Finding Myself in the Thick of It

I have been away from serious blogging for a while now, and I’ve been missing it, but my life has been turbulent lately and there just hasn’t been the time to reflect that I need in order to write. I am sitting right now in the Starbucks around the corner from the gym where I work out, where I am very happy to be working out this morning for the first time in more than a week. I’ve been sick with a respiratory infection that I started yesterday to shake for real. Before that, I was consumed with making sure I got all my paper grading and other end-of-semester work done on time, since I fell very far behind while my grandmother was dying. Now I am in the thick of another crisis, this one at the college where I teach, where it seems pretty clear that our new president and board of trustees are hell bent on decimating the full-time faculty and transforming us into something more along the lines of Phoenix University than what it has been: one of the premier, two-year liberal arts institutions in the country. He has done this mostly under the guise of having to close the huge budget gap we are facing–and we are facing a huge budget gap; there are painful cuts that need to be made–but the disdain, and even contempt, he has expressed for the full-time faculty in making the cuts he has made suggests that the budget is not his only agenda.

I am not going to go into too much detail about the specifics of the situation, partly because it would take an awful lot of explanation for people who don’t know anything about the place where I work and partly because so many things are still in flux that I–someone who is not authorized to speak officially for the faculty–don’t want to cause problems for the people working on those issues. One detail that I can talk about, however, is the fact that, at the end of the spring semester, the president fired all 66 full-time faculty who were working on temporary contracts, nearly 10% of our full-timers. A temporary contract is the one you get, at my college anyway, before you are switched to a tenure track line and the president is within his rights to dismiss anyone on a temporary contract without cause. Nonetheless–and I am going to skip over a whole lot of local politics involved with what this president did because it involves details of our contract, the nature of faculty governance at my institution and what the history of faculty-administration relations have been–nonetheless, it is worth taking a close look at the implications and consequences of what he did, even if he was within his right to do it.

To start, consider that 66 faculty represent, at a minimum, 6,000 classroom seats that will not have instructors for the Fall. Those seats will need to be taught by someone, which means that the college will have to hire more adjuncts and/or–but it is most likely “and”–increase class size across the campus, and even then I don’t know if the college will be able to adjust in order to make sure those seats have instructors. If we can’t, that means there will be a significant chunk of students that we will not be able to serve; if we end up with class-size increases–of which we have already had one in order to address budget issues–teaching and learning will suffer, and they will suffer in ways that are perhaps particular to community colleges, where we do not have the huge lectures that exist at four year schools and where professors do not have graduate students to help with grading and other classroom tasks, including, sometimes, the teaching itself. There is, in other words, a lot to be concerned about in terms of the effect laying all these people off will have on the college’s ability to serve the community it is our mission to serve.

As disturbing to me, though in a different way and on a different scale, is the way in which these layoffs will require us to become more dependent on adjunct instructors than we have been. This is disturbing to me not because I think adjuncts are not good teachers; they are as good or as bad as any other group of teachers. More, I have tremendous respect for their dedication to both the profession of teaching and their field of study, because an adjunct’s life is much harder than mine. They are, as a whole, perhaps the most exploited workers in all of academia, and the fact that they nonetheless choose to cobble together a living from teaching part time at (usually) two or three (or sometimes more) different colleges and to keep up with their field of study is really quite amazing. Yet the fact that they are so fully (and, frankly, easily) exploited makes the ways in which colleges and universities are, nationwide, coming to rely on them more and more unconscionable, and it disturbs me to know that my college might be headed in that direction.

I am aware that arguing for less reliance on adjuncts means, at least implicitly, arguing for less work for adjuncts; and I am aware that this is problematic for a whole host of reasons, some of them connected to the individual livelihoods of the people who are adjunct instructors and some of them connected to the nature of the academic job market, in which many people often get the experience they need to be hired full time by working as an adjunct. To agree that the “adjunct problem,” as it were, needs to be comprehensively and systematically addressed, however, should not be to deny that there are serious problems when colleges reduce the numbers of full time faculty and replace them with adjuncts, as if teaching is the only thing that full time faculty do.

