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)
Image: McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland, College Park; cropped photograph by Radhika Kshirsagar, 2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
We talk a lot about an adjunct crisis in America’s universities, and we talk a lot about a hiring crisis in the academic humanities. Today, despite a certain amount of trepidation, I would like to get specific. I’m going to talk about the history instructors at two real universities. There are a lot of institutions like them. I have chosen not to name them, but all of the numbers from them are real, and all of these figures come from the current semester.
Their differences as well as their similarities are instructive.
Continue reading “Adjunctification by the Numbers: Two Real Scenarios for a History Education”