Thursday, October 05, 2006


Actions and Intentions

In the comments to yesterday's post about Rio Salado and the 99% adjunct faculty, someone asked:

Do you think that the emergence of adjunct exploitation is simply a rational management response, the only available avenue for restoring control over faculty that have been abusing their privileges? By radically reducing the body count of the tenured?

I can't speak for the leadership of Rio Salado, since I don't know them and they don't know me. But the point of the question, I think, goes beyond the individual case. It's really asking about the driving force behind the shift to adjuncts.

At my college, the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts has been creeping upward for several years. My college is not unique in this. Having been in the closed-door meetings in which decisions have been made to replace half of a given year's retirees with adjuncts, I can honestly say that the driving force has been financial. We've never had conversations about how nice it would be to stick it to the faculty union, or how we'd be relieved to get rid of people whose politics differ from our own, or how much we'd enjoy having an all-contingent workforce. I've never seen anyone rub his hands and cackle.

Quite the opposite. Each dean considers it a victory when s/he can hire full-timers. New full-timers are great, since we can select to fill the weaknesses we currently have. Since new full-timers, by definition, don't have tenure yet, we can pretty much assume that they'll be on their good behavior for the next several years. They bring new perspectives, they're eager to make good impressions, and, in the best cases, they can spur some overly-contented colleagues to action, if only to salvage their own pride in comparison. From an egotistical point of view, there's something profoundly satisfying about seeing 'your hire' emerge as a star. I take pride in knowing that, whatever else one might say about my record, I've hired well every time. As they say in show biz, casting is everything. Besides, we like to believe, the deadwood (not that we have any, of course...) was hired by previous administrations, who were clearly far less smart than ourselves.

Since every dean at my college has been a department chair at one time or another, we've all dealt with the reality of adjunct staffing. We've all, at one time or another, been at the point where classes start in two days, three full sections are still unstaffed, and all of the old reliables have been spoken for. As the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts creeps upward, those hit-the-wall moments become more common, and those last-minute gambles (“I hope this one will be okay”) more desperate. Full-time faculty are much less likely to simply blow off classes, or to walk away mid-semester. Good full-timers are a manager's dream, since you can assign them to classes and then not have to think about it. You know they'll be fine.

None of this is to deny that some tenured faculty retire on the job or otherwise abuse their positions, and those cases drive administrators batty. Regular readers have seen me vent on that repeatedly. It's especially maddening when you get a cluster like that, since they reinforce each other and usually turn what energies they do have to internal politics. They're parasitic on the organization, and they give tenure a bad name.

But I've never – never, not once, not ever – heard that line of argument make its way into administrators' discussions of who to replace. It's a separate issue. (I've heard the connection made by two groups: free-market idealists who object to tenure on ideological grounds, and faculty union leaders who are trying to rally the troops through demagoguery. I've never heard it made within the administration.)

The financial issue is real and daunting. With health insurance costs doubling every 5-6 years at a time when public-sector subsidies are flat or declining and significant tuition increases are politically verboten, it's impossible to balance the budget without cutting positions. Since education is labor-intensive, and our return on the increasingly sophisticated technology required in certain programs is negative, we shift to adjuncts for lack of any better alternatives. We don't like it either.

One of the frustrations of administration is that your choices are more constrained than most people realize, but people feel free to infer your intentions from your actions. So choices made as the least-bad options are taken to reflect your secret preferences. I take no glee in slowly hollowing-out my faculty. If anything, I take glee in the rare occasions I actually get to hire. Given my druthers, I'd hire much more often. I'm good at it, it's fun, and it's the right thing to do for the students. It's just not an option right now.

As a long-time faculty union guy, I agree with what you've said. I don't think that most administrators are evil schemers plotting against faculty.

But I've always wondered why there are no part-time administrative positions. Does the work of a dean always come in 40-hour-per-week chunks? Shouldn't limited finances and limited flexibility apply across the board? Why are there no Deans freeway flying across the city, working a few hours here and a few hours there? If teachers can manage to do this, and do it well, why can't administrators? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, after all.

But there are part-time administrative positions. Mostly, it shows up as full-time faculty members having a part-time administrative appointment (we've had associate vice-chancellors for academic affairs working that way, and all our department chairs are only part-time--most of their assignment is standard faculty stuff).

