Academic work as a Moral Tale: An agony in a mere six fits [Part 2]

By | December 3, 2014

Fit the Third

But using the tools of politics to repeal politics turned out to be a dangerous game. Neoliberals lying down with politicians caused the public generally to wake up with giant flea hickeys rather than just cautionary fleabites. Deregulation removing Depression-era policies like Glass-Steagall allowed the rawest kinds of market pressures to shape big financial institutions and multinational industrial firms into enterprises rooted in no single body of law (and thus essentially immune to it); manufacturing to slip down into national states willing to allow wages and benefits to race toward the bottom; and government as an institution to become seen increasingly ineffective and therefore incompetent. Within nations, organizational ontogeny recapitulated national phylogeny, as states, companies, and other institutions competed to see who could most ruthlessly implement such policies. “Rightsizing” became a management mantra, overturning a large part of traditional human resources practices in favor of narrow success measures emphasizing little but the yearly balance sheet. And colleges and universities, lest they once again be characterized as “soft”, bought into this trend with a vengeance.

Adjunct faculty had always been part of the University enterprise, in a limited way. Appointments had often been offered to distinguished alumni or friends who had accomplished something significant in their field, be it medicine, law, engineering, or some other profession. These adjunct appointments usually were for token amounts of payment; the appointment itself was considered to be an honor, and the opportunity to interact with accomplished professionals significantly enhanced their programs. The aim was simply to extend an opportunity to rising professionals for interaction with those who are already made their mark in the field, and to acquire a sense of what the actual practice of the field might be like.

But starting about 1990, university administrators discovered that they could use the adjunct hiring mechanism as a way to circumvent hiring new full-time faculty. This was justified on the basis of the difficulty in forecasting enrollments, need for flexibility in assigning courses, and extending opportunity to promising junior faculty who might then be considered for later full-time employment. Quite rapidly, the practice spread across large portions of academia, and department after department found itself with increasing numbers of adjunct faculty who were teaching larger and larger numbers of students, while tenure-track lines were singularly hard to come by. This whole phenomenon of adjunct hiring is essentially a “boiled frog phenomenon”, where small amounts of change go unnoticed until some kind of major transition point is reached, at which is typically too late to escape the consequences.

Essentially. university administrators discovered the advantages of contingent employment, also known as “employment at will”. Under the terms of this model, managers retain the right to dismiss any employee at any time, for any reason or for no reason. One corollary of this model is that the individual alone relates directly to the majesty of the employer; organized employees (AKA unions) have no real role to play here. Rules originally intended to ensure worker protection and confidentiality are reinterpreted to deny individuals access to any information about their employment circumstances. “Human Resources” personnel, traditionally functionaries processing necessary paper, have taken over a wide range of functions in many if not most universities, and often become the adjudicators of personnel decisions.


Fit the Fourth

By 2013, close to 70% of student contact hours were actually being taught by adjuncts, rather than tenured or tenure-track faculty. Obviously, the bulk of these hours were concentrated in in large introductory courses, which tenured faculty had been known to evade for a long time. The transition to adjunct faculty made it easier for them to continue this evasion, and even to ignore it.

But who were these adjuncts, and where had this vast pool of them come from? Actually, a large portion of these adjuncts were PhD-trained or at least degreed folks who might in other times have applied for tenure-track slots, had any been available. Typically, they were graduates of less prestigious programs who had been unable to secure full-time academic employment and thus sought adjunct appointments as a way to make themselves visible to the departments in question and hopefully improve the chances for later full-time employment. The problem was that these adjunct appointments were based on a pay scale adapted to the old-line adjuncts, and no individual adjunct appointment paid anything like a living wage. Thus, individuals trying to make an introductory academic career out of a series of adjunct appointments found themselves sometimes with three or four different sets of courses at different universities in different places. The term “freeway flyer” was coined to describe how one might zip between different universities in order to fulfill a series of different contracts, none of which individually provided for much. Adjuncts typically received a flat fee per course regardless of the number of students, and it is extremely unusual for any kind of benefits to be extended to such adjunct faculty.

There remained, of course, a substantial cadre of the old time adjuncts – those who really didn’t need the money and took the appointments it primarily for the prestige and the fun of interacting with the students. These folks saw no particular problems with the current set of academic arrangements. They weren’t trying to make a living at it; they already had their living. These folks tended to have long-standing relationships with the older tenured faculty, and were perfectly comfortable assuring their friends that all the adjunct faculty that they knew were really quite happy.

At the moment, university faculties in general include several different groups, each with significantly different interests and priorities. The overall Academy seems on the verge of fragmentation.


We’ll explore this further in our next installment. Stay tuned for another two fits!