by P.D. Lesko
“I don’t think that people in power can be convinced by words or articles. They will never give it up by choice.”—Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian activist, feminist, physician
The plea du jour to address the two-tier labor system within higher education is for tenured and tenure-line college faculty to “stand up” for adjunct and part-time teaching faculty. The argument is that in doing so full-time faculty will benefit. This is yet another wild pitch in the dirt from activists and essayists. It’s a plea that completely ignores reality. Former tenure-track faculty member Oliver Lee wrote about that reality in an essay published by AdjunctNation in 2015, “Among the handful of academics who do land tenure-track jobs, one finds little sympathy for the less fortunate. Lip service, to be sure, but academia is a bloodless, endless game of Survivor in which every winner is saying to himself or herself, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ — or, more likely, ‘Sucks for them, but what can you do?’ No matter how bad things are for the adjuncts, they’re effectively non-people to their ostensible colleagues. We won’t save you.”
Despite this reality, Joe Ramsey recently published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he writes,
“Imagine if tenured folks a generation ago, or those protected by tenure today, recognized that by allowing university administrations to create more and more teaching positions without benefits, livable salaries, job security, or support for research, they were ultimately undermining their own power on campus, as well as the future of their profession….Wouldn’t we be in a radically different place today?“
Imagine? Why yes, Academe would be a radically different place today: Fantasy Land. Tenured and tenure-line faculty would have voluntarily given up their power so that individuals whom they routinely portray in letters to the editor and essays as professional inferiors could have some of that power. Tenure-line and tenured faculty would have voluntarily forked over billions of dollars in faculty compensation funds they could have been paid over the past 30 years to adjunct faculty. The faculty who wield the most power within their own institutions, would have allowed people whom they view as having little invested professionally to have more say in the curricula and academic policies.
Ramsey writes, “Having failed to fight together for the next generation (with too few exceptions), tenured professors now find their numbers, and thus their power, dwindling, and their service loads rising.”
Ramsey’s statement ignores reality. According to data gathered by TIAA, the tenured professoriate is still primarily white and male. The number of college faculty hired since 2003 has risen from 993,000 to 1.5 million and four times more woman work in full-time faculty positions in our colleges and universities as did in 1979. Between 1979 and 2013, according to IPEDS data, the number of full-time faculty rose by 31 percent. There are more full-time faculty than there were in 1979, but those full-time faculty make up a smaller percentage of the 1.5 million faculty employed in the U.S. The authors of the TIAA study write, “While the number of head count, or overall, faculty grew by about 65 percent over the 20-year period studied, the number of part-time faculty more than doubled (115 percent).”
As for Ramsey’s assertion about the need for full-time faculty to join forces with their contingent colleagues in order to shore up power, not everyone agrees that the outcome would benefit full-time faculty. In the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of the AAUP’s magazine Academe, Leslie Bary writes in a piece titled, “Faculty Governance in the New University,” that, “tenure has been reduced to the job security that the public already imagined it to be. In addition, collegial efforts to include those serving on contingent appointments in governance may weaken and not strengthen the collective position of the faculty.”
The truth? No one in power voluntarily gives it up.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course tenure-line and tenured faculty should have been screaming bloody murder in their tightly-controlled Faculty Senates, at their departmental meetings to which adjuncts were not invited, and in frank and honest, well-argued essays published in the mainstream and higher education media. But they had good reasons not to do so, and over the past three decades the percentage of college faculty off the tenure-line has risen from 30 to 70 percent.
The fact is, since 1979 tenured and tenure-line faculty have benefited enormously both professionally and materially from the rise in the number of teaching faculty employed off the tenure-track. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 alone, U.S. colleges and universities spent $559 billion. In that same year, colleges spent, on average, $27,000 per student on instruction, or $420 billion. Since 1979, then, tenured and tenure-track faculty in the U.S. have earned trillions of dollars in pay, and enjoyed more trillions of dollars in benefits such as health care, and other kinds of insurance.
Trillions earned in compensation, and since 1979 tenured and tenure-track faculty have been assigned average teaching loads of two or three courses per semester. The general public views this arrangement as highly suspect. Higher education has a ready answer: Faculty have had time to think, write and research, to attend conferences and other professional development programs. All of this has been done in an effort to boost student “success.”
In a 2015 blog post on InsideHigherEd.com titled “What is a typical teaching load for university faculty” the author seeks to school the uninformed rubes who pay the bills about why a 2-2 load is not a cakewalk:
“It seems ludicrous to suggest faculty teaching a 2-2 are only working six hours per week, but that’s precisely what some critics want to insinuate. As anyone who teaches will tell you, the amount of time in the classroom is only a piece of the time needed to even adequately teach (to say nothing of teaching well). Preparation, grading, meeting with students, and student correspondence take far more time than the actual hours of instruction.”
