February 09, 2004

Academe on the New Academic Labor System

While most members of the higher education community have come to appreciate the magnitude of the past decade's increase in part-time and non-tenure-track positions, a tendency persists to treat the issue as distinct from other issues. In fact, the growth in the number and proportion of contingent appointments over the past few decades constitutes a sneak attack on academic values and on the stability of the faculty as a whole.

-- Gwendolyn Bradley, "Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System"

A very quick post. This is just to briefly note that the latest edition of Academe is devoted to the topic of "The New Academic Labor System." Bradley's article provides a useful overview of the problem, which she characterizes as "grave" but "not hopeless." In terms of her diagnosis, there's very little that would shock the regular readers of this blog and not much, perhaps, that hasn't been stated and debated at this site. Some of the discussions at this weblog (e.g., here, here, and here) indicate that the substitution of "academic labor system" for "academic job market" is more controversial than Bradley seems to acknowledge (though her brief explanation is no doubt due to limitations of space). But her main argument -- that the growing use of of contingent faculty is something that is happening to the profession as a whole, and not just to the contingent faculty themselves -- is a point worth emphasizing.


John Bruce responds here.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 9, 2004 07:29 AM

Again, I can't get enough of this subject (and when it turns up on IA and I link to my thoughts in a comment, my traffic goes up nicely). I have an extended take on this piece and possible solutions (the Bradley piece isn't practical, I think) on my site.

Posted by: John Bruce at February 9, 2004 01:14 PM

That John Bruce blog entry is simply superb. Comprehensive and well written.

Posted by: JT at February 9, 2004 04:55 PM

IA, I swear, I swear that JT isn't me writing a comment under a different name!!!

Posted by: John Bruce at February 9, 2004 04:59 PM

No need to swear an oath, John. I know you and JT are different people. And even if I didn't know, I would still know :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at February 9, 2004 08:02 PM

I'd like to demur from the suggestion that Albet Laffer be called in. I do think that an economic historian or a labor economist could add something to the discussion, but the normal response of an economist to problems of this kind is to explain that it's you're own damn fault for getting into an unlucratice career.

My particular angle on this whole debate is that it seems that the job is increasingly being defined as teaching, and teaching sometimes as training employees for the workforce, and the financing of scholarship is part of the mix for a dimishing proportion of teachers.

Scholarship has always been marginal and useless. Before 1900 or 1800 anyway, a high proportion of scholars were either clergymen or military officers from the aristocracy. Those subsidies are gone, and it looks like the university subsidy is dwindling.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 9, 2004 08:56 PM

*clearly*? -- really? how so?
several unstated assumptions seem to be missing.

John Bruce pontificated:
/*I'm puzzled, actually, that the AAUP or some other body hasn't contacted some of the economists, like Alfred Kahn, who have in fact been able to solve real-world problems. I would almost wonder if such a group, which might include others like Robert Mundell or Arthur Laffer, might be willing to donate their efforts, if it would lead to a more orderly solution to the academic dilemma. But even if they wanted big-bucks consulting fees, it would clearly be money well spent.*/

Posted by: vlorbik at February 9, 2004 09:49 PM

Well zizka,
There are several papers on this and related topic at Cornell that might be interesting. It is a site for "interdisciplinary research on higher education", but seems to be populated by economists in general.


(wp44 written by Ronald Ehrenberg and Liang Zhang deals with changing nature of faculty positions appears to be worth reading. Not too much technical stuff/methodology from what I can tell. The tables at the end of the paper in particular looks intersting. Havent read the entire paper though.)

Posted by: Passing_through at February 9, 2004 09:57 PM

I sent the article link to our faculty listserv, and several tenured faculty members stopped me in the hall to thank me! Just a reminder that it's good for contingent folk not to consider tenure a sign of selling out.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 9, 2004 11:20 PM

Thanks for the reference to Academe. I actually found the article on unionization more immediately relevent (see Cliopatria [http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html] for more on why), but the Contingent Faculty article also contributed to my thinking. The whole issue is worth looking over.

For what it's worth, our department is trying to make a tenure track hire for a job that everyone says should belong to an instructor, or adjunct lecturer. That's certainly how every other department here would have handled it. We'll see how it comes out.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at February 10, 2004 05:18 AM


I'd like to demur from the suggestion that Albet Laffer be called in. I do think that an economic historian or a labor economist could add something to the discussion, but the normal response of an economist to problems of this kind is to explain that it's you're own damn fault for getting into an unlucratice career.

