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Free-Market Faculty Members

The following story was posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adjunct Project Web site by an adjunct who identifies himself only as dancesintheruins, for fear of retribution by his institution:

I’ve been teaching at two institutions for a few years. I’ve had four classes every term for that entire time; either two at each institution, or three at one and one at the other. Some terms I taught as many as six sections, which I discovered was more than I could take on. Just bought a house not too long ago. For the coming term, however, both institutions offered me only one section, citing “terribly low enrollment.”

The term begins this week for one institution, next week for the other. While trying to get ready for the term beginning next week, I looked up my room assignment and saw the word “cancelled” next to the only section I had been assigned.

I understand that as adjuncts we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and beyond the control of our department chairs. I understand that I should have seen this day coming—and maybe I did. What bothers me is that no one had the decency to tell me that my only section was being cancelled.

This professor learned that he was unemployed a week before classes started, and no one had even bothered to tell him! It would be nice to dismiss the incident as isolated, but this kind of thing is happening at colleges all over the country. People are being treated with complete disregard because of the corporate university model, which places money above all else.

The new career track for university faculty members is that of the disposable professor. As we rely more and more on adjunct labor, we slowly surrender our power on college campuses. Contingent faculty members are powerless. Replaceable. No tenure, no bargaining rights, no contract, no voice. Adjuncts—who are faculty members—become products for consumption in this new free-market university economy that, like the free-market business economy, places the bottom line above all else.

What effect does this powerlessness have on important concepts like academic integrity and freedom?

Introducing the Free-Market Educational Economy

With the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other new educational entrepreneur programs, the integrity of American higher education is at risk. To be clear, I do see value in some of these developments, but only if we professors take an interest in their implementation. We must monitor their progress and push back when we see that the free market of educational entrepreneurship begins to compromise the integrity of the systems and of the people it purports to advance.

Because compromising is what the free market does. Regardless of any benevolent intentions, when it becomes all about making money and when a product enters the cutthroat world of pinching pennies to beat a competitor, it’s easy to toss integrity out the window. It’s easy to cut corners and compromise best practices to outmatch one’s opponent, which is essentially the definition of free-market competition.

Adjuncts have seen this kind of competitive compromise for a couple decades now—been the victims of it, that is. To stay competitive in a global education market, especially when the federal government is cutting funding left and right, university administrators have had to make some difficult decisions. Unfortunately, the easiest way to control costs is to cut the labor budget. Because it’s easy, many leaders often mistakenly take this path, at the expense of morale and productivity. Labor will accept these cuts, but only to a certain point.

Up until the past year or two, we adjuncts have accepted cuts and subpar working conditions for the good of the company, so to speak. We have continued to teach because we care about it and know that someone has to do it. And we have persevered through the meager pay, the removal of benefits, the layoffs, the cutbacks, because we believe in the system and want our students and our educational system to succeed. So we have listened quietly to the reasons given explaining why we lost a class or why we won’t be eligible for health insurance this semester. But, as you may have noticed, labor is beginning to get restless. Those of us working off the tenure track love what we do, but it’s time we start making a living doing it.

My “it’s time” is not a threat but a call to action. In no way do I mean to suggest that the nontenured are in some kind of competition with the tenured. Sometimes we forget that and get caught up in a false “us versus them” dichotomy, to which I refuse to adhere. There is no zero-sum game that takes from one to give to the other. Sometimes it is framed that way, but this framing is by design. Be careful not to fall into that trap of thinking.

Tenured and nontenured faculty members have been working together for years toward building a more equitable and sustainable future for all of us, and that collaborative spirit has continued with the growth of the Adjunct Project. Tenured professors like Seth Kahn, of West Chester University, have devoted themselves to this cause and demonstrated that helping one another helps us all.

Nor do I wish, despite some of my rhetoric, to threaten administrators. I know times are tough and budgets must be balanced, and I don’t have any illusions about the difficulty of that task. All I am suggesting is that using the labor budget as the first line of defense against making cuts is destructive. We need to find other ways. We adjuncts have begun to work on finding them.

Paulo Freire writes that “it is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (44). Unfortunately, things won’t change without pressure from below, but this is a process—a negotiation—and everyone can walk away satisfied. There is now a critical mass of faculty members who are interested in finding these answers. Freire again: “When they discover within themselves the yearning . . . they perceive that this yearning can be transformed into reality only when the same yearning is aroused in their comrades” (47).

This yearning in my adjunct colleagues has taken root in the study I developed known as the Adjunct Project, which I designed to gather information on this shift toward the commodification of the faculty. The data from the project are entirely crowdsourced. That is, they were gathered collaboratively as adjuncts entered information about working conditions at their respective colleges on a live Google document. To date, over two thousand entries have been added, and the document has been viewed close to two hundred thousand times.1 Here I explore the Adjunct Project’s data, as well as a look at the ramifications that data might have on future discussions of the university’s precarious status as a commodity of the free-market economy.

