The very worst thing written about adjuncts and tenure in 2017

This month has made me even busier than usual, between working on a stack of multiple projects, a series of trips,  and my helping my wife cope with a health crisis.  I’ve had to put off many tasks and ideas.  But I do need to take time to respond to this Chronicle piece, which must be one of the worst things ever written about adjunctification and tenure.  Its badness suggests some possibly significant attitudes among American faculty, and its blindness speaks to the poverty of our conversation on these topics.

When starting to read Blaine Greteman‘s “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis” you might be pleased by the author’s gestures of support to adjuncts.  But those are not the point of his column.  There is a great deal of virtue-signaling going on and many noises of sympathy.  That takes up the first half of the piece, actually.  You might expect a “some of my best friends are adjuncts” line.   There’s a lot of “The plight of adjunct laborers in our system is a serious one”… and then there’s a “but”.

That “but” is where the real argument begins.  Greteman’s case is, as the title clearly explains, that we should let tenured faculty off the hook when it comes to understanding the decline of tenure and the mass casualization of academic labor.  Instead, we should “identify and [presumably, although this is unaddressed in the piece] move the real levers of power.”

tenure cartoon

What or who are those levers?  First, “administrators and staff charged with managing a growing army of adjuncts and monetizing the university’s recreational and residential wings.”  Second, “public disinvestment in universities over the last 20 years”.  Third, challenges to the general labor market, including changed pension schemes (I think; it’s not really clear).  Fourth, Republican attacks on labor unions, notably in Wisconsin.

For starters, every point of those points is flawed or wrong-headed.  Their blindness to faculty roles is a classic case of bad faith.  And that’s just the beginning of what’s wrong with the article.

“[A]dministrators and staff charged with managing a growing army of adjuncts and monetizing the university’s recreational and residential wings” – I’d like to be charitable and assume that Greteman understands “administrators” to only mean C-suit leaders, rather than the many campus staff often lumped under that header.   But he carefully adds “and staff”, so I can’t be so kind.  Here Greteman falls into the “administrative bloat” trap of blaming a lot of campus personnel without understanding their roles and by assigning them powers they don’t have. (I’ve written about this general rhetorical problem a few years ago)

Are library staff to blame for the academic labor crisis?  Did custodians play a role in advancing adjunctification?  Are IT staff, financial aid officers, counselors, lawyers, grants officers, nurses, coaches, career services staff, scholarly press workers, police, and regulatory compliance officers part of the de-tenuring movement?   Greteman levels the blame cannon at them all, which is both wrong and shameful.

Note this part of his charge, too: “the university’s recreational and residential wings”.  That neatly leaves out all institutions which lack residential wings, such as commuter schools and online academies.  I’m not sure what “recreational” means here, but if the author intends it to cover sports, then that only refers to a portion of American higher education.  If he means student life, then again, that only covers one segment of post-secondary education – and I’m curious to see if he’d like to defund that part of campuses, and then how to deal with the subsequent drop in enrollment.  If Greteman wants to defund college athletics, I’m all ears.  I’d like to see how he imagines dealing with faculty, staff, administrative, donor, students, and public resistance.  Really.

“public disinvestment in universities over the last 20 years”: this is quite true, a known and researched fact, although really it dates back to the 1980s (more here).  However, the point doesn’t serve his argument well.  It doesn’t take into account adjunctification at private universities, which are a serious number of American academic institutions.  It doesn’t speak to well-endowed research-1 universities, which play a crucial part in the adjunct movement by overproducing PhDs (more on this below).  And it lets faculty off the hook, since it doesn’t allow any role for professors in lobbying state governments or acting as public intellectuals to regain public support.  (That this hasn’t happened enough is also shameful, but clearly beyond Greteman’s understanding.)

Greteman’s point about negative developments in the general labor market is hazy, so let me pull out the details.  He refers to “Congress chang[ing] tax policies to favor 401(k)s in 1978” and “jobs offering health insurance and livable wages also declined precipitously”.  I’m guessing the author is trying to say that American labor has suffered in terms of pensions, health care, and overall compensation, and therefore academia has somehow followed suit, except for tenured professors, like Greteman.  The mechanism linking these developments is invisible in the column, although a fascinating concept to explore.

Let me help Greteman explore that concept by introducing one small idea.  Generational changes in the American labor market involve many drivers, of course, from technological development to the decline of unions to globalization to differences between manufacturing and service jobs.  One of those drivers, a small one, was… academics.  Some economists played a major role in influencing policy over this generation, advising companies and governments in how they treated workers and budgets.  Neoliberalism emerged, in part, from academic research into macroeconomics and policy.  For one very accessible example consult the very good 2010 documentary Inside Job, which contains hilarious and sad stories of academics helping make the 2008 financial crash happen, and profiting greatly from their work.  Perhaps we could explore which academic economists (and political scientists, maybe) conducted research or offered advice that recommending decreasing tenure.