My particular angle on this whole debate is that it seems that the job is increasingly being defined as teaching, and teaching sometimes as training employees for the workforce, and the financing of scholarship is part of the mix for a dimishing proportion of teachers.

Scholarship has always been marginal and useless. Before 1900 or 1800 anyway, a high proportion of scholars were either clergymen or military officers from the aristocracy. Those subsidies are gone, and it looks like the university subsidy is dwindling.

End Quote

Not taking any offense (undergrad I was in applied economics before I went to law school) ... but that is not only what economists think, but much of the public.

You have the demonizers, used to be on the left, now on the right, who portray liberal academics as self-indulgent whiners with minimal workloads (two classes a semester as an eight hour work week) and the rest of the time wasted in meaningless "research" that is really play.

Though, in my experience, much of the research is really fascinating. My biggest surprise in talking to people working on their doctorates, or those who are post docs, is just how much interesting research is out there. One of my favorite activities is having people tell me about their research.

Back to critics ... You have the great unwashed (parents) who think that Universities exist to teach basics to their children. People who do not see much of value in the changes in classes that have come about in the last sixty years. (I know, we ought to all still do statistics with log tables, a pencil and paper instead of calculators -- not. And the other changes are just as valuable, skipping whatever group you dislike -- see the demonizers above).

Hmm, I don't have time to write an article on this point, but you can see where I'm getting to. Of all the people who consume the product of a university, very, very few value graduate education outside of professional schools.

Which sets the framework for what an economist would tell you.

Most economists would analyze the problem without solutions. After a lot of research they would explain how academics, taking control of their own environment, have manipulated things for their own enrichment (at least mental enrichment) by creating a system where graduate students are created in order to teach boring classes and provide the faculty with fun classes to teach.

Looking for solutions, that begs the question of what the solution is and for who. If you got rid of the graduate students, then the faculty would go back to teaching the boring classes (the ones the taxpayers, alumni and parents all see as the reason for the institution) in research universities and the costs would go up for community colleges (because there would not be enough PhDs and MAs floating around loose to teach as adjuncts).

The "solution" works only for the existing graduate students who are getting rid of the competition.

Overall quality of educators keeps going up, at least in terms of credentials, in most fields.

My brother noticed this in his top tier MBA program when he realized that most of the older professors would not have been admitted to the program as students ... that change has been true in every area except for law (where the same few schools still produce 50% of the profs with the same credentials they always had, more or less ... except in the last ten years more and more of them are JD/PhDs ... so that is changing too, finally).

People note all the time that the tenure track has changed. To get on it you need better credentials than the people evaluating you needed to get tenure.

Simple solutions (perhaps "solutions" in quotes is better):

1. get rid of tenure. Put everyone on contracts and re-evaluate your profs based on teaching metrics (student evaluations -- which are just grades in another context, with the same problems grades have always had) and qualifications. That means most of the MAs lose their tenure positions (the few that are left) and that teaching evaluations become really important. I'm not sure anyone wants this -- but an economist would recommend this as one of the responses to the developments in the field

2. Unionize, with the caveat that there are just too many strike breakers.

3. Fight the marketplace and create a nationwide cap on how many graduate students we will allow to exist. Does anyone really want that?

I can go on.

The problem is that there are too many people willing to work as adjuncts. Too many qualified people. I think of a good friend of mine who was covering three universities in a 120 mile radius as an adjunct trying to get on the tenure track in history. Haven't seen him since my first daughter died, but he was a good man, a good teacher, and a good person. It really bothered me to see the incredible burden it was to adjunct for a living, trying to get on ....

Another problem is that in spite of the fact that faculty are still seeking better compensation (I confess, that is one reason I rarely admit to myself that also tempers my interest in teaching), budgets continue to be tight for most schools.

The end state most people want is one that provides good jobs for all of the graduates without requiring that most of them leave academia.

Economics and business manage to keep compensation high by constantly draining off graduates for positions outside of academia. That is why if you get a business PhD you find that there are more openings than people to fill them. Or why economics is relatively better off than liberal arts or music (though I have to note that getting a business PhD pays better, so the economics majors are putting personal utility ahead of cash).

Is there another solution? Engineering uses graduate students in the place of research assistents. You can get four of the one for the cost of one of the other. Not to mention, graduate students increase enrollment and take seminars, research assistents do neither.

But you know the litany.

I'm not sure there is a solution that really brings in an economist, not in the classic consulting sense of making the process more efficient or finding a fault line that can be used to shift the entire situation.

