Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower

I’m leaving my position as a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy and taking a job in the private sector. By any normal standards, my academic job was excellent. I was tenured at a Research-1 institution, in a department with a growing PhD program. I had a lot of freedom to pursue the kind of research and teaching that I wanted. And I used that freedom to pursue a lot of diverse interests. My students — especially my graduate students — were excellent. I enjoy teaching, and I also happen to believe that philosophy is increasingly important and relevant.

I should begin by acknowledging that I’ve had some major and sometimes quite public conflicts with my home department and administration, especially about their treatment of my spouse, which I strongly believe to be the result of highly sexist attitudes. And to be perfectly honest, those conflicts and the resulting fallout certainly played a role in my decision to leave. However, I’ve been preparing my exit from the university for several years, long before those conflicts erupted. For a long time, I’ve been the uncomfortable owner of a coveted faculty position that I didn’t want.

My decision to leave isn’t really about my department or university in particular, but about a perverse incentive structure that maintains the status quo, rewards mediocrity, and discourages potentially high-impact, interdisciplinary work. My complaints are really about the structural features of the university, and not about the behavior of particular people. Although I believe that my university is unusually bad in these respects, I think these structural features are quite common.

Interdisciplinarity

It’s no exaggeration to say that virtually all academic faculty have heard something from their administrations about the growing importance of interdisciplinary work and collaboration with others from different fields. Today’s challenges require more knowledge and skills than any single specialist can bring to bear. As faculty, we are routinely encouraged to venture out of our narrow specializations and create the relationships and knowledge necessary to conduct research that crosses traditional disciplinary lines.

I happen to agree with this sentiment. In fact, I feel quite strongly about it, especially in relation to academic philosophy. Philosophers are experts in assimilating new information, evaluating complex lines of reasoning, and rooting out flaws in arguments. Without getting into too much detail here, I’ll just say that philosophers’ skills are especially well-suited for interdisciplinary work — especially work that involves the so-called STEM areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Although some of the talk about interdisciplinary work is insincere and self-serving — often justifying the creation of new “Centers” without investing significant resources — some of it is quite well-intentioned. To my own institution’s credit, we have had a significant investment in at least some interdisciplinary research over the past few years. But as anyone in academia will tell you, these efforts usually fail. And although a lot of people have opinions about why it’s so difficult to get this kind of research off the ground, I haven’t heard a satisfying explanation. So I’ll take a stab at it, drawing on my own (admittedly biased) perspective and experiences.

In my own case, I have a wide range of research interests including automated theorem-proving, logic, game theory, and formal epistemology. I’ve published in the philosophy of science, ethics, action theory, logic, and other areas that have very little to do with each other. I’m at least as comfortable in Computer Science as I am in Philosophy. For a philosophy professor, I’ve also collaborated somewhat more often than is typical, and so several of my research articles are co-authored. I’m proud of my research record, but I’ve increasingly found that the university is a harsh environment for these sorts of projects.

Here is one tiny example. In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I’ve recently co-authored an article (with an excellent graduate student in computer science) in the journal “Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence”, which is not a philosophy journal, but a computer science or engineering journal. One would think that this was precisely the sort of project that should get a warm welcome from a university that’s encouraging interdisciplinary research. Unfortunately, I’ve actually incurred a small, but significant penalty for writing this paper. The reason for this penalty is simple. In my department (as is commonly the case), faculty salaries are determined largely by research productivity. But this is more than the mere quantity of research produced. A judgment is made — based largely on the prestige of the publisher and journal — about the quality and likely impact of one’s work. This judgment is made, reasonably enough, by people in one’s home department. Unfortunately, if you’re writing papers that are eventually published in outlets that one’s colleagues are unfamiliar with, they’re unable to make a decision about the quality of that work. So, although it’s definitely not a policy of our department, such publications are downgraded when it comes to determining the quality and quantity of research output. Furthermore, my department also considers single-authored work to be more significant than co-authored work. Frankly, I find this policy totally absurd, but it’s not that uncommon. Because a lot of interdisciplinary work will appear in unfamiliar (to one’s colleagues) venues, and be co-authored, that work is downgraded, not once but twice. The effect is that when it comes time to decide on salary raises, a faculty member with broad, interdisciplinary research interests is at a severe disadvantage. To put the point bluntly, interdisciplinary researchers get paid less.

