Thursday, December 04, 2008
Some Thoughts on the AFT Report
It's a surreal read. Check it out. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes.
Honestly, I'm the writer's equivalent of speechless. The report is so bad that it circles around and becomes a sort of unintentional black comedy. If this report reflects the state of union thinking about the adjunct trend, I'd bet the mortgage that the trend will continue. “Provincial” doesn't even begin to capture it. I'd be insulted if I weren't so flabbergasted.
Just for fun, take a gander at page 21 of the report, in which it presents numbers for what it calls Sample State University. It blandly reports that SSU will have to spend an extra 64 million dollars per year to achieve parity at a 75/25 ratio. 64 million per year! For no new output! I don't even know what to say to that. There's 'rent-seeking,' and then there's self-parody. From whence that extra 64 million will come is left unspecified. Just for the sake of comparison, 64 million is about 1 ½ times my cc's entire annual budget. So you'd be talking about the funding equivalent of opening multiple new campuses across the state, for no more student seats. A rational taxpayer would want to do that because...?
The authors of the report are apparently unaware that all colleges of any size have comptrollers and accountants and fiscal people who are entirely capable of calculating these costs. That's precisely why the adjunct trend is so tenacious. We know exactly what reversing the trend would cost, and we don't have that kind of money lying around.
The report doesn't really bother to explain why adjusting ratios or bringing 'parity' in pay would be worthwhile expenditures, which suggests that it isn't actually written to persuade. To persuade, it would have to quantify the benefits of paying an extra 64 million for the exact same output, and to compare the benefits from that use of 64 million to the benefits of other uses for it, like, say, opening entire new campuses with new employees and lots of new student seats. Or technology incubators, or enhanced basic research, or tax cuts, or infrastructure repair, or (insert your favorite goody here). The outcome of that comparison isn't hard to predict, which probably explains its absence.
Persuasion would also have to include some sort of explanation as to why existing full-time salaries are taken as the unquestioned standard. Mathematically, parity could result from paying both full-timers and adjuncts the per-course average of what the two groups get now. In other words, instead of full-timers making 6k per course and adjuncts 2k, everybody makes 4k. Cluster the salaries around some sort of market-clearing midpoint and see what happens. Hint: it doesn't involve an extra 64 million.
The report doesn't make any serious attempt to address the outside-of-class tasks for which full-timers are paid. Even at the cc level, where we really don't sponsor research in any serious way, we do require full-time faculty to advise students, to put in office hours, and to do various sorts of college service. Adjuncts aren't required to do any of those. To look at the full-timers' pay as if teaching comprised their entire jobs is simply to get it wrong.
This point is more delicate, but if we're putting it out there, let's put it out there. The average adjunct is not as qualified as the average new full-timer. (I'm not addressing the folks hired back in the 60's, when the market was entirely different.) And I'm not just talking about them receiving less institutional support, though that's certainly true. Full-timers are recruited nationally, and vetted by search committees, deans, and vice presidents. It's not unusual to get hundreds of applications for a single position, even at the cc level. When we hire someone to the tenure track, we've chosen the best of hundreds. Adjuncts are hired locally, ensuring a far smaller pool. They're often chosen based on their availability for a given time slot. Yes, some of them are excellent instructors. Yes, sometimes we luck out and find really good people whose life circumstances steer them to us. (That was me, back in the mid-90's.) But the idea that, on average, the best of hundreds aren't any better than the best who live within a thirty minute drive and are available on Tuesdays at 12:30 just doesn't pass the sniff test.
If you want parity of pay, establish parity of qualifications and parity of vetting. Otherwise, you're paying the same and getting less.
In reading the report, I keep circling back to the question of 'intended audience.' Who, exactly, is it written for? It's obviously not written for academic administrators – that is, those of us who actually make the budgeting decisions. We know what '64 million' actually means. It's not written for adjuncts, who know perfectly well that their pay sucks. It's not written for the public, since the public would want to know – fairly enough – just where all that new money would come from (hint: the public), and what benefits it would get for all that money. I don't even think it's written for full-time faculty, since many of them understand intuitively that leveling can work down as well as up. (The faculty union at Rutgers recognized this last year and actually accepted a smaller raise for its members in order to fund more new tenure-track positions. If a union is serious about helping, it should look to the Rutgers example.)
As near as I can figure, the report is written for the union itself. It's preaching to the choir, rallying the troops, waving the bloody shirt. It's written to the already-convinced, who, after all, don't need to be persuaded. The excel tool is a cute add-on to try to distract from the narcissism by doing something that looks all business-y and reasonable. Until you actually crunch the numbers.
