Overuse and Abuse of Adjunct Faculty Members Threaten Core Academic Values
by Richard Moser
The increasing exploitation of contingent faculty members is one dimension of an employment strategy sometimes called the “two-tiered” or “multitiered” labor system.
This new labor system is firmly established in higher education and constitutes a threat to the teaching profession. If left unchecked, it will undermine the university’s status as an institution of higher learning because the overuse of adjuncts and their lowly status and compensation institutionalize disincentives to quality education, threaten academic freedom and shared governance, and disqualify the campus as an exemplar of democratic values. These developments in academic labor are the most troubling expressions of the so-called corporatization of higher education.
“Corporatization” is the name sometimes given to what has happened to higher education over the last 30 years. Corporatization is the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, in accordance with a shortsighted business model. Three decades of decline in public funding for higher education opened the door for increasing corporate influence, and since then the work of the university has been redirected to suit the corporate vision.
The most striking symptoms of corporatization shift costs and risks downward and direct capital and authority upward. Rising tuition and debt loads for students limit access to education for working-class students. The faculty and many other campus workers suffer lower compensation as the number of managers, and their pay, rises sharply. Campus management concentrates resources on areas where wealth is created, and new ideas and technologies developed at public cost become the entitlement of the corporate sector. The privatization and outsourcing of university functions and jobs from food service to bookstores to instruction enrich a few businessmen and create more low-wage nonunion jobs. Increasingly authoritarian governance practices have become the “new normal.”
The liberal arts and all areas of research not conducive to the creation of wealth are faced with austerity. It seems that the universities’ internal budgets remain in perpetual crisis as funding declines and more demanding accounting devices are established, thereby making each department, program, or school reliant on its own self-generated resources. This new financial “rigor” in instruction and research has tended to starve the core liberal-arts mission while promoting entertainment venues and real-estate development.
The search for truth, critical thinking, intellectual creativity, academic standards, scientific invention, and the ideals of citizenship have been discounted in favor of maximizing profits, vocational training, career success, applied research, and bottom-line considerations.
Three types of related issues—instructional, curricular, and professional—emerge from the growth of the contingent faculty in the context of corporatization.
Adjuncts and graduate students often deliver excellent instruction, but that is in spite of their working conditions. Most contingent faculty members and graduate assistants are so poorly compensated and teach so many students that they face powerful disincentives to quality instruction.
To professionally evaluate and mentor adjuncts and graduate students would take an enormous resource commitment from full-time professors, which would work against the fiscal imperatives responsible for the use of adjuncts in the first place.
Instead, contingent faculty members are often forced to rely solely on students to evaluate their work. It is reasonable to expect that such a system of evaluation makes teachers vulnerable to student pressure for better grades, reluctant to teach controversial subjects, or engage in stressful disputes over plagiarism and cheating.
Furthermore, when the job of teaching is separated from the job of establishing the curriculum and developing programs, faculty members become mere delivery systems of standardized content. People hired for the short term have no incentive to understand or question the long-term educational goals of the college.
Similar disincentives exist for contingent faculty members to develop long-term relationships with students. As a result, fewer faculty members will know students well, and advising will suffer. As a multidisciplinary conference on part-time work concluded, the nature of “the terms and conditions of these appointments, in many cases, weakens our capacity to provide essential educational experiences and resources” and therefore is “inadequate to support responsible teaching or, by extension, a career.”
Finally, and most important, the new academic labor system has fragmented the faculty, weakening its ability to act as a constituency. Tenure has lost support from both junior faculty members and those on the lower tiers, rendering the profession less able to defend its central institution. Without due process and full access to governance, the professoriate loses its ability to govern in the conventional manner; hence the turn to unionization as an additional means of advancing professional standards and values.
The political aspect is decisive. The multitier personnel system has produced classic “divide and conquer” effects that can be addressed by demanding more tenured positions and increasing the compensation and due-process rights of the contingent faculty. Drawing the tiers closer together in status and standing would serve the long-term interest of the teaching profession. It is no coincidence that tenure-track compensation sagged, and tenure requirements and review escalated, as the profession fractured.
