Fall 2018

Contingent Labor

Mentoring and Institutional Change

Two Species of Mentorship

A department where I used to teach as an adjunct held a speaker series immediately following the faculty meetings. While finding my seat before one such talk, I was chatting with a tenured faculty member who opined, “One great thing about being an adjunct is that you don’t have to attend these tedious faculty meetings!” Apparently this comment was intended to be amusing (she seemed surprised that I wasn’t amused), but it’s characteristic of a certain way in which faculty members relate to colleagues who are subordinate to them in the institutional hierarchy. The comment communicates that my exclusion from department meetings (and thus my disenfranchisement of both voice and vote over at least some of the conditions of my employment) was a source of levity and, moreover, that I should feel gratitude for that exclusion. It’s not the kind of comment that argues for a particular proposition (on the contrary, it’s a joke, not an argument—lighten up!); instead it disciplines the affective states of those subjected to exploitation and draws clear boundaries around how they are expected to feel about that exploitation.

While its true character usually isn’t so crudely conspicuous, this interaction illustrates in a dramatic form a kind of mentorship I’ll call adaptive mentorship. We can contrast it with a different illustration from my first day in a (nonacademic) union job: my steward approached me, introduced herself, and welcomed me to the union. She told me that I could come to her with any problems at work and that I had a legal right to union representation in any conversation with a supervisor that might lead to discipline. She invited me to a union meeting—where I would have both voice and vote and where both would matter because the union is directly democratically controlled by its members. She gave me my first taste of an organization in which people address one another as “brother” and “sister”—because we’re not just equals, we are also bound to defend one another even if we don’t like one another. In the union, we learn from the first day to recognize that our fates are not separate but intertwined, that we are stronger together, that we are locked in a conflict with forces that threaten the future of higher education, and that we will not win unless we stand up with and for one another.

. . . mentorship arrangements play a key role because that change will only happen from the bottom up.

This second anecdote is emblematic of what I’ll call transformative mentorship. In what follows, drawing on my experiences as an academic and a union organizer, I’ll flesh out the contrast between the two and then offer some practical suggestions for implementing transformative mentorship, which I believe is not merely better in a narrowly prudential sense but essential to the survival and flourishing of the enterprise of higher education.

I don’t mean for these anecdotes to imply that academics are jerks and nonacademics are saints. In my experience, every workplace has a similar measure of both. But any given person is likely to behave differently in different sets of institutional arrangements, and as a consequence those institutional arrangements have substantial overall effects. We therefore owe it to ourselves to adopt institutional arrangements that are best for carrying out the academic mission, and I would suggest that mentorship arrangements are a key part of doing so.

Similarly, faculty members often feel the administrators are the villains responsible for all of higher education’s problems. But it’s important to distinguish the people who occupy administrative positions (who, in my experience, are mostly perfectly nice, well-meaning people, just like everyone else) from those positions themselves. Administrators have a job to do, and the parameters within which they operate are determined by the array of institutional pressures acting on them. That job, among other things, requires extracting maximum productivity for minimum cost from employees, while maintaining maximum managerial flexibility. It’s those objectives that have produced the problems that face higher education (like the shift away from more-expensive tenure lines to contingent faculty), not some sort of vast conspiracy of demonic administrators. The task of institutional change thus requires changing that array of institutional pressures (or even the positions themselves) to remove the current perverse incentives and optimize the institution for carrying out its core academic mission. Here, again, mentorship arrangements play a key role because that change will happen only from the bottom up.

Contrasting Adaptive and Transformative Mentorship

From the faculty meeting anecdote with which I began, one might infer that adaptive mentorship, even if it’s not consciously malicious, requires a contemptuous attitude on the part of the mentor. But this is not the case. One of its more innocuous forms is advice about getting by or getting ahead. Those who have climbed the ladder tell you what you must do to reach the same height. But the advice, usually earnestly meant to benefit you, is meant to benefit you as an individual. And it presupposes, built into the worldview it drags along behind it, the idea that advancement in higher education is fundamentally about individual achievement: if you are smart enough or productive enough, you’ll make it.