Adjunct Project Background

According to the American Association of University Professors’ latest report on the economic status of the profession, more than 70% of American professors are now off the tenure track (It’s Not Over Yet). In other words, almost three-fourths of higher education faculty members are employed in untenured—tenuous—positions, having no job security and no voice. Most work for unlivable salaries and receive no health insurance, no retirement contribution, or any other benefits commonly associated with professional jobs in the United States. And each year it’s getting worse. Non-tenure-track appointments climbed 7.6% in recent years alone (It’s Not Over 7). The profession of college professor is becoming less and less sustainable.

But we all know that; it’s old news. The question I ask you now is, How do we fix it?

This trend is not going to reverse on its own. It took me only one year as an adjunct, during which I observed the warning signs and witnessed the mistreatment of my adjunct colleagues across the country, to recognize that something needs to change. Stopping a pattern this pervasive will not be easy. It requires a collaborative effort, consisting of discussion, data collection, and action.

In late January 2012, I was invited to attend a summit meeting in Washington, DC, hosted by the New Faculty Majority (NFM), a national coalition dedicated to “improving the quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty” (“NFM Mission”). It was at this summit meeting that I first met Michael Bérubé and Maria Maisto. I was to cover the weekend on Twitter and on my Web site (“NFM ’12 Post Two”).

After the summit, I returned home to Georgia pondering the problem of how to connect adjuncts both nationally and locally. A large component of this problem is the relative invisibility of adjuncts. Because adjuncts are often prohibited from participating in departmental meetings and governance, they rarely have an opportunity to connect with one another or with their department. On top of that, many teach at more than one school to piece together a living, so they aren’t able to spend much time on any one campus socializing. Finally, like dancesintheruins, adjuncts are afraid to become visible or to speak up because their jobs almost always depend on keeping quiet and doing as they’re told.

Finally, I came up with an idea I thought would address these issues of subalternity, disconnectedness, and anonymity: to create a collaborative Google document that would be completely open and editable for anyone who viewed it (Boldt, “Crowdsourcing”). I would crowdsource information that had been swept under the rug for decades (pay, benefits, contracts, etc.) by asking the adjuncts themselves to report it. No one knows a person’s working conditions better than the one who lives them every day. I set up the document as a Google spreadsheet, entered my own information for adjunct conditions at the University of Georgia (which, incidentally, are quite good compared with those of most schools), and began sharing. When I created the spreadsheet, I remember thinking how great it would be if we could get a sampling of one to two hundred different schools.

To my surprise, the response was overwhelming. Within a week we had crossed the thousand mark. It was strikingly clear that adjuncts across the country were eager for a data repository such as this one. Social media fueled the spreadsheet’s rapid expansion; people wanted to add their schools and to see how they compared with others.

We know now, based on the data gleaned from the spreadsheet, that the national average for instructor pay is less than $3,000 per course. In many cases, it is far less: a quick scan of the spreadsheet reveals that there are adjuncts who earn closer to $2,000. Calculating these per-course pay rates annually exposes the stark reality that the average adjunct who teaches a 5/5 course load is barely earning $20,000 a year. And that’s without health insurance or a retirement package.

Free Market and Loss of Bargaining Power

The data gleaned from the Adjunct Project indicate that the university faculty labor system is headed in the same direction as mainstream, profit-driven business culture—toward free-market competition. People—teachers—matter only to the extent that they possess an exchange value. Most colleges will release fully employed adjuncts heedlessly, even if the adjuncts have garnered stellar teaching evaluations. I have seen it happen. I’ve talked to adjuncts who lost their jobs with less than a week’s notice and no severance.

In this new free-market faculty model, which necessitates the exploitation of human capital, we are presented with an obvious problem to any department that relies heavily on adjunct labor—a department of English or other languages, for example. The whole department’s existence is subjected to the mercy of market forces and to the budget in a way that is not true for departments with mostly tenured faculty members.

The rise of MOOCs and of other forms of online learning poses a serious threat to the preservation of departments that are not made up mostly of tenured faculty members, because MOOCs capitalize on the vulnerability of faculty members entering this free market of educational entrepreneurship. If an entire department can be cut and replaced by a MOOC or absorbed by other departments under the guise of writing-intensive or cross-disciplinary composition, it will eventually happen. When that time comes, if 75% (or more) of the department is made up of adjuncts, there will be nothing anyone can do about it. By allowing our departments to be staffed contingently, we become complicit in their dismantling.

Beyond that, running a department full of underpaid and exploited adjuncts is really just a disgraceful business model. The new composition department, for example, might as well be a temp agency. It’s time to stop it and take back our departments and our dignity and to show some respect to our teaching colleagues.

The first step toward turning this trend is to demand contracts for our faculty members. We should never accept or offer anything less than an annual contract. Contract length should rise with seniority—one year, then three, five, and so on. Adjuncts are professionals, so they should not have to reapply for their jobs every semester and wonder whether they will be able to pay their rent in January.