Of course, in the current economic environment, faculty raises are tiny or non-existent anyway. So the effect is small for any given academic year. However, the cumulative effect over the course of an entire career is anything but small. People who have relatively narrow interests do much better financially than those with broader interests. Furthermore, even if the salary differences were negligible, it’s highly demoralizing to know that your institution places low value on your work. And this is true even if it only accidentally does so.

There are more subtle ways that interdisciplinary work is discouraged. As anyone who has tried to get up to speed in a new subject would tell you, it takes time before you can be productive. You have to learn a new vocabulary, skill set, and you have to get familiar with a different literature, just to take a few examples. This means that you’ll likely have a significant period of time during which your research output will slow down or stop. And that entails that you may miss out on salary raises for that time. Of course, people will quickly respond that the slowdown is only temporary, and so it won’t matter in the long run. But this is not true, for exactly the same reason that we’re all encouraged to start saving for retirement as early as possible. Missing a year or two of even a modest increase will have a dramatic effect in the decades ahead.

It may seem inappropriate to my fellow philosophers that I’ve been complaining about something as crass as money, and implying that money was an important factor in my deciding to leave academia. To this, I have three responses. First, money was an important factor in my decision, and I’m not ashamed of that. Second, allocation of financial resources is a good indicator of what a person or an institution values. If a department or a person is consistently short-changed when it comes time to decide on budgets, it’s a bad sign. It indicates that your work is not a priority. This is true for universities, families, businesses, and every other kind of organization. Third, I think that philosophy departments (and the humanities in general) had better start paying more attention to money — they’re getting squeezed by universities all over the United States, and this interferes with their ability to do good work. Good work, whether it’s in research or education, requires resources. Those of us in the humanities have gotten used to getting by with so little that we haven’t even noticed the impact it has on our ability to do good work. If that doesn’t change, we’ll slowly starve to death and not even notice.

Impact

I’ve published in some very prestigious journals, but for a long time, I’ve wanted my work to have a greater impact than it has. Academic philosophy is a very small world, and like most academic specialties, it’s rare for one’s work to gain an audience outside of a narrow circle of specialists. To be sure, there are a few superstars whose work has had a major influence. But there are thousands upon thousands of university faculty, and only a tiny handful of those superstars.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve tried to initiate a collaborative research program that would have a shot at extending the reach of our work outside the usual audience. For example, I once wrote a grant proposal with the help of a colleague that was designed to start a truly collaborative effort between the departments of philosophy, economics and psychology. Generous funding was available, and we quickly got a lot of support from these other departments. What happened was very instructive for me. It was approved for a preliminary round of funding that was spent on a small conference which was quite good. But unfortunately, the terms of the grant required it to be submitted through the Chair of the department, and all communication was between the chair and the administration. My chair, predictably, had no real interest in interdisciplinary work, so there was no follow-through for subsequent (and much larger) funding rounds — and I was too far removed from the process to take action. The conference, which had been a great success, wasn’t followed by any other plans whatsoever. I think the failure to come up with a plan — or to follow the plan in the proposal we had written — was merely a symptom of the fact that the entire project seemed to be of rather dubious value to my department chair, and he had no experience with this kind of research.

Although it’s unusual for a grant proposal to go so badly wrong (to the point where I wasn’t even informed that it had been submitted, nor that it had been approved), I think it does illustrate a clear fact, namely, that you can’t implement a novel initiative without a lot of buy-in from your colleagues. There’s a great deal of inertia in academia, and it takes a concerted effort, a lot of resources, and the support of a lot of people in order to make these projects succeed. Without constantly pressing the issue, the department, college, or university will quickly swing back to the status quo. The assumption behind many interdisciplinary initiatives seems be that if we put smart people in contact with each other and give them some money, good work will happen. Unfortunately, this isn’t true at all. The gigantic edifice of the university is at odds with any potentially disruptive effort. It’s possible to overcome that inertia, but it’s a Herculean task, requiring a lot of patience and a great deal of time.

That grant proposal illustrates how much psychological resistance there is to change within the university. The call for proposals indicated that there would ultimately be five awards, and they were allocated to various subject areas or colleges. One award was to be made to the College of Arts and Sciences, which is by far the largest college on my campus. At the time my colleague and I wrote our proposal, we had literally no competition from our college whatsoever. That is, ours was the only proposal that was being submitted from the entire College of Arts and Sciences. If anyone had written a competent proposal, they could have easily received millions of dollars in funding. Eventually, that component of the grant program was eliminated entirely, and nothing was given to the college. Personally, I think that the explanation for why there was no uptake on this opportunity was that the very idea of conducting potentially wide-ranging, interdisciplinary research was so foreign that the vast majority of faculty wouldn’t even know how to being thinking about such a project.