If adjuncts were not of such a high quality and did not do such a good job ... then we might be getting somewhere. But the dirty secret that gets exposed is that the adjuncts do not hurt the students. They teach well, with passion and discipline, bringing fire and light. Like my friend, too many are good teachers and good people who create good results.

I'm tired, back to bed, but I don't think an economist helps here.

Posted by: Steve at February 10, 2004 07:41 AM

Following up on one part of Steve's lengthy post, does anyone disagree that tenure is in the process of being eliminated? (The elimination is a slow, gradual process and is not being "planned".)

JT - not John Bruce :)

Posted by: JT at February 10, 2004 09:18 AM

Given the results thus far of IA's polling of the readership here -- 41% graduate students -- I'm going to offer up some unsolicited advice. Apologies in advance.

To the graduate student readers my advice to you all is get your M.A.'s and then get out, regardless of your discipline. But before you take your M.A. and run, take advantage of the fact that in addition to seminars in your chosen discipline you can also take courses (for free, usually) in fields such as marketing and development, web-design, some facet of communications, editing -- either print or web -- statistics, and/or finance.

Why? you may ask. Sitting before me on my desk are three job adverstisements from NPR outlets in three different east coast cities, and another for a review journal (sort of like The nation, but not) that specializes in national and world politics, cultural affairs, and book/film reviews. The positions are in marketing/development, high level research (geared toward someone with an American Studies/History background), program development, and writer/editor. And as I read the notices, it's quite clear that each of the venues WOULD value an applicant with an M.A. or even a Ph.D., so long as the candidate also possessed the relevant skills/knowledge that pertain to the job description.

These are cool jobs, interesting jobs, not sell-out positions. (none of them involve selling real estate, ya' know)

The employment prospects in academia are NEVER going to get better, or return to some mythic era in which tenure-track positions are offered aplenty. The Ph.D. degree is never going to be valued the way it once was within academia. Moreover, while the academic "labor system" is liklely going to change, I doubt it will get better along the lines that many of us wish or hope for. But these changes are not going to occur quickly; rather, they are going to be implemented very slowly, incrementally over the next 10 to 15 years, as dictated by some combination of economic and legal necessity. Want to wait that long for a decent job? (admittedly, some of us, me included, have no choice, but many of the grad. students here are probably not as old as I am, and are more flexible in their lifestyles--for now)

I would also caution grad. students to regard with some skepticism graduate program directors, dept. chairs, and professors who will say with utter assurance 'the market is already turning around, so just hang on'. At best, these are hopeful pronouncements; at worst they're telling you to turn left when what they should have said was turn right. They do not know of what they speak.

And don't be duped by something else that I have heard professors say: 'if things don't work out, don't worry, because you can always get a job in Publishing, or work at the NY Times, or write for the Boston Phoenix'. Tenured and tenure track academics seem to think that all "we" (Ph.D.'s)have to do is show up on the doorstep of some other employment venue and the hiring directors, program coordinators, and other supervisors will just swoon and say 'we've been waiting for you, hoping you would come, thank you, thank you for coming'.

What can I say? This sort of thinking would be humorous if it weren't so injurious. What many academics -- of the tenured and tenure-track variety -- do not seem to realize is that other professions, amazingly enough, require specialized professional training of one sort or another. No, it may not involve 7 years of painstaking research and close reading, but it it is also not the sort of thing one can just waltz into, sprinkling a little pixie dust along the way, singing 'I"m here, everyone, I'm here, rest easy, all will be breezey'.

Sorry for the rant, and its length.

Posted by: Chris at February 10, 2004 10:10 AM

"get your M.A.'s and then get out, regardless of your discipline"
The "regardless of your discipline" part needs to be corrected. A picky aside first. For the sciences like physics or social sciences like economics or most engineering fields, a MA is usually a consolation prize for people who did not/could not finish a PhD. Not usually a good thing to have. People who want a Master's degree should shoot for a M.S. instead. This degree is for people who walked into the program with the idea of walking out in 2-3 years. Unfortunately, the M.S. option is not usually avaliable for sciences or social sciences.

More importantly, MA jobs and PhD jobs are different. Someone who wants to work in a particular area or some particular job type will find themselves shut out if they dont get their phd. A PhD is often REQUIRED even in industrial/non-academic research positions. In fact, a sizable propotion of the Phds in most kinds of engineering, economics, finance, public policy and life sciences dont teach or adjunct. They work for govts agencies, think tanks or private companies. And these are not ad hoc positions either. These places recruit new phds consistently. (private coporations in particular usually pay more than academia, but the competition for academic positions is much keener. In some cases, going to industry is considered a plan B if one doesnt get tenure. The talk about "if things don't work out, don't worry, because you can always get a job in ..." is not exactly withour merit.)

