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June 30, 2009 [feather]
Rethinking the adjunct

So many of the debates about higher ed reform are so incredibly stale, and so profoundly stuck. The debate about the rise of non-tenure-track faculty is one of the stalest and stuckest. But there's a new book out that offers an intriguing new way to think about the issue--and that has the potential to un-stick the debate. Maurice Black and I have co-authored a review of John Cross and Edie Goldenberg's Off-Track Profs; here are the opening paragraphs:

According to the AAUP, 48 percent of faculty are part-timers, and 68 percent of all faculty appointments take place off the tenure track. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) cites comparable numbers, reporting that a mere 27 percent of postsecondary instructors hold fulltime, tenure-track positions. Such figures are the familiar touchstones of debates about the nature and future of academic work, undergraduate education, and academic freedom. They anchor official statements and form the basis of movements. Adjunct faculty are unionizing, and the AFT has launched a campaign to increase the proportion of undergraduate courses taught by fulltime and tenure-track professors to 75 percent.

Surrounded by statistics, activism, and commentary, the adjunct faculty member is never far from discussions about higher ed reform. "There is no subject so painful and so ubiquitous as the role of adjuncts in higher ed," writes Louisiana State University English professor Emily Toth, the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Ms Mentor." Nor, perhaps, is there an academic subject so thoroughly stylized. The underpaid, uninsured, and underappreciated "freeway flyer" has become a tragic figure, a poster prof for the moral, economic, and ethical failings of modern-day academia. Hardly a month goes by without another scandal in which someone fires---or fails to renew---an "invisible adjunct" who has expressed controversial views. Such cases---and the anger they evoke---have become the standardized set pieces of an academia that has yet to reckon with the fact that its modes of employment have undergone a seismic shift.

The supporting casts in these set pieces are as stylized as their non-tenure-track stars. There is the bean-counting administrator, an anti-intellectual corporate drone who sees adjunct faculty as a handy way to reduce overhead. And there is the smug tenured professor who sits idly by while a corps of shamelessly exploited workers enables his light teaching load, his leisurely sabbaticals, and his inflated salary. Together, these characters facilitate two structures of blame. The first focuses on putatively deliberate actions, assuming that the rise of adjuncts is an intended consequence of a specific, crass economic plan; the second focuses on passive inaction, assuming that tenured professors have made a Faustian bargain to secure their own comfort at the expense of tenure and academic freedom for future generations.

Blame of this sort is righteous indeed, and can feel awfully fine. But it's important to recognize its origins in oversimplification and caricature. The cost-conscious administrator is not so ruthlessly calculating as the blame game makes her out to be, nor is the tenured professor so consciously entitled. The fact is that neither administrators nor faculty can be exactly blamed for the rise of adjunct faculty. As John C. Cross and Edie Goldenberg demonstrate in their meticulously documented, devastatingly dispassionate Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, this is a situation that no one set out to create and that no one actively maintains. They find that the growing numbers of non-tenure-track college teachers are, instead, the cumulative, unanticipated result of decades of disconnected, dispersed decision-making by administrators, deans, department chairs, and staff members working within a decentralized system where planning, assessment, communication, accountability, and adjustment are all exceptionally challenging endeavors.

A devastating correlative fact is that no one actually knows what the facts about adjunct labor in academe actually are. Take the statistics propagated by the AAUP, the AFT, and others---the ones that underwrite the academic labor movement and that fuel debate about what the rise in adjunct faculty means for the quality of undergraduate education, for academic freedom, for tenure, and for a host of related issues. These, Cross and Goldenberg note, are often drawn from statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education, which collects them from colleges and universities. But---and this is the appalling discovery at the heart of the book---colleges and universities do not themselves track this information. When called upon to report figures, they throw something together. But they don't actually know what's happening on their campuses. The "data" they report is largely guesswork done to produce what the authors call "fictitious precision."

Read the rest of the review to find out what Cross and Goldenberg have to say about what the lack of real data about adjuncts means--and about what should be done about it.

UPDATE: Here's David French on the implications of Off-Track Profs' argument:

As I read the somewhat surprising news that no one really seems to know how many adjuncts there are and no one really understands how they are (systematically) hired and fired, I couldn't help but think that we're seeing the beginnings of a functioning free market in labor in higher education. While the market is still dramatically distorted by tenure, the very desirability of academic jobs creates the virtual equivalent of a black market in lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, and aides. Budget pressures are eased by the crush of willing applicants, and thorny tenure decisions can be postponed, perhaps indefinitely, by hiring a series of part-time professors eager for even an outside shot at a true, enduring academic career.

While there are no doubt many bad adjuncts, and there are no doubt many instances of unfairness toward and even exploitation of part-time academics, this merely places the university workplace on a more equal footing with virtually any other career. Are these disadvantages worse, on balance, that the disadvantages of the present, tenure-bound system? After all, we know what tenure has given us: a semi-permanent class of academic elites who think alike, cost a lot, and educate poorly.

At the end of the day, lasting academic reform may not come from top-down legislative or legal initiatives, but from the relentless logic and creative energy of thousands of hopeful academics who are willing to do more for less. After a while (and especially during a recession), the costly ideological monoculture spawned by tenure and other hidebound academic traditions simply stops making sense.

Cross and Goldenberg argue that they don't think tenure is going anywhere. But, like David, I find that premise to be awfully counterintuitive.

posted on June 30, 2009 6:49 AM

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In his memoir "The Forging of a Rebel," Arturo Barea described his experiences working for a large Spanish bank, circa 1920. Every year, the bank hired a large batch of high school graduates for clerical work. They were not paid, but were told that after a year, the best of the lot would be given full-time jobs. Most of them, though, were simply dismissed..and a new batch of hopefuls took their places. Sounds somewhat similar to today's academic career path....

Also, there is a trend toward unpaid internships in the corporate world...fortunately, these are still a considerable minority of internships, but still disturbing from the standpoint of class mobility. And in "nonprofits" of the think-tank or "policy" flavor, salaries for entry-level jobs (requiring advanced degrees) are often very low, making these positions particularly attractive to Trustafarians.

Posted by: david foster at July 1, 2009 7:00 AM

Wait a second. So a large system cannot work effectively and efficiently when each individual member of the system, acting out of self-interest, pursues his or her personal gain and goals? All this time, I thought that the invisible hands would work everything out.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at July 1, 2009 9:37 AM

Slightly OT....Erin, there's a provocative piece on higher ed by Jack Hough in the NY Post...link at my blog.

Posted by: david foster at July 1, 2009 12:45 PM

When you overproduce a commodity, the price goes down.

There are too many people out there with advanced degrees in English, and no demand for the number of literature courses that would be required to give each a schedule of classes in their own specialization.

And it's the state schools that are the worst offenders, so I guess government regulation won't solve the problem.

Maybe Obama can create an adjunct bailout, and pay surplus humanities majors to sit on their asses and read books and watch TV.

Posted by: John Drake at July 1, 2009 1:37 PM