July 04, 2003

A Solution to the Adjunct Problem?

The Adjunct Problem has rather a nineteenth-century ring to it (think, for example, of the Woman Question). The management at D-squared Digest have drawn inspiration from the nineteenth-century practice of buying and selling military commission and clerical livings to propose the following solution:

If tenured professorships are such great things and recently graduated PhDs want them so much, they are presumably willing to pay for them. Universities should sell their professorships, at whatever price the market will bear.

This follows from an earlier post on Adjunct Pay, where D-squared had promised to provide "a shocking proposal for a solution." Of course, here at Invisible Adjunct we have long since ceased to be shocked by anything concerning the academic labor system. Indeed, readers of this weblog may recall that Mr Thomas H. Benton proposed something along similar lines a couple of months ago, for which he earned a well-deserved Invisible Adjunct Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (No Cash, Just Glory).

Anticipating opposition to the idea of monetary exchange, D-squared writes that since "the defence of the realm and the cure of souls are no less important than the 'sacred guild of scholars,'" he will "not be taking any objections on the grounds that there is something fundamentally immoral about taking money for an academic post rather than awarding it to the man or woman who has most enthusastically brown-nosed prominent co-authors on journal papers." I happen to agree that there is nothing "fundamentally immoral" about the proposal, though whether it is desirable or even possible is another question altogether. In any case, I impose no such strictures, so please feel free to endorse or reject the proposal on any grounds whatsoever (I do recommend reading D-squared's posts, which are especially perceptive on the "psychic pain" of exclusion from the ranks of the tenurable).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 4, 2003 04:09 PM

I see new possibilities for eBay!

"Dutch auction. Tenured professorships at cushy Research I institution, located in particularly desirable area of X. Available specialties in super-early-modern England, post-neo-ante-colonial theory, and the dialogic study of 21st century American culture. Affordable housing, office furniture, computer, and relocation costs not included. Starting bids of $70,000 each. Low reserve!"

On a different note: while it's true that military commissions were commonly bought and sold, many Anglican clergymen had experiences much closer to modern-day adjuncts. Livings weren't purchased, but gifted; they were often in the power of the local landowners, meaning that clergymen needed either pre-existing social connections or the ability to cultivate those who had them. Clergy without such connections could be trapped in the position of curate--that is, the assistant to the rector or vicar, paid by him directly (and often badly). The beneficed clergyman who exploited his underpaid, starving curate was a regular target for Victorian satire; see, for example, My Curates (1890), via Project Canterbury.

Posted by: Miriam at July 4, 2003 10:16 PM

the free market always ends in a corporatist fedaul hierarchy...

what to do? what to do?

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at July 5, 2003 12:16 AM

On a different thread I mentioned that Zen monasteries house failed monks who do the kitchen work, etc.

Samuel Butler (Erewhon: "the musical banks") wrote about a people who had two kinds of money, one of which was more prestigious than the other. But it turned out that whenever anything useful and necessary needed to be bought, you needed to use the less-prestigious money. The high-prestige cultural money could be accumulated and exchanged as much as you wanted, but couldn't buy anything at all.

Sort of like baseball card collections, I guess.

Posted by: zizka at July 5, 2003 12:43 AM

I am not sure why a prospective faculty member would want to do that from a financial point of view. You can work or you can live off capital.

The price of a tenured position would be the present value of the future salary less the value of alternative employment (e.g. greeter at Wall Mart) discounted for the time value of money and mortality. As neither the purchaser nor the seller can charge rent for the position the transaction should leave them in the same position. Therefor, if you have capital keep it and seek alternative employment at least you will avoid transaction costs.

Actually, there is a market in tenure slots but the purchasers are univerisities rather than individuals. I assume that there is a fair amount of information about the prices they pay, although it may be very diffuse and hard to find or analyize.

Universities, unlike individuals, are not in a symetric position with the sellers and they can profit from the transaction by cost savings or resource reallocation, e.g. buy out classics professors and either replace them with adjuncts or hire computer science professors instead.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 5, 2003 01:16 AM

All kinds of potential in the "purchase" idea. The problem with this idea as practiced in the British Army was, of course, that mediocre performers or worse wound up in positions where they could get a lot of people killed. This isn't likely to be a problem with the purchase of tenured academic positions, as long as we are careful to exclude this practice from medicine, structural engineering, and similar areas. (It's interesting that the British *Navy* never employed purchase).

Of course, you have to make the position as attractive as possible. Many British regiments had distinctive and stylish uniforms. Universities could do something similar: perhaps special-issue sports cars that you are only allowed to drive if you are one of their tenured faculty.

Another attraction could be created by increasing the visible power of the position. For example, British officers during the period of purchase could have any of their enlisted men flogged. We could extend this principle into academia by providing that any tenured professor could have any adjunct flogged...

Posted by: David Foster at July 5, 2003 10:13 AM

"Many British regiments had distinctive and stylish uniforms. Universities could do something similar: perhaps special-issue sports cars that you are only allowed to drive if you are one of their tenured faculty."