The other part of the equation is simple. Adjuncts should be paid a living wage in exchange for their work. In the past, most adjuncts were otherwise employed and taught one or two classes to supplement that income, but not now. If universities are going to employ adjuncts with a full-time course load, those adjuncts should be paid accordingly. Again, it’s time to stop pretending that these people are receiving a living wage.

The MLA has recommended $7,090 for every semester-long course (“MLA Recommendation”), which is more than double the national average, according to the Adjunct Project data. Clearly, adjunct pay will vary according to region, cost of living, and institution, but there is no excuse for any school to pay an adjunct less than $4,000 per course.

What Happens If the Precariousness Continues?

Some statistics taken from the Adjunct Project give an idea of how bad things are getting.

  • English departments. Almost two-thirds of all the respondents listed their department as English, composition, writing, humanities, or some variation of these fields—well over a thousand entries. The next most cited department is sociology, with about a hundred.
  • Lack of contract. Only 86 people out of 1,891 said that they have a contract longer than one semester or term. In other words, over 95% of the adjuncts who participated in the project are working with basically no contract.
  • Average pay. The figure of $2,900 per course is skewed slightly by a few of the high-paying outliers, but even taking that into consideration, average pay for a 5/5 course load is less than $30,000 a year. Keep in mind that the MLA recommends more than double that.
  • Health insurance. Just 318 out of the 1,891 respondents have health insurance either immediately or eventually. So about 83% of respondents indicated that they do not have health insurance through their employer.

English departments are by far the worst offenders in the exploitation of adjunct professors. To make matters worse, we English departments have created for ourselves a workforce that has no security and no long-term future, thus we have effectively built on a foundation of sand and have zero bargaining power in the university economy.

The MLA has taken steps in the right direction. The recommendations, this forum—all good things. The Chronicle of Higher Education has also begun to get involved in the cause. We have collaborated on the development of an Adjunct Project 2.0 that takes the data to a whole new level, making them searchable and sortable.

The point is that we are building toward something here: a new era of strength and solidarity for university faculty members. We’ve taken some good steps. Now we need to advance beyond the dialogue and start making changes.

Can we turn this trend around? Yes, we can. I don’t pretend to be an expert in university politics or in collective bargaining—I’ve never participated in either. In fact, as you may know, this is only my third year as an adjunct. I am new to the system, but I can tell you what I have observed and that if something doesn’t change, our departments are going to end up in serious trouble. I can tell you that universities are looking to save money every way possible in this new economy, which includes cutting entire departments, absorbing them into other disciplines, or replacing them with cheaper online alternatives. Finally, I can tell you, on the basis of data from the Adjunct Project, that thousands of our colleagues are being mistreated and exploited as victims of the encroaching free market and that this mistreatment threatens not only adjuncts but entire departments.

The key to solving this crisis of faculty labor is collaboration, as we have seen with the Adjunct Project. Thousands of adjuncts and their tenured colleagues have joined together to declare that the situation is not acceptable. One might not expect tenured faculty members to support the project, considering the rhetoric that often pits full-time professors against part-time professors, but the game is not zero-sum. Arguments espousing that logic are merely propagating the “divide and conquer” method of dominating faculty politics.

Faculty members have a common interest, the pursuit and the sharing of knowledge, so a threat to one of us is a threat to all of us. The Adjunct Project has opened an international forum for discussion, and that forum welcomes anyone who is interested in joining it—tenured and nontenured alike.

Notes

This essay is based on my “First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments”; Order of Education; Order of Educ., 19 Oct. 2012; Web; 22 July 1013; <http://www.orderofeducation.com/first-year-commodity-the-adjunct-professor-labor-crisis-in-composition-departments/>.

  1. These and other figures were accurate at the time of the MLA convention in January 2013.

Works Cited

Boldt, Joshua A. “Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions.” Order of Education. Order of Educ., 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 May 2013. <http://www.orderofeducation.com/crowdsourcing-a-compilation-of-adjunct-working-conditions/>.

———. “NFM ’12 Post Two: Stop Looking for the Treasure Map, and Start Laying Bricks.” Order of Education. Order of Educ., 29 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 July 2013. <http://www.orderofeducation.com/nfm-12-post-two-stop-looking-for-the-treasure-map-and-start-laying-bricks/>.

Dancesintheruins. “Flash Tales.” Adjunct Project. Adjunct Project, 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 July 2013. <http://www.adjunctproject.com/flash-tales/>.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970. Print.

It’s Not Over Yet: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2010–2011. American Association of University Professors. AAUP, n.d. Web. 15 May 2013. <http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/2010-11-Economic-Status-Report.pdf>.

“MLA Recommendation on Minimum Per-Course Compensation for Part-Time Faculty Members.” Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2013. Web. 16 July 2013. <http://www.mla.org/mla_recommendation_course>.

“NFM Mission.” New Faculty Majority. New Faculty Majority, n.d. Web. 16 July 2013. <http://www.newfacultymajority.info/equity/learn-about-the-issues/mission-a-identity/nfm-mission-statement>.

Joshua A. Boldt is instructor of English at the University of Georgia. A version of this paper was presented at the 2013 MLA convention in Boston.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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