How academia adjunctified faculty and mainstreamed the queen sacrifice

A new Education Dive article offers a fascinating datapoint about queen sacrifices.  It’s actually focused on two recent American Institutes for Research reports on the economic impact of adjunctification, which are very useful, but the Dive’s conclusion is remarkable.  Needless to say, the combined reports don’t tell a happy tale about American higher education.

To begin with, the AIR studies (“The Shifting Academic Workforce” and “Cost Savings or Cost Shifting?”) outline the current status of part-time faculty.  They are, as some of us have been repeating, the leading population of American instructors:

Between 2003 and 2013, the share of all faculty who were contingent increased from:

  • 45 to 62 percent at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions,

  • 52 to 60 percent at private bachelor’s-granting schools,

  • 44 to 50 percent at public research universities and

  • 80 to 83 percent at community colleges.

Remember that this is a historical shift, a clear and steady reduction of tenure from the mid-20th-century.

Looked at from an economics perspective, reducing the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty in favor of part-time, benefit-less adjuncts should reduce the amount a campus spends on instruction: “those institutions doing the most shifting to part-time faculty have been successful in controlling E&R [education and related] costs”.  After all, salaries for adjuncts are far lower than those paid to tenure-track faculty, and on top of that they usually don’t receive benefits, which can be very costly. So what happens to the money institutions save by reducing faculty compensation?

It tends to flow away from instructional spending.  Let me rephrase that: all too often, an institution’s financial savings by shifting its faculty off the tenure track doesn’t go to improving teaching.

How this happens depends on the type of campus.  For instance, “[p]ublic four-year institutions appeared to use savings in instructional costs to increase expenditures on administration and maintenance.”  So state schools cut spending on faculty and moved the freed-up funds to pay for building upkeep and on non-teaching staff.

Remember that “administration” means something very broad in higher education, as I’ve noted before.  One AIR report takes care to explain:

Many of the new professional positions added by colleges and universities in the past decade are related to student services, which includes a wide-ranging set of activities, such as recruitment, admissions, financial aid, registrars, student counseling, student organizations, and athletics. Because of the broad scope of student services, it is unclear what specific types of services these student support staff provide and, consequently, whether these new positions represent reasonable investments in directly supporting student success or unnecessary “administrative bloat.”

In other words, some colleges and universities use adjunctification to drain money from faculty compensation and apply it to this growing constellation of non-teaching-focused student services sector.  This is a good example of what critics mean when they charge academic with “administrative bloat”.

So much for state schools.  How does adjunctifying play out in the budgets of liberal arts colleges and community colleges?  In contrast, they simply cut:

In contrast, private four-year and public two-year institutions showed little sign of cost shifting, reporting not only at changes or declines in instructional spending but also limited growth or declines in administration and maintenance expenditures.

Austerity, in other words.

One force powering this pattern is rising benefits costs.  The AIR reports suggest that many campuses cut faculty spending to offset those bennies given to tenure-track faculty and administrators. “[N]onfaculty costs—in particular, costs related to benefits—largely served to limit the scope of these savings.”  Turned around, rising benefit costs for those actually receiving benefits is pushing campuses to shunt faculty off the tenure track.  The two-tier system is really clear at this point.

There are exceptions to the preceding behaviors.  A small group of American campuses did not adjunctify their faculty, and at a cost:

those institutions with little to no growth in the part-time faculty share preserved spending on instruction, raising costs by 8% between 2003 and 2013, but cut back on administration and maintenance spending by -6%.

Now, in reaction to these studies, Jarrett Carter makes the following recommendation:

For most campus leaders, the smartest approach to managing costs is determining which programs are underperforming in enrollment, grant-making and research, and engaging faculty in the process of assessing programs and urging reforms to save them from being cut or reorganized.

Carter is very canny here.  He recognizes that the queen sacrifice gambit, a/k/a academic program prioritization, is in play across American higher education, for some of the same reasons that drive schools into transforming faculty from tenured professors to part-timers.  And he urges us to fight back, “to save” programs.

Note that Carter isn’t speaking of a handful of suffering campuses, but of higher ed as a whole.  Like adjunctification, the queen sacrifice is going mainstream.

As I keep repeating, the economic pressures on American higher education are ferocious.  They have transformed colleges and universities in powerful ways, and will continue to do so.

(thanks to Steven Bragaw on Twitter)

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