Education

Formal apprenticeships would protect grad students (opinion)


When universities significantly expand their enrollment of graduate students, neighboring institutions of higher education exhibit greater use of part-time faculty. That was the conclusion of a recent paper I co-authored with Jon Boyette, titled “Supply Side Fantasies and Precarious Part-time Academic Labor,” published in Education Policy Analysis Archives.

In an influential 2008 book, Marc Bousquet criticized what he termed the “supply-side fantasy” and argued that decreasing the supply of graduate students would not change reliance upon contingent faculty employment. Without explaining how it would work, he did, however, indicate that a “revived apprenticeship” could be beneficial.

In this essay, I will suggest that construction of a formal, federally recognized graduate apprenticeship program is both a possible and necessary supply-side solution, a remedy to the problem of too many Ph.Ds. and too few secure academic jobs.

Expanded graduate enrollments appeared cost-free until the 1970s when burgeoning community college enrollment destabilized the academic market. Demand for community college faculty lifted opportunities at first, but when the oil and other fiscal crises followed, states began to pinch pennies. Due to their limited mandate for research, community colleges soaked up candidates without Ph.Ds., especially those willing to teach on a part-time basis. State legislators increasingly saw community colleges as a more cost-effective option such that public universities confronted increasingly hostile budget constraints that made their commitments to full-time, tenure-track, Ph.D.-holding professors much more difficult to sustain. Nonetheless, doctoral granting universities plowed on, turning out ever larger numbers of Ph.Ds., with little regard for their students’ slimmed-down career pathways.

A similar breakdown in the turn-of-the-20th-century craft labor markets has something to tell us today about our current faculty market implosion. Like today, this earlier period was one of considerable organizational innovation from which today’s unions, modern corporations and research universities are direct descendants. It was a period in which craft labor was first undermined and then transformed through mass production, scientific management and the rise of college-educated professionals.

At stake in those earlier times was a vision of labor as an independent and self-governing partner in production. Craft unions of that earlier time pushed back against efforts to replace their members with cheaper, less skilled individuals. The crafts that survived exercised their skill and knowledge to prevent an unregulated flow of apprentices and helpers from flooding their markets. Those that lost were replaced by cheaper semiskilled or unskilled machine-driven labor.

Then, as today, schools were critical intermediaries in the transformation. Employers founded and advanced trade schools that weakened the hold of unionists over production. Separately, demand for economic opportunity sped the growth of public high schools and, later, colleges. In contrast, unions forged distinctive apprenticeship arrangements that fixed the numbers of apprentices relative to the numbers of fully trained journeymen, ensured thorough training, and prevented oversupply. Unions accepted trade schools as complements to, but not substitutes for, formal apprenticeships.

During this heyday, postsecondary institutions were mostly left to govern themselves. The traditional guild system of faculty governance enabled faculty to set academic standards for their students and themselves. By the teens, the American Association of University Professors, the principal faculty association, began standardizing tenure arrangements.

The past 50 years have created a new normal for faculty. Where labor unions once complained that two-track systems allowed lower standards for new hires compared to old-timers, academia has built not one or two, but many, faculty tracks. At my institution, the University of Washington, faculty titles now include tenure-track professors, teaching professors, research professors, professors without tenure, clinical professors, temporary lecturers (part- and full-time), part-time non-temporary lecturers, professors of practice, and teaching associates. This maze of titles is hierarchically structured so that those on the bottom often experience no or limited governance rights, short-term contracts, and no upward path of progression. Excluding clinical faculty, around 1,000 of these individuals can legitimately be called permatemps in that they are hired on an annual or quarterly basis but renewed for periods that may exceed twenty years.

In today’s world there is logic in having some faculty specialize in research, some in teaching, and others in various professional practices where they mentor students. Yet, this leaves us far from the 19th-century craft model of fully rounded workers. Those workers often knew as much, if not more, about their workplaces than did their employers. That model imbued workers with an ability to both understand and steer their enterprises.

