“How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction”

Although I’m not quoted, I had the privilege of speaking with Holly Brewer this week as she worked on an important opinion essay for Washington Monthly. Here’s a taste of her argument:

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

—Holly Brewer, “How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction,” Washington Monthly (Aug. 4, 2021)

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Image: McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland, College Park; cropped photograph by Radhika Kshirsagar, 2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Never Waste a Good Pandemic,” He Actually Said

I’ve been quoted in Inside Higher Ed this morning.

Two days ago, the Twitter account of United Campus Workers Colorado, a new union local that organizes workers across the university, shared an announcement from the interim dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder.

In the original message to his colleagues, James W.C. White announced that his college intends to meet (and exceed) a budget-cut target through “incentivized retirements of tenured and tenure-track faculty” in the arts and sciences, with the likely aim of replacing many tenure lines with a smaller number of jobs for contingent workers.

Yesterday, Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed interviewed me by email about why I have said (previously) that we should expect to see many more announcements like this in U.S. higher education in the coming years. Some of my response made it into her article after a comment about tenure by the dean (which I didn’t see before I wrote):

Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, White said, ‘That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.’

He added, ‘We have culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have,’ and ‘we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.’

Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said, ‘Things like this news from CU Boulder don’t surprise me at all. We’re going to see more and more stories like this.’

Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an ‘acceptable substitute’ for full-time professors in the classroom, ‘once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretense of tenure,’ he said. ‘It’s an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we’re much easier to fire if you don’t like the job we’re doing in the classroom.’

Like Wolf-Root, Wilson said that many contingent faculty members ‘do engage in research and publication. But mostly we do it on our own time and our own dime. It usually doesn’t result in any job security or recognition.’ Colleges and funding sources ‘don’t actually care much about scholarship,’ though, he added. ‘If they did, they would pay for it. Today, we’re just waiting for a coming wave of retirements to allow them to dispense with the pretense.’

You can read the rest of the article, including the quip from Dean White that I quoted in the post title, here at Inside Higher Ed.

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Edit: Having this opportunity, I would like to clarify one thing about my remarks in the article. When I said that many academic institutions and funders “don’t actually care much about scholarship,” I was referring to the role research has in undergraduate teaching.

Obviously, many institutions do sponsor research even when they don’t absolutely have to. However, hiring adjuncts and other contingent workers to teach core courses reveals that they don’t really believe research, or forms of job security designed to protect research, are crucial for most college teaching. When adjuncts are the only experience some students have with entire disciplines—when colleges routinely allow adjuncts to be the entire face of history, biology, English, chemistry, or mathematics for students who aren’t majoring in those subjects—they are revealing what they really think about the nature of higher education itself.

And because most American colleges and universities exist because they offer undergraduate instruction—that’s where most of their revenue and public support comes from, either directly or indirectly, even if they also get research grants—and because so many academic departments are “service” departments that exist because of general-education courses they provide to students majoring in other disciplines—anything that is not critical for basic college teaching can be sacrificed as pressure builds to cut costs.

Many established academics have been trained to find this unthinkable; they think research and publishing are their core mission because research is how they got hired, tenured, and promoted, and that is the basis of most of their professional relationships outside their institutions. But for purposes of long-term planning in a time of retrenchment, this is an illusion. Their employers don’t actually think research, or the tenure system designed to protect it, is necessary for doing most of their jobs.

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Edit 2: I think it’s worth reading John Warner’s Twitter thread (and now an Inside Higher Ed essay) on this situation. As Warner says, the real question is not whether tenure in its traditional form can be preserved. It’s whether post-tenure higher education will fairly compensate, retain, protect, and promote its non-tenure-track faculty members as they do their work.

Thus, I largely disagree with the demonization of James White that I’ve seen on social media since this news came out, although his wry phrasing was highly infelicitous. White has been ordered to slash his budget, and unless he can somehow resist that order as an interim dean, he effectively has no alternative but to propose cutting tenure lines.

