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.”
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?