June 02, 2003

"Adjunct Survivor: Big City" (Contingent Faculty and Academic Freedom)

Casting Call: Producers of new reality television show, Adjunct Survivor: Big City, seek highly educated (Ph.D. preferred), highly skilled men and women willing to teach four courses per semester (or more)—any subject—for below living wage. Excellent benefits not included. Must have own car or transit pass. Internal Revenue Service mileage rate not provided. Equal opportunity exploiter: those seeking academic freedom need not apply.

-- Eric Marshall, "Victims of Circumstance: Academic Freedom in a Contingent Academy"

Something tells me Fox TV would pass on the concept of a reality TV show based on the trials and tribulations of adjunct faculty. I just don't think academics have the right kind of sex appeal. But maybe I'm wrong: perhaps viewers would be wowed by the use of political philosophy/political theory pickup lines (Kieran Healy explains how to be a Burkean-style babe magnet here; while Kevin Drum resolves the question of why Hobbes never married here).

Anyway, the above-linked essay is about academic freedom and whether or not it applies to adjunct faculty. The problem, of course, is that, as Marshall puts it,

the usual and customary understanding of academic freedom has also long wedded it inseparably to tenure, thereby greatly diminishing its relevance for adjuncts and largely excluding them from the conversation.

Is tenure the only way to secure academic freedom? And if so, what is the significance of the fact that increasing numbers of university teachers do not and never will enjoy academic freedom? And if not, what does this do to the standard argument that the protection of academic freedom requires the continued maintenance of the tenure system?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 08:45 PM

First, it seems to me that tenure in actuality has nothing to do with academic freedom. Tenure is (or more accurately, was) a way to cartelize the academic job market, in combination with the Ph.D. The point is to set up major barriers to entry (the Ph.D. requirement) and then control the overall terms and prices of service via the AAUP's contracts with individual universities.

The de facto lifetime job involved in tenure is part of the price for the product being regulated by the cartel. (However, I would disagree with some commenters on similar threads here who have said that tenure is an insurance policy that results in a lower monetary wage for those who have it. Tenure-track professors generally earn cash wages comparable to many highly qualified non-tenured professionals in industry, if normalized over a 12-month basis.)

The de facto current benefit of tenure is impunity, not academic freedom, though one might argue that well-known cases such as the Ben Wetmore affair at American University, where a student was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, with his video camera seized by campus police, because he violated an unpublished policy against videotaping a Tipper Gore speech, indicates that impunity applies to other university administrators and staff not normally covered by tenure.

If you're in the club, in this view, you can get away with nearly anything, at least until massive publicity requires adjustment. The case of the Illinois professor who was eventually disciplined for an inflammatory e-mail to an Air Force Academy cadet is instructive. His institution was first inclined to take no particular official notice until publicity resulted in massive e-mail protest to the school's president. At that point, someone in the law department (presumably) found an AAUP policy admonishing professors to be civil in public discourse; the professor was then severely disciplined for violating this policy.

However, a similar situation at Columbia, where an assistant professor (non-tenured) made highly inflammatory remarks in the context of the Iraq war, was defended by Columbia's president on the basis of "academic freedom", when it might presumably have been just as appropriate to apply the discipline that was used in the Illinois case. It appears to me that the Columbia professor, even without tenure, seems to have been something of a favorite of powerful faculty, and thus not as likely to suffer a penalty.

So an adjunct is basically a low-status member of the academic community, and like professors who advocate REALLY unpopular views (such as, in some cases, questioning some assumptions surrounding Darwinian theory) may be penalized for such views, tenured or not. It's worth noting that many cases the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education takes are students, certainly from an administrative standpoint the lowest-status members of the academic community.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 09:36 PM

A friend of mine was involved in an ad hoc neighborhood association trying to prevent a local developer from taking out some beautiful old trees. She put a lot of time into it. After the immediate battle was over, it was decided to form a permanent neighborhood association to keep an eye on issues of that type.

At that point she found that as a renter, she would not be a voting member of the association, which became a homeowner's association.

