How American Universities Have Destroyed Scholarship in the U.S.


by Debra Leigh Scott

Put simply, universities traditionally have pursued a three-prong mission: 1) to provide excellent educational opportunities, 2) to support scholarly research and study, and 3) to encourage both professional and community service.

There has been a lot written recently about how the adjunct situation has negatively impacted our students’ education – and this blog will be addressing that extensive problem in a future post. But it is the second of the three-prong mission I’d like to talk about now, since I’m not seeing as much attention focused on this equally serious problem.

The adjunct labor abuse problem is becoming more widely reported: Seventy-five percent of America’s college faculty earn less than $25, 000 a year. Often hired one semester at a time with no healthcare or retirement benefits, paid per course an average of $2700, faculty are now academia’s migrant workers.

Historically, it has been the responsibility of our institutions of higher learning to provide financial and professional support for our country’s scholars, whose work extends far beyond the classroom and its instructional activities. It’s an essential part of the university’s role to support the nation’s intellectual class in their ongoing research, study, publishing and continued learning. Our scholars are the very life’s blood of an academic culture, and their work benefits society in a great variety of ways. Professors are public servants. The value of their research, rigor and learnedness lies at the heart of the traditional university’s very existence. When a university is fulfilling this part of its mission, faculty members are employed in full-time positions which make such rigorous research and scholarly work possible. Today, however, departments employ a small fraction of full-time faculty. The rest of their population is made up of short-term contract hires whose precarious, low-wage conditions render their scholarship largely impossible.

The few “lucky” tenured, or tenure-track faculty members receive more complete support. Often, they are able to research and complete books more quickly. They produce articles more frequently. They receive university reimbursement for attendance at conferences where they can present papers and collaborate with fellow scholars. But for the seventy-five percent of college faculty off the tenure-track in those one-semester contract positions, that life seems like an impossible dream. For most adjuncts, the time it takes to research and write a book – or even a small article – is time they don’t have.

Adjunct professor, Stephanie P.*, in California, states: “I drive 350 miles a week to three schools. I spend at least three hours a day driving to and from school. I spend at least four hours a day preparing when I am not teaching and two hours a day on a teaching day. This term, my car was hit by an SUV and was totaled. I have worked for various publishers as a content expert and started writing a textbook, but have not had the time to finish.”

Stephanie has been teaching for nearly ten years, and has yet to finish a book. Our 1.3 million adjunct faculty scholars nationally are so over-extended, so underpaid, so stressed that the ability to find not only the time, but the emotional and psychological capital necessary to focus, to research, to write, is little more than a fantasy.

In all academic areas, scholars are struggling to survive in order to continue their work. More and more of them are fleeing the universities, finding a life of poverty and corporatized values intolerable. For those who suffer to stay, and those who go, the outcome to America’s scholarship is the same. We are losing millions of works of scholarship; we are failing to move scholarship forward when so many voices are silenced.

Many people outside of academia don’t see the work performed beyond our classroom activities. They don’t understand the amount of dedication and labor involved in researching and writing, in working as an expert in any particular field. That is why the “lazy tenured professor” image has lasted for so long. Far too many people believe that professors spend about ten hours a week in classroom instruction, and the rest of the time lounging around their well-appointed homes, reading books and sipping wine.

But that image is no more accurate than it would be to suggest that trial lawyers work only when they are in court. There are hundreds of hours spent in research, writing, preparation, correspondence, conferencing, and professional development, all of which command significant time and energy in both the attorney’s and the scholar’s work life.   Although largely invisible, such work is essential to the full practice of both professions.

The life of a scholar, which on average requires ten years of preparative graduate study, is made up of intensive work in a particular discipline. Let’s provide a few examples, and say a graduate student in linguistics undertakes a course of study that focuses on the ancient languages of the Middle East, and a history graduate student focuses on the history of the First Persian Empire. Our linguistics graduate student writes and defends a dissertation on the ancient Nabataean language. Our history graduate student does a dissertation on the religions that existed during the reign of Cyrus the Great.

To many people, those areas of study would seem entirely useless. Who needs someone to spend ten years in order to understand a language that hasn’t been spoken in a thousand years? Who cares about dead religions practiced in a time of a dead emperor from the 5th Century B.C.?

