April 15th, 2011
So, this week I am at the annual meeting of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, necessarily called NAGS. We’re in Boston, where the Canadians aim to beat the Bruins in the first playoff round. I was tempted to bring my Habs sweater but then thought better of it. I actually like Boston and sometimes even the Bruins, and so why look for trouble?
A few themes are emerging here. A panel on attitudes and expectations of changing faculty emphasized the gap between Boomers, such as most of us in this room, and Millennials and Gen Xers, who are less well represented at this gathering. We all know the commonplaces about the differences. Ostensibly, Boomers are careerist, Type A’s, driven to work hard and sacrifice everything else in their life to getting ahead. Millennials are more laid back, collaborative, less driven to success in the academy than they are to achieving a healthy work life balance. Really? Not sure I really buy this, but, again, I decided not to look for trouble and challenge the well meaning panelists.
Well, who knows if this emerging generation will change institutional behavior? I am less sanguine about this, perhaps because as a Boomer I believe institutions are as difficult to turn around as supertankers. And because, as Harvard Professor Lou Menand has argued so well in his The Marketplace of Ideas, we are the institutions, we are the ones who perpetuate and reproduce the values in and criteria for success in the professions that we ourselves constructed. How likely are we to relax our time-honored ways of assessing promotion and tenure files, of evaluating contributions to research and teaching? We give a lot of lip service to making changes to a more balanced set of expectations, but I do not yet see much evidence of this.
Further, there are so few jobs these days in the academy that I wonder how too few new and younger hires will be able to effect such major changes. It will take time, if it happens at all. One younger woman in the room observed that she had decided to seek employment outside the academy, preferring to avoid the kind of work-intensive, under compensated pathway her profs had expected her to take. Instead, following her PhD program, she headed for the hills of society, secure and comfortable in a job that drew on her training but did not compel her to compete for the small stakes of a university career.
I am not quite sure why she is here at this conference, but she is precisely the kind of graduate we need to keep track of. This leads to another theme here: the challenges of finding out where our masters and doctoral students end up. It is as difficult to find them in the USA as it is in Canada. Some schools are good at it, for a while. Most lose track of their contacts after a few years. The entrepreneurial among us are working through social media sites, but these are not fully satisfactory ways of collecting the data. Self- reported data is pretty lame, and only as good as the data your subjects are willing to give. Unverifiable, this information needs to be taken with a grain of chalk.
Finally, we are hearing a lot about demographic trends. This theme keeps coming up at conferences like this, as it becomes more and more evident that the northeastern side of this continent is vulnerable to a full emptying out of its eligible university student pool. It’s bad enough that people aren’t having babies in the urban-dense northeast, but migratory patterns indicate that more and more people are moving westward. As families and their children light out for the territories there is a real danger of diminishing recruitable cohorts to our university programs. Are the Millennials moving west because a sunnier lifestyle awaits them, one more suitable to their Millennial expectations? Near a good beach?
Here in Boston we are asking, who should be taking responsibility for this information? Everyone wants to know where have all the grad students gone? Well, just who is going to take hold of that project?