Is the Ivory Tower Crumbling?

An article, Rejecting the Academic Fast Track, was posted January 15 on Inside Higher Ed. The article summarizes a study of over 8,300 graduate students in the University of California (UC) system; the study reveals that fewer graduate students are interested in pursuing tenure track positions at research universities. This is particularly interesting due to the large sample size and the strong academic performance of the UC schools (two schools in the top 25 and 8 in the top 100, Berkeley is top 5 in several engineering disciplines, and high rankings in law, medicine, and business).

Study participants seem to echo Generation Y’s desire to live a well-rounded life full of experiences and relationships (family) which academia does not foster. About 40% of the participants entered the PhD with academia in mind; after being part of the ivory tower the number had dropped ~10%. Roughly a quarter of the female PhDs said they would go into academia. With the number of female professors in the sciences and engineering already disproportionately low, this statistic should concern universities. The majority of those surveyed felt that teaching colleges were more in-line with their goals.

The study points out the issue and provides suggestions on how to alter future-professors’ attitudes:

  • Allow faculty members to shift to part-time status or temporarily elongate timelines over their academic lives without suffering career penalties.
  • Allow faculty members to take time out temporarily from their academic lives for care-giving and support their return.
  • Abandon the idea that academic stars are those who move through the ranks very quickly. and embrace the idea that the stars are those who produce the most important or relevant work ¬†faster is not necessarily better.
  • Embrace the idea that it is fine to have children at any point in the career path because a full array of resources exists to support academic parents.
  • Challenge the stigma in which having children, particularly for women, is often equated with less seriousness and drive.

The suggestions looks surprisingly similar to options in industry. It seems that the economy will change dramatically in the next decade: baby boomers will retire or expire leaving a hole in the workforce; 70% of young people want to work for themselves; the economy has taken a slant to services; Gen Y is collaborative, socially-minded, and entitled—ideas that go against the grain of current work culture.

What do you think? Is the ivory tower crumbling? Will teaching colleges get the top talent? How will that affect hiring at research universities? Will colleges be run more or less like businesses in the future? How will Gen Y affect the future of academia?