A typical teaching load for “university faculty?” The IHE blogger doesn’t bother to mention adjunct faculty or point out the fact that some adjunct faculty cobble together full-time part-time jobs by teaching 7, 8, 9 even 10 courses per semester. The writer not only neglects to mention the majority of college faculty in his “lesson,” his blog entry is a perfect example of the navel-gazing that is rampant among full-time faculty.
Within higher education, what has been firmly established is a two-tier system of faculty employment. One could argue it’s really a three tier system, with tenured faculty at the top of the food chain. The system is pernicious in its pay gap perpetuation, inequality, sexism and racism. The majority of those employed off the tenure-track are women and more minorities teach off the tenure-track than on it. It should come as no surprise that in some instances full-time faculty earn ten times what their part-time colleagues earn for the same work, according to data on faculty compensation collected by the AAUP.
Now, adjunct activists along with a few full-timers, who enjoy an average annual pay of over $77,000 and the protection of due process thanks to their employment statuses, are calling for full-timers to stand up for their non-tenured colleagues, because sharing the power and wealth is in the best interests of everyone. Sharing the power and the wealth is not in the best interests of those who have the power and the wealth, and this is precisely why this latest call to action will—by and large—fall on deaf ears. There’s another reason.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that between 2010 and 2015, 10.5 million undergraduate students dropped out of for-profit and non-profit colleges and universities in the U.S. Adjuncts are routinely (and conveniently) blamed.
I wrote this in a 2011 op-ed:
Over the course of the past three years, adjunct and part-time faculty have been systematically scape-goated for any number of problems plaguing the Academy. Students dropping out like flies? Why, blame the adjuncts. As I wrote in a 2009 blog entry for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “College administrators rend their garments and wail about student retention. Turns out, though, fretting over that issue is much like fretting about fried food: No matter your depth of concern, at the end of the day no one wants to believe that gorging on French fries is unhealthy.”
Yes, adjuncts impact student retention rates, but not because they’re adjunct or part-time faculty off the tenure-track. Adjuncts impact student retention rates, because of the way they are (or are not) supported by their institutions. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility for rising drop-out rates rests squarely on the shoulders of college administrators who still believe that it’s fine to hire by the seat of their pants, let students decide which adjuncts stay by virtue of teaching evaluations, and treat faculty development as if it were a perk for full-time faculty only, and not a requirement of all faculty.
Over just a five year period (2010-2015), individuals and government pumped over $2.5 trillion dollars into a higher education system in which 10.5 million undergraduates dropped out. This demonstrates there is little self-policing or governmental accountability built into the system. This massive failure hasn’t pushed full-time faculty, politicians and higher education administrators to come to grips with the fact that higher education in the U.S. is facing a crisis of epic proportions, including reliance on an ineffective, two-tier system of faculty employment.
Now, the latest thinking on a critical aspect of the higher education crisis is that full-timers ought to “stand up” for their non-tenured lackeys, because doing so will benefit the full-time faculty. If you’re not outraged, you should be. This idea is not only ridiculous from historical and psycho-social perspectives, it’s insultingly stupid.
What’s the solution? Short of someone who toiled for many years as an underpaid and precarious non-tenured faculty member being elected to the U.S. Congress or the White House, the solution is a national union for non-tenured faculty. I don’t mean a union which would politely collaborate with or let itself be co-opted by the existing higher education unions. I mean a new union with the ferocity of IWW founder Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. A union prepared to play hardball with colleges and universities and the existing national education unions. A national union ready to go after non-tenured members regardless of union affiliation. Yes, I’m suggesting a national union for non-tenured faculty that would have no compunctions about poaching members from the other higher education unions. The solution is a union just for the nation’s adjunct and part-time faculty members that would be prepared to go to the mat on behalf of its members in order to take the power and wealth away from the minority (full-time, tenure-line and tenured faculty) and shift more of it to the majority. Oddly enough, I believe such a national union for non-tenured faculty would also be able to reverse the long-term reliance on precarious, poorly-supported, non-tenured faculty. Such a union would, logically, push for the creation of more tenure-line jobs for its members.
It will take a revolution to force colleges and universities to stop colluding with (and buying the complicity of) tenured and tenure-line faculty in this two/three-tier system of faculty employment, to stop universities paying unequal compensation to women and men doing the exact same jobs, to close the huge pay gaps and improve equity.
Correction: Joe Ramsey is the author of the essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. That piece was misattributed to James Yang. We apologize to Mr. Ramsey for our error.