A better piece of advice would be to leave with your MA IF it allows you to work in the kind of jobs that you want. Like it or not, sometimes a PhD cannot be subsituted for a MA.

Posted by: Passing_through at February 10, 2004 12:08 PM

Picky is right. I was speaking to humanities grad. students. Thought that was obvious.

Posted by: Chris at February 10, 2004 03:38 PM

A masters in econ is a standard degree and not a consolation prize. It does very across institutions in the level of cources taken though as BA programs vary a lot too. At some schools masters courses are at a lower level than PhD courses, at other institutions PhDs just take a bunch of electives in addition to the masters courses.

I have a MSc in geography (from the UK) which was a one year program (my total post high school academic education was 7 1/2 years - 3 year undergrad, 1 year masters, 3 1/2 years PhD - the latter in the US - I really don't know why people would subject themselves to these seemingly endless humanities PhDs...).

A PhD is now really the bottom line required bit of paper in academia in the sciences and many social sciences so get it as fast as possible. In Econ actually things are different as most econ grad students don't publish before they graduate. The prestige of the program and adviser seem to therefore be the main signals that recruiters have. It was quite strange being on an econ hiring committee last year as all the things I was looking for in candidates weren't what my chairman thought were important.

Another interesting academic job market observation I finally got all the details on yesterday. Of the 7 tenured or tenure track faculty in my department - 4 have spouses, partners living in another state or country... and these faculty range from assistant prof to full professor.


Posted by: moom at February 10, 2004 05:42 PM

I was driving along this morning and I thought what you really want is a conflict/change management consultant, not an economists.

I've forgotten the framing I went through, but plan to post it when I can remember or recreate it.

Posted by: Steve at February 10, 2004 06:47 PM

According to a study I read today entitled "The Changing Nature of Faculty Employmnet," (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/depts/cheri/), which uses econometrics (I admit that I got lost a few times reading it) to examine salary trends and form of employment in academe betyween '89 and '99, not enough data exists yet to determine the educational liabilities of contingent academic labor. But what the authors do conclude is that the well-publicized downward trend of contingent salaries -- in all fields -- will soon exert a noticeable adverse effect on Ph.D. program enrolments.

In the various sciences, so the authors seem to imply in the concluding section, the effects of this down turn could prove to be very dire.

It's an interesting, if at times turgid, read, but worth it if you have an hour or so to spare.

Posted by: Chris at February 10, 2004 08:07 PM

An ADR Approach to the Adjunct Question.


  1. Identify Factors/Factions

  2. Identify Environment/Issues

  3. Consider Identifying Questions

  4. Initiate a Facilitation.

Factors (

  1. Which Constituency is seeking change? (There are real differences depending
    on how the constituency is defined.)

    • Academia as an abstract concept?

    • Current adjuncts seeking tenure track positions?

    • Current adjuncts seeking a living wage teaching?

    • Graduate students seeking reasonable employment?

  2. Interested Groups (Each of these has different knowledge gaps, interests
    and overlap)

    • Parents of students/parents of potential students.

    • Students and potential students.

    • Voters/members of the public (not necessarily the same group).

    • Politicians.

    • Industry groups.

    • University Administrators

Environment Limits/Input

  1. Financial/institutional revenue and resource issues.

  2. Entrenched consumers of graduate students.

Identifying Questions

  1. Can economic issues be controlled or influenced?

    • e.g. can business soak off more graduates (as happens in business and economics).

    • if graduates are soaked off, will this mean PhD = more attractive = more
      PhDs = more competition = fewer academic jobs per student?

    • can revenue streams for institutions be increased?

  2. What should teaching be?

    • current adjunct system?

    • classic university (e.g. full professors teach undergrads)?

    • University of Phoenix (instructors as paid presenters, similar to corporate

    • Other?  Why?

  3. Should research and teaching faculty be different career tracks?

    • Composition, undergraduate calculus, statistics, business law, etc. as teaching
      tracks (SMU at one time had business law as a teaching track paid at $8k/class

    • What about publicly perceived "non-research" institutions (e.g. University
      of Phoenix, Community Colleges, etc. -- both where many professors are doing
      real research, btw)?  What about pure research entities (think tanks,
      advocacy groups, etc.?)?