In such an environment, our efforts are channeled into narrow sub-specialties, and we consign our work to a tiny audience. Despite the common talk about the importance of “disruptive research” in the university, there’s no real understanding of what makes s’s omething “disruptive”. To disrupt anything requires going outside the normal methods for one’s work, redefining what’s important or interesting, and usually drawing on a wide range of data and methodologies. It almost always requires collaboration, and almost always requires going outside one’s own comfort zone. But in an environment where the senior faculty and administrators have been rewarded throughout their careers for toeing their disciplinary lines, there’s a lot of resistance to change. Some of that resistance is due to outright hostility, but most of it is just the result of a lack of experience and imagination.

None of this is to imply that there’s no place for highly specialized work. Quite the opposite — intellectual progress requires a combination of narrow and broad approaches to a variety of problems. However, we lose a lot of opportunity when there are powerful disincentives for conducting potentially important research.

Corporatization of the University

I’ve had one foot in the academic world and the other in the business world for a few years. It’s been fascinating to observe the differences between the values of a small start-up and a large university. For a long time, there’s been a steady flow of business expertise into public universities. At my own university, we’ve recently had Gary Forsee, former CEO of Sprint as President of the statewide system. Forsee happens to be widely considered one of the worst CEOs of all time, but his business experience was cited as a major qualification for his appointment as President. Our current President is Tim Wolfe, whose experience is in the private sector — primarily as an executive for IBM. By all accounts, his business experience is nowhere near the disaster of Forsee’s, but Wolfe has no advanced degree, and no first-hand experience in higher education. I don’t know if Wolfe will be good for the university or not — I’ve actually heard excellent things about his character and intellect, so there’s hope. But it’s very revealing that our Board of Curators has seen fit to appoint two businessmen as President of our entire statewide university system. Clearly, they believe that experience as a business executive is more important than experience as an educator or researcher. Whether it’s a good idea or not, business expertise and values are creeping their way into universities all over the country. The University of Missouri just happens to be a particularly striking example.

Honestly, I’m not sure if the appearance of business executives in higher education is a good thing or not. I strongly suspect that it’s a very bad development, coinciding with a huge increase in the number of administrators overall, a sustained attack on tenure, and increasing reliance on non-tenure track, adjunct faculty who are underpaid, overworked, and without any job security. What I am confident about is that there’s no such thing as “business experience”. Running a small business, founding a new start-up, and being CEO of a major corporation like Sprint are quite different propositions, requiring different skill sets, and calling for different decisions. Managing a gigantic organization of thousands of employees in a multi-billion dollar transnational is simply not at all like bootstrapping a small venture with one or two underpaid partners and a shoestring budget.

And yet, “business experience” is somehow taken as a qualification for running a university. But there’s one crucial difference between being successful in running a big business and being successful in running a small business. Big businesses like Sprint or IBM, by definition, have succeeded in the current economic ecosystem. They dominate their respective sectors already, and they flourish in the status quo. Small, upstart ventures are intruders into the ecosystem, and they will succeed only if they cause some kind of disruptive change that gives them the advantage over their vastly more well-established competitors.

This difference between small and big businesses isn’t a law of nature, and it’s an oversimplification, to be sure. But it’s a pretty good generalization with a lot of predictive power. And so we might ask what we’d expect a former CEO of a huge muti-national corporation to do when he or she is put in charge of a university. Their focus would be on marketing, cutting costs, and improving outcomes that are based on short-term economic measures. This means serving more customers with a smaller number of employees while cutting costs. A former CEO turned university president shouldn’t be expected to like the institution of tenure any more than a CEO likes unions. And why should we expect the concept of “shared governance” to survive in an organization led by someone whose experience is in the most top-down, dictatorial institutions on Earth?

The answer is that we shouldn’t. We’re increasingly handing over power to people whose experience would naturally lead them to a conservative, short-term strategy that’s based on optimizing quantifiable financial outcomes. But worst of all, we shouldn’t expect someone whose experience is in leading gigantic, dominant corporations to create an environment that rewards original, interdisciplinary, potentially disruptive research. Their previous success (such as it is), is from operating in an inherently conservative environment, running an organization that thrives in the status quo.