But, in 1947, a Beduoin shepherd discovered clay jars in a cave near the Dead Sea which contained scrolls of indecipherable languages. Over the next ten years, discoveries of more of these scrolls were made. Our scholars in the Nabataean language were crucial. It was necessary for them to come together with scholars expert in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in order to begin to decode and translate the content of what would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most important discoveries in modern history. Our history expert on the religions of the reign of Cyrus the Great would come together with other historians, anthropologists, archeologists, materials experts, restorationists, scholars who do carbon dating, others who do paleographic dating. Teams of people, all with very narrow, “esoteric” learning, would work together for years and years to present the learning provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls to the world.

The discovery of these scrolls took place largely over the years from 1946 to 1957, but scrolls are still being discovered in the region to this day. Even in this new millennium, a variety of scholars continue to work on them. This series of discoveries has been the life’s work of many, many learned people in the very fields of study that have been so denigrated by the more corporatized university. What we see regularly now is the shutting down of such programs as ancient history or languages. Programs that focus on these kinds of knowledge are seen, in this new business-model climate as useless, unnecessary – in other words: not profitable.

If those scrolls were found today, would we have a new generation of scholars in these fields, trained and ready to uncover their secrets? Or, if those scholars existed at all, would they be scattered, living in poverty, working several low-wage, instructional jobs, or tending a retail counter, waiting tables, bartending, driving taxis? Driven from their fuller roles in the traditional university, would our scholars be able to devote a lifetime to such an enormous endeavor? I’m afraid that the answer is no. America’s corporatized university cultivates no continuation of such learning, but instead tends the bottom line. So, when discoveries of this sort are made now, there will be fewer American scholars to join with other learned people around the globe in order to do this work. And, as this “American model” of academic labor is picked up in European universities (which the EU is currently pushing), there may well be no one anywhere in the world able to work on such a project. Given that very real possibility, we must ask: Will future generations look back to this time and see another Dark Age?

Whether it is medical research, musicology, linguistics, art history, each field of study is a living, changing area of learning. The responsibility of our scholars is to stay engaged in their field, work with their colleagues from around the world, and then to bring their research and work out to the public through writing, lecturing, and teaching. The second prong of a university’s mission is to support that, through maintaining a full-time faculty, financially supported so that they have the ability to perform the work they’ve trained a decade and more to do.

As you would expect, the last generation of full-time professors was much more productive than this generation of adjunct professors. Dr. Ron G.*, an English professor from a university in Georgia, has written or edited thirty books, and countless articles over the course of a 50 year career that began in the late 1960s. His current university employer, eager to attract him to their campus, worked with him to design an entire interdisciplinary program around his life’s work.   Dr. Samuel L.*, a prolific religion scholar in D.C., over a 50 year career that began in the late 1950s, wrote or edited nearly thirty-five books, and established an international foundation named after himself. Just two scholars provided over sixty books, countless articles, an international foundation and a new interdisciplinary program.

If those scholars had been born a generation later, trapped in a lifetime of adjunct work, how much of that output would have been possible? Would they have been able to progress in their scholarship and their career? Would they have been able to create university programs, or establish world-renowned foundations? Of course not. We will never know the amount of scholarship that’s been lost in this shift to casualizing the work of our professors. But if you assume even a 50% reduction in the output of a full-time faculty professor and multiply that by the 1.3 million adjuncts, you begin to get a sense of the devastation. This is an invisible cost, suffered not only by the individual scholars themselves, but by the society in which we live.

So much of the activism currently taking place around the issues of faculty labor exploitation is focused – and of course it is a crucial first step – on restoring a professional wage scale and securing permanent positions for our university educators. But we simply CANNOT forget that part of what has been stolen from us is our profession itself. We can’t be scholars in the fullest sense if we are unable to research, to write, to present our ideas, to conference with fellow scholars in our fields, to present our work to the public. We can’t give our fullest measure of expertise and learning to society, which is one of the most significant roles we play as citizens and public intellectuals. The universities are cheating us by deprofessionalizing the faculty, that is certain. But it is cheating the entire country, robbing the people of the work we trained to do, not for ourselves, but for them. For the love of learning, for the love of scholarship, and for the love of future generations who will, I believe, one day, look back and see this as a dark age.

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