From Southern Illinois, a signal from academic labor’s future

Over the past few days a disturbing story emerged from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  It concerns academic labor.

It began with a Facebook post from The Professor is In, sharing and commenting on a memo from Michael Molino, SIU-C’s associate dean for budget, personnel, and research.  The post described a new plan for the university to use alumni as unpaid faculty members.

The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

——-> Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

That is, it looked like SIU-C was going one step beyond adjuncting.  These would not be low paid, but unpaid workers, who would conduct some part of the campus’ academic mission.  As the Facebook post editorialized (caps in original),


Once this hit social media* SIU-C’s vice chancellor and interim provost swiftly issued a statement.  A clarification or climbdown?

Here’s the key piece: Meera Komarraju insisted that they were exploring using “qualified alumni… as mentors to enhance – not replace – the work of our faculty.”  So this is an addition to the existing workforce, rather than a switch.  More: “These alumni might deliver an individual lecture or lead a seminar discussion based on their expertise but would not teach entire courses. ”

And yet.  This is a three year program, apparently.  There is room to explore.  As Komarraju (rather archly) observes, “The use of adjuncts is not unusual on our campus and in higher education generally.”  As an additive to campus work, could these alumni adjuncts anchor other work?  For example, what if the AAs offer learning experiences in quantities large enough to allow SIU-C to reduce hours taught by paid faculty, both adjunct and full time?  This might be more available after this month’s attention fades away.

Alternatively, could some form of the Math Emporium use these AAs to develop learning experiences relying less on paid faculty?

Some of Illinois higher education has been suffering of late, as I’ve written before.  As part of the midwest’s demographic crunch, local traditional-age student demand has fallen.  In addition, the state government’s continuous budget nightmare has challenged public higher ed funding, while governor Rauner has repeatedly moved to slash that sector’s support.

Meanwhile, we keep driving forward with adjunctification: pumping out far more PhDs than we have tenure jobs, increasing part time faculty.  This is in line with the broader American labor market’s tendency towards the gig economy.  And it connects with a cultural current to devalue academic labor.

Keep an eye on this.  Consider SIU-C’s AAs to be a signal from a possible future for education.

*I’m fascinated by how divided we are on social media in 2018.  On the one hand, there’s the reputational crash Facebook suffers, calls for people to exit Twitter, etc.  On the other, people keep using them.  Striking teachers organize on Facebook, this story racing into public light via Facebook and Twitter, etc.

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1 Response to From Southern Illinois, a signal from academic labor’s future

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Thanks for following up on this. I’d seen the initial reaction but not the followup.

    I’m struck by the possibility for this to go either way. On one hand, I think it would be good to get adjuncting back to its roots – a sideline, for people with full-time jobs, which brings energy and industry perspectives into a department. Certainly the best professor, and maybe 2 of the best 3 professors, in my Library Science graduate degree were adjuncts, precisely because they could relate book learning to the real world.

    I’m still not thoroughly comfortable with asking guest speakers/adjuncts to just donate their time, but I’ve asked multiple alums and parents to speak at Kenyon and there’s a pretty standard uncomfortable reaction when I broach the topic of a stipend. (They’re smart folks; I expect they can connect a stipend check from me with a fundraising letter from Development.)

    On the other hand, if this is being pushed out to all departments, I think it’s reasonable to be afraid of abusing that alumni relationship by replacing paid labor with volunteer. It’ll even seem like a kind thing, as they let un- or underemployed PhDs add “invited talk” lines to their resumes.

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