Finally

What makes me pessimistic about my own university and public universities in the United States in general is that their inability to adapt isn’t due simply to bad leadership or an unfavorable economy. It’s based on structural features that are self-reinforcing. Poor leadership drawn from huge corporations, an incentive structure that favors narrow specialization, and a hostility to potentially disruptive research, all reinforce each other. Those of us whose interests don’t fit into that structure have some difficult decisions to make.

Should I Go to Graduate School in Philosophy?

(I wrote this several years ago, when I was still a professor.)

About two or three times each year, an undergraduate philosophy student asks me whether he or she should go to graduate school to get a PhD in Philosophy. These students are typically very smart, hard-working people who could be very successful at a lot of different occupations.

I don’t have anywhere near a simple answer. And I certainly don’t give the same answer to every student. Instead, I ask them about themselves and try to have a discussion about it. Most of these students are looking for realistic advice — they have some idea of how challenging and competitive graduate school is, and they have at least heard that the academic job market is really bad. They want to know if it’s realistic for them to spend so much time seeking employment in a field where jobs are increasingly scarce.

These students fall into different categories. I sometimes meet a student who simply loves everything about studying philosophy, and wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. They’re the kind of student who is almost obsessive about the subject, who would probably be reading philosophy even if it were illegal. For this sort of person, my answer is, “Yeah, if you really feel that strongly about it, then go for it.” (I’m going to assume that we’re talking about smart, hard-working students — obviously, if they don’t show any aptitude for the subject, then there’s no need to worry about the what the right advice is.) We then get into a detailed discussion of exactly what they need to do in order to get into the best possible program, what the common mistakes are, and other strategic issues.

Other students are in a position where they feel they need to do something after graduation, and they really liked their philosophy courses. So they think that maybe going to graduate school would be enjoyable. For the purpose of full disclosure, that describes my own case. I wound up doing alright, so I’m not opposed to someone trying out graduate school even if their motivations aren’t totally clear. After all, we’re talking about young people here, for the most part.

For those students, I try to walk them through the costs and benefits of going to graduate school. Both are significant. The major cost is in terms of lost opportunities. You’ll essentially be putting your entire life on hold for several years; your career, income, and even your personal life will be at least slowed down a lot. In five years or more if you’re not in graduate school, you could easily have established yourself in a good career, and be living a nice lifestyle. But if you’re in graduate school, you’ll probably incur some debt, you’ll be getting little or no job experience, and you’ll be spending your time studying instead of doing other things that would be beneficial, lucrative, or enjoyable. The economic impact of time spent in graduate school will continue to reverberate throughout your life; your overall income will probably be lower, and so the financial cost of graduate school could turn out to be much higher than you might think.

Graduate school is also an extremely obsessive, narrow lifestyle. You’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time not only studying philosophy, but also hanging out with other graduate students. If you really want to succeed, the coursework is just the tip of the iceberg. If anything, you should be spending the majority of your time doing research and other projects that aren’t necessarily part of your coursework. For some people, especially the first type of student, this is a positive benefit. But for others, it’s a cost. You have to know which type of student you are.

For a smaller set of students, the academic lifestyle of an established professor is the big attraction. Sometimes these students come from academic families, and they see the benefits of being a tenured professor. What these students need to know is what the road is like, and what their chances are of landing a position that would make the amount of work and risk worthwhile. Some of these students don’t appreciate that their role models in academia often have a vastly better career than even very talented and lucky people will probably wind up with. Usually, they’re thinking of the lifestyle of a professor in a very strong department, in a job that is heavily focused on research, and which therefore offers a lot of freedom and leisure time to pursue intellectual interests. As established academics know, that sort of situation describes only a small minority of faculty jobs. Most involve a heavier teaching load for less money, and with less freedom. Very few philosophy professors get to live in big, stately, old houses with enormous libraries in the beautiful part of town. Some do, but it’s a small number.

These students often underestimate the amount of work that has to be done even after graduate school. Life as an assistant professor usually involves a great deal of stress, and an enormous amount of work in preparation for tenure. Personally, I always knew that I’d have to work very hard when I got my first job, but I certainly underestimated how hard I’d have to work. Just speaking for myself, despite landing an excellent job out of graduate school, I worked harder than I had ever worked before when I was preparing for tenure. That period of time is typically six years or so, which is probably about how long you’d spend in graduate school. So it’s important, when weighing one’s options, to keep in mind that you’re talking about more than a decade of work before achieving any kind of security.