Conclusion:  A Change Management Proposal

  1. Introduction

    • Generally, no initial proposal is "correct."  (it is possible,
      but extremely unlikely).

    • Questions should be found, then worked on between rounds.

  2. Rounds

    • Initial Round: Solicit initial proposals for facilitation review.

    • NR (next round): Define constituents, begin initial publicity (introduce
      reporters to the concepts).

    • NR:  Develop second round of proposals, solicit interest groups (as
      identified above) to participate.

    • NR:  Define goals vis a vis constituents (what are the real goals of
      the group you have decided you will advocate).

    • NR:  Develop third round of proposals, begin serious or real publicity
      efforts, engagement of standards organizations (e.g. Carnegie, etc.).

    • NR:  Mainline proposals with interest groups/select policy makers.

  3. Implementation

    • Implement proposals in limited tests.

    • Evaluate implementation and test results.

    • Implement another round (as above, 2).

    • Re-evaluate.

  4. Do a Strategic Plan

  5. Do an Action Plan based on Strategic Plan to achieve change.

Ok, understand that this is a rough draft, thought through during a twelve
minute drive to work, then in my spare time when not embroiled in discussions
in a board meeting I had tonight.  All I've done upon coming home (other
than eat dinner) is type it up with minimal changes.

But if you were looking to an ADR professional rather than an economist (who
would analyze the issues for you in market terms, much like you've seen,
and suggest that the rational solution is to get out of adjuncting ...),
this is what you would get, more or less.

What to do something?  Set this sort of thing up to find out what can
be done.

Guess I should make this an essay at my website, maybe find a place that
will take it as an LPU?

Any suggestions?

Posted by: Steve at February 10, 2004 10:45 PM

All of this talk about economics reminds me of some things debated on the Jan. 13th entry on "PhD Attrition Rates." Some of the posters wondered why people choose graduate school (especially in the humanities) despite the existence of information regarding its difficulties and its lack of economic return. But others countered that the hierachy of academia and the professors' vested interests prevent young people from accessing the full extent of this information. Does anyone know of economic studies on the "information costs" and/or the "barriers to information" in relation to the oversupply of PhDs? Are there parallel labor markets where the workers get screwed because of barriers to good information?

Posted by: pencil_vainia at February 11, 2004 08:27 PM

Sure, look at the people going to law schools in the bottom two tiers or people who remain in law school after the first year when they aren't in the top half.

Posted by: Steve at February 11, 2004 09:59 PM

The number of PhDs graduating in the US has gone down in the US in the last few years, but not in the humanities. The number of Americans getting PhDs went down even faster if I remember correctly in those fields with the decline.

Today I found myself saying to someone doing their second masters (this time in Econ at another Uni but taking my class). "If you want to get a PhD - do it now, don't mess around with this masters degree - that's if you want to get a PhD, which is a whole other question." We agreed to discuss this again later as I had to go see my chair for my annual evaluation....


Posted by: moom at February 11, 2004 10:47 PM

Market for new Econ PhDs:


Maybe of interest.

Posted by: moom at February 15, 2004 02:22 PM

Seeing as some two-third of visitors (or at last respondants to IA's poll) to this site are academics-in-transition, and that is the 'ugly month' when often-dismal futures are foretold and difficult life-decisions made, I wonder if others would like to reflect with me on current travails and concerns on the adjunct track.

I don't want to thread-jack a useful conversation . . . but am nonetheless seeking conversation.

Posted by: P at February 19, 2004 02:01 PM

Pencil_vainia: No, the work on info barriers hasn't been done. The work on info *needs* hasn't even been done. I'm doing an "info needs of prospective grad students" survey gizmo for a class I'm in. I found one -- ONE -- study directly on point. It's from 1979, and only exists on microfilm. I'll blog about what it says when I actually get my hands on it (it's on order).

Everybody's just blithely assuming college students have the info they need.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at February 19, 2004 03:09 PM

It only takes a 2 minute search on Google to find all the relevant data for History on the AHA website, or for Econ or whatever. So the data is there and easy to find. The question is whether students are asking those questions. It wasn't really a question I was asking when I applied to grad school. I was interested in the grad school programs and sought the much harder to find info on that (had to visit various offices, libraries around London to get info on US grad programs).

Posted by: moom at February 19, 2004 06:10 PM

I meant information was much harder to find in 1987 or 89.

Posted by: moom at February 19, 2004 06:16 PM