Is the Marketplace Too Much with Us?

Joyce Appleby, September 1997

This fall another round of feverish recruitment begins as American universities vie with one another for attractive job candidates. Everywhere "the market" is evoked to explain deviations from old practices, but little attention has been paid to how such a strange market has been created.

Several factors have been at play for the past two decades. First of all there is the intensified competitiveness of universities over national rankings of departments and schools. Instead of relying on judgments of scholarly quality, competition for the top spots in these surveys has encouraged institutions to seek candidates with reputations that will add luster to their own. Secondly, enlarged university budgets for recruitment have given administrations the wherewithal to lure "academic stars" with off-scale salaries, signing bonuses, research support, and lower teaching loads. And finally, the perception among many faculty members that they can bargain their way into higher salaries and more perks if they have an outside offer has swollen the ranks of those applying for jobs.

Yet to be fully considered is how appropriate the market is as a guide for faculty recruitment. In general, the market is an effective distributor of goods and services when there is open competition, easy entry into that competition, and widespread access to market information. At its best, the market moves goods and services in cost efficient ways in response to people with purchasing power. It rewards the intelligent application of resources as well as good luck and alert responsiveness to market cues. It punishes ineptitude, ignorance, and those out of favor with the market's buyers whether they be consumers, employers, or suppliers. Markets work best when outcomes are unambiguously registered.

Universities can certainly tell whether or not they hired the persons they sought, but they have few means for determining whether and how much an appointment contributed to good teaching, sound research, and strong collegial ties. There is no bottom line, no sales figures, and no cost-benefit analysis to determine the effects of competition for something as elusive as a reputation.

The market has a structured indifference to interests that cannot be registered through prices. In using market techniques to recruit new faculty members, universities are putting at risk those qualities the market ignores. Here I am thinking of the nurturing of talents over a lifetime or the development of the intellectual values that justify the public's support of higher education.

By adopting the market as a model, universities have turned recruitment into a national competition, much like college sports. Contending departments create "stars" within the pools of candidates who then become the objects of hot pursuit. Competition pivots around negotiable salaries and teaching loads. Where once universities relied upon their location, reputation, facilities, and student body to attract new faculty members, today they are spending university money on "off-scale" salaries, negotiated promotions, and reduced teaching loads that will drain budgets for years to come.

Like the market itself, university recruitment has produced new consumer tastes and a host of winners and losers. There's been lots of excitement, interesting academic initiatives, and annually adjusted ups and downs in university reputations. Indeed, reputation has taken the place of solid accomplishment as an institutional goal. Otherwise intelligent men and women have come to believe that there exists an academic firmament studded with "super stars" who can be located through the market telescope.

Let's count the losses:

  • Faculties have lost much of their control over recruitment because of the centrality of administrators' negotiations with candidates over salary, teaching loads, support funds, and spousal appointments.
  • Dependence upon money in recruitment has added to the already enormous pressure for fundraising in public as well as private universities, subtly eroding the independence of the institutions while compromising the university's openness to and interest in those ordinary members of society who will never become donors.
  • Recruitment modeled on the market rewards brightness and trendiness while neglecting, if not actually inhibiting, the scholarly and pedagogical talents that take incalculable amounts of time to mature. Prevailing practices are already undermining faculty governance, peer review, and that parity in salaries and teaching assignments upon which true collegiality depends. Inequities in these areas rankle with those outside the recruitment game. Collegiality creaks under the strain of negotiated disparities.
  • And cynicism flourishes because many faculty members enter job searches in the belief that their advancement requires getting an outside offer (and well it might!). Promotions which were once the consequence of conscientious evaluation procedures now often constitute part of "the hiring package." The language of leverage has replaced the discourse of peer review.

Can anything be done? A first step would be to build a consensus about the appropriateness of these recruitment pressures. Reaching beyond the single university striving to enhance its reputation, faculty members could begin to take stock of the values that have been placed at risk. Perhaps national guidelines for recruiting practices could be drawn up. One thing is clear: the life of the mind is truly academic if we despair of protecting our principles and purposes from the mindless influence of the market.

—Joyce Appleby (UCLA) is the president of the American Historical Association.

Correction: In my May President's Column, I failed to include Professors Eve Troutt Powell (Univ. of Georgia), Howard Spodek (Temple Univ.), and Marianne Wokeck (Indiana Univ.—Purdue Univ. at Indianapolis), who are part of the AHA working group on course portfolios.