August 05, 2003

"Stronger Together:" Why the Tenurable and the Nontenurable Should Make Common Cause

We are witnessing the transformation of our academic work and our universities. Historically, university administrators have used contract positions to fulfill specific, short-term needs. But in the past decade, administrators have increasingly chosen to use casual labour for ongoing staffing requirements -- exploiting contract academic staff, their students, and their colleagues.

The inappropriate use of contract appointments is an academic freedom issue, a professional issue, a workload issue, an instructional issue, a curriculum issue, a governance issue, a research issue and a collective bargaining issue.

-- Canadian Association of University Teachers, Stronger Together: One Association for All[PDF file]

I've just across the above, which helps clarify my scepticism over adjunct unionization. Though the document refers to the situation in Canadian universities, there are enough similarities between the two systems to warrant attention to the CAUT statement. Indeed, CAUT relies on American data to warn against the threat to academic freedom posed by the ongoing casualization of academic faculty:

About 43% of American faculty are part-time. Of the 57% who are full-time, about 28% are on limited-term contract. That means only 41% of American faculty are tenured or tenure-track. The majority of those will be retiring in the next decade. It appears that within ten to fifteen years, unless present trends are reversed, only about 20% of American faculty will be tenured or tenure-track -- a proportion so small that acacemic freedom will be seriously jeopardized.

Does this sound so unbelievably bleak as to be, well, just unbelievable? I honestly don't think so. Forget about the Ivy League and the elite small liberal arts colleges and the top tier Research Is. These schools are almost certainly not going to adjunctify to the point where full-time faculty are outnumbered by part-timers (which is not to say that they won't continue to rely on underpaid adjuncts): their prestige is at stake, and we can safely assume that they will continue to employ a faculty composed of more full-time tenurable than of part-time nontenurable faculty members. But elite schools are not representative of most institutions of higher learning in this country. Or, to put it another way, most faculty do not work at elite schools. And if current trends continue, I actually don't think it's incredible to imagine that in twenty years' time, part-timers will vastly outnumber full-timers at many, and perhaps most, 4-year colleges and universities (a situation that already obtains at many [perhaps most?] community colleges).

Thus, for me CAUT's argument that the tenurable find common cause with the nontenurable makes perfect sense:

Tenured and tenure-track staff face a stark choice: help win salary, working conditions and other rights comparable to their own for contract academic staff or watch their own situation gradually decline to that suffered by their contract colleagues.

This gets to the heart of my objection to the notion that adjunct unionization is the answer to the problem of adjunctification. Frankly, at the moment I am inclined to view adjunct unionization as a hopeless cause. First, in practical terms, it is incredibly difficult to organize contingent workers in any sector. I can't imagine that adjunct unionization campaigns could ever succeed at more than a handful of institutions in the urban areas of the more liberal states. Second, even where adjuncts did successfully unionize, precisely because they would form a body separate from that of the tenurable, any increase in the bargaining power of adjuncts would be perceived as a threat by full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty.

The only real hope, I believe, lies in a concerted effort by and for all faculty to end the ongoing transformation of full-time salaried positions into part-time contract positions. I'm not suggesting that unionization is the only possible form that such a concerted effort might take. I am suggesting, however, that unless and until full-time faculty realize that casualization is something that is happening to their own profession and at their own institutions (instead of seeing it as something that is happening to those others -- i.e., to those unfortunates or unworthies who should either be pitied or scorned), the cause is sunk.


My pessimism over the possibility and potential of adjunct unionization should not be interpreted as an optimism concerning the likelihood that the tenured and the nontenured will make common cause.

In the comments to Patricians versus Plebeians, Random Reader suggests that the tenured will not interest themselves in the future of the profession because they are primarily motivated by narrow self-interest:

IA speaks of a 'need' for tenured faculty to align with non-tenured, in order to prevent further erosion of tenure. But that's primarily an erosion in the future, via the elimination of existing tenure slots, upon the retirement of the incumbent, with non-tenure slots. In most places, the administration is eliminating the tenured via attrition. Ergo, the incumbents are safe. What is their self-interest in organizing to help posterity (i.e., future tt faculty)? Not much, I'd say. In fact, as the tenured faculty look at the trends in the labor force in general, with increased use of part-time/temporary workers, they would have good reason to suspect that their days are numbered, and that they should devote their own efforts to preserving their own privileges--while expecting those privileges to die with them. That's what's happening everywhere else. There's no reason to think that the academy will be any different.

I want to believe that this represents far too jaundiced a view of tenured faculty. But I have to admit that I have occasionally entertained suspicions that such a depiction is an all-too-accurate representation. I invite readers to help me banish such unhappy suspicions (though feel free to help confirm them, if confirm them you must).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 5, 2003 12:23 PM

It appears that within ten to fifteen years, unless present trends are reversed, only about 20% of American faculty will be tenured or tenure-track

Does anyone have reason not to believe that unionization will happen only when tenure is a perk of the very few at elite private institutions?

