Glengarry Glen U.

We talked a little yesterday about the added burdens of complexity that are introduced when institutions pursue research funding, and the demands of research universities that its faculty get that funding. Let’s turn our attention today toward a darker side of all this. Not sinister, not intentional mistreatment, but rather the collateral damage, the civilian casualties. The costs of doing business.

Research universities love graduate students, in much the same way that Walmart loves its associates. They get the work done without much need for reward. They do the work in the lab and the institute. They coordinate the conferences. They teach the lower-division undergraduate courses. And they do it for a tiny stipend, far less than one would pay a professional for similar service.

Research universities also love postdoctoral researchers, in much the same way that Walmart loves its site managers. They coordinate and supervise the workers, they know enough to make independent decisions about the day-to-day conduct of the operation. And although their stipends are larger than those of the grad students, they’re still about half or less of a faculty salary, with no commitment of permanence. With, in fact, a guarantee of impermanence.

The number of graduate students has more than doubled in the past thirty years. The number of master’s degrees has gone from about 316,000 in 1989 to a projected 780,000 this year; the number of doctoral degrees (research and professional) from 100,000 to 182,000. This is not because the number of faculty will need to grow; in fact, exactly the opposite. This body of inexpensive workers have reduced the pressure for faculty hiring, have acted as a downward force on salaries and permanence. Over that same time, the number of postdoctoral researchers has nearly tripled, from about 20,000 to over 60,000.

All of these low-paid people, investing all of this hope labor, doing the daily work of teaching and research productivity, so that their permanent faculty can do… what, exactly?

Always. Be. Closing. [nsfw, thanks to Alec Baldwin and David Mamet.]

You’ve got to feed the machine, you’ve got to earn your keep, you’ve got to cover your nut. You have to be an asset, and assets are capital, and capital returns dividends. MIT makes a billion seven on funded research, and spends a billion five to do it. That’s a pretty fine margin, and they can’t carry any dead weight. You’re a good teacher? Ain’t that nice… they can get a good teacher for three grand a course, hungry and ready to prove themselves. You want to work there? You need to close, you need to sell, you need to get the NSF and the NIH and the big pharma and the big ag to pay your way.

Listen to the wisdom of your Dean, Alec Baldwin. First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. The money’s out there. You pick it up, it’s yours. If not, you’re gonna be shining my shoes.