If you mean people whose job is a part-time job as an administrator, with no other ties to the institution, well, I'll grant you it's rare, but I bet it's not the null set.
I'll present another wrinkle. At my strongly unionized campus there is an Admin-led drive to increase the number of graduate students by around 20% (keep in mind this Uni already has a huge number of grad students, something like 400 in my faculty alone).

The students see the intention here as a money grab. Canadian universities get more money per grad student than they do for undergrads, and it takes them less resources to put a grad student through. If they can get completion times down (which they are attempting to do) Masters students in year 2 and PhD students in years 2-4 are cash cows.

The adjuncts see this as an outright threat to jobs. The Uni has to provide grad students (at least all PhDs) with jobs, usually TAships but once you pass your comps you can teach non-foundations courses, so adjuncts are getting very nervous about losing jobs to PhD students, who would be cheaper and even more compliant than your average adjunct.

Faculty hat this idea because it means they will have a lot more grad students to supervise, and you don't get teaching release for that.

Who knows what the intentions of Admin really are, they aren't sharing, but when they presented this to my faculty it looked to us like a way to increase funds.

Not only are the intentions unclear here, but the interpretations are many and varied and nothing is being communicated from the top to ease anyone's mind or provide a reasonable rational.

Also related to yesterday's post, here we have an example of sinking instruction even below the level of many adjuncts who have PhDs to students in pursuit of them.

For full disclosure I'll just say that I am both a PhD student and an adjunct at this Uni.
Doc beat me to the punch on the part-time admin question; they're actually quite common, it's just that the other part of their time is spent teaching.

I'm wondering how long before the adjunct trend hits the k-12 system.

The Canadian university story is especially demoralizing, given the dreadful job prospects for new Ph.D.'s. We shouldn't produce more of them; we should produce fewer.
I'm wondering how long before the adjunct trend hits the k-12 system.

Well, there was talk here in Minnesota about loosening the K-12 licensure requirements so that people with expertise in a particular field could just convert into teachers without the pedagogical training. Also, a trend in the Minnesota school districts is the young, new teachers often find themselves floating from job to job whenever school districts are strapped for cash. Since all job security is based on seniority, the last hired are the first fired. I think those are two examples that might answer your question, DD.

I also just want to say that most of the financial pressure that schools (K-12 through universities) are feeling seems to be related to the astronomical increase in health care costs. Look into any union contract conflict and health care is at the heart of it. I've thought that tenure will go the way of the dodo for some time now. But we do need more job security (actually, I think more professions need this), so this multi-year contract thing sounds good to me. Just my two cents.
Department chairs are not part-time administrators. At the California community college where I work, they're full-time teachers, members of the faculty union, paid on the full-time salary schedule with fringe benefits and the job security provided by tenure.

A part-time administrator would be someone who's treated like an adjunct faculty member--paid on an hourly basis, hired from semester to semester without fringe benefits or job security.

Imagine hiring a part-time dean to work for 20 hours/week at $100/hour for two 18-week semesters. That's a my definition of a part-time administrator, and at $72,000/year, I'd bet that you wouldn't have many problems finding qualified applicants.

Implicit in the job would be the understanding that this part-time dean would work 'way more than 20 hours/week, and that s/he'd spend even more time at the end of every semester getting ready for the next one.

That's what adjunct faculty members do. They're paid for only the hours they spend in front of class, and preparation, grading, meeting with students, and getting ready for the upcoming semester is real work that's done for free.

Since the lack of financial resources is the explanation--and it's a good one--given for hiring so many part-time faculty members, my question remains: why don't we hire part-time administrators? Here in Californiam we'd save at least $50,000/year for every dean.

Dean Dad - I agree that we should be producing fewer rather than more PhDs, but the way the finances are set up here it makes sense for Universities to stuff themselves full of them.

But don't worry too much about us. We all head down south and take jobs from Americans.
Thanks so much for the detailed response to my question. I much appreciate your calm thoughtfulness. And let me be clear that I have zero expertise in this area, only that I attended college a long time ago in the last century. I'm only an observer.