Several of my students have asked me what I thought about the direction of the academic job market. I always tell them the same thing: I don’t know, and anyone who says they do know is a fool or a liar. When I started graduate school, the conventional wisdom was that the faculty who had been hired in the 70′s would be retiring, and so the job market would improve dramatically. Oops! Predictions about the academic job market are impossibly difficult — it’s driven by totally unknowable factors, including the overall economy, the political situation, trends in education and employment, and a million other things. For example, when the economy tanks, the number of retirements goes down. But even when faculty do retire, it’s not at all automatic that the department will get to hire a replacement. The size of departments grows and shrinks, and there’s no way to predict it. Beware of confident people with predictions!

The only thing I can say about job prospects with any certainty is that it’s highly unlikely that things will improve dramatically in the foreseeable future. If you have to have some picture in mind, then I think the conservative view is to assume that the job market will be approximately what it is now: crappy. If I were absolutely forced to make a prediction, I’d say that in five or six years, the job market will be very slightly better than it is now, but only very slightly. But that prediction is probably wrong. I happen to think that long-term trends in the priorities of university funding are working against the humanities, but that’s just my opinion.

If you want a model for the graduate school/job market process, think of it as a series of filters, each of which carries a probability of getting through it in one piece:

  • Getting accepted to a strong graduate program
  • Getting through qualifying exams and dissertation
  • Leaving graduate school with a strong enough track record (i.e. succeeding at work, distinct from your coursework and dissertation)
  • Landing a job
  • Getting tenure

The probability of getting through each filter ranges from moderate to crappy, depending on circumstances. And you have to make it through every filter in order to finally relax. As a game theorist and logician, my professional opinion is that probabilities are precisely: crappy.

So far, I’ve been almost completely negative. But of course, there are a lot of positive benefits to graduate school and the academic life. And for some, the potential rewards definitely outweigh the risks.

The first benefit is almost too obvious to state: you get to study philosophy full-time. Graduate school is a ticket to get the chance to work on philosophy all the time. And if you love the subject, that’s a tremendous benefit. You’ll work on it so much that you (almost) won’t be able to avoid becoming a much better philosopher. If you play your cards right, you’ll meet some really fascinating people and be able to discuss philosophical problems with some first-rate intellects. It’s a rare opportunity and a wonderful privilege. Personally, what I really enjoyed about graduate school was the chance to work with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and the chance to meet lots of other first-rate philosophers from other departments. If you love ideas, and discussing tough problems, there’s nothing better.

Besides that, it’s a lot of work with very little reward until you’ve managed to get a job and finally, tenure. Is it worth it? That obviously depends on how much you want the post-tenure job and lifestyle.

I can obviously only speak from my own experience on that. So for the interest of full disclosure, this is my situation. I’m thirty-nine years old, and a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which is the flagship school of the Missouri state system. We have a PhD program, and a fairly large department. On the ridiculous, asinine “Leiter Report”, we’re ranked at the bottom of the top fifty graduate programs. That makes us about average, or maybe a bit better than average, according to the Leiter Report (Digression: The Leiter Report perhaps tells you one thing, and one thing only, namely, the conventional wisdom in the profession about the relative strength of well-known faculty. That can be useful, but don’t take it as telling you more than that.).

I’m quite fortunate to have a job that’s very good by any reasonable standard. But I’m also not in an elite program, so it’s not a crazy place from which to draw some comparisons. Anyhow…

To my mind, the main benefit of being a tenured faculty member is that you control the vast majority of your time. There’s a lot of work, but it’s flexible. If you wake up one morning and decide that you want to devote the next year to studying astrology, you can do it. You can teach pretty much however you like, and you can determine the direction of your own work without worrying about job security. And if necessary, you can say very unpopular things without fear of obvious retribution. All of these things can be enormously valuable. If you get the chance to work in a graduate program, that’s some extra work, but (in my opinion) well worth it. Speaking for myself, the most satisfying part of my job is working with graduate students.

Some faculty do very well for themselves financially. Most do okay, by American standards. If you play your cards right, you’ll end up with a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.  If you’re smart enough and hard-working enough to succeed as a faculty member, you could surely have made much more money doing something else. So for most people in this profession, money is not the major motivation. But still, I think that prospective graduate students should at least consider that they’re basically buying a lot of freedom by giving up a lot of money. One prediction I’m quite confident about is that salary compression (and inversion) in the humanities will continue for a long time. For example, I am making less money now in real, inflation-adjusted dollars than I was when I started as an assistant professor. I’m not saying this to complain, but I do think it’s important to realize that my situation is very, very common; and even though I didn’t choose my work for financial reasons, it is still definitely a drag to watch your salary go down.

