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A Response to “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang”

A few weeks back, I came across a fascinating blog post from 2013 written by Alexandre Afonso. The author, then a lecturer in the U.K., argues, as the title suggests, that academia resembles a drug gang in that a small group of “insiders” wield power and influence secured by and at the expense of an ever-increasing pool of “outsiders”:

So what you have is an increasing number of brilliant PhD graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord. To achieve that, they are ready to forgo the income and security that they could have in other areas of employment by accepting insecure working conditions in the hope of securing jobs that are not expanding at the same rate. Because of the increasing inflow of potential outsiders ready to accept this kind of working conditions, this allows insiders to outsource a number of their tasks onto them, especially teaching, in a  context where there are increasing pressures for research and publishing. The result is that the core is shrinking, the periphery is expanding, and the core is increasingly dependent on the periphery.

A. Afonso, ‘How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang”, https://alexandreafonso.me/2013/11/21/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang

The author goes on to provide examples from the United States and several European countries to back up this extraordinary claim; I encourage readers to peruse the original article for more details.

My Reaction

My gut reaction, of course, is to shake my head: “It’s not that bad,” I want to say, “this is all just hyperbole and exaggeration.” And yet…

The more I examined Mr. Afonso’s argument, the more I found myself nodding. He certainly chose a provocative group to compare to — though that’s in part due to the sources he cites in his post — but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. The academic job market really does seem to resemble a drug gang in some respects:

  • Both scenarios require a constant influx of new, eager young individuals with high aspirations to handle the “dirty work”.
  • Both academia and a drug gang offer rich rewards to those select few who succeed and stay involved long enough to reach the top.
  • Both structures allow those at the top to profit from the labors of those on the bottom (no, this is not meant as a critique of capitalism in general).

Furthermore, it’s no secret that the share of tenured and tenure-track faculty has dropped precipitously since the 1970s, replaced instead by full-time non-tenure-track professors and part-time or adjunct instructors. It’s also no secret that the number of doctoral degrees awarded across all disciplines is climbing. So in spite of my initial gut reaction, I find myself in agreement with most if not all of Mr. Afonso’s post: the academic job market really does resemble a drug gang in some ways.

This whole scenario seems untenable in the long run — especially since I’m a firm believer that there will come a day of reckoning for tuition in the U.S., and when it comes, a perhaps non-trivial number of universities will be forced to close, leaving even more Ph.D.s in a state of limbo. Throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to be the right approach, however — that will simply preserve the current structure. And addressing the problem in the same way we address the scourge of drugs and violence doesn’t seem appropriate — after all, one of the top solutions there (ironically) is pushing for increased access to education.

What then do we do when the drug lords have Ph.D.s? Food for thought!

Published inGRAD 5104

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