My twins have only half a year of kindergarten under their belts, but they’re already thinking about college. Apart from asking repeatedly whether they can attend the same school, their biggest concern about their future college(s) is proximity to home. Both are only interested in schools that are walking distance, which keeps the list at exactly zero institutions. Their priorities will change as they get older — I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll at least stay within 300 miles of home — but at least we still have a decade to go before we actually have to start thinking about college visits and applications.
But that doesn’t stop me from quietly worrying about it now. A bachelor of arts has become the new minimum requirement for even low-wage, low-skilled jobs, while the cost of receiving that line on a resume continues to increase faster than inflation. My freshman year of college (
a billion fifteen years ago) cost roughly $31,940 for tuition, room, and board; the same school costs roughly $58,060 for a single year now, and, if my children end up there, is projected to be around $75,198 for just one of them for just one year.
Meanwhile, with each publicized Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint alleging poor institutional responses to campus sexual harassment and sexual assault, I become increasingly uncomfortable about sending my children to just about anywhere. Even my own alma mater, where I spent four happy years, entered into a voluntary agreement with OCR for alleged violations of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, and was fined for violations of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose crime statistics. Over the last few years, many brave undergraduate students from schools across the country have come forward to describe environments where institutions protected perpetrators of sexual assaults.
Toxic climates of harassment and bullying also plague graduate programs, with the most recent high profile example coming to light after the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women released an indictment of a philosophy department at the end of January. The report said that the department “has maintained an overall environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior,” among having other problems that may amount to violations of Title IX and Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment.
These federal laws–Title VII, Title IX, and the Clery Act–have been on the books for decades, but colleges and universities remain bastions of sexism, in part thanks to courts that have turned a blind eye to discriminatory behavior under the guise of doctrines like “academic deference.”
I have seen this toxic climate poison the academic ambitions of several people I know personally, who might have endured the bullying and harassment in the ivory tower had it not been for the overt exploitation of their labor. While most universities claim a public mission and are non-profits, they are becoming increasingly run like corporations with a revenue-generating motive that often leads them to exploit their employees.* So, the tenure-track jobs disappear in favor of yearly contract work with limited benefits, relatively low pay, and no job security.
It is for academics thinking about fleeing these harsh realities that Kathleen Miller, Julie Chmiel, Lauren Whitehead, and Jet published Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia, a series of personal stories about leaving the ivory tower. I am not this book’s intended audience–I am a lawyer–but I follow one of the contributors, Elizabeth Freudenthal, on WordPress, and wondered whether this book would give me insight into the crumbling institution that will eventually receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from my family when my three children finally leave home.
It’s an interesting collection of experiences that runs the gamut from individuals who completed a few years of graduate school to those who completed their doctorates only to land at inhospitable faculty positions. Each author describes the circumstances surrounding his or her decision to leave academia, many of them discussing how difficult it was to put their academic dreams behind them, and several touched on issues of sexism, incivility, and exploitation in academia. The authors created this book “to show that there is life after graduate school. There is life after adjuncthood. And there is even life after the tenure-track.” The book is a hopeful compilation of stories for disillusioned academics, its intended audience, but a depressing one for those who want a robust academia that encourages the best scholarship and provides the best learning environments for our children.
I have little hope that, in the twelve years between now and when I will most likely have to write my first tuition check, there will be substantial improvement on college campuses. I will only want to send my children to universities with higher levels of tenured and tenure-track faculty and with lower levels of (and better responses to) sexual harassment and assault. I suppose I am prepared to choose the least evil of our institutions (to extent I know their sins), but I fear that all universities will be equally bad. It seems to be a race to the bottom.
*Speaking of how universities are run, I was shocked to learn that a university I pass every day on my commute to and from work has a Trustee whose background is listed only as a “tourist.” I was further shocked to learn that this “tourist” was a chairman and chief financial officer who allegedly ran a bank into the ground by jacking up interest rates on small business customers and so was sued by the FDIC. Does this sound like someone who should be part of a team running a major institution of higher learning?