Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Maybe I'm Jaded, But...

This story didn't surprise me.

Having been on this side of the desk for a while now, I can attest that I've heard deans, HR directors, department chairs, and even vice presidents say candidly that adjuncts are underpaid. We pretty much all agree on that. (I've never heard a counterargument beyond “nobody put a gun to their heads.”) It may be surprising to hear it from a podium, but it's nothing that hasn't been floating around for some time.

Some of the comments to the IHE story are dispiriting, in that they seem to suggest that any administrator who wants to can just wave a magic wand and create tenure-track positions out of the clear blue sky. They also fall into the trap of assuming that bad results can only be explained by bad intentions.

Quick quiz: which of the following bothers the public more?

1.Tenured professors being replaced by adjuncts
2.Tuition increasing faster than inflation

If you guessed 1, you probably work in higher ed. The correct answer is 2. And keeping a relative lid on 2 is one of the driving forces behind 1.

In my state, as in most at this point, we're actually taking budget cuts right now. The taxpayers are crying out for more and deeper cuts. We're running a deficit supporting the faculty and staff we have now. In this context, the resources for conscience-driven hiring are supposed to come from where, exactly?

(Perversely enough, the percentage of courses taught by full-timers in the short term will probably increase, even without new hiring, since we're balancing this year's budget by cutting released time. When that happens, the existing full-time faculty teach more courses, and the adjuncts fewer. Our adjunct percentage will drop accordingly. I doubt this is what Cary Nelson had in mind, but there it is.)

Over the years I've blogged, I've seen repeatedly that the attitudes prevalent in higher ed have yet to catch up to the facts on the ground. Conscience-driven appeals may have at least held the potential of working, back when resources were relatively flush. But at this point, especially at the cc level, we make the decisions we have to make. They can be carried out well or badly, and I absolutely agree that the common practice of making implied promises to adjuncts to lead them on is objectionable. (It goes the other way, too – I'm concerned that integrating adjuncts too completely into the life of the college will open up the college to a backbreaking lawsuit. If adjuncts become truly indistinguishable from full-timers, then the pay differential is unsustainable. To protect the institution, it's crucial to have some sort of clear boundary, even if we'd rather not. The ability to believe both “what must be” and “what I'd prefer,” even when the two conflict, is a basic job requirement for administration. I like to think of it as a tragic sensibility.) But assuming infinite freedom of action among administrators is simply false, and it leads to blind alleys and useless infighting.

I'd prefer to see the loop-the-loop arguments wind down, in favor of action that might actually help. For example, and I know that most of us aren't ready to hear this yet, I think it's time we drop the “one size fits all” idea of the job of a professor. Is the daily work of a community college professor really the same as the daily work of an R1 professor? If it isn't – and it isn't – then why do we insist on using all the same terms and categories to judge both?

And rather than continuing to pretend that community colleges are sitting on Ivy-sized endowments, let's take the battle for resources where it really belongs: the public. Until the public buys into the idea of steady, reliable, sustained, serious funding for public higher ed, we're chasing our tails. I think that the first move there is to reframe it as a truly public good, rather than as a private good to be supported by user fees. After decades of horrific politics, the concept of a public good seems almost quaint, but in its absence we just don't make sense. Either we're serious about an educated workforce and citizenry, or we are not.

Until that happens, administrators everywhere will make choices we'd rather not make, knowing full well their human costs. Bash us when we mess up, but let's stop pretending that it's all just a matter of bringing enlightenment to a few suits. We know. We know.