The column continued by criticizing Republican attacks on labor unions, notably in recently re-hued red state Wisconsin.  Once again, this is a true thing, but doesn’t help Greteman very much.  How many faculty in American higher ed are in unions?  What proportion of them are now seeing their legal protections weakened?  The author is silent on this fact.  I can’t come up with a good number, but I suspect it is not a majority.  Once again, Greteman aims at the problem and at best scores a glancing blow.

All of the preceding is based on what “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis” actually says.  What it doesn’t say is much worse.

Staggeringly, Greteman does not address faculty governance.  Not once does he refer to this cherished and challenged principle, which gives professors some degree of control over how their institutions work.  Yes, it’s unevenly distributed across institutions.  Yes, it’s sometimes under policy attack, or scholars discuss revising it.  But for a significant number of colleges and universities faculty members – and that means tenured ones in particular – play a role in deciding how their campus is run.  That can include how tenure works, and policies of hiring adjuncts.  Greteman’s refusal to even consider faculty governance is shocking.

In particular the author somehow manages to avoid the faculty role in producing PhD graduates at research-1 institutions.  This is crucial to the problem, as such institutions have not only overproduced PhDs, thereby creating a fine pool of desperate job-seekers for adjunct gigs, but they also benefit directly from low-cost labor. When do tenured professors argue for increasing the number of enrolled grad students, in the midst of a horrendous job market?  How did these powerful gatekeepers respond to the forces Greteman identifies (state reduction in public university support, the labor market’s decline, etc.), by working to protect grad students, or accelerating the worsening of their likely careers? For that matter, which tenured faculty members fought to block teaching assistant unionization?   Once again, Greteman’s refusal to even notice this essential component of both modern tenure and its opposite is glaring.

Why does this matter?  Alas, this blog post is now longer than its target, so I will be direct.

First, that a tenured faculty member at a major university can publish such a blinked, blinded, and ultimately wretched screed in academia’s journal of record suggests our discussions about tenure and adjuncthood are in lousy shape.

Second, the author’s blindness might not be unique.  I’m fascinated by how the column gestures towards complicity (pausing to blame low-wage workers, incidentally), then retreats in full speed away from that danger zone.  This might be one way for tenure-track faculty members to sleep at night, by willfully averting their gaze.  I’m reminded of the great Sinclair line, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Third, the column does not consider the possibility of faculty activism.  Greteman doesn’t refer to adjunct unionization, but he also doesn’t touch on the idea of tenured faculty members using that very protection to fight for their untenured colleagues.  How many of these professors battle their campus senior administration on this score?  How many reach out to their boards or lobby their state legislature?  How many take to social media and/or traditional scholarship to urge reform?  Greteman seems to be urging, or at least only allowing for, quiet and passivity. Faculty are mere observers and objects, incapable of speaking or acting, cogs in a cruel machine.  This is  a terrible model of American tenured professors, both inaccurate and disabling.

How difficult will it be to improve the condition of adjuncts, much less to try a return to earlier tenure levels, if faculty possess such mindsets?  And not just own that thinking, but proclaim it loudly through the Chronicle of Higher Education?

(link via Lisa Hinchliffe on Twitter; cartoon posted by Toban B.)

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20 Responses to The very worst thing written about adjuncts and tenure in 2017

  1. ellenandjim says:

    As once a long-time adjunct I’ll say the obvious: the tenured faculty batten on the adjuncts. The tenured people will teach 2 courses a term, perhaps 3, and get time off for research, sabbaticals; in the university I was at I could get some funding for conferences, but it was less than tenured people. It’s the adjuncts who teach the comp courses for little money so that money and time is freed for the tenured people. There is a direct conflict of interest. I knew of places where adjuncts were not eligible. Among the many pretenses was the idea adjuncts didn’t do serious research.

  2. bowneps says:

    I’d like to hear more about successful actions for reversing the adjunctification of higher ed on the part of tenured faculty members.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Hmm, as someone outside acedamia, i have to say i need a guide or summary to understand both the article and the rebuttal. Obviously this is a source of passion, but i dont even know what an adjuct is. Is there an issue outline somewhere?

