Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blog XXXVIII (38): The Plight of the Adjunct, an Alternate View

The use of adjuncts has generated a lot of interest among the readers of this blog. Many people are angry at what they see as the exploitive behavior of academic administrators. There is good reason for this anger, very good reason, but it is also time to look at the other side of the issue. The basic idea of using part time instructors is sound. If you are a journalism school and the news anchor of your NBC affiliate station is interested in teaching a class on broadcast journalism, bring him in and have him teach a class. This practice adds some zest to your programs of instruction and makes them more creditable. It also makes your anchor feel good, because he is sharing some of his insights and helping contribute to the development of his profession. Who does not like to do that?

The problem, though, is that administrators (provosts, deans, and department chairs) have been using adjuncts to make up the shortfalls between budgets and programmed requirements. This tendency is understandable. If you only so much money, you need to make sure that you go as far as possible with your limited resources. You can either hire a full time instructor, (pay his health benefits and retirement) and get four or five classes out of him/her, or for the same amount of money hire 10 part timers who will teach two classes each.

The heavy reliance on part-time instructors is not good for anyone. Since Ph.D. programs overproduced, there are plenty of scholars who will take this part-time work in order to keep a foot in the profession for which they were educated and trained. Doing this for a year or two while you are writing your dissertation or after you have finished and are looking for a job is okay, but trying to live on part time pay for five or six years is not; you do not end up in a good place economically or professionally. It is also bad for the full-time faculty. It makes it difficult for departments to hire more people and develop their programs. Deans can and often do say, it is easier to hire an adjunct than give you the money for a new permanent faculty member. You cannot build a graduate program with part-timers. It also hurts the permanent faculty when it comes to their salaries. If you want a pay raise, it is very easy for the administration to say no when there are honestly 50 people who would do the job for half of your wage. It is also shortchanges the students. They and their families are shelling out a lot of money for a quality education and they deserve instruction from people that are going to be devoted to that effort. Taking a journalism class from adjunct professor Walter Cronkite would be a real blast and a highlight of your undergraduate career, but what would it be like if you took ¾ of your course work in your major from part-time instructors who probably are new and, more importantly, cannot devote as much time to their profession because they are trying to do something else to bring in adequate money to take care of their own needs. Adjuncts are unhappy and for good reason.

So why does this system continue? Naomi Schaefer Riley addresses this question in a thoughtful editorial she wrote for The Wall Street Journal. "So You Want to be a Professor" appeared in the April 24, 2009 issue of that paper. Riley is the deputy taste editor of the Journal, and the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (2005). She argues there are sound reasons why the main constituencies of universities have little concern about the use of adjuncts, which should give us all reason to pause. Here is her column:

Late last month, the Web site Inside Higher Ed reported that several universities were shrinking the number of students admitted to their Ph.D. programs this year. Emory University is cutting its doctoral students by 40% -- admitting 220 this fall, down from 360 a year before. Columbia is reducing its intake by 10%. New York University is planning a reduction, although a "very modest" one, according to school officials. And the University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments admit doctoral students only every other year.
There are several reasons for this doctoral downsizing. For one thing, teaching graduate students costs universities money -- at least on first glance. Ohio University economist Richard Vedder estimates that schools spend anywhere from five to 15 times as much on graduate students as on undergraduates. Grad students are taught in small classes with senior professors. And students in doctoral programs (as opposed to those who leave after taking master's degree) are generally on some kind of fellowship. They pay no tuition and receive a school-year stipend between $10,000 and $20,000.

But graduates students also act as teaching assistants, doing a great deal of time-consuming classroom work (and grading) that professors themselves are thus not compelled to do. In all sorts of courses, especially in their freshman and sophomore years, undergraduates may find themselves being instructed more often by a 25-year-old doctoral candidate than by the university's full-time faculty members, who, of course, already have their doctorates (and one or two books to their credit, too). It is an odd, upside-down arrangement, but it has an economic logic: By providing cheap labor, graduate students save college administrations millions of dollars each year in salary costs.

