The Academic Job Market in the 'Sixties
From gravy to grim
Robert Paul Wolff tells it like it was:
. . . I reflect on the ease and endless rewards of my career, moving from comfortable position to comfortable position, and compare it with the terrible struggles of young academics trying to gain some sort of security and time for their own scholarship in an increasingly hostile job market. The sixties, when my career was being launched, was a time of explosive growth of higher education in America. Spurred by the G. I. Bill and the post-war economic boom, and fed by an endless stream of young men avoiding the Viet Nam draft, colleges and universities virtually metastasized. State universities, which had existed ever since the Land Grant Acts of the 1860's, suddenly sprouted satellite campuses. State colleges plumped themselves up into universities, and Community Colleges became State Colleges. There were so many new teaching positions to be filled that in the sixties and seventies graduate students were being offered tenure track positions before they had become
I'm a generation younger than Professor Wolff. By the time I began applying for jobs at the end of the '70s things had become grim and the gravy days of the '60s were a thing of the past. But I lucked out and got a tenure track job in '78 right out of graduate school at the University of Dayton. Lucky me, I had no other offer. I later learned that in the '60s there were four philosophy hires in one year at UD, some of them sight unseen: no interview. One of these gentlemen couldn't even speak English! And of course the quality of the people hired was relatively low.
It is also worth pointing out that the '60s and early '70s were also a time when what William James in 1903 called the "Ph.D. Octopus" acquired many more tentacled arms. New graduate programs started up and new philosophy journals as well. Another Harvard man, Willard Van Orman Quine, cast a jaundiced eye on the proliferation of journals in his delightful "Paradoxes of Plenty" in Theories and Things (Harvard UP, 1981):
Certainly, then, new journals were needed: they were needed by authors of articles too poor to be accepted by existing journals. The journals that were thus called into existence met the need to a degree, but they in turn preserved, curiously, certain minimal standards; and so a need was felt for further journals still, to help to accommodate the double rejects. The series invites extrapolation and has had it. (196)
Back to Professor Wolff:
At the same time, the Cold War and the Sputnik scare triggered a flood of federal money into universities. Most of it, of course, funded defense-related research or studies of parts of the world that America considered inimical to its interests [Russian Research Institutes, East Asia Programs, language programs of all sorts], but some of the money slopped over into the Humanities, and even into libraries and university presses. For a time, commercial publishers found that they could not lose money on an academic book, since enough copies would be sold to newly flush university libraries to enable them to break even. Those were the days when a philosopher willing to sell his soul [and who among us was not?] could get a contract on an outline, a Preface, or just an idea and a title. The professor introducing me at one speech I gave said, "Professor Wolff joined the Book of the Month Club, but he didn't realize he was supposed to read a book a month. He thought he was supposed to publish a book a month." Well, we all thought we were brilliant, of course.
Then the bubble burst. First the good jobs disappeared. Then even jobs we would never have deigned to notice started drying up. Universities adopted the corporate model, and like good, sensible business leaders, started cutting salaries, destroying job security, and reducing decent, hard-working academics to the status of itinerant peddlers. Today, two-thirds of the people teaching in higher education are contract employees without good benefits or an assured future. Scientists do pretty well, thanks to federal support for research, but the Humanities and non-defense related Social Sciences languish. The arts are going the way of high school bands and poetry societies.
The truth is that I fell off the cart onto a nice big dung heap, and waxed fat and happy, as any self-respecting cockroach would. My career happened to fit neatly into the half century that will, in future generations, be looked back on as the Golden Age of the American University. There is precious little I can do for those unfortunate enough to come after me. But at least, I can assure them that their bad luck is not a judgment on the quality of their work. And, of course, I can write increasingly lavish letters of recommendation in a desperate attempt to launch them into the few remaining decent teaching jobs. I would have liked to do better by them. They deserve it.