Graduate Education Is the Dubai of Higher Learning

The graduate student is the epitome of the new flex worker in the “no-collar” workforce.
By Morgan Adamson

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

—Mark C. Taylor, New York Times, April 26, 2009


Mark C. Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times, “End the University as We Know It,” quoted above, struck a nerve among both faculty and graduate students, as shown by the numerous blog posts and letters to the editor it inspired. Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University, spoke directly to our deepest insecurities that our intellectual work is irrelevant and that our jobs are, or will soon be, deemed obsolete through a cost-benefit analysis over which we have no control.

Our fears have been exponentially intensified by the collapse of the global financial system, as university administrations impose extreme measures—layoffs, hiring freezes, slashing of benefits. But Taylor’s piece is not unlike the calls for neoliberal restructuring that the financial crisis has spurred in many sectors of the economy. While controversial, there is little new in his argument. Such statements as “graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning” and recommendations that universities “abolish permanent departments” should be seen as less a manifesto than a condensed reiteration of what many university administrations and higher education think tanks have been saying for some time now. Two basic tenets of Taylor’s piece—the need for interdisciplinary research and the transformation of graduate education—are simply interrelated facets of some of the most insidious market-based trends currently shaping higher education and the types of knowledge and workers it produces.

Mark Taylor proposes that traditional academic departments be abolished in favor of interdisciplinary “zones of inquiry.” The zones he suggests include “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, and Water.”

What is notable about this list is that one could, in good faith, trace a rich history of interdisciplinary collaboration in each topic Taylor offers. For example, the global struggle over water rights over the past two decades has involved the work of activists, environmentalists, legal advocates, anthropologists, geologists, political scientists, and many others. Interdisciplinary collaboration, as we know it, is a movement that began with the work of scholars who attempted to reach across disciplinary boundaries long before there were institutional structures in place to support such research. However, that complicated history of interdisciplinarity in the American university appears nowhere in Taylor’s piece. Rather, he suggests, interdisciplinarity is something that now needs to be administered from above rather than from below.

Administered Interdisciplinarity

Taylor is not alone. In recent years, once-radical interdisciplinary studies have been appropriated by university administrations as another tool to reconfigure the university more thoroughly into a business-management model. Universities introduce countless “interdisciplinary initiatives” to cut costs and allow direct private sponsorship of research. This administered interdisciplinarity demands that academic labor be able ceaselessly to produce new and innovative thought that exceeds the limits of more traditional forms of knowledge that are associated with the classical disciplines.

In contrast to its diverse history, interdisciplinarity is becoming a banner under which the erosion of the university as we have known it is taking place. At my home institution, the University of Minnesota, President Robert Bruininks launched an initiative in 2005 called “Strategic Positioning” in the hopes of turning the university into one of the “top three public research institutions in the world.” The public campaign that accompanies the restructuring process brands Bruininks as “A President Committed to Interdisciplinary Change.” We can hear the echoes of Taylor’s demand for a more “agile” university in the language of the University of Minnesota Web site: “The future will require more ambitious goals and sophisticated strategies for identifying, supporting, and sustaining the University’s interdisciplinary endeavors and a flexible infrastructure that can respond to emerging needs with agility.”

The hidden aspect of this “flexible infrastructure” is the dissolution of less profitable academic programs, the cutting of supportive infrastructure, the suppression of wages, and the production of a more “flexible” labor force that is compelled to do more work for less pay. The current financial collapse has accelerated this process to the point that it seems that only the most agile and flexible will survive in the new university. (For example, as a part of an effort to streamline institutional processes, the University of Minnesota administration decided in 2009 to dissolve the graduate school as an independent unit, which resulted in the layoff of staff and the slashing of services available to graduate students.)

This trend is not particular to the University of Minnesota; almost every major research institution in this country has publicized similar statements. The University of Wisconsin–Madison has introduced multiple interdisciplinary initiatives, including the “cluster hiring initiative”— funded mostly by private money—which seeks to bypass the traditional disciplines by opening tenure lines within interdisciplinary research areas both controlled and determined by the central administration. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill boasts of its plan to construct an entirely new campus around interdisciplinary principles that will facilitate “research and innovation that eventually will support public-private partnerships and house interdisciplinary research to foster flexible collaborations.”