Today’s splintered professorial workforce practically necessitates administrators coordinate their many disparate actors, each with distinct missions. However, administrative control undermines professional autonomy over academic concerns, most especially the progression of students into faculty and other careers. Our short-sighted free market approach to enrollment seesaws inversely with the market waves. Institutional and personal shipwrecks are the only correctives for this cast-adrift system, and that should simply not be acceptable given the huge investments young people make to become professors.

Preservation of a thriving faculty requires an active dialogue among the institutions that produce and hire graduate students. When major universities sent their graduates out across the nation, that conversation might have been delegated to national disciplinary associations. Now, a very substantial percentage of graduate students do not make it out of their region but instead become enmeshed in their local academic job markets. Many of them will spend years, if not their entire careers, teaching without tenure or job security. That is precisely why the construction of a regional faculty apprenticeship is critical.

By apprenticeship, I am not referring to the loose practice of mentoring students in research or teaching that currently exists. Instead, I am referring to the framework created by the 1937 Fitzgerald Act that defined requirements for federally registered apprenticeships. Registered apprenticeship is designed to protect apprentices and employers against the significant risks inherent in costly skill investment.

The Fitzgerald Act empowers employer-based apprenticeship committees to define indenture standards to secure thorough training. Labor union involvement is encouraged, but not required. Indenture provisions specify the hours of classroom and on-the-job training as well as the length of the agreement. Participating employers must gradually raise wages over the length of the indenture until earnings reach journey level. To prevent oversupply, programs restrict apprentices relative to the number of journeypersons. In administrating their indentures, apprenticeship committees engage in sustained conversation about the health of their fields.

The registered apprenticeship model is readily adaptable for local faculty apprenticeship agreements. Graduate-level institutions would participate as regional training agents for the colleges that employ their students, including themselves. In this role, universities would assess and instruct in the critical skills necessary to ensure successful faculty employment. Employing colleges would provide on-the-job instruction and mentoring.

Apprenticeship committees can define distinct pathways to different faculty positions. For example, students pursuing a research track might spend their first two years pursuing appropriate coursework and research opportunities and only later serve as instructors whose coursework builds on those experiences. Others primarily interested in teaching might rotate through a variety of colleges gaining experience as instructional apprentices.

What must be different from the existing system is that students have secure pathways in which their income rises progressively throughout their apprenticeship. As students advance, they and their mentors learn more about the capabilities of surrounding institutions.

Another big difference must involve enrollment caps that reflect the capacity of surrounding institutions to absorb the outflow of new students. Caps would, of course, be adjusted for the probable employment of some students outside the region and by non-academic entities. But what is fundamentally different is that apprenticeship committees would be required to assess and address supply-side issues in the light of actual experience.

As faculty apprenticeship committees learn over time, they will adjust their standards. Yet, the possibility that formalizing faculty apprenticeship will provide a more stable foundation for academic markets is both real and needed. The principle of caveat emptor is bankrupt when it comes to training the next generation of faculty. Bright students are lured to graduate studies by hopes that they will be the ones to secure solid academic positions. However, with more than half of all faculty employed off the tenure track, too often that is not the case.

Despite the obvious benefits to their graduate students, universities will likely resist regulated apprenticeships as an encroachment upon their flexibility. For that reason, it is likely that graduate student and faculty unions are the most reliable advocates for apprenticeship. Even this would require organized labor shift its emphasis toward long-term stability and security as opposed to maximizing immediate gains. Once in place, however, apprenticeship standards will make precarious academic employment increasingly anomalous.

The Ph.D. is not an intentional “waste product” — to use Bousquet’s term — of our university system, but unless all the players coordinate actions to correct the current situation, that certainly would appear to be one of the system’s effects. Apprenticeship can and must be the start of a conversation that protects the sizable investments that graduate students make in their careers.

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