Nice! Sartorial splendor is a great idea. The more so as many argue that academics are, as a class, the worst-dressed of all professionals (with the exception of some of the leading lights in literary and cultural studies: I'm told they wear Prada). A revival of sumptuary laws would help fix the distinctions, and perhaps adjuncts could wear scarlet "A"s.

Miriam, the connection between the humble curate and the adjunct has occurred to me. We need another Trollope.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 5, 2003 10:53 AM

Though I'm not sure if he recognizes it, one of the ironies of streetlawyer's proposal is that the current system is not much different. People with more money go to more prestigious schools, have to work less on other things, and disproportiately get tt jobs.

Some trustafarians don't get jobs, and some working-class people do, obviously; but I fail to see why anyone should care about the former.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 5, 2003 01:42 PM

Another benefit of the proposal....many professors enjoy sneering at the middle classes, but the purity of the sneer is harmed by the fact that most of them are, themselves, members of the middle classes. If only trustafarians (wonderful word!) could get tenure professorships, then they could sneer from a truly aristocratic perspective. Just like the way in which those who were "in trade" were looked down upon in fashionable regiments of the British Army.

Posted by: David Foster at July 5, 2003 06:46 PM

There is no need for tenure to be sold. Rather, wages for tenured professors should be allowed to decline until supply = demand. In such an equilibrium I suspect adjuncts would make more than tenured professors to make up for their lack of security.

Posted by: James D. Miller at July 6, 2003 01:59 AM

"Rather, wages for tenured professors should be allowed to decline until supply = demand."

For me, the key phrase here is "should be allowed," which raises the question: allowed by whom? Is there a group who could allow wages to drop, and if so, are they currently preventing (not allowing) this decrease? And if this group has the power to allow or not allow wage decreases for the tenureable, do they also have the power to allow/not allow wage increases for the non-tenurable (ie adjuncts)?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 7, 2003 09:35 AM

This will simply lead to people who are desperate for the position to underbid everyone else; you'd end up with tenured professors earning exactly what they'd otherwise earn as adjuncts, because prices would be bid down to that level by the hoards of desperate adjuncts, with an appropriate drop in income to account for increased job security. This doesn't solve the problem at all, it simply accelerates it.

Posted by: Dennis O'Dea at July 7, 2003 01:39 PM


Posted by: Dennis O'Dea at July 7, 2003 01:39 PM

Don't underestimate the efficacy of acceleration. I am starting to believe that the sooner we reach bottom, the sooner some sort of re-figuring or altering of the academic labor situation might come to pass.

Posted by: Chris at July 7, 2003 02:20 PM

Chris, at that point the academic labor market would indeed have been altered (permanently, IMHO). There would still be a two-tier labor market, but the upper tier might be down to a single digit percentage. All else would be adjunctified. All (internal to the university) power would rest with the administration. The trendline would have hit its limit.

Now, there would undoubtedly be some satisfaction here. Watching formerly tenured professors you knew stand in the adjunct-applicant line with you as equals would offer some schadenfreude. Most of these tenured professors will probably retire in their current jobs, because that's simpler for university administrations. There's no need for confrontation; just don't replace tenured people when they retire.

But in the end, it's only a fantasy.

Posted by: Barry at July 8, 2003 09:30 AM

Barry: Fantasy? I think the scenario you sketch is exactly what is taking place. The gradual process of retirement will lead to a final realization of total adjunctification. It's just a matter of time. Moreover, I doubt there is anything we -- or anyone -- can do that will stem this inevitable tide.

In fact, I think that the two-tier structure you describe in which the top tier is down to a single digit percentage (1% ?) is the end-result of "celebrification."

Posted by: Chris at July 8, 2003 10:17 AM

I see a clear link between the goal of majority adjunctification and the push for "accountability" in higher education (see the most recent colloquy on Bush's plan). Bottom line has become the mantra and the ultimate justification for any educational policy making. After all, so the line goes, if people are "willing" to work for meager pay, all must be hunky dory, right? It's one short step to "assessing" part-time instructors (who are fast becoming the majority), a-la University of Phoenix, and kicking the "ineffective" ones to the curb. Wait, I was too harsh (time to insert some corporate-speak here), I meant to say "move the cheese" of the less effective instructors.
Is anyone else concerned about the strong public sentiment of anti-intellectualism towards higher education? It's getting hard to critique the bottom line mentality of market populism without being called "elitist."

Posted by: Cat at July 8, 2003 11:54 AM

"There's no need for confrontation; just don't replace tenured people when they retire.

But in the end, it's only a fantasy."

If only it were only a fantasy. But this is happening in some disciplines. Tenured people are not replaced when they retire (or they are replaced by contingent faculty), and this goes on without confrontation.

According to the Chronicle's Almanac, in 1979 66 percent of faculty were full-time, 34 percent part-time. Twenty years later, in 1999 57 percent of faculty were full-time, 43 percent part-time.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 8, 2003 06:34 PM