As far as job satisfaction in other respects — again, speaking only for myself — I definitely find that my time working with graduate students and my intellectual freedom are by far the best perks. I have very broad interests across lots of areas of philosophy and lots of areas outside of philosophy, and I spend the vast majority of my time learning about and writing about problems that are quite different from what I was hired to do (in my case, philosophy of biology). There are only a tiny number of ways of making a living outside academia that offer that sort of freedom, and it’s hard to put a dollar value on that.

It’s also important not to totally idealize the benefits of tenure. Tenure gives you one thing, namely, job security. There are plenty of other ways in which your activity as a faculty member is channeled into directions that are friendly to the university. For example, if you do decide to retool your mind by learning a new subject, your productivity will probably go down, at least temporarily. And so you can probably wave goodbye to some kinds of merit-based raises. So the intellectual freedom comes at a cost — in my opinion, the cost is small relative to the payoffs, but it’s still a cost.

Well, to get back to the original question, “Should I go to graduate school?”. My answer is, “How the hell am I supposed to know?!”

Being a Geezer in a Tech Startup

I’m forty-two years old, and I’ve never felt better. I am mentally and intellectually sharper than ever, and I happen to be in physically better shape, too. Whatever it feels like to be middle-aged, I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like that.

I’ve tried hard to avoid letting my brain turn into an old person’s brain. That was one reason I left my tenured position as a philosophy professor and went to work for a technology startup. I’ve seen lots of formerly intelligent, creative people turn into dusty old crackpots. My strategy for avoiding that fate is to do something totally different in a fast-moving environment, and surround myself with smart, creative people. I’ve done this for a little over a year now, and I’m having a great time. I’m learning a huge amount every day, and I really enjoy the environment I’m working in. Tech startups face a lot of challenges, and unexpected problems arise more frequently than we’d like, but it’s fun. In fact, a major draw to my current employer was that I understood that late stage startups (i.e. after B or C-series funding rounds) which are growing quickly are the ones that have to adapt most rapidly. So it was the best way to get into a business that was going to be especially challenging and which would also provide the best learning opportunities. As it turns out, this was the right strategy for me.

A side effect of switching to a new career in my forties is that I’m working with people who are younger than me. Many are much younger than me — nearly twenty years younger. I enjoy this a lot, which I knew I would. But it raises the question of what an old geezer like me brings to the table. In other words, I know that I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from working in this startup environment; but is the reverse true?

 I’ve been interested in reading what others have to say about geezers in technology companies. Many of these pieces are written in the context of a discussion of age discrimination. Apparently, there’s a sense that people who are not in their twenties are at a disadvantage in the job market, and that geezers like me are frequently discriminated against, or face a hostile work environment. So these essays are often an attempt to argue that we shouldn’t do that to “old” people, and that tech companies can benefit from hiring geezers — even ones that are in their (gasp!) forties.

For the record, I have not had a single incident of anything even resembling age discrimination at my workplace. Maybe I got lucky by getting hired into a supportive environment. Maybe it’s a regional difference (my workplace is in Chicago, not Silicon Valley).

Anyhow, most of the essays I’ve read are disappointing, to say the least. They seem to be divided into a few categories, based on which set of geezer virtues they’re extolling: (1) Geezers are good at legacy systems, such as mainframes; (2) Geezers might not be as quick and creative as younger people, but they have greater maturity and a higher emotional IQ, and this benefits the work environment; (3) Although geezers might not be up-to-date on the all the most current technologies, they do have a broader range of experience to draw upon.

Honestly, I think these are pretty awful reasons to hire a geezer into your technology company. The first reason — that geezers know mainframes and other legacy systems — is especially ridiculous. Apparently, when we were all panicked about the Y2K bug, some businesses had to dust off their geezers, install some new tennis balls onto the bottom of their walkers, and send them into moldy basements to patch up some COBOL, or screw in some vacuum tubes, or something like that. If you’re a geezer, and this is your job, you’d better start catching up. It’s the 21st century, and if you’re in charge of COBOL or punchcard machines, you’re in trouble — your job is going away. And if you’re a non-geezer, there’s also something called the “internet”, which contains all sorts of information you can use to acquire new skills, like COBOL programming, if that turns out to be absolutely necessary (which it won’t).