Arguments to the effect that universities have to be killed in order to be saved are too convenient and just plausible enough to keep tenured faculty and administrators from making common cause with adjuncts. Frankly, this fight seems lost to me. I'd focus instead on defining academic freedom and acceptable working conditions and putting in place safeguards to protect them in the absence of tenure.

Posted by: ogged at August 5, 2003 02:00 PM

"Arguments to the effect that universities have to be killed in order to be saved are too convenient and just plausible enough to keep tenured faculty and administrators from making common cause with adjuncts."

Who is arguing that universities have to be killed in order to be saved? Can you supply an example of this kind of argument?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 5, 2003 02:04 PM

Not jaundiced, I hope, but realistic. Operating without checks, the market will probably lead, in academia as elsewhere, to a "winner take all" system in which "stars" get high salaries, low teaching loads, research assistants, etc., while adjuncts & other non-tt faculty do the bulk of the teaching. (Indeed, we may already be there: see the recent NYT article on NYU's recent efforts at hiring stars, and the recent Boston Globe article on the star system. The day when "top" professors have agents, just like sports stars, may not be far off.)

Checks can be imposed on the market: via regulation, via unionization, via artifical restrictions in supply (like limiting the number of graduate students), etc. Whether it's advisable to impose such checks is a separate topic. My only point is that, absent checks, the trend is clear and, human nature being what it is, it's unlikely that the beneficiaries of the current system are likely to join forces with those disadvantaged by it. Adjuncts shouldn't beat themselves up for being "inferior," when they are merely victims of an oversupply problem. On the other hand, they shouldn't expect others, like current tenured faculty, to be "superior" & to rise above their own self-interest. That generally doesn't happen.

Indeed, for free-market advocates, it shouldn't happen: devotees of Adam Smith et al. would say that the best result is achieved for the greatest number by each person looking out for himself. One doesn't have to agree with that sentiment to realize that it's in the ascendant these days.

Posted by: Random Reader at August 5, 2003 02:17 PM

What I had in mind is the kind of argument made here,

Specifically, this,

Its a resource issue, says Lockard, who spent 30 of his 33 years in the public schools as an administrator. Were not big enough to have full-time people.

In other words, if you want higher education, you'll let us do away with tenure, and then maybe we'll have to increase class sizes and then we'll have to do away with buildings, and student housing...etc. The "university" as we know it could be "resource issued" away, with each step justified by the importance of maintaining some form of higher education. I'm not sure "killed" is too strong a word.

Posted by: ogged at August 5, 2003 02:28 PM

Ogged is right, based on the first post. We need to focus on ways of defining academic freedom and benefits in the absence of tenure. According to what I keep reading on blogs, people seem to have a mental block when it comes to tenure. They won't let it go (and I say this as a leftist, not someone with a right-wing agenda who is anti-intellectual). It's a losing battle that continues to perplex me. I ask again, why do so many underemployed adjuncts support a system like tenure, a system that perpetuates the existence of an overreliance on part-time labor (as well as an overreliance on status and ego, but that's another matter).

Posted by: Cat at August 5, 2003 02:47 PM

Legislation is another way to deal with the adjunct/non-tt situation. Some arguably analogous situations:

(a)Nursing: Hospitals are understaffed, to the point that many nurses have left the profession. First, hospitals tried to deal by importing nurses from other countries (Phillipines, etc.). Now they propose to fix the problem mostly with various "feel-good" solutions. The union, however, proposes legislation: a mandatory overtime ban, maximum work hours.
(b) Law school faculty: The ABA requires law schools to have "a sufficient number of full-time faculty to fulfill the requirements of the [ABA] standards and meet the needs of its educatiional program." This means no fewer than six full-time professors in the first year of operation, and a number to be determined by a ratio thereafter. Since many states allow only graduates of ABA-accredited law schools sit for the bar exam, this is de facto legislation.
(c) Federal judges: Their salary is set by statute. Currently the ABA is supporting their quest for higher pay. (Currently, federal district court judges make $154,700--the same as members of the US House of Representatives; federal circuit judges make $164,000.)
In the case of the law school faculty & the federal judges, existing legislation acts like a union agreement, to prevent people from taking jobs for less pay even though they would be ready to do so. However, despite the "low" pay of federal judges, compared to Wall Street-type private practice salaries, there are lots of candidates who are even willing to put up with the sometimes humilating experience of a Senate confirmation hearing. And it would undoubtedly be possible to staff a law school faculty entirely with adjuncts if the ABA would allow it. Only nurses have voted with their feet & goten out when working conditions & pay became unbearable, and they are the ones who don't currently have legislation protecting them.

The moral would appear to be that relying on unions or moral arguments is not likely to be effective. (For example, doctors want more nurses in hospitals, but they can't affect the issue.) Protective legislation does work. But how likely is that in the case of university or college teachers? Particularly with respect to the humanities? Not very likely, would be my guess. Until adjuncts & non-tt faculty behave like nurses, and refuse to work under existing conditions, is there likely to be any change. And even then, only if change is perceived as a necessity. Will legislators & the public think so? I doubt it.