So why the cuts? Well, the calculations work out differently for different schools. For instance, universities in lower tiers might not have to do as much because they can get away with having a higher percentage of classes taught by graduate students. But some of the schools making doctoral cuts this year gave compassion as their reason. Catherine R. Stimson, the dean of Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, was quoted in Inside Higher Ed: Given the state of the academic job market, she asked, referring to would-be doctoral candidates: "Is it fair to bring them in?"

It sounds like a logical question, but is it really? After all, the dire academic job market is nothing new. As Peter Berkowitz recalls from his time as a graduate student and professor at Harvard and Yale in the 1980s and '90s: "The departments knew that something like half the students they admitted to their programs wouldn't get Ph.D.s." And, says Mr. Berkowitz (who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution), "something like half of those wouldn't get tenure-track jobs."

In an article called "Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System" (2004), Gwen Bradley notes that an academic job shortage is rarely the result of some surprising lurch in supply-and-demand curves, since "the same institutions both manufacture and consume the Ph.D. product." In other words, universities know very well that they are producing far more Ph.D.s than they need. Compare this situation with the medical profession. Even if medical residents are made to work long hours under difficult conditions, the vast majority of them will get jobs as doctors. The vast majority of, say, Ph.D.s in English literature will not. Given that the typical doctoral degree takes six or seven years to complete (during prime job-training and family-forming years), there is a moral problem here. It is no great exaggeration to say, as Mr. Berkowitz does: "Many lives are ruined this way."

With more and more people going to college, one might reasonably wonder why there hasn't actually been a shortage of Ph.D.s in recent years. Two decades ago William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, predicted as much, claiming that there would soon be far more university teaching jobs than academics to fill them. He co-authored a study foreseeing "a real shortfall" in the humanities and social sciences starting in the late 1990s.

The shortage never materialized. Even during boom times, there was not much of an uptick in job listings for university faculty. Any increase in job demand was met by an overwhelming increase in labor supply. Universities began hiring adjunct faculty members. They typically teach courses at more than one school. (In California, they're referred to as "freeway flyers.") They don't get benefits and, all told, probably earn less than minimum wage.

Not surprisingly, these adjunct faculty members are feeling exploited and getting angry. In recent years, their concerns have been taken more seriously by the American Association of University Professors, which now has committees engaged in rigorous hand-wringing over their ordeal. Marc Bousquet, the author of "How the University Works," sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse's job or a second job of their own.

One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities--as self-interested as any institution--should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost?

The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows? Higher education has gone so far off the rails in recent years that parents and students hardly know what they are supposed to have learned in a freshman composition course or in Sociology 101. And as long as there is a degree waiting at the other end, they hardly care.


  1. I can't help but wonder if the larger problem here is that established faculty have failed to recognize and respond to the changes taking place in the university system in recent decades.

    Universities have been moving towards a business model and, with tight budgets and a surplus of labourers to draw from, it makes only sense that adjuncts are being hired rather than tenure-track appointments.

    Depts and faculty, however, have failed to recognize this situation and its implications on the profession, and take collective action. Instead, most faculty seem quite content to hide behind their tenure, and, in the worst cases, participate in the deingration of adjuncts by treating them as inferiors and outside of the profession.

    The exigencies of a corporate environment require appropriate recourse. Faculty need to organize, acknowledge the situation, and start taking action. This means establishing enrolment quotas that bear relation to the supply of jobs, developing effective and well-funded professional associations that represent the collective whole, and playing a larger role in policy discussions w/admin and govt. Sadly, I see few signs of faculty doing any of this. The dog eat dog mentality seems to always prevail. The result will be that they leave no TT jobs to the next generation.

  2. It worries me to hear that universities are trimming the size of Ph.D. programs simply because there aren't enough tenure-track academic jobs for all of their graduates. Many humanities and social sciences Ph.D.s find meaningful employment outside academia, in secondary education, archival and museum work, and public policy. Speaking as someone whose career has unfolded mainly in the worlds of documentary editing and secondary education, I assert that this is a very good thing for the institutions that are lucky enough to hire bright, well-trained Ph.D.s. Many educational and cultural institutions will be impoverished if graduate programs trim back to the point at which Ph.D.s have no incentive to seek employment outside academia.

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