Flexibility, agility, innovation, and adaptive collaboration with centralized administrative goals and private interests—these are the demands of the new interdisciplinary university.

Graduate Education and the New Economy

And where do graduate students fit in this new university? Though few would disagree with Taylor’s point that the cheap labor of graduate students is essential to the functioning of the contemporary university, his attempt at compassion for their plight falls short. Rather than advocating for expanded job security and fair wages for all university employees, Taylor targets graduate education as the epitome of institutional excess and characterizes the graduate student as an outmoded figure who must be transformed into the exemplary flex-worker: “The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.”

The new role of the graduate student would be to develop the adaptive skills modeled on the interdisciplinary forms of knowledge described above and to enter the “real-world” job market as the model flexible intellectual worker—that is, after years of underpaid work at the university. This worker embodies trends that have been identified in many sectors of the economy, namely, in what Richard Florida, University of Toronto professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute, calls the “creative class,” or what the social theorist Andrew Ross more accurately calls the “no-collar” workforce. It replicates the general trend toward flexible and contingent labor we have witnessed in the past several decades.

“Higher education isn’t too Fordist—it’s actually the brilliant, innovative post-Fordist employer par excellence,” notes Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works. “Every other employer wants to employ its people on the model of the campus—to get people who work for love, as perpetual students, eagerly discounting their labor in hopes of a future reward that someone else will provide.” Graduate students, then, are the epitome of the post- Fordist intellectual worker: poorly paid, with little job security or legal protection, few benefits, and few intellectual property rights. They are trained to thrive in the uncertain climate of today’s job market, both inside and outside of the university.

Taylor seems to be advocating for the expansion of markets in what is called “human capital” in the context of higher education. The concept of human capital, developed by neoclassical economists in the mid-twentieth century, views the knowledge, skills, and education of an individual as a fertile zone for speculative investment. With the growth of the knowledge economy in the past several decades, human capital is becoming increasingly important for financial markets. If we understand how universities use neoliberal theories of human capital investment, we can better decipher their statements about interdisciplinary initiatives, such as the one made by the president of the University of Minnesota. Interdisciplinary initiatives, according to the university’s Web site, “represent areas where further investment will yield significant return in intellectual capital, where the University and the state possess a comparative advantage, and where considerable outside resources can be leveraged to build research capacity and a dynamic interdisciplinary academic enterprise.” (Emphasis added.) The phrase “interdisciplinary academic enterprise” is an apt characterization of the future research university, which will use cutting-edge financial instruments to create and expand markets in intellectual capital, while continuing to transform itself and its workers into more flexible forms.

Given the current situation, the graduate student could not be further from Detroit. If we must think of a city as a metaphor for graduate education today, it should be Dubai rather than Detroit. Dubai implies the global network of financial interests that now swarm around the university, the extreme irregularities in labor practices and the stark inequities in wages that characterize contemporary higher education. Dubai is a frontier for the “new economy,” as unstable for workers as it is profitable for financiers.

Graduate students are at the center of these circuits of exploitation in the contemporary university, not only because their underpaid and precarious intellectual labor is a virtual human capital free-trade zone, but also because most graduate students are indentured into a life in debt by the financial industry through the predatory system of student loans. Taylor’s suggestion that graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning is not merely incorrect, it is a misrepresentation of the inner workings of the contemporary university. In contrast to Taylor’s insistence that there is little demand for the intellectual labor of graduate students, I would argue that there is great demand for their adaptive and critical cognitive skills—the new knowledge economy is based on these very capacities.

Morgan Adamson is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Minnesota; her dissertation is on financial capitalism and visual culture. She co-organized a series of conferences at the University of Minnesota: “Rethinking the University,” “Reworking the University,” and the upcoming “Beneath the University, the Commons” ( Her e-mail address is [email protected].