But we can’t all make it when only thirty percent of us are in tenurable lines (“Trends”). To rise alone in that small minority is to gain privilege without any real power, perhaps best symbolized by a vote in a faculty senate—from which contingent faculty members are almost always excluded—but that can offer little more than pleas and advice to the university’s bosses. By contrast, transformative mentorship would aim to cultivate the insight that there is strength in numbers, that if we all rise together we can gain enough power to change how resources are allocated and thereby, for example, break through the artificial scarcity of full-time, permanent faculty lines (Bousquet).

Adaptive mentorship, however, is often grounded in a profound fatalism about the possibility of meaningful change. It’s easy for the status quo to seem immutable in a social institution that is such an old part of European societies—older than the modern nation-state, older than capitalism. Every slab of neo-Gothic architecture on campus seems to signify that nothing ever changes. Consequently, adaptive mentorship often aims to help you acclimate, to fit in. Hiring committees even talk over which candidates are the best fit for the job and seem baffled when a committee member questions whether the conformity built into the idea of fit might not be the opposite of what we should be looking to hire. And the new hire is given well-meaning guidance about fitting in, about unspoken rules of decorum, and sometimes about which colleagues or administrators to avoid being alone in a room with.

Transformative mentorship would treat discomfort with the status quo as a virtue to be cultivated. It’s an intellectual virtue because it brings a fresh perspective and promises to shake up the settled verities, which so often turn out to serve entrenched hierarchies. And that discomfort is also a moral virtue, since we live in an unhealthy society that expects students to mortgage their future for an education, that expects people who do the work of teaching and research to mostly live on poverty-level wages, and that permits the administration to spend lavishly on unsustainable growth, glamor construction, and its own remuneration. Discomfort with this state of affairs is a sign of health and hope for the future.

Transformative mentorship would treat discomfort with the status quo as a virtue to be cultivated.

Transformative mentorship derives its passionate optimism from an analysis of how the political economy of higher education actually functions. Anyone who slogs through the official statement associated with the bond issues that fund construction projects (our tax dollars at work!) can see for themselves that, even though the administration regularly presents the institution as beset by financial crises whenever talking to faculty members, the tune changes completely when the administration is addressing potential creditors. Suddenly they will brag about how much their market is capable of absorbing tuition increases, thus making them more creditworthy and putting smiles on the dour faces at Moody’s—and producing tuition increases at nearly triple the rate of inflation. Similarly, once we begin to see that an endowment is an incubator for financialization rather than a rainy-day fund, we can begin to develop strategies for change that are effective—strategies that worry more about who has power over institutional resources than about MOOCs or about robots grading essays. (If you have real democratic control over institutional resources, then automation frees up more time for you; if not, you’ll be more and more squeezed for time with each passing year.)

In that sense, the power analysis practiced in transformative mentorship has an educational function but also an emotional function. We fear even more what we cannot bear to contemplate. But if we see the way things really are and confront the worst that can happen, we experience in that confrontation itself a kind of overcoming. And once our confrontation with the reality of the situation combines with solidarity, with a plan to win that involves acting in concert with our colleagues, we begin to feel the real hope we must have to take action.

Of course, hope is only possible if we have not just an accurate understanding of the way things are but also an inspiring vision of how things ought to be. Faculty members almost invariably see shared governance as the solution, and the aspiration underlying that desire is for more democratic control over the institution. A union is a natural first step, since collective bargaining permits faculty members to bargain with administrators as equals, rather than from a position of subordination (Benjamin and Mauer; Yates).

But I’d like to suggest that we need an even more ambitious long-term vision. The union gives the faculty more power, and a good union is internally democratic. But having a democratic union doesn’t, alone, fully democratize the institution, which remains fundamentally oligarchic, like most workplaces. (Anderson aptly likens the typical workplace in the United States to a “communist dictatorship.”) Since ultimate authority rests with the board of trustees, the logical next step in democratization would be for trustees to be elected, in equal numbers, by and from four stakeholder groups: faculty, current students, staff, and alumni. The institution could then function just as it does now, but with elected oversight that would ensure that the administration has all the leadership it needs to stay squarely focused on the academic mission.