To be fair, at my office there have been a few times when a question has come up about some obscure feature of UNIX, and I knew the answers because those features weren’t obscure when I started programming. But those questions all had two things in common: they weren’t important, and they could have been answered with a little research online. If I was hired to be the go-to guy for questions like that, then they’re paying me too much.

Let’s think about the second reason — that although geezers aren’t as quick or creative as younger people, they are more mature. First of all, if you tell me that I’m not as quick and creative as someone in their twenties, I’ve got one thing to say to you: “Speak for yourself, pal!”. Actually, what I’d say would include a lot of speculations about your parentage, too. As someone who spent more than a decade teaching college students, I can tell you one thing — people aren’t quick and creative merely because of their age. There are lots and lots of young people whose brains have prematurely calcified, and there are lots and lots of geezers like me who are every bit as capable of thinking “outside the box” as you could want. Honestly, I’m so far outside the box, I can’t even see the box anymore. But I know that if you found the box and opened it up, you’d discover a lot of college students sitting inside it.

Being creative isn’t about age — it’s about cultivating the right mental habits. It’s about questioning yourself, and becoming sensitive to the presence of an invisible status quo. It’s about understanding why you do things the way you do, and being flexible enough to change when necessary. It’s also about not believing everything that you hear, for example, that geezers are less creative than younger people. Being creative is certainly not about having some ineffable quality called “creativity” that slowly recedes into the mists of time as you age.

I also think my new colleagues would tell you quite definitively that one thing I don’t bring to the table is greater maturity. Let’s just say that if I were ever to hear someone say, “It’s really good having Zac here because he’s so mature”, I’d be surprised.

And finally, is it good to keep a geezer around the office because of their breadth of experience, and does that offset the fact that they’re not going to be quite up-to-date on current technology? Let’s just bring a little common sense to the question. Whether you’re up-to-date on anything doesn’t depend on how old you are, it depends on how you spend your time. It takes work to keep up with the fast-changing world of technology, and you can fall behind in no time flat. In my case, it turns out that in a lot of respects, I happened not to be as current as some of my new colleagues. But that wasn’t because of my geezer status. It was because I was changing careers, and had been busy keeping up with changes that impacted my previous career. If someone were twenty-eight years old and had spent the last five years as a circus clown, they’d have faced exactly the same challenge.

Of course, you might think, “but a geezer will have more to catch up on. If they’ve been out of the technology game for twenty years, that’s a lot of stuff to learn!”. Actually, this is not true. For example, in my case, I missed a lot of stuff that happened around the mid 1990s. But who cares? That stuff is outdated now. There’s a moving window of a few years of knowledge that you need to have. But it’s a moving window. I don’t need to learn best practices from the 1990s any more than one of my younger colleagues needs to learn how to transfer files over a VAX terminal with the Kermit protocol.

Finally, we might ask, “why is age such a big deal in the tech world, anyway?”. This is a very curious phenomenon. Personally, I think it has to do with the strange way we judge what’s common and what’s unusual. The typical example is airplane crashes. Fortunately, airplane crashes are very rare. So when they do happen, it’s big news, and everyone hears about them. As a result of the crashes getting so much attention, people get the impression that they’re much more common than they are. This is ironic — the fact that they’re so rare indirectly causes us to believe that they’re very common. The same is true of technology entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs are not in their twenties. So when Mark Zuckerberg comes around, he gets a lot of attention. And then this unusual person gets established as representing what’s normal. There are a small number of people like Zuckerberg out there, but what’s interesting about them is that they’re rare. But we associate all the qualities of a smart, creative person like Zuckerberg with young people. But that line of reasoning is crazy. All of us — and that includes my fellow geezers — need to get over it.

The Higher Education Death Spiral

One reason (among many) why I left my tenured position as a Professor of Philosophy is that I began to feel very strongly that the value of the education I was providing my students was deteriorating rapidly. Of course, I aways tried — with mixed success — to give my students the best education I could. But I kept having the sensation of trying to swim upstream in a current that was dragging me backwards.

Critiques of higher education in the United States are nothing new. We all know that funding is awful and getting worse, that public universities are becoming more like corporations, and that there’s an ongoing assault on faculty rights and the institution of tenure — an assault that bears an uncanny resemblance to union-busting techniques.