The analogy seems to be almost exact. Tenured faculty : adjuncts :: homeowners : renters. And adjuncts are part of the action to the extent that they're needed at the moment. But not during decision-making.

Posted by: zizka at June 2, 2003 10:53 PM

Another analogy occurred to me regarding tenure as cartel: cartel members, having established a price, are tempted to overproduce and thus undercut themselves. This is what happens with the Ph.D. product -- to fill graduate seminars, which are sold at the tenured price, professors must inevitably produce more Ph.D.s, which results in an oversupply, which results in price cutting. OPEC members routinely wink at their assigned quotas and produce more; university departments nod in agreement as the various professional associations decry the hiring of adjuncts -- yet they go back to their seminars and produce more Ph.D.s to glut the market in future years. They wouldn't have enough classes to teach if they didn't.

I don't believe the AAUP terms for tenure even mention "academic freedom". I believe all they say is that if you get tenure under the rules, then you can be fired only for not showing up for class or for a felony conviction (I believe). It's easy to think of many types of defalcation that would not involve felonies but which would normally unfit a person to be an employee. These somehow qualify as "academic freedom". A possible example would be the adjunct who was suspended at Citrus College for the class project where she awarded extra credit only to students who wrote Bush letters opposing the war, not to those who wrote letters supporting the war. It would be a more contentious issue if it were a tenured faculty member who did this.

There's also the issue of professors like John Mack of Harvard, the professor of psychiatry who believes that people who report they have been abducted by aliens and submitted to various forms of kinky experimentation are in fact telling the truth. I believe Harvard has consistently defended Mack on the basis of "academic freedom".

But it also occurs to me that if there is a genuine issue of "academic freedom" -- e.g., a modern Galileo being forbidden to publish a new scientific discovery -- that person's tenure status should not control whether that person has a case. This is peculiarly illogical -- only a person who has been blessed by a committee is entitled to have his or her discoveries published without question. Looked at this way, we are back in a world of Pope Urban and backstage politics, not in a world where ideas stand on their merits.

So it probably needs to be made clear that academic freedom and tenure have no clear relationship under current policy. At that point we can perhaps get to a closer definition of academic freedom and extend it to all members of the academic community.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 11:23 PM

The AAUP tightly links academic freedom and tenure.
Its "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with 1970 Interpretive Comments" opens as follows:

The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher1 or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights. [1]2

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

Notice also the concern with economic security (which I hadn't realized was in this statement until just now).

Close to half of all faculty now teaching at American universities lack: tenure or the prospect of tenure; economic security; academic freedom. What a bizarre universe is today's university!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 11:50 PM

Thanks for the clarification; I stand corrected.
It would be interesting also to see the AAUP specific definition of the terms and conditions of tenure.

So I still have these concerns: If the AAUP says "Academic freedom . . .is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the . . . student to freedom in learning" how does tenure protect the student's rights? Seems like the student ain't got no rights here, except perhaps insofar as the tenured prof may choose (or not) to protect them.

Second, the definition of academic freedom as applied to tenure is excessively broad. In effect, any action by a professor that does not constitute abandoning his position or felony conviction (I have heard of profs losing tenure for DUIs, by the way) is covered by "academic freedom."

But the major issue is the working of market forces, which are not going to operate to expand the terms of the cartel. The price-cutting as a result of what is effectively cheating on quotas by the cartel (which is predicted by the economic theory of cartels) means all academic salaries, including other conditions of work such as academic freedom, will approach the terms of the lowest-cost market participants, which means the adjuncts.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 3, 2003 12:47 AM

It seems that under the current system, you may have to go through many years...as graduate student and untenured prof...during which you must (if you value your career) carefully avoid expressing your opinions unless they are in line with the prevailing ideas in your field.

Then, at the age of 40 or so, you suddently get tenure, and, presumably, academic freedom. What are you going to do with it? Are your now-ingrained habits of caution suddently going to disappear, as you become the new Galileo of your field?

Human nature doesn't usually work that way.

Posted by: David Foster at June 3, 2003 03:59 AM