At my school, it is the full time faculty who hire and fire; it is the full time faculty who do the work of curriculum development; of handling grievances; of student advisement; of advising student clubs; of most of the mentoring that gets done; of establishing, in other words, maintaining and growing the educational and extra-curricular infrastructure of the college itself. And while I know that we have a degree of faculty governance that many other schools do not, the fact is that full time faculty at other colleges perform a similar function. It is the full time faculty who put the community in community college, not because adjuncts are less able or less qualified or even less committed, but because adjuncts–given the structure of their lives–almost never have enough time. More, there is no reason for adjuncts to have the commitment that full-timers do to the institutions where they teach. Adjunct positions are enrollment-dependent; they get no tenure, no benefits; and they inevitably have to split their attention (and their loyalty) between and among the different institutions where they teach. They may be motivated to sit on the committees in which full timers get the work of running the college done, but adjuncts have no incentive to do so. Committee work does not get them a raise, does not get them promoted. I would agree that a system should be worked out where adjuncts do have incentive to sit on committees, but it doesn’t exist now, and I can guarantee you that my college president is not thinking about instituting one, not when he is hoping to use adjuncts to cut costs.

A college–just like a high school, just like an elementary school–is, or at least I am convinced it ought to (continue to) be, more than a collection of classrooms in which teaching is delivered; it is, or should be, a community of people learning to become, among other things, engaged and employable citizens, and that kind of learning requires faculty who can make commitments to students and to the institution where they work beyond the teaching they do in the classroom. There is, in other words, a good deal in my college president’s decision to fire nearly 10% of the full time faculty, not least of which is the way in which his decision essentially guts the next 20-30 years of the kind of work I have been describing that would have been performed by those fired faculty members.

As you can tell, I am angry about this, and I am aware that I have probably reduced the complexity of the issue because I am angry; but I do think that people should be very concerned about a system of higher education that is becoming increasingly reliant on contingent faculty. It is not something we ought to let happen simply because it costs less than what we have now. It’s important to remember: You really do get what you pay for.

Cross posted on It’s All Connected.


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15 Responses to Finding Myself in the Thick of It

  1. 1
    Mandolin says:

    I know this is not necessarily the most helpful response, but *hugs*

  2. It is a wonderful response, Mandolin. Thanks!

  3. 3
    Alana says:

    I have nothing helpful to say to you, except that (as I know you know) it’s not just your university, it’s everywhere in HE, and every time I think we’ve hit rock bottom someone rolls up with a jackhammer and bunch of shovels. And you are (in my own deeply biased opinion) absolutely right to be angry.

    One glimmer of light for me is watching the reactions of students I taught at my former university–my students, and students I never would have expected to turn into activists. They have been calm, mature, constructive… and unyielding. And I think if they manage the awkward trick of growing up and hanging on to their principles and (this is the really hard part) managing to find themselves in charge of anything, ever, then I’ll have reason to hope that we might just all be OK.

    And when that blessed day comes, I solemnly swear I will never look upon departmental and university administration as a thankless distraction from teaching and research. Never again.

  4. 4
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Without knowing much about your college, are you sure you know what is driving the change? In addition to the variety of teacher blogs I read I find it interesting to read blogs like these: to also understand some of the administrative and back end financial stuff. IOW, is the something that the admin is dong because he’s a picky idiot who dislikes the faculty, or is it something he is doing because otherwise the school will have to close its doors in 2017, and you simply aren’t in the budgetary loop?

    And as he often notes, it’s much more difficult at 2 year colleges, which often have the same diversity of needs as four year institutions but with less overall funding to play with.

  5. G&W:

    [I]s the something that the admin is dong because he’s a picky idiot who dislikes the faculty, or is it something he is doing because otherwise the school will have to close its doors in 2017, and you simply aren’t in the budgetary loop?

    The question is not whether we need to make cuts; we need to make cuts. There was never any question that some people were going to lose their jobs; everyone I have spoken to in the faculty leadership understood that. But it is also clear that he did not have to eliminate an entire generation of new hires; otherwise, he would not have been able to restore–with faculty prodding, of course–the 13 or so lines as quickly as he did. We are a faculty that has, historically, worked very well with the administration in difficult financial times. We agreed to give back 2 weeks salary in one contract; we’ve taken freezes in others; agreed to no seniority steps in others; and there have been other compromises as well. We have also compromised on workload issues; we managed to reach a workable compromise with the previous administration on how to manage class size, so that class sizes remained manageable but they were still able to overload when enrollment numbers made that necessary. From an internal point of view, our issue has a lot more to do with the way he has shut us out of the process than with the fact that he is making difficult and painful cuts. As well, I know from sources that I trust that our new president has said things that make it clear his agenda is to move us in the direction I talked about in the post; as I’m sure you will understand, I just don’t want to say those things publicly as yet. Nonetheless, the specifics of my institution’s issues aside, the question I raise in the post about what it means to have a system of higher education taught more and more by adjunct faculty is one we really ought to be struggling with.