Posted by: Random Reader at August 5, 2003 08:05 PM


When I said "safeguards," your proposals were just the kind of thing I had in mind (minus all the great detail, of course, or I'd have put it in myself).

On this front though, I'm not sure pessimism is justified yet. Professors aren't the relevant constituency when it comes to legislation affecting universities, students and their parents are. If someone could craft guidelines that would protect academic freedom and ensure reasonable wages and working conditions for professors--assuming, in both cases, that there's no such thing as tenure--then all that would need to be done is to convince rich parents that their kids are getting shafted by penny-pinching university administrators. That's a relatively easy thing to do. You wouldn't even have to mention the humanities!

The resistance would come, as I see it, from tenured professors, who would see the writing on the wall: the end of tenure. But even that, from a PR standpoint, would be a good thing. People hate professors and they hate groups clinging to privileges most people don't have.

Now, in the wonderful world of binary political choices, you can frame the debate as your proposed safeguards versus professorial privilege. That's a winner.

Posted by: ogged at August 5, 2003 09:28 PM

Here's where it gets personal. I write from outside the academy, as (a) a faculty brat, and (b) the parent of a recent college graduate. My father & several colleagues would have lost their jobs at a well-known Deep South university during the bad old days of desegregation (the '60s) had it not been for tenure. (And it wasn't just desegregation: my father was subjected to a lot of pressure when he gave a "D" to the captain of the football team, and when he later flunked a student for cheating.) So, I appreciate the merits of tenure, and would hate to see it go entirely. Even if the percentage of the faculty covered by tenure shrinks, it seems important to the cause of academic freedom that some portion of the professoriate remains free to speak its mind without fear of reprisal.

On the other hand, having just finished paying over $100,000 for my child's Ivy League education, I can't see that other parents (or taxpayers, where public institutions are concerned) have an incentive to run up the costs even further by adding more of the higher-priced faculty.

If I ruled the world, I'd re-instate mandatory retirement at age 65 (or whenever Social Security starts), realizing that this would work an injustice in particular cases but reasoning that would be balanced out by eliminating the need to bring "for cause" proceedings against the tenured faculty & opening up more slots for younger people. But--I don't rule the world. Nor, despite my annoyance at all the administrators that my tuition payment supported, is it really likely that their numbers will decrease. (To a certain extent, the complexities of modern life demand the presence on university payrolls of people like in-house lawyers & lobbyists, of which there where none back when I was in college.)

Universities, like symphony orchestras, are subject to "Baumol's cost disease." Just as the cost of a live orchestral performance of a symphony will inexorably rise over time, because there will never be any efficiencies (unlike manufacturing widgets) so will the cost of teaching students. TV & other technological aids may eventually reduce costs somewhat, but not much, especially since the small seminar will remain the ideal. Given this, it's unlikely that parents or the public would voluntarily support measures (like a decrease in adjunct faculty) that would raise the cost even more.

Unless I'm proved wrong (i.e., unless there is legislation, parental willingness to pay even higher prices, effective unionization, or solidarity with the tenured faculty), the only way to improve working conditions for the adjunct faculty is for the current incumbents to behave like nurses & leave the academy for other jobs, so that the supply gets back in sync with the demand. For those who love teaching & can afford the current starvation wages, this would be a sacrifice for posterity, since they'd be giving up work they loved so that future generations could have the hope of better working conditions. Will this happen? It hasn't so far . . . .

And yes, I'm discouraging my child from attending graduate school, at least until she's been out in the working world for two years. After that, if she goes anyway, I hope she knows that it should be for the love-of-the-experience-itself, and is highly unlikely to lead to a good job.

Posted by: Random Reader at August 6, 2003 12:04 AM

I'm repeating what I've said before, so those with eidetic memories should skip this.

I expect that academia has a 'glamour factor' in common with entertainment, that will attract a lot of entrants. They quickly learn that they will have to work, suffer, and luck out to get a real job in the system, but most will stay for a while, until they finally burn out. This allows both industries to work on a two-tier system, with a brutal bottom tier.

I expect that this will continue, regardless of how long it takes to destroy/diminish tenure. There's nothing in sight which would stop this, and much that will work to continue it.

Posted by: Barry at August 6, 2003 01:40 PM

I think that Barry hit the nail square on the head. There's a huge surplus of people who want to be and are qualified to be rock stars compared to the number of available positions. As long as this is the case, no matter how many times people try to shed light on how artists get screwed by labels, people who want to be rock stars are going to get screwed.

Similarly, as long as there are many more people who want to teach college students than there are college students who want to learn, the people who want to teach will get stiffed.

I can see unionization improving the working conditions of professors (both adjunct and tenure-track), but it seems like that couldn't help but reduce the number of total teaching positions available. So the average humanities graduate student would be less likely to get a teaching job, but the one they did get would be much better.

I'm not sure if that's a worthwhile tradeoff, but then again I don't teach, so who am I to say?

Posted by: Jake at August 9, 2003 11:15 PM