Academic Hunger Games

Maybe I should do more complaining because otherwise people don’t know how bad it’s gotten in public higher education.

This is what happened two weeks ago, for example. We usually hire graduate students to serve as TAs and GAs. They teach lower-level sections, help with research, work at our labs, provide free tutoring, etc. There is a stable number of these graduate hires each department makes year after year. In Chemistry, for example, graduate students teach 28 sections of Intro Chem. Without them, the department collapses.

Graduate students expect to be hired for these jobs when they apply. It’s part of the package they are offered. At my university, graduate students don’t get tuition waivers if they aren’t employed as teaching assistants. So if we don’t offer these jobs, grad school enrollments plummet.

So this year the new neoliberal administrator decided that the number of graduate students we can hire should be cut by 75%. This makes zero financial sense but having fewer employees us always good, right?

Department Chairs were gathered and told that we have to battle it out with each other for the remaining 25% of graduate students we’ll be allowed to hire.

You can imagine what happened. Losing this many workers is potentially catastrophic for many departments. It was total Hunger Games. Of course, who’s going to win in that kind of situation?

People who can yell the loudest.

People who have no inhibitions and no qualms about publicly destroying a colleague from another department.

People who have a commanding presence, a loud voice, and who lack a strong accent in English.

People who happen to be close friends (or who look aesthetically pleasing to) high-ranking administrators.

If, however, you are on a quieter side, maybe somewhat introverted or timid, guess what? Your department is screwed. Other people tear off a huge chunk of the loot and you go home hungry. And it’s not just you who loses, which would be more bearable. It’s all the people who are working at your department and who need you to bring back a decent number of these graduate students.

In the end, people start hating each other for being more successful at this game. Group solidarity is broken. Suspicion sets in. Why did that person get more than I did? Something shady must be going on. Graduate students who were admitted under the expectation of having a job and a tuition waiver suddenly lose both one or two semesters in. And you have to look at their stunned, scared faces and know that it’s your fault because you didn’t yell louder or eviscerate another Chair in front of everyone.

So yeah. It’s bad.


7 thoughts on “Academic Hunger Games

  1. “This makes zero financial sense but having fewer employees us always good”

    I think another defning train of neoliberals is refusal to see things in systemic terms. Cutting money in one part of the budget is good because…..
    And if, as often happens, a cut that save Y amount of dollars here ends up costing 10xY somewhere else they always seem surprised and react to that by finding other things they can cut…. because the idea that things are connected is totally alien to them.

    Neoliberalism is to rational economy what the russian army is to military tactics….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The funniest thing is that there is a very easy way to fix our budget hole. Everybody knows what it is, which makes the situation even more bizarre.

      Here’s what it is. We have a 27 million hole in the budget. It appeared in the past 10 years. What else changed in those years? Our university started handing out cash stipends to undergraduate students. In the amount of… exactly, 27 million. The hope was that this would increase enrollments. That didn’t happen. Instead, we now have a 27 million dollar budget hole. So what could be done to repair it? Hmmm, what a mystery.


  2. If you want to take a pay cut, we apparently just passed school vouchers for all here in FL… which I expect will shortly lead to an explosion in private schools. The need for teachers will be desperate.


    1. “school vouchers for all here in FL… which I expect will shortly lead to an explosion in private schools”

      That’s the idea… eliminate public education entirely so that educational opportunities end up becoming an accident of birth and most people get forced into corporate chain schools that are just as woke as current public schools…. Lindsay lays out that scenario in more detail.


      1. We’ll see. I do think it’ll drive up tuition at existing private schools, to keep the riff raff out, since the scholarship money isn’t income-dependent. A lot depends on how greedy the state bureaucrats get about regulating schools that accept the money. If they can be kept on a tight leash, there’s an opportunity there for church-affiliated schools to spring up everywhere (if my church does that, I’d sign up), in addition to the expected edu-robo-corp trash.

        I’ve been to two much poorer countries where all schools were essentially private (and not funded by the state), and they still managed a better education than the vast majority of poorer school districts in the US. It’s open to interpretation whether that happens because the pool of students is better (systemic poverty, rather than low-IQ-and-family-dysfunction poverty), or the education is better. But it’s not worse.