The fragmentation of the profession is driven by administrators; yet faculty members are also often complicit in the transformation of tenure from a right into a privilege by allowing or even encouraging the escalation of the requirements for tenure. The traditional prerogatives of the faculty, in terms of having a voice in the standing and status of 75 percent of the profession, have been lost; the 17 percent of faculty members who have tenure compensate for this lost power by showing how tough they are on the remaining 8 percent eligible for tenure. Can we believe that the attacks on tenure or its increasingly unrealistic requirements are concerned with quality or accountability when there is almost no concern for the professional evaluation, recognition, and support of the 75 percent of the faculty off the tenure track?
The overuse and abuse of contingent faculty members is a threat to academic freedom and intellectual innovation. The contingent faculty finds its teaching constrained by fear of the administrators’ uncontested right not to renew their contracts.
In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, Clifford Geertz, one of our most influential scholars, once recounted his own career, calling it “a charmed life, in a charmed time. An errant career, mercurial, various, free, instructive, and not all that badly paid.”
Geertz continued: “The question is: Is such a life and such a career available now? In the Age of Adjuncts? When graduate students refer to themselves as ‘the pre-unemployed’? … Has the bubble burst? … It is difficult to be certain. … But there does seem to be a fair amount of malaise about, a sense that things are tight and growing tighter … and it is probably not altogether wise just now to take unnecessary chances, strike new directions, or offend the powers. Tenure is harder to get (I understand it takes two books now, and God knows how many letters. … ), and the process has become so extended as to exhaust the energies and dampen the ambitions of those caught up in it. … All I know is that, up until just a few years ago, I used … to tell students and younger colleagues … that they should stay loose, take risks, resist the cleared path, avoid careerism, go their own way, and that if they did so, if they kept at it and remained alert, optimistic, and loyal to the truth, my experience was that they could … have a valuable life, and nonetheless prosper. I don’t do that anymore.”
The struggle to reform the new academic labor system is a struggle about freedom. It is fundamentally a political issue and an invitation to citizenship that none of us can afford to refuse. As the number of administrators grows and that of full-time tenure-track faculty members declines, the balance of power in the university shifts away from educators. Participation in governance has been based on the idea that dissenting opinion can be exercised without fear of reprisals. But without the protections of tenure, is the non-tenure-track faculty really free to engage in discussion or comment critically on administrative policy?
I am most deeply concerned about the example that the university itself is setting in regard to intellectual activity, citizenship, and democracy. What lessons are being taught to aspiring young academics when they realize that all of their foundational courses are being delivered by people who earn what they did at their summer jobs? What values are being learned when those who teach and research—who esteem the intellect and hold high the values of citizenship—are apparently held in low regard by society and by the university community itself?
The lessons are all too clear: Teaching and learning—the pursuit of the truth—are unworthy activities. We learn that it is acceptable to exploit someone if you can get away with it. We learn that it is acceptable to discriminate against someone based on the fact that they belong to a certain class of employees. We learn to pay lip service to art or science or history or literature, but that money is what really matters. Exploiting cheap labor to teach is teaching of the worst sort.
What to do about it? The primary obstacle is, as usual, in our own minds. Too many of us believe that these developments are the inevitable outcome of some juggernaut, usually the free market. Indeed, that is how corporatization is presented by its advocates.
In this context, the free market is primarily a cultural and political artifact; it is a rationale, a managerial tool, and a means to blunt resistance. Rather than apply our professional standards, or understand our history, we are supposed to shrug because the new standards of the market reign supreme. Market ideology now functions to foreclose other alternatives. But history has its uses. History helps us to broaden our view with alternative understandings and suggests that our personal struggles have political meanings.
I look at higher education, and I do not despair. Everywhere I see a growing consciousness about the new academic labor system and corporatization, and an increasing willingness to take action to defend higher education. Academic citizenship is on the rise, unionization continues, and the engaged citizen-scholar is emerging as a new model for academic life.
There is, after all, no professional activity more important than the exercise of academic citizenship. Only activism, organizing, and effective shared governance can create and advance the conditions on which all of our teaching and research depend.