Suddenly all occasions conspired against us. The economy turned sour. The anti war movement and everything that went with it made students and faculty less popular in many respectable circles. Foundations that had poured money into higher education turned to new causes. Private universities that had been rapidly expanding faculty and programs stopped; and cut; and cut again.
In 1972, The New York Times reported on thousands of historians fighting for the jobs — fewer than 200 of them — on offer at the American Historical Association. Young scholars competed bitterly, while senior scholars echoed Andrew Mellon as they called for the liquidation of lesser graduate programs.
Graduate programs in the humanities had traditionally offered only modest support, economic or professional. Life was cheap: In those days, Princeton’s grad students told the University not to bother building extra housing since they had access to plenty of modest-rent apartments. Many students worked their way through at least part of graduate school, pouring beer, driving taxis or washing glassware in a lab. Others borrowed money — in very modest amounts, by today’s standards. When it came time to write a thesis or go on the job market, the student simply did so, often with very little detailed guidance. The system gave its inhabitants a certain freedom — and not much else. So long as jobs awaited, it seemed to work.
But as prices rose, wages fell and jobs vanished, the old assumptions became more and more detached from lived reality. Students who did not receive fellowship support faced wracking choices: take on too much debt or drop out. The dreadful job market discouraged everyone, and even those who finished their doctorates often left the academy. Many felt betrayed by the undergraduate professors who had encouraged them to undertake graduate work and the graduate professors who had failed to find them work.
Meanwhile the university system adapted to the new economy of scarcity. Deans learned to manage academic work forces, tailoring them to fit their financial resources. They reassigned as much teaching as possible from expensive tenure-track faculty to less expensive adjunct and contingent faculty — who receive no benefits and are paid (poorly) by the course — and to graduate students. Universities often replaced long-term appointments with short-term ones. Fewer than half of America’s college and university teachers nowadays hold tenured or tenure-track appointments, and the proportion is decreasing.
It took a long time, but graduate programs at elite universities also adapted to these new conditions. We cut entering classes so that we could offer full support to all doctoral students. We provided more funds for travel, language training and access to research materials. Above all, we intensified efforts to prepare students to compete effectively for jobs. In the 1970s, the talks a student gave as a job candidate might well have been the first ones he or she ever gave. Nowadays, a vast range of workshops and seminars offer students multiple opportunities to present their research to criticism and to work up their first publications. Once a realm of “loneliness and freedom,” graduate school has become formidably professionalized.
In the relative prosperity of the late 1990s and 2000s, universities began to offer more tenure-track jobs each year: more of them, in fact, than they were producing new Ph.D.s. Placement statistics improved modestly, and salaries began to rise. Conditions remained difficult — and worse than difficult — for many students, but eased for those in the departments that adapted. It seemed that we had found the way to train students for the world they actually faced.
Now the floor beneath us has collapsed again. Endowments have turned south; state revenues have withered; families struggling with lost jobs and foreclosed homes cannot spend as much on tuition as they have in the past. It has taken colleges and universities only a few months to go from prosperity to austerity. In the humanities, 15 to 20 percent of the jobs originally advertised for this year have been cancelled. And as university after university announces budget cuts and staff layoffs, it seems certain that next year will be even worse.
It’s time to think hard about our graduate programs and their relation to these new realities. Should we cut numbers even further? Emphasize professionalization even more? Can we contrive to give students something of the freedom and possibilities for wide-ranging exploration that their predecessors enjoyed before our permanent crisis took shape? Can we be frank about the professional situation that students face without inspiring despair?
These questions have no simple answers. But if we fail to pose and discuss them publicly, we will see another generation’s relationship ith the university ruined by our refusal to face and discuss facts.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.