  6. 6
    Simple Truth says:

    I worked for a private nationally-accredited college before I moved to the university I work for now, both times as computer technical staff. As such, you tend to be privy to a lot of weird details, esp. when you have to know to lock someone’s account out as they’re being called in to find out they’re fired. It’s a little disconcerting at times…but I digress.
    I watched the other college I worked for poison itself with adjunct faculty. It created resentment among full-timers, who the brunt of all the “special duties” that you outlined fell to, and exploited adjuncts, who received far less pay for classes and fewer benefits (I’m not sure if they even got health insurance – I think not.) Teaching quality fell as well. Adjunct professors either were working for too many institutions and coming into classes too tired to teach, grad students, or they were second-stringers who wouldn’t cut it as full-time instructors. It’s one thing to hire adjunct who have hopes of becoming full-time and investing in the institution; it’s another to hire them as cheaper replacements for full-time staff.
    The reason I use the word poison, and I do feel that strongly, is because my institution went from being a well-known respected school to one involved in federal investigations and many lawsuits – sorta shady, if you will. I’m watching it start to happen in my current job as the accountants make more decisions and we lose the culture of caring that is an integral part of the institution I work for.
    Tl:dr version: Adjunct faculty don’t carry on your institution into new generations because you don’t pay them enough to invest in the culture. Full-time faculty, and the ability to become full-time, are key.

  7. 7
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    the question I raise in the post about what it means to have a system of higher education taught more and more by adjunct faculty is one we really ought to be struggling with

    I think that reflects the commodification of HE as an avenue to employment rather than the elevation of HE as an avenue to personal growth (I hate that phrase but can’t place a better alternative.)

    How to you put a value on something intangible? And if you can’t, how do you make an economic justification to precisely fund something of indeterminate value?

    The things that you discuss sound like they should have value. I feel like they have value. But it’s difficult to value them in an economic sense. And since the current HE is being driven more and more by economics (except for the HE that caters to the wealthy) then those things fall by the wayside.

    I’m not saying that they necessarily should, I’m just unsurprised that they do. I valued my mentors and I valued the (rare) outstanding faculty who taught me. But back when I was paying for college, if you asked me “hey, would you trade your tenured PoliSci teacher for a well qualified adjunct if I give you $1000?” I would have said yes in a heartbeat. So would many other people.

    So then I imagine myself as an administrator. If I were running a college and I had to choose whether or not to fund expensive intangibles (a/k/a permanent faculty) it wouldn’t be that obvious of a call. Do you think it would be?

    I guess that in the end, I agree that faculty are “better” than adjuncts on average, but I can’t say exactly why. And I certainly can’t say how much better they are, much less how much more value they provide in an economic sense. Can you? If you can’t answer it, should your president be expected to answer?

  8. 8
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Tl:dr version: Adjunct faculty don’t carry on your institution into new generations because you don’t pay them enough to invest in the culture. Full-time faculty, and the ability to become full-time, are key.

    What’s your opinion on full-time adjuncts, who teach only at a single college but don’t have guaranteed rehire, tenure track, or whatnot? IOW, is “full time” code for “tenure track,” or do you literally just mean full time?

  9. 9
    Elusis says:

    Full-time but non-tenure track faculty are hired with benefits, and have non-teaching work as part of their job assignment.

    Adjuncts are hired only for classes. They are not paid to do student advisement, serve on university or program governance, or do any of the other business of running a university. The more adjuncts you have, the more the other work falls on the full-time faculty.

    At my last institution, the pay for adjuncts per class was criminally low. (I took on bits of adjunct work on top of my full time work to pay my student loans.) For the most part, the only people we could get to teach were graduates of the program who had emotional affiliation with the school. This led to an increasingly “inbred” adjunct staff who were highly emotionally invested in their personal way of teaching a particular class, who resisted change when it was needed for program re-alignment, accreditation, etc., and who created an insular gossip mill that shut out new adjuncts and faculty.

    The low pay also disincentivized curriculum revision, incorporation of new materials or “best practices,” and use of substantive evaluations like lengthy literature reviews or research papers that took time to grade, resulting in graduate classes where students had a maximum of 3-5 page paper assignments and were evaluated largely by multiple choice exams.

  10. 10
    Sungold says:

    Just to put some numbers on this: as an adjunct, I got paid $2500 per course per quarter, with my Ph.D. already in hand. At one point the dean reduced our pay by about $100 per quarter because we “were being paid too much.” I now have a renewable annual non-tenure-track position. It pays right around $40 K, and it carries health insurance, which the adjunct work did not. That’s three times as much as I made as an adjunct (for now 7 courses per year instead of 5), and for that I’m very grateful.