    • I can do that here, Bob.
      What’s happened is a major change in the professoriate. Back in the 1960s and earlier, the majority of profs were either tenured or tenure-track: employed full time, and enjoying tenure’s job protections. A minority were “adjuncts”, instructors usually teaching part time, lacking tenure’s protections, and hired at will. There’s also a population that teaches full time, but isn’t tenured.
      Since that time the proportion of t-track faculty has fallen, down to 20% or so, depending on stats. Adjuncts are now over half of American professors, and their proportion is growing; they are the new face of higher ed academic departments.

      What Greteman was arguing was that tenure-track faculty were innocent in this process. He was responding to a speech calling out t-track profs for either being complicit or actively involved in adjuncitifying (appropriately ugly word) the professoriate. I’m criticizing Greteman for being wrong on this.

      …does that help?

      • Bob Miller says:

        That actually helps a LOT. Thanks. This sounds somewhat parallel to the move in industry to part time or temporary labor. Or to using contract labor in preference to Union employees. Heavily driven by cost considerations.

        In this case, I bet the only way tenure-track profs are “complicit” is the same way Unions were complicit in driving the right-to-work movement. continuing to demand compensation way out of alignment with the market. I look forward to more posts on this subject.

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    you’ll find this attitude a lot exploring the comment underbelly of IHE and especially CHE. I think of them whenever I hear complaints about the leftiness of the professoriat. Yes, there are true allies but there are also whose sense of calloused entitlement would make a 19th century mill owner blush. I tidied up and edited out my harsher sentiments.

    • Quite true. Those comments reveal a lot.

      • VanessaVaile says:

        Occasionally I skim the comments but often avoid them. As soon as I see some familiar names, I know how they have responded and will respond. What is the value of multiple perspective when few if any appear to listen to their contrary counterparts. John Warner is a notable exception and valiantly replies to all.

        imnsho FTTE Forum does a much better job of opening conversation to multiple perspectives across a large, diverse higher ed ecosystem.

  5. Poppleton says:

    Superbly on-target, horribly true. Bryan Alexander’s accurate take on the issue, and on the CHE articles, prompts me to note that my Ivy employer preens itself on not hiring adjuncts, proud of its policy of hiring faculty spouses/partners on renewable lectureships, a perk leveraged for recruitment and retention of tenure-track faculty at all levels. Instead of exploiting adjuncts, this policy worsens the winner-take-all, new-gilded-age split between the super-rich one-percent and the rest of us, but does so in a different self-satisfied style.
    Labor economists who study “assortive mating”— and in particular capitalism’s way of nudging people to pair up with those in their own social and economic class—have shown that two-career executive / professional couples are a major driver of the wage gap. I summarize their research (no doubt simplifying, and I’ll welcome anyone who can add nuance here): With always-on, 12-hour workdays, the academic power couple needs to hire others to help with childcare and housework. “The help” end up meeting and marrying others who do low-status jobs for high-status employers. Members of the caretaking service class often hold several jobs to make ends meet, as adjunct faculty are forced to do–adjuncts being in this sense another crew of service workers for elite power couples in the academy. The elite-educated, high-earning executive class may be grateful for the “loyal help” around the house, but remain far “too busy, so busy” to do much about it except rush off to conferences about the growing wage gap under late capitalism.
    It’s a women’s issue, too, as readers of this blog will not need reminding. Co-opted, corporate. “lean-in” feminism puts a few privileged women in the corner office, thanks to lots of other women stuck doing others’ domestic labor. But elite women’s wealth doesn’t “trickle down” and sisterhood shrinks to an exclusive A-list sorority. This picture has a biting antithetical logic that seemed to me suitable for framing in heroic couplets, ala Alexander Pope’s “Dunciad,” especially in light of how, at “elite” research universities, academic “stars” and their “spousal hires” always seem afire to teach seminars in cultural and critical theory on the evils of systemic privilege and inequity. Those evils are real; the outrage of such scholars, if not precisely fake, seems to me to need, to put it politely, refinement and examination. Here’s a way of putting it less politely:

    Assortive mating works: a peer group meets
    When colleges play cupid to elites.
    Let’s trawl for power couples, yoked to breed
    Bold “interventions” fighting hate and greed!
    Subversive scholars travel fast in pairs,
    With double salaries, and double shares
    Of work for gardeners and maids-in-waiting,
    Who wed each other—more assortive mating!
    Class-smashing duos draw six-figure bids
    And “love the folks who mind our yard and kids
    Like family!—till five, they’re one of us;
    Till midnight, one of Smiths (an hour by bus).”
    Sweet household hives, abuzz with hes and shes
    All pitching in to sting hegemonies!

    • Poppleton, thank you for the generous comment. Exactly right about assortative mating (I keep meaning to get to _The Big Sort_). And that’s a fantastic Restoration-era stanza.

      Might I ask if those lectureships are full time and have benefits?