I believe that these critiques are all depressingly accurate. But they miss the underlying dynamic that’s at the root of all these problems. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, which we might as well call the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s accelerating and driving higher education in the United States into the ground. In short, the Death Spiral is caused by two facts. The first fact is that the intrinsic value of a university education is going down; the second is that the extrinsic value of a university education is going up. Those facts have conspired to create a market failure that’s dragging down the quality of higher education.

There are basically two reasons for getting a university education. The first is that it has intrinsic value. Increasing the breadth and depth of your knowledge, being exposed to new ideas and to people whose ideas and values are different from yours, and so on all have the potential to make us better people and improve the quality of our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. The second reason is that a university education has tremendous extrinsic value. It helps you get a good job, increases your expected lifetime earnings, and so on. Both of these are very good things, and each of them is an excellent reason to go to college.

Frankly, I think it’s obvious that universities are doing a worse job providing intrinsic value to students. Unfortunately, there are powerful emotional reasons why it’s difficult to acknowledge this fact. When I was a professor, I once said in an offhand way that our students were getting a worse education than they did ten years ago. To be perfectly honest, I thought this was so obvious that it probably wasn’t worth saying at all. After all, the facts are irrefutable. Class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, students are increasingly taught by overworked, underpaid adjunct, non-tenure track faculty and graduate students, facilities are crumbling, and so on. Obviously, these facts will cause the quality of education to go down. But what I didn’t realize when I made this comment is that it would elicit a fiercely defensive reaction. It’s very difficult to say such a thing to a faculty member without coming across as criticizing him or her. Classes are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty, and so any critique of educational quality comes across as a personal criticism of those faculty. Naturally, they are often offended by any suggestion that the quality of their courses might be going down.

Nonetheless, I think the conclusion is unavoidable. In fact, it would be a miracle if those factors didn’t hurt the quality of students’ education. It would take a unified, herculean effort on the part of faculty and administration to overcome the problems that universities currently face. For example, at my former university — the University of Missouri — resources are so scarce that the library recently lost millions of dollars’ worth of books to mold, and a university-owned apartment building suffered a collapse that tragically killed a firefighter (there was no fire — the firefighter was there because a tenant noticed the structural degradation that caused the collapse). Those are symptoms of a lack of long-term thinking combined with scarcity of resources. And those deficits have conspired to damage educational quality throughout the university. Can it really be surprising that education has suffered in such an environment? (By the way, if you’re concerned about the University of Missouri’s athletic facilities, don’t be. They’re better than ever.)

Ironically, the same economy that has wrecked so much havoc in the university has also made a university education more extrinsically valuable than ever. Although college graduates do have an uphill battle to find a good job, their non-college educated counterparts have it much, much worse. In determining the extrinsic value of an education, the appropriate comparison isn’t between education now and education ten years ago; rather, it’s between the prospects now of a college-educated person and the prospects now of someone who has no college education. The difference is so dramatic that there’s no reason for me to get into it here. More than ever, you need a college education in order to succeed in the economy.

This pair of facts is the cause of the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s a strange and unusual dynamic that I wish got more attention. Normally, as the quality of something goes down, and the price goes up, we don’t expect the demand to increase. For example, suppose you prefer a particular brand of shoes. But you notice that the brand’s quality has suffered — the shoes have holes in them and are made out of lousy material. And you also notice that the price has doubled. The last thing you’d do is buy more of these shoes. But that’s exactly what’s happening with higher education all over the United States: quality is down, price is up, and demand is higher than ever!

But that’s not the whole story of the Higher Education Death Spiral. The increased demand for a college education has the effect of masking the underlying cause of the Death Spiral by providing just enough revenue for the university to squeak by, but not nearly enough revenue to address the university’s real problems. Universities are now addicted to increased enrollment at the cost of long-term planning that might increase the intrinsic quality of education. And like any drug addict, they’ll make irrational sacrifices in order to get their next hit.

There’s a tremendous irony in the current situation. A university education’s value is increasingly economic — the overriding reason to go to college is to succeed in the job market, and that’s how educational quality is judged. But those who make the most crass economic arguments for how public resources are to be allocated, and who believe that it’s perfectly appropriate to turn universities into credential mills to enable students to get jobs, are blind to the fact that we’re in the grip of a textbook market failure. Market pressures have led to a situation in which resources are allocated inefficiently, and everyone would be better off if resources were spent not on buying short-term increases in enrollment, but on long-term investments that would actually increase the real quality of a university education. But the market won’t let this happen. Hence, the Higher Education Death Spiral.