He could have proposed moving to exploitive, degrading adjunct employment instead, but he didn’t. He proposed creating full-time lecturer positions—jobs for people who might conceivably be fairly paid and recognized for their teaching and provided with reasonable job security and health and retirement benefits. This is not inherently the wrong thing to do in the current academic environment. But it does mean dropping a pretense.

Fall 2020: Two Propositions

I get the sense that a couple of things aren’t clear to everyone responsible for making decisions in U.S. higher education right now.

  1. Regardless of your opinion of online teaching—and most of us, broadly speaking, are at least mild skeptics—most U.S. colleges and universities will have to move to all-online teaching by the end of the fall semester. (In many states, governors will make that decision for them if they don’t make it themselves. Many may have to switch to all-online teaching before the semester even starts.)
  2. You have to give college instructors months of advance time to plan if you want that to go well.

Granted, if your college or university is like most, it routinely hires adjuncts at the last minute—sometimes a matter of mere days before courses begin—to teach your gateway undergraduate courses. In normal times, it can get away with that, to some extent, because those are usually standard courses; either we have taught them before, or we have seen them taught many times, or we have taught courses fundamentally similar to them before.

But almost nobody has taught all of their scheduled fall courses—general-education, upper-division undergraduate, and graduate—in an all-online format before. And a vanishingly small number have ever taught them in whatever HyFlex panic mode your administration has tried to devise in order to keep campus open.

In general, instructors teaching college courses this fall will have to redesign them—often all of them at once, and often from the ground up—in order to have any hope of teaching in a reasonably effective way throughout the semester.

We needed to have clear, reliable guidance about formats and methods all this spring and summer to make this happen. Had received it, we would still be hard pressed to make things work.

As it is, it’s now July 15. Most U.S. colleges and universities will be in regular session within about a month and a half, and many have opted for early start dates. Right now, most U.S. colleges still claim that they will be open in a traditional face-to-face format this fall.

It was one thing to make an emergency pivot to online teaching in an unforeseeable crisis this spring. What’s about to happen this fall is something quite different.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

Time in Transit


Four gas pumps in Yoder KS - 1979

Commencement is today. As a part-time faculty member, I’m vague on the details. The event is being held in a hockey arena twenty miles from the university, but I see families wandering around near campus. The effect is pleasing.

It’s a bright blue day. The air smells like gasoline and dirt. People are mowing their lawns. All the lawns in town, or so you would think.

I’m using the day to finish grading essays for the other university. That’s what I promised myself last night. Much of my day has really been given over to preparing for the upcoming move.

When I came to Scranton, I imagined I would stay here. I’m not very good at growing roots, but I believe in them. I hoped to find permanent work here. Yet it’s time to leave. I have been wondering how to measure the success of my years here, and I have been wondering what will come next, and when I will finally move someplace and stay.

There will be a lot more driving after this summer, perhaps ninety minutes per weekday. More if I find additional courses to teach, which I need to do. The oil industry will consume a lot of my earnings, and my carbon footprint, as they call it, will grow. That’s something else I had not envisioned as a life. Or rather, it’s something I had carefully excluded from my vision of a good life.

I have been lucky.

But it’s time to move on.

But not today. Today I’m in between.

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Image: John Margolies, Four Gas Pumps, Yoder, Kansas, 1979. John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.

Scranton by the Numbers

Classroom at the University of Scranton: Loyola Science Center

Here’s a small life update. This summer, I will move away from the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, after almost five years. Although I will miss this quirky city terribly (The Office references and all), I established a college teaching record here of which I’m proud:

  • Distinct courses: 7
  • Total classes: 26
  • Median class size: 29.5
  • Total students: 762

I’ll be starting over in the region of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey with some employment plans I can’t announce yet. Meanwhile, if you’re in that area and need an experienced history instructor (United States and world), let’s talk.