Once there’s similar democratization across the sector and across other employers in a particular regional economy, it will likely seem less necessary even to hire administrators from outside. Instead, leadership positions can be elected directly by the university community as a whole, from among its own ranks. To maintain real participatory democracy (not a purely representative democracy), those leaders would take their direction from the general membership (i.e., the university community), in whom ultimate sovereignty would be vested. The faculty would, for example, elect the provost from among its own ranks, would deliver the provost’s marching orders, would be able to recall the provost if necessary, and so on. Under these circumstances, all the institutional pressures on the provost would be directed toward advancing the academic mission by properly supporting the faculty, who carry out that mission.

Implementing Transformative Mentorship

In practical terms, then, if we want to reach these lofty goals and need transformative mentorship to get us there, what does transformative mentorship look like? While, like all strategic decisions, it will need to respond to the nuances of the local situation, there are some general prescriptions we can make.

First, mentors should be equals. Much of what is poisonous in adaptive mentorship results from the power imbalance between mentor and mentee. Instead, contingent faculty members should be mentored by other contingent faculty members, junior faculty members mentored by other junior faculty members (who can compare notes over the curiosity shop of conflicting advice about tenure they’ve accumulated in their travels around the department). To suppose that faculty members lower on the hierarchy always need someone higher to mentor them presupposes that faculty members come to the table empty and need to be filled up. On the contrary, bringing something to the table and sharing it is how we make sure that no one goes hungry.

Second, mentors should agitate around real problems, not seek to palliate a mentee’s discomfort or pretend the problems aren’t real. When faculty members are unhappy, there are usually good reasons for that unhappiness—often structural reasons that aren’t going to respond to individualistic solutions. That unhappiness is a reason to do something and should be faced squarely so that it’s seen as a motive for action. A junior faculty member who feels that the tenure standards are unclear should not be told, “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure to see you through.” The vagueness should be frankly acknowledged, and then the conversation should turn to how we might go about clarifying those tenure standards.

Third, mentors should educate colleagues about the real structure of the institution—about who has power and why, about where the money comes from and where it goes. Rarely is this knowledge more than latent in even the most senior members of the faculty; all of us have many cobwebs to clear before we can start looking out the attic window. A deep analysis of the institution in terms of power is essential if we are to distinguish real opportunities for collective action from specious boondoggles intended to keep faculty too busy to organize (“Oh, you’re angry about how the institution handles sexual assault cases? Thank you for your input! Let’s form a task force to investigate the issue and make recommendations to the provost’s office. Perhaps you’d be willing to serve on it and coauthor the report . . . ?”). And that analysis can also reveal the opportunities faculty members have to organize and push back against the institutional forces that keep things going as they are.

Fourth, mentors should create opportunities to participate with their colleagues in building real power. People don’t learn that things can be different by someone delivering an airtight argument to that effect. They learn it through experience. And that means you need to start where they are and ask them to take one step outside their comfort zone. If mentorship is a practice of cultivating participation in a shared process of fixing the problems we all recognize, rather than an exercise in muddling through, we can start moving toward the democratic control that will be necessary for the long-term sustainability of higher education.


Works Cited

Anderson, Elizabeth. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Kindle ed., Princeton UP, 2017.

Benjamin, Ernst, and Michael Mauer, editors. Academic Collective Bargaining. Modern Language Association and American Association of University Professors, 2006.

Bousquet, Marc. “The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible.” Social Text, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, pp. 81–104. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/31918.

“Trends in the Academic Labor Force, 1975–2015.” American Association of University Professors, Mar. 2017, www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/Academic%20Labor%20Force%20Trends%201975-2015.pdf.

Yates, Michael D. Why Unions Matter. 2nd ed., Kindle ed., Monthly Review Press, 2009.

Robin J. Sowards is a union organizer and researcher with the United Steelworkers. He is also an adjunct lecturer at Chatham University.

2 comments on “Mentoring and Institutional Change”

  • This is flat-out brilliant. Would you please apply to be the President of my academic institution? (The position is open, but not for long. Headhunters are busy looking for a new oligarch.) The vision in this essay is breath-taking.

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