      • Poppleton says:

        Yes, indeed: the lectureships are almost always full-time, and renewable and almost always renewed (even if the marriage/partnership that brought the ‘trailing spouse’ on board goes up in smoke), with full benefits, medical, the works. Staggering privileges, taken as routine, except by us few “nephewsniks” puzzled at how the “inside candidate” seems to have the inside track so routinely with no visible protest. No struggling adjunct or aspirant to the academic life even has a chance to learn that such positions are on tap here, never mind snag one. “Spousal accommodation,” as they call it here, is a curious deflection of (but also glaring reflection of) the adjunct debacle, which in any case I suspect is on its way to every campus, however smugly it may imagine itself as a charitable employer by opting for ‘the big sort’ instead.
        It’s a privilege to participate in this intelligent conversation with you and those commenting here on such a vital topic. Thank you.

      • Thanks for the fast reply, Poppleton, and also for the very kind words.
        Sounds like the two-tier system is firmly in place.

        My optimistic vision for the future of academic labor involves full-time, tenure-less, medium- to long-term (3-6 year) contracts.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    I like the idea of contracts with expiry dates. This means you cant be arbitrarily fired, but eventually you can be terminated if you dont pull your weight. Benefits is a harder probnlem wityh cointracts though….pretty hard to get pensions that way.

    • Is that a case for individual 401Ks?

      • Bob Miller says:

        The more we move to the gig economy, the more that will make sense. Traditional employment structures are under pretty severe stress and i dont see that easing up any time soon. Employer-supplied (fill in the blank) will be less and less viable. We need to evolve private and government structures to replace them. Tenure is likely in the same situation, regardless its values or strengths. So then the question becomes how can we preserve tthe value of tenure (eg ability to speak freely, challenge entrenched power) in the contract employment world?

      • Excellent questions.

        Public services: perhaps this is a case for single-payer health insurance and/or guaranteed minimum income.

        Speech protection: could campuses extend that to all teaching personnel?

  7. tabeles says:

    Hi Bryan, Let me make a few observations and then pull them together (maybe?)
    1) A very good residential college (the second in this area) changed its name from “college” to “university”. it’s part of a general trend in the HEI’s in the US (and England) of trying to deal with the fact that there is a shrinking population of secondary school grads who are being convinced that they need a traditional 4 year+ education in order to be gainfully employed and ego validated. The extra mural expansion (million dollar score boards) are another.

    2) If you follow the “gamification for employment” area, there are now companies like Pymetrics which help individuals and the employment world to evaluate individuals for all skills, soft and hard, using gamification systems developed by neuroscientists and others. These and some smart HR people are beginning to seek other validations than degrees, certificates and transcripts.

    The post secondary population has shifted so that the institutions are seen more as a gateway to employment diminishing the balance between education for civic life and work. Academic institutions as institutions are schizophrenic. And the discipline oriented faculty and the academic structure internally has yet to adequately address this issue and thus can not sit with the administration to determine the future path in this new environment
    3) In thinking about the above, how many faculty are needed to carry out research in all disciplines and how many are needed to meet the educational needs of students at the basic undergraduate level. That has been answered by the action on campus with the rise of various categories of faculty from adjuncts and non-tenure track full time faculty.

    4) Unaddressed is the education of faculty as heading for Ph.D. research positions in academia. In fact, in the humanities it has been argued that the various disciplines maintain such programs in order to keep individuals in teaching assistant positions knowing that tenure track research opportunities are slim to none. Neither the extant faculty, nor the post baccalaureate students have been willing to sit at the table and address this.

    5) If one checks the employment of graduates, even in STEM, the UN employment looks average to low until one disaggregates the employed, UN employed and UNDER employed or employed in areas not directly addressed by the degree certification. We are starting to see that, as employers are able to use more sophisticated screening methods, and potential hires can see where their strengths lie, that a more wholistic picture emerges

    Basically, all sides, administration, faculty and students should see that all the pieces are there for a re-centering of the post secondary institution in purpose and function into a new balance. The problem as discussed in the article and comments are basically the result of an unwillingness to accept the emergent of a disruptive models as well described in Clayton Christensen’s writings and the many clones
    The issue of tenure deserves a longer discussion as it has shifted or lost one of its original purposes of protecting academic’s right of speech. With the current disruption of PC movements on the political right and left on all campuses, public, private, colleges and R1’s, along with the rise of the Heterodox Academy, Fire on the right and the variety of increasingly violent action on the far left the issue of tenure has become almost moot. The only argument that remains is that of economics. And for that we return to the above and the need for the institutions at all levels to meet in the commons are sort out the future

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