Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Congress Notices the Loss of Tenure


The US Congress has released an important study on the use and abuse of contingent faculty at American institutions of higher education. Although many people inside and outside of higher ed are starting to know something about this issue, this report places the loss of tenure and the use of part-time faculty on the national political agenda. 

The introduction to the report locates the growth of non-tenure-track faculty within a historical perspective: “The post-secondary academic workforce has undergone a remarkable change over the last several decades. The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle or upper-middle class, is becoming rare. Taking her place is the contingent faculty: non-tenure-track teachers, such as part-time adjuncts or graduate instructors, with no job security from one semester to the next, working at a piece rate with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggling to make ends meet.”  Just as so many other professional middle-class jobs are being downsized and casualized, the government is beginning to see how higher education has also been reshaped by neo-liberal policies.

The report highlights the contradiction of relying on colleges to prepare people for good jobs, while the people teaching at these institutions have bad jobs: “Increasing the number of Americans who obtain a college degree or other post-secondary credentials is a key to growing and strengthening the middle class and ensuring the country’s global competitiveness. Yet the expanding use of contingent faculty to achieve this goal presents a paradox. These instructors are highly educated workers who overwhelmingly have post-graduate degrees. They perform work critical to our national efforts to lift the next generation’s economic prospects. In 2009, CNN Money ranked college professor as the third best job in America, citing increasing job growth prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts post-secondary teachers as having faster than average employment growth over the next decade. Having played by the rules and obtained employment in a highly skilled, in-demand field, these workers should be living middle-class lives.”

Although in the popular imagination, professors still represent one of the most attractive careers, the reality of this labor market is far from ideal: “More than one million people are now working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education, providing a cheap labor source even while students’ tuition has skyrocketed. Traditionally, adjuncts were experienced professionals who were still working in or recently retired from their industry outside of academia, with time on their hands to teach a class or two at the university or community college. Adjunct work supplemented their income; teaching was not their main job. Such adjuncts still exist. But national trends indicate that schools are increasingly relying on adjuncts and other contingent faculty members, rather than full-time, tenure-track professors, to do the bulk of the work of educating students. Today, being a part-time adjunct at several schools is the way many instructors cobble together full-time employment in higher education.” Part-time and contingent faculty are thus a symptom of the more general dismantling of the middle-class professions.

The congressional report also ties the casualization of the academic labor force to the question of educational quality:  “contingent faculty earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to carry on harried schedules to make ends meet, have no clear path for career growth, and enjoy little to no job security. The contingent faculty trend appears to mirror trends in the general labor market toward a flexible, “just-in-time” workforce, with lower compensation and unpredictable schedules for what were once considered middle-class jobs. The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”  While the report does argue that many non-tenure-track faculty bend over backwards to provide the best education possible, their working conditions often prevent them from performing to their full potential.

This report grew out of an open online forum at the behest of Rep. George Miller.  He asked contingent faculty to write in and respond to a series of questions, and then his staff analyzed some of the trends.  For instance, they found that the average annual salary of the people responding was $24,926 and that 75% did not have benefits. One respondent added the following: “Considering that students pay $565 per course, and that there are approximately 20 students per class, adjuncts are paid approximately 4% of what the university takes in even though we execute the core requirements of the university. As an open enrollment university with 86% Title IV students, dedicated adjuncts must provide extensive, time-consuming feedback frequently up to 20 hours per week, which averages a wage of less than $10 per hour.” As my own research has consistently shown, higher tuition often results in less money going into instructors’ salaries; instead undergraduates are forced to secretly subsidize administrative growth, sponsored research, graduate and professional education, and expensive extra-curricular activities.

To its credit, the report does acknowledge some of the reasons why undergrads are paying more for lees as faculty are forced to work for poverty wages: “In today’s lean era, schools have often chosen to balance their budgets on the backs of adjuncts. Outsized administrator salaries, marketing operations, and campus frills recently have received significant attention. Increased budget transparency for institutions of higher education would be a critical step in understanding the nature and necessity of this now-pervasive labor practice and whether and how it may be changed.”

Let us hope that this report forces the government to look seriously at my plan to tie full funding for public higher education to a requirement that 75% of the faculty are full-time and at least 50% of the state and federal funding goes to direct instructional spending.  Although we can make some improvements on the campus level, we need a national solution to a national problem.  

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