Watching the academy gut itself

June 11, 2014

Most of us have seen a person gut a fish, but have you seen a fish gut herself? Probably not. But sometimes that’s what it feels like watching the academy in the last decades.

The cost of tuition has gone up drastically. Basically, we have academic institutions that put a premium price tag on education. In fact, it’s a price tag that has gone up 1,200 percent in 30 years, leaving many graduates in extreme debt, and causing others to drop out before their education is completed.

The value of education has plummeted. The odd thing is that when a person takes full advantage of the educational system in this country, when they put their time, energy, and creativity into earning a Ph.D., then the very same universities that have been trying to convince us that education is worth that much inflation, turns around and tells the Ph.D.s that their hard work is worth about . . . 1-3K per class for an adjunct teaching position. So the value of education is being cut dramatically by the very same people who are trying to inflate the cost of education.

I know that when one earns a Ph.D., then he or she is able to do many things, not just teach. But if the academy doesn't value education, then why would anyone else?

What is going on? Why would any institution simultaneously inflate and devalue its own product to such a huge extent? To introduce another metaphor, it’s like I’m the owner of a car dealership that sells a new car for $100,000 and then simultaneously floods the market with 2-day-old used cars for $2,000. Smart people aren’t going to spend $100,000.

Educational institutions are not very complex economic systems. If the money is not going to the investment in quality faculty and dedicated research, where is it going? Part of the answer is in this graph that Conrad Hackett, a Pew Research demographer, tweeted. Full-time nonfaculty professionals have increased 369% since the 70s.

Sadly, seminaries are not immune to this state of affairs. Since I graduated, I have watched as institutions gut their tenured faculty while adding adjuncts. The course offerings dwindle while they add new vice presidents. Of course, with the exception of institutions which have kept their focus and their faculty, student enrollment has decreased. When I’ve asked about this curious turn of events (less faculty and more administration, even with less students), I have been told that it has something to do with presidential power—the bigger the cabinet, the more power he or she can wield. I don’t know if this is true. The ridiculous thing is that in some seminaries, the VP to graduate ratio can be one to six.   

Academic institutions have some control over this crisis. But they will have to start valuing their own educations before they completely gut themselves.


calling for quality faculty

No student uprisings please !
But I believe the students could be effective by registering their disappointment clearly. " I'm here to have Dr. Hays for New Testament, " for example. Some professors are sought out because they pass the torch of excellence. ( Of course, we know the pressures to publish that are on them.)

Yes and No

Hi Carol,
I just want to respond to a few points. The first is a general observation. As one who has participated frequently in conversations with other seminaries at venues like ATS, I can state confidently that NO freestanding seminary is adding superfluous administrative costs or positions; all of us are desperately trying to find ways of becoming more nimble and lean--and often that includes cutting from every department down to the bone.

Secondly, the move toward a VP cabinet model grows out of our conversations on shared governance; I'm not actually sure how it serves, even potentially, a power hungry president, since it gathers more voices around the table to share the governance. Further, adding VPs has pretty much NO implications for the budget since these folks are not new positions (admissions, student affairs, continuing education, etc.).

Thirdly, there is not a one-to-one relationship between the number of VPs and the number of graduates for some very good reasons. In our case, for example, we are shifting attention away from our traditional degrees to new certifications and a greatly expanded role for continuing education--toward educating congregations, not pastors in training. A greater percentage of our seminary's resources are going toward diverse and alternative ways of disseminating theological education. Some of these efforts support such things as tent-makers', etc.

Finally, most of our teaching continues to be done by tenured Ph.D.s, but we are beginning to think about being more creative about especially how we teach practical courses, such as evangelism and missions. We are looking at the model of our sister school at UT Social work who has a two tiered faculty--traditional tenured roles and clinical faculty. This is only partly to do with budget concerns; it is difficult to be as nimble as we need to be when laden with high cost salaries. We have also been listening closely to our critics asking for more practical training. This has nothing to do with gutting ourselves and everything to do with being nimble and responsive to the Church.

I am happy to chat about any of this.

Thanks so much for the reply,

Thanks so much for the reply, David.

Of course, my observations were not pointed directly at APTS. Though it is my seminary, and I love it deeply, I have worked with a number of institutions that are facing these crises. Obviously, we are talking about national numbers... not specific institutions.

More than that, I have many, many friends who are facing appalling job markets and being paid adjunct salaries. It's terrible to watch how much the academy thinks PhD's are worth at the end of the day.

I appreciate you pointing out the widening mission of seminaries. That's very helpful. And I'm thankful for your work!

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