BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Getting started was easy for Elizabeth Coleman back in 1961 when, equipped with a brand new Ph.D. in English literature, she took a job at the State University of New York, at Stony Brook.
"Everything came wonderfully," she said, recalling her entrance into professional academic life. "I wanted to teach English and read philosophy. That's what I worried about. What to go into, literature or philosophy."
That first job, taken at a time when such positions were plentiful, launched a successful career. Today Dr. Coleman is president of Bennington College. That's the prestigious institution in rural Vermont that recently jolted academia by letting go about 20 percent of its faculty and abolishing tenure.
It is a radical action. Its purpose is to alleviate a $1 million deficit and increase lagging enrollment. Bennington, along with other private and public institutions, is being squeezed by a demographic dip that has produced a scarcity of new college students nationwide and, simultaneously, the withdrawal of much federal support for higher education in recent years.
The cutback in federal spending has forced colleges and universities to use more of their own dollars for student aid. It has strained their operating budgets, prompted them to eliminate programs and made it more difficult to justify new hires, especially for tenured positions. Like Bennington, other schools are resorting to new strategies for faculty -- more part-time positions, renewable "term contracts" of between one and three years' duration.
In view of all this, what advice might Dr. Coleman offer an $H ambitious new Ph.D. today aspiring to follow in her footsteps?
"The first thing you tell them is to get their head examined," she said.
Dr. Coleman is not being facetious about the gloomy job prospects for new Ph.D.s. She described their situation as "poignant."
Nicole Minnick speaks for many.
Dr. Minnick took her doctorate in French literature two years ago at the University of Maryland College Park. She has been searching for a steady teaching job ever since.
She has sent out 35 letters of application to institutions around the country. She attended five annual conferences of the Modern Language Association, where new and prospective Ph.D.s in her field troll for contacts leading to jobs. From all that she netted only four interviews.
Last year she didn't even go to the MLA conference in Toronto. There was nothing on the MLA's shrinking list of jobs she thought worth her effort.
"Is this what I expected when I got my degree? Not really," she said. "I already knew that tenure-track positions were being reduced, but I expected that at least I would be able to get enough teaching at one campus even if it was not a tenure-track position."
Numbers tell story
Statistics published by the Modern Language Association reveal the rate of decline. In the academic year 1988-1989 there were 2,146 jobs listed for Ph.D.s in English, and 1,955 for foreign language specialists in the United States and Canada. The current academic year projects only 1,132 and 1,088, respectively.
Though Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences have been hardest hit by the current circumstances, the picture is not bright in other disciplines. Matthew Crenson, acting dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, reports that Ph.D.s in mathematics are having a hard time finding permanent positions.
Some scientists are having difficulties, too, according to B. Robert Kreiser, the associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
"It is my impression that jobs are not very plentiful, especially in physics as a result of a major downsizing of the defense budget in its research departments," he said.
Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said there is no way to measure how many Ph.D.s have failed to find work in their discipline. But statistics gathered by the MLA show that nearly 6,000 Ph.D.s in the humanities, English and modern foreign languages were granted in 1991, about 1,400 more than in 1985. That suggests that an expanding number of candidates were walking out into a rapidly shrinking market.
According to Patricia Meyer Spacks, president of the Modern Language Association and head of the English department at the University of Virginia, "As far as we can tell, this is worse than it has ever been. There was a bad period in the 1970s. Back then there were a lot of people with Ph.D.s driving taxis. But it wasn't as bad as it is today."
Tenure hopes derailed
Susan Wolfson endorses that impression. She is the placement director for the English department at Princeton, one of the top departments in the country. This year, out of 17 Ph.D.s in English literature, Princeton managed to place only three in tenure-track positions and five on short-term contracts.
"Up until two years ago, we were doing far better," she said.
Dr. Minnick, the French specialist, is 45 and lives in Carney, just outside the Beltway in Baltimore County, with her daughter and husband, a metallurgical engineer at Bethlehem Steel Corp. Her search for steady work recently has been confined to colleges and universities within a commute of 1 1/2 hours.
She has found no tenure track openings. In fact, of all her applications made during the past three years only three were for such jobs. The rest were for short-term or part-time positions.
In the fall, Dr. Minnick will teach two courses at Western Maryland College and one at the University of Maryland. "So I will commute from Carney to Western Maryland in Westminster, then to College Park," an estimated 450 miles a week, she said. She gets no benefits -- no health care, no pension plan. So what compensation, besides the satisfaction of teaching, does she get?
A grand total of $8,600. "My husband figured out that if you count all the hours teaching, traveling, preparing classes, grading papers, I could do as well if I went down to the McDonald's and got a job there."
It took Mrs. Minnick 10 years to become Dr. Minnick.
The Bennington case
The Bennington strategy to restore the institution to fiscal soundness and enlarge its student body sent a shock through academia mainly because of its abolition of tenure, the virtual guarantee of lifetime employment. Tenure is an institution held sacred by academics all over the country and is regarded by them as the primary guarantor of academic freedom.
Bennington has alarmed the American Association of University Professors, the organization set up to defend such faculty prerogatives as tenure. The college wants more flexibility in hiring and firing faculty. But Dr. Kreiser, the AAUP associate secretary, described the college's decision as "an act of desperation."
"It's hard to see how this action can contribute to the amelioration of the institution's financial problems. It's hard to see how abolishing tenure will attract more students. It's hard to see that the root cause of the problem is tenure."
Bennington is not the first institution of higher learning to do this. Some smaller colleges, not well known or highly esteemed, have done it. What worries the AAUP, said Dr. Kreiser, is that Bennington is the first prestigious institution to follow suit. Even so, he said he doesn't think it is the start of a trend.
David L. Warren of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities agrees. He pointed out that about 90 percent of all colleges and universities in the country have a tenure system and that the percentage has remained constant for a decade. Bennington, because it is a nontraditional, experimental school might be expected to do such a thing. But he said he would not expect other, more traditional colleges to follow its lead.
But Dr. Warren did suggest that changes were coming that might disturb the AAUP further. It is likely, he said, that tenured professors will be let go more readily in the future than they have been in the past.
"Tenured people can be removed if the program they are in is removed, or the institution declares fiscal exigency," he said. "This is happening more often these days."
Additionally, colleges and universities increasingly are resorting to offering "term positions." These are full-time teaching jobs with a duration of about three years, renewable at the discretion of the institution. "This is a managerial device for withholding long-term commitment," said Dr. Warren.
Bennington, in its restructuring plan, has reserved six of its remaining 50 faculty positions for three-year appointments intended to be nonrenewable. But Dr. Coleman regards them in a more positive light, as positions that will provide work for worthy young Ph.D.s, at least temporarily, in a prestigious college.
Nicole Minnick, when she first began her studies, hoped to make her career at one institution, in a tenured job. Considering her experience since she got her degree, even a three-year position has its appeal.
"With my situation now, I would be very happy to have a job like that," she said. "But it is a troubling kind of trend."