I wonder if the marketplace as a whole is sometimes more than the sum of the individual actions of its participants--the invisible hand, and all that. Why have severe financial constraints hit so many institutions at the same time? Do the sources of public funding no longer value these schools highly? Or are they expressing an indirect message of dissatisfaction (or feeling of helplessness) with current management of the schools (of the tenured faculty, of the politics, of the speech codes, of the something else) by holding the line on funding despite increasing costs? Are they unconsciously pushing for more adjuncts, and pleased with the result?

I understand well your satisfaction at making a successful hire. Still, when the hire leads to a lifetime appointment with severe limitations on management, it seems like a potentially very high-risk decision. I'm reminded of the explanation for the high unemployment among the young in Europe—employers don't want to hire when they are deprived of the right to fire.

I still think that the institution of tenure could be contributing to the shift to adjuncts, even if indirectly, and more importantly, it may be an obstacle to finding the reasonable middle way that you advocate.
I realize we've had the tenure discussion before, but as much as I understand the frustration with dead wood professors, I'm reluctant to give up the idea of job security through tenure. I spent 6.5 years in grad school, another 4 in a postdoc. That is a hell of a lot of training in an incredibly specialized area, with no way to transparently translate those skills into a job outside of academia (I'm not in a field that gets scooped up by industry), to then end up with very little job security in the end.

I'm not completely opposed to the idea of long-term contracts. But I'd have seriously reconsidered going into academia at all if I knew a decade of training would be that risky of a return. Maybe that would be a good thing to cut down on suppy of PhDs (although I happen to be in a field that is relatively in demand). But who else puts this much investment in their training, for very little pay, for only the chance at a long-term job which you either might not get at all or might get kicked out of after you've now invested 14+ years of effort.
Let me just add that what I mean is, after all that effort it is nice to have a reward. Either that, or restructure the system so the initial investment is more proportionate to a less permanent reward.
I agree with j.

Can we continue this discussion of alternatives to tenure?

Dean Dad, it's your blog, so what do you say?

I'd also like to talk more about why there aren't any adjunct administrators who are treated like adjunct faculty members, but it is your blog.

well, one clear option is to remember that tenure protects speech, not bad teaching. Regular review and evaluation aren't bad ideas. Some places have continuing contracts that allow for termination. But then, there's also no protected speech ...
I'm confused. College tuition is going up like crazy. Why are college's so strapped for cash? Can someone explain where the money actually comes from if it isn't tuition? What does a credit hour cost a student at Dean Dad's CC? How does the overhead breakdown?

As for adjunct admins...I really don't think I'd want to be part of an organization that had long term decisions made by people who were unlikely to be there in 2 years. I understand that it looks unfair to the union types but that's how I look at it.
I did a piece on what a long-term contract system might look like at
One of the reasons that college costs have gone up so much is that public funding for education has gone way down. This reflects, in good part, not so much a dissatisfaction with higher education (we have lots of students wanting to come for a degree), but with the notion of a change in the "social compact" regarding higher education. It used to be considered that the benefit of higher education served a social good. Now it is considered a personal benefit that accrues to the student. The thinking, therefore, is that more of the cost should be borne by the student. I think that this has been a long time coming, and in part has been driven by the increasing emphasis on vocational preparation of higher ed (both by students and their parents and by the higher education establishment in our zeal to convince more students to come to college (remember all the comparisons of lifetime earnings by college graduates vs. high school graduates).
How much of the cost has to do with instruction and learning? If college is really trade school for creative workers does it need to be as nice? There are all sorts of things in the 'college experience' that don't directly add to my ability to write a computer program or proof read an HR bulletin. I know a lot of professors dislike this idea. (at least they did where I went to college) but if the students are after a good job how would you set up your school to give it to them?
In large part due to political pressure, several states now have post-tenure review in place, in my state it is every six years. While this is not as rigorous as the initial tenure and promotion process (no external letters for example), it can lead to termination in cases where a faculty member is persistently failing to meet expectations. At our institution these expectations are documented for each department, and there is a process in place to provide a faculty member with the opportunity to correct any (perceived) deficiencies. There is also some flexibility built in for faculty members whose focus changes over time.

Will this lead to less deadwood? Time will tell.

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