faculty members.)

The graying of the professoriate — which seems to me to be a concept that arose independent of much evidence but that contains an idea too rich not to run with — is not a serious problem. The real dilemma is the lack of imagination at work among the people whose jobs it ought to be to have an imagination about the way higher education functions rather than simply to find new ways to count beans.

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