It’s not the Virus, It’s the Cruelty

As I was standing in the shower this morning, trying to process the news that not only are the vast majority of colleges and universities instituting hiring freezes for this fiscal year, but now also the coming fiscal year, the one that I was “supposed” to finish my degree and enter into the market (what a perverse term!), I thought for a moment how incredible it is that all these years of career planning have been stopped short by a virus. Something beyond human sight, nearly beyond human comprehension. But then I thought about it a bit more, stepped out of the shower, and realized that no, it’s not the virus, because viruses don’t have agency. They’re just bits of RNA that enter cells and reproduce, causing various symptoms as a by-product. Viruses don’t institute hiring freezes. People do.

What I am trying to comes to terms with is the feeling of being sacrificed. It sounds extreme to write, but this is the language of these hiring freezes, not mine. Take this language from Yale’s announcement: “Pause Hiring University-wide for Fiscal Year 2021. . . . Our objective is to focus support on our existing faculty, students, and staff.” On face, this is supportive language. Focus on those who are already there. But as Christopher Newfield writes, blocking future hires actually destabilizes the entire enterprise of higher education, which has long put forward the notion (perhaps never truly believing it) that excellent teaching relies on excellent research, and that excellent research depends on stewarding the researchers of the future as much as the present. Of course, this is not novel to our present crisis. This is the logic of temporary and contingent contracts. Newfield again:

Universities have long dealt with present fiscal crises by sacrificing the future: in addition to their epic passages of deferred maintenance and the like, they have addressed chronic financial shortfalls by hiring temporary faculty rather than permanent ones or by hiring no new faculty at all.

So what’s happening here is that, in the service of a year or so of payroll savings, or to prevent a draw-down on the endowment, or perhaps (most cynically) to prepare for a shock-doctrine reorganization of higher education, university administrators are throwing their young—their grad students, their early-career researchers, the literal future of the profession—to the lions. There is no other way to put this.

So when I say that it’s not the virus, but rather cruelty, this is what I mean: the hiring freezes are symptomatic of a different kind of virus that has long taken root in the academy, just as it has taken root in the American economy more generally. Call it the virus of the quarterly return; call it the virus of austerity, of neoliberalism; call it the virus of contingency and precarity; of inflated adminstrator salaries and bloated athletics programs; call it the virus of business schools; call it whatever you like. I am not qualified to diagnose; I am not yet myself a doctor. But the main symptom of this virus seems to be a casual cruelty, an unthinking cruelty, one that enriches the present at the expense of the future.

I never came to grad school expecting an academic job, or even that academia would exist five years after I entered. Before grad school, I had a staff job as a post-baccalaureate resident with a digital humanities program. I learned well enough in those three years how the sausage of academia got made not to have any misconceptions about my chances or the industry’s reality. Nor have I lost faith in my work, which I perversely continue to believe holds value. (I might care a little less about making sure my work conforms to some of the baroque rules of academic writing—but then again I always had an advisor who felt the same way.) That work will continue, in a different form, but perhaps a richer form, no matter what happens.

What I ask is only that those at the top stop and ask themselves if they are being casually, unthinkingly cruel in their dealings with those below them. That cruelty will only benefit you in the short-term. In the long term, we will all lose.

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