    And yet, if I were single, my kids and I would be on a very stringent budget (not a complete hypothetical, as my husband is a two-time cancer survivor. At the same time, there are many professors who make 2.5 to 3 times what I and my non-TT colleagues earn. I spent about 5 years adjuncting, and the only reason I could afford to do it (in my geographically isolated town) is that my husband had a tenure-track job. I’m using my situation as an example because I know the numbers (not because you should feel sorry for me!), but people like me are now legion in higher ed.

    But the pay for full professors is not the real problem. By way of comparison, our football coach makes about a half million per year; our university president makes a bit less. Just down the road, the president of OSU, Gordon Gee, pulls in $1 million. Most universities – like mine – have seen an explosion in upper-level admin jobs that pay somewhere between $150 and $300 K.

    Those same upper-level administrators exploit “trailing spouses” in little college towns like mine. In urban areas, they exploit the glut of people with Ph.D.s who want to stay in a city and not move to a little college town. As you say, Richard, they/we are not worse teachers. But it is very hard to feel invested in an institution that refuses to invest in you.

    My university (a large Midwestern public institution with some grad students but mainly undergrads) just offered a golden parachute to any faculty who’ve been here at least ten years. The plan is to replace them largely with non-tenure-track people like me. The problem is only going to get worse. Already, the AAUP estimates that over 2/3 of university teachers in the U.S. are in non-tenurable positions – which also means they’re paid a pittance or a bare living wage, and can be fired at will.

    Richard, I appreciate your concern for adjuncts’ employment opportunities; you are wonderful. But honestly, the continued proletarianization of the professoriate doesn’t even benefit people like me. We need to all have access to tenure, even if we “only” teach and don’t have formal obligations to do research. Heck, after Breitbart attacked those professors in Missouri, I think academic freedom is actually more embattled in teaching than in research.

    My university’s president has survived several votes of no-confidence by the faculty. The one time he met with the faculty in my program, he expressed his admiration for the University of Phoenix. I suspect plenty of other presidents feel similarly but are cagey enough not to admit it.

    All this is to say that I have deep sympathy for you and your colleagues, Richard. You are right to be angry. Any other reaction would mean that some crucial human capacity had been amputated from you. Sometimes anger is the only reasonable reaction. (And I apologize if I’ve been ranting, but I’m angry too, dammit!)

    Things are going to get worse in higher ed before they get better – if, indeed, they ever do.

  11. 11
    Elusis says:

    This is finally out from behind the pay wall, and well worth a read.

  12. G&W:

    I think you miss the point a little bit. I am not arguing that it is wrong, wrong, wrong to focus on the bottom line in education when focusing on the bottom line is necessary, and right now, at my college, not focusing on the bottom line would be irresponsible. I have serious, profoundly serious reservations about how my college president is choosing to do that, reservations serious enough that I wonder about his underlying motives/agenda, but that he is insisting we have to take care of our bottom line first right now is absolutely appropriate.

    Nor do I think it is irrational per se to design a system of higher education in which most faculty are adjunct. (I am going to side step the whole “exploited” discussion because I think you and I just differ and I’m not really interested in pursuing it further than this: to me, a society that needs teachers and then sets up a system of higher education that relies on underpaid, etc. workers, so that the people who want/are encouraged to be teachers/academics–and let’s be honest, it’s not as if there is nothing at work in the system to guide a subset of people towards being teachers–have no choice but to take those low paying, etc. jobs–to me, that society is being exploitive.) But there are consequences to having such a system, to moving from the system we have to that kind of system, consequences both for the production of knowledge in this country and for how and what students learn, and if we focus only on the bottom line we will not be thinking about those consequences. It is the discussion of those consequences that I think needs to be had and that I think we are not having.

    Two other things:

    1. Even in business, the bottom line does not define a company’s mission/vision; it may determine–and in some cases dictate–how much a company is able to do in pursuit of that mission/vision, but that is not the same thing. Education is no different. Arguing that relying on adjunct instructors is cheaper and is therefore what we ought to be doing is allowing the bottom line to drive mission/vision, and that I think is wrong.

    2. It is not always possible, you are right, easily to quantify the long term economic value of anything. When I had my business, I charged two of my clients what I now realize was a relative pittance for work I did when compared to the value they have gotten out of it. (I am not blaming them or expressing regrets; I say this as an observation.) Why do I say that? Because more than ten years later they are still using the work I did for them, and I will presume to say that one reason the work lasted 10 years is that it was that good. Were I to take the same kind of job now, I would charge correspondingly more than I did back then because the value I would bring to the job, given my experience, etc.–and, presumably, the value of the work that I produced–would be that much higher.