        I’m sure that here in the US we’ll find a way to screw it up anyway. But with any luck it’ll take a few years. I expect the way it’ll happen is: the new schools will be great to start with, and then the public-tuition budget will not go up with inflation because there won’t be a teacher’s union to fight for raises, and things will decline accordingly.


        1. “they still managed a better education than the vast majority of poorer school districts in the US”

          For what percentage of the population?

          As far as I’m concerned the entire homeschooling movement (for all the sincerity of some people involved) was a cat’s-paw to defund and dismantle public education entirely because from the point of view of the elite a big part of the population is made up of useless eaters so why bother educating them… much more convenient to make sure only the right kind of people get education.


          1. I was not able to survey the entire population in either case. But in the rural farm town where I stayed in VN, even poor-by-local standards families managed to keep their kids in church- or temple- run schools (I think poorer children were funded by scholarships, and the schools run mostly by nuns– Buddhist and Catholic) until about eighth grade, and the kids were literate, numerate, cheerful, and polite. I suspect that the government bureaucracy there is such that it is a net benefit to the govt to make sure that the max number of people are up to at least the level of reading/writing required to fill out government forms, read the government newspapers, and pay all the various fees, bribes, and taxes correctly.

            The family I stayed with, lower-class by local standards but not desperately poor
            (might not mean anything to you, but when we first met them, they were raising other people’s pigs for hire, and the 13yo had just left school to work. Poor. But they hauled my dad out to meet a couple of actually poor families to try to get them help. Beyond help though: kids retarded by malnutrition– our hosts’ kids had never starved). Anyway, our hosts got all four kids through the local high school with a little financial assistance, sent two to Saigon for further education: an accounting course, and an MBA, and the other two did some time in seminary before opting to get married. Being rural, there weren’t a lot of school options, but the available options were more than enough to get a bright kid into university. These people are poor because they’re rural and religious. The government for a very long time has had official discrimination against Buddhists and Catholics, so they tend to stay out in the rural villages rather than sending their bright kids off to the city. That’s subsiding in the last 20 years or so, but very gradually. My MBA friend was able to do a masters’ degree. But, she was not able to get that degree in mathematics like she wanted, because Catholics get their entrance exams docked for high status degree programs. it might theoretically be possible for them to get in, but not if they would displace the children of good loyal atheist party members. So in reality, no.

            I do have some suspicions about the subsidized daycare for preschoolers back in the village– hard to tell if it is something nefarious going on with the quality of the food, or if the kids are just malnourished at home, but when I visited one of these places, the kids all seemed happy and active… and their smiles were a horrorshow. Mouths full of brown stumps. One prays their adult teeth will be better– almost can’t find a crooked or rotten tooth anywhere else in the village. Just the preschool. So weird.

            I strongly suspect education is much more class-stratified in Peru– as much a problem of geographic access as poverty, and the discrimination happens along class/income lines rather than religious ones. How weird is it that religious discrimination is probably good for rural education… in that it keeps the bright young folks at home in the little farm towns. I wasn’t staying with any local families in Peru, so my contact with the education system was much much smaller, but the little bits I did glean suggested things were not up to VN standards. The schools for the poorest are often sponsored by foreigners– charities, missionaries, NGOs– and I’m sure the quality is wildly variable. I’m not at all confident that rural people in the Andes or the jungle have any kind of consistent access to schools at all. Certainly the little kids begging on the street in Lima aren’t going. Our Indio friend indicates there is ethnic discrimination, at least in higher ed. And we were in contact with an American lady teaching at a school in Lima– a higher-end school– and what she had to say was not encouraging. She did not think even the rich kids were getting much of an education in school, because the prevailing attitude about education was “we pay you to teach our kids, so if they get a bad grade it’s your (the teacher’s) fault”– and the result is that most teachers give the kids good grades regardless of performance to keep the parents happy and their jobs secure. And the kids know this, and make no attempt to learn anything. Those getting an actual education are probably getting it through private tutors.

            The homeschooling movement exists because some of us need our kids to have a decent education now, not in ten years when with consistent well-funded political action we might get some traction on our local school district. The broader trends are what they are, but since I can’t control them… I’m teaching algebra at my dining table.


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