Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Adjuncts and Faculty Governance

A returning correspondent writes:

Should adjuncts attempt to participate at any level in the
administrative governance of their college or university? In many
cases they probably aren't even allowed to do so, since they are often
regarded as lower-status part-time employees that are deliberately
excluded from institutional governance. In other situations, they are
probably so busy manipulating multiple gigs that they just don't have
the time or energy to get involved in committee work. Nevertheless,
should an ambitious adjunct with a few good ideas and some extra time
on their hands take the plunge and attempt to get involved in academic
committee work at their college or university?

Since adjuncts can be fired (or, rather, "not renewed") for making
only the slightest waves, maybe it is a mistake for them to try and
get involved in controversial academic politics or contentious issues
such as the creation of new degree programs, making curriculum
changes, or introducing new courses. After all, these issues will
just eat up your time, you will invariably offend at least some of the
full-time faculty, you will probably antagonize the dean or the
department head, and people will wonder about your motives and will
think that you are acting above your station. As an ever-vulnerable
adjunct, the last thing you need is for faculty members or
administrators to be suspicious of you.

As an adjunct instructor, I have given some thought about this issue,
and have actually made a few tentative moves in the direction of
getting involved in working with academic committees at my school and
have even suggested the introduction of some new courses. However, I
have generally been rebuffed by the administration. Maybe it's
because my ideas aren't very good, but I suspect that the fact that I
am merely an adjunct may have something to do with it.

What do you and your readers think about this?

Nope, no can of worms here!

The letter raises several issues at varying levels of 'meta.'

I'll confess upfront that I'm not a big fan of 'faculty governance,' mostly because I have a hard time distinguishing it from 'conflict of interest.' The idea that people with lifetime tenure – that is, people without accountability – should have the power to feather their own nests in the name of a higher morality strikes me as absurd on its face. To my mind, with power should come accountability. If you want to have the power to make decisions, you should be accountable for the ones that go bad. That means, for example, losing your job if a major call goes wrong.

Also, if faculty governance actually means something, then faculty unionization makes no sense. You're either management or labor; not both. If you really run the place, then you're management. If you claim to run the place and you unionize to negotiate against it, I'd call that 'self-dealing.' It's a flagrant ethical violation, and of dubious legality. You can't have it both ways.

(For the record, my preferred approach would be to have a unionized faculty, and to let managers manage. There are other ways, and I'm not wedded to this point of view. But I do believe strongly that there's some pretty egregious role confusion in the current system, leading to some pretty egregious abuses of power. At least if a manager screws up, she can be fired.)

Your mention of the fear of giving offense is to the point, since it gives the lie to the usual “academic freedom” argument. If you have to hold your tongue for fear of offending those with tenure, I don't see much academic freedom there. As a smart woman once said, freedom is freedom for the one who thinks differently. Serious policy debate requires giving offense, at least some of the time. (Sometimes it even involves saying 'no.') If tenure means that everybody is stuck playing in the same sandbox forever, then the cost of giving offense may outweigh the good done by honest questioning, at least in the short term, so I'd expect to see honest questioning replaced by kabuki rituals of ego-stroking. Which is pretty much what happens.

(In fiscal terms, if faculty can set policy but aren't responsible for budgets, I'd expect to see staggeringly inefficient decisions made that would result in decades of higher-than-inflation tuition increases to feed the beast. Oh, wait...)

It gets even worse with tenure decisions. If tenured faculty have the first vote on tenure cases, which is the case at most four-year schools as far as I know, then we're vesting hiring decisions with people who aren't held to account for bad decisions. (That's before we even talk about inbred departments, sexism and racism, personality conflicts, and the other various mores of the shop.) The decision-makers – the tenured faculty – are essentially immune from consequence for their decisions, so they can do pretty much whatever they want (with a few basic legal exceptions). To my mind, hiring and firing are very basic management tasks. Let them rest with people who will be held accountable for them. Yes, some decisions would be arbitrary, but do we seriously believe that isn't true now? At least in my preferred system, the decision-maker would be accountable. The only thing worse than power is unaccountable power.

Harumph. Rant over, back to the question.

There are really two questions here. Is it in the best interests of a given adjunct to make waves in faculty governance, and should adjuncts be included? I'd say 'probably not' and 'probably,' respectively, and just acknowledge the contradiction. (It's one of those “you first” dilemmas. My favorite example of that was an article in The Onion a while back – the headline was something like “95% of Americans favor the increased use of mass transit by other people.” The article was filled with quotes like “if other people would take the train, the traffic on my commute would be a lot lighter.” While in principle it would be only fair to include adjuncts, the first adjuncts to step up would bear tremendous risk.)

If you're going to have faculty governance, based on the presumed special centrality of faculty to the academic enterprise, then I'd say adjuncts ought to be included. After all, adjuncts do a significant percentage (at some colleges, a majority) of the actual teaching; to exclude the majority of the workforce in the name of empowering the workers strikes me as self-defeating. If the claim by faculty to special powers does not rest on curricular expertise and/or student contact, I'd like to know what it is based on.

(I could imagine a claim based on being uniquely place-bound. Since faculty are the most likely to stick around forever, the argument might go, they should have the most say in how things are run. Again, the line between that and 'conflict of interest,' or even 'landed aristocracy,' is a bit thin. The reason they're the most likely to stick around is precisely that they're not accountable. Hell, if I can vote for the governor of a state after 30 days, and have it count as much as the vote of someone who has lived there for 30 years, I have a hard time seeing what makes senior tenured faculty special.)

If we take the existence of 'faculty governance' as given, then I'd say adjuncts should have a place at the table. (Alternately, in my preferred model, they'd have membership in the faculty union.) You're certainly right that many would choose to skip it, simply because of competing demands on their time (I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's line about socialism: “I would have been a socialist, but I like to keep my evenings free”), but they should at least have the opportunity.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but...any thoughts on this one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.