    The analogy is not perfect, but I think the same holds true when you talk about the difference between investing in full-time faculty and relying primarily on part-time faculty. It is true, I think, that it would be difficult to quantify easily the economic value that full-time faculty bring to the job that we do, but I think that ignoring the added value we bring is to allow the bottom line to define mission/vision, as I talked about above.

    3. Regarding tenure vs. full-time renewable contracts: I value tenure because I have it, because I have seen its value at work in my career, but I am open to the possibility that a system could be devised that would provide the same kinds of intellectual/teaching protections that tenure provides but that would require professors to meet regular performance-review standards. I have not seen such a system, but I am open to it. (And I should add that I simply don’t have the time to engage yet another discussion about tenure.) In other words, when I talk about full-time faculty, I am talking about faculty who are, to use a business term, incentivized in all the necessary ways to invest themselves in the running, cultivating and growing of the institution where they work–(ETA) which means, of course, that the institution is willing to make a corresponding and appropriate investment in them.

  13. 13
    Simple Truth says:

    What’s your opinion on full-time adjuncts, who teach only at a single college but don’t have guaranteed rehire, tenure track, or whatnot? IOW, is “full time” code for “tenure track,” or do you literally just mean full time?

    The college I left did not have tenure. The college I am at now does. The main difference seems to be that the tenured faculty can demand pay raises in years when they freeze all pay raises for staff. At the other institution, no one got pay raises except through rating a certain level on your performance review, and the “raise” was basically an insult (11 cents an hour? really? for how many hours of unpaid overtime?)

    Overall, I haven’t seen much of a difference in tenure/non-tenured full-time faculty. Both groups spend more time on campus than adjuncts, which helps them be involved in institution-type activities (meetings, the occasional softball game, etc.) but also they get invested in the institution because they have a future there. Adjuncts tend to have the divided attention syndrome where they are literally just teaching the class, that’s what they’re there for, and who knows if they’ll get picked up again next term so why bother learning the students’ names?

    As a side note, it’s very hard to put a bottom line amount on what continuity brings to institutions. There’s certain things that are lost when you get a revolving door. It isn’t reflected in the stock prices of the college I worked for, alas, but you can dissatisfaction from employees and students alike, and maybe the lawsuits that have started to crop up. I don’t understand the life cycles of business as well as I’d like to, but I’d love to hear from someone who does because I think between this, and the flood of new “career colleges” trying to cash in on the recession plus the way student loans are becoming the new debt crisis….yeah, I think we’re headed for bad times in academia.

  14. 14
    RonF says:

    I’m crossposting this on It’s All Connected, but I thought I’d put it here as well.

    There’s been a lot of discussion by you and others about issues in higher education – fewer full-time faculty, more adjuncts who in many cases have to chase around and get jobs as multiple schools to make a living. Then I see something like this:

    Take the California State University system, the second tier in that state’s public higher education. Between 1975 and 2008 the number of faculty rose by 3 percent, to 12,019 positions. During those same years the number of administrators rose 221 percent, to 12,183. That’s right: There are more administrators than teachers at Cal State now.

    Now – I don’t know where the author gets his information from, so I can’t verify this assertion. But you’re in the business, so I’ll ask you a couple of questions. First, does that sound likely to be true? Second, if it is true it seems to me that the administrators have got their priorities backwards. Is this something you’ve noticed happening?

  15. That’s an interesting article, Ron, on a couple counts. Thanks for linking to it. As to the answer to your questions: It seems entirely likely to me that a system could end up with more administrators than faculty. To say why takes more time than I have right now because I need to deal with stuff arising from the particular problems at the community college where I teach, but one of the things we, the faculty, are trying to investigate is perhaps relevant here–not that it’s precisely the same situation, but it might indicate something about higher-ed administrator-think:

    When our new president took office, one of the things he did in order to address a very real budget issue was eliminate more than a few administrators and positions, saving the college (I’m pretty sure) more than $10 million. We, the faculty, were impressed by this, and pleased, since it meant that the cuts he’d made to the academic side of the house, which included letting some full time faculty go (they’d been hired on emergency contracts), were not the only cuts he was going to make. After that, however, he laid off nearly 10% of the full time faculty (though as some positions have been restored that number is now closer to 7% or 8%, I think) and not only hired to fill all the administrative positions that had been left empty, but hired additional administrators as well, so that now we have more administrators than we had before he arrived (if my understanding is correct).

    So, yeah, the scenario described in the article seems entirely likely to me and, yeah, it seems clear to me that administrators in such situations have their priorities ass backwards.