A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about “peak oil.” The idea was that we’d passed the midway point of easy crude oil extraction, and were now on the historical downhill side of petroleum. To some extent, that was good news; it signaled a peak of hydrocarbon emissions into the atmosphere, and it sparked a flurry of investment into renewables technology. It also spurred the fracking backlash, the last-ditch efforts to drag more fossil fuels out of the earth.
So here’s an analog. I see the following trends within higher ed:
- increasing demographic instability in college demand, huge cycles of up-and-down high school grads;
- the resulting competition across colleges, and the need for market differentiation;
- high and higher demand for transferability of credits;
- the quick development and easy abandonment of career-focused college degree programs;
- the increase in co-curricular services: academic services, student support services, business services; and
- the necessity for new revenue streams in the face of declining per-student state appropriations.
Then I see the following trends in the larger culture:
- the steady privileging of consumer over producer;
- the embrace of the gig economy;
- the disrespect shown to any profession that women can enter in significant proportions;
- the unreflective embrace of new technologies; and
- the impacts of the Baby Boom, now nearing retirement.
And I put those trends together, and I think what I see is peak faculty. I think we’re beyond the point where the faculty will ever again be a primarily full-time, primarily tenure-track, institutional or cultural commitment. There will always be teachers, sure. But the idea of “the faculty” is as dead as the idea of coal; it’ll carry on for a while because of sunk costs and the gasping demands of those still left in the industry, but really, it’s gone.