On Fixing the Adjunct Crisis

Bryan Alexander posted some thoughts on ways to alleviate the adjunct crisis (at least that's how most faculty should describe it) in higher education based on a Twitter discussion we had with a few other people. Here’s a belated expansion of what I said in the comments. Paying people who teach and have advanced degrees a decent wage, and giving them some measure of respect seems like an obviously decent thing to do. That move, however, will just make tenure-track appointments, especially in the humanities with no extramural research funding, look all the more unnecessary for administrations who need to squeeze extra dollars out of the budget. Why not simply rip the bandaid off—eliminate tenure-track (TT) jobs entirely and put all faculty on one tier? Either that, or make a serious, coordinated push to put all faculty in TT positions. By not doing either faculty will allow the very institutions where they work (i.e. research and teach) to devalue their PhD degree and their labor.

I should note here I’m thinking mostly of the humanities and social sciences, since the natural sciences and engineering have fairly generous sources of extramural funding that support faculty salaries, fund post-docs and graduate students, and pay for laboratory equipment, whereas the university generally pays for humanities and social science programs through student tuition, endowments, or fund transfers from revenue generating units (like medical schools).

As far as creating a second tier of faculty that’s non-tenure-track (NTT) but not as precarious as adjuncts, we just have to look at what happens in other industries when a secure, entrenched workforce allows their employers to hire a sub-tier of employees who do the same work for less pay and fewer benefits. They’ve generally been eroded by agreeing to such arrangements. It ultimately leads to onerous working conditions for the second tier of employees who cease to be a minority as they replace the retiring, protected upper tier. Sound familiar to anyone in the current academic workplace? By insulating themselves from the adverse effects of budget cuts, rationalization, and other management policies, the upper tier of workers (in this case TT faculty) hasten their profession’s demise.

Julie Hayes, a dean at UMass Amherst, highlighted how her institution was making life better for adjuncts—improved pay, more job security, etc.—and hopes higher education can reach some equilibrium point at which tenure-track and tenured (TT) remain the majority with non-tenure-track (NTT) positions as a "viable career option." But it’s fast becoming the only option for the more than half (to estimate conservatively) of new PhDs—whether they take part-time positions (e.g. adjunct professor) or full-time contingent ones (e.g. post-docs, visiting professor, lecturer, etc.). When the dwindling budget (particularly at state schools) gets diverted to student/customer services or athletics, why should administrators hire TT faculty if part-time or full-time NTT are available?

I can't help but think of the adjunct crisis as entangled with the greater existential crisis, shall we say, of what purpose PhD programs—particularly in the humanities—even serve the student pursuing them and the people holding them. In the MLA's report on the state of graduate education, they acknowledge the pressure under which the PhD has come given the cost to the institution and to the student undertaking it, for even those people who are "fully" funded cannot live on their stipends without additional support, like loans or (ahem) private funds. There's also the cost in lost opportunities and wages from six (to be very generous) or more years in graduate school.

I already imagine charges of philistinism: the PhD contributes to knowledge; represents the life of the mind; cannot be monetarily valued, etc., I'll only state what should be obvious: those are defenses of a liberal arts education, which a PhD is not (or at least, shouldn't be). Anyone who thinks otherwise has either never been experienced the pressure in PhD programs for students to make your ideas/research marketable (i.e. relevant to the intellectual conversation you're having with 10 or so other people), or is simply deluded. It's less the PhD and more freedom from the obligation to make a living that allows one to lead the life of the mind, which basically leaves that open mostly to the wealthy, or those who do not mind being mendicants.

Just focusing on the humanities, what is the purpose of a PhD, which is to say, what can one do with a PhD that one couldn't do without it? Let's list some possibilities and then review them.

  1. Conduct independent research and write books.
  2. Teach in an institution of higher learning.
  3. Apply for grants and fellowships from public and private funds.
  4. Apply for teaching and research jobs either NTT or TT.

We've covered 1 a bit already. The PhD certainly trains one to conduct research and to write scholarly prose, but you don't need it. it's unlike a JD, which is a necessary condition for becoming an attorney in the US. Indeed, the academic profession even acknowledges you don’t need a PhD to conduct original research because graduate students are expected to do just take before they’re even all-but-dissertation (ABD). The rapidly deflating value of the PhD within academia makes such extreme pre-professionalization necessary, otherwise how else would a student distinguish him- or herself on the so-called academic job market?

Let’s not forget that graduate students also teach courses, so when you combine that with the expectation the apprentices will also publish, they’re basically doing the work of assistant professors before ever being eligible to apply for the job. So you don’t even need a PhD to do point 2. You only need to be enrolled in a PhD program. Marc Bosquet even argues that's the true "purpose" of graduate education if university administrators' actions are an indicator. Graduate student TAs teach more and larger sections of classes under the supervision of a full-time faculty member (one likely with a PhD) but are paid a pittance. Why hire more full-time faculty when you have students applying in the 100s for the privilege of teaching?

Really, points 3 and 4 are the only ones that seem to be something one definitely needs a PhD to do, since many grants require the recipient to hold a PhD or even a ladder faculty (i.e. tenure-track or tenured) position. There's no getting around the requirement unless the funding institution changes their criteria. There’s also not skirting a hiring committee’s requirement that one have a PhD before starting a TT job.

To then bargain about providing adjuncts in the humanities with better pay, more job security, and such is to start the negotiations from a losing position. Whatever concessions faculty extract, they're still not reversing the devaluation of the very credential they assert is necessary to have an academic career. Well, the fact is, most academic careers begin and end in graduate school where people supposedly in training to become academics already do most of the work of full-time (TT and NTT) faculty do. Under such conditions, why would any university administration invest in full-time faculty positions other than the minimum amount necessary to have managers for the growing pool of precarious instructors?

Short of insisting ever new hire be a tenure-track one or getting rid of tenure so that all instructors work in the same tier, I don't see how a two tiered workplace will help university instructors. While providing a decent wage and benefits to faculty currently working as adjuncts will alleviate their suffering, it does little to reverse the larger deterioration of the academic profession.

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