But if the union itself were the issue, the trend would have evaporated decades ago.
The issue is both simpler and far more complicated. On a simple level, it's about public funding. At my cc, the operating budget for next year is currently projected to be 10 percent lower than two years ago, even before adjusting for inflation. (If you adjust, the cut is even worse.) 80 percent of the budget is labor. (Another 7 is utilities.) In this context, the AFT suggests massive increases in labor costs? Frankly, we'll be lucky to avoid layoffs.
The more complicated cause is the relative difficulty of increasing 'productivity' when the 'product' itself is measured in time. Other than increasing tuition, increasing class size, or decreasing pay, how do you improve the economic 'productivity' of someone teaching 45 hours a semester? When most of the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and we don't realize any for decades, a funding crunch is utterly predictable. Unless we get away from the 'seat time' model, we'll be stuck in a work-speedup/cost-runup cycle until we simply break the market. Which we're perilously close to doing now.
As regular readers know, I've been an adjunct, and I've fought tooth-and-nail where I've worked to increase the ranks of full-time faculty. I've advised prospective graduate students to dodge grad school altogether, the better to avoid feeding the system, and I haven't been shy about pushing public policies (single-payer health care, progressive taxation, no more wars of choice, etc.) that would free up resources for higher ed. In other words, I'm not the enemy. But I can't find a single praiseworthy element to this report. It's a mockery, and a shame.
I'm happy to join any campaign to rethink higher ed in constructive ways, the better to regain public support for it. But this report fails on every level. It takes the unsustainable as given, the dubious as obvious, and the reader as an idiot. I don't often advise unions, but my free advice for the AFT is to stop preaching to the choir and start listening to the public.
The fact of the matter is that the tenured and tenure-track folks simply don't know the actual state of the adjunct. They don't realize that, while they are at rallies protesting for social justice or researching the depths of social inequality around the world, their own workplace is a place of significant inequality. This report should be a wake-up call to those folks. What they are going to do with the information is another story, but they should try to do something.
I think the timing is pretty bad, as budget cuts mean that adjuncts will lose their jobs first -- when release time gets cut. That is exactly when the tenured folks will complain as well.
What's really silly/stupid about cutting adjuncts when times get tigtht is that they are the reason the cost per student is low...
Also, for the record, there are places where adjuncts are paid on the same scale as full-time folks... at my CC, an adjunct with at least 4 credits is paid on the same rate as a full-time person. They also have access to health insurance at another level etc... This is because our union inisisted on it a long time ago.
As someone who might be teaching part-time for the forseeable future, I would very much like to see real part-time positions rather than "adjunct" positions. I would like to see p-t faculty get hired at a pro-rated salary to teach x number of courses per year (and yes, the contract should at least be a year; better yet, make it 3 years) rather than this class-by-class basis. I know you won't get rid of the need for the last-minute adjunct here and there, but providing good part-time work for people without raising the costs too much seems like a good thing to me.
Nor do we ignore the situation. At my school the f-t faculty accepted that the pool of money for our wages should be reduced so 3/4 time instructors can get health care.
Maybe this is a bigger problem at R1 universities as star professors try and dodge large classloads, but don't tar the rest of us with that brush.
As for full-time faculty/staff and adjuncts: When you first move to a big city, you see homeless people all over downtown and their plight bothers you in a deep way. Sure, a few chose their lifestyle and a very small number are con artists. But, by and large, every day, people living on the street serve to remind you that something is very wrong. Then, after a while, you just accept it. You still don't like it; give some canned foods... But, well, it's the way things are. - That's how it is for full-timers and their transient adjuncts. What can you do? Problem's too big, too thorny.
As for persuasion: My opinion is that the normal state of the adjunct creates negative, fight-for-yourself attitudes that carry-over when adjuncts become full-time, it pushes talented teachers out of academia, and it renders a lot of the teaching force inaccessible to students outside of class time. Plus, it sucks to be poor.
For those reasons and others, even if that report is no good, labor relations are among the biggest problems higher ed faces.
I'm convinced that throwing money at the problem is not much of a solution though - even if anyone had money right now.
I'd like to suggest starting by looking at cost-benefit analysis differently. I think that analyzing education under private sector business models serves education poorly. And, no, I'm not anti-capitalist. It's just that the bottom line for one is money and for the other it's knowledge. That forces you to look at efficiency differently.
Thus the issue with increasing "productivity" in colleges. DD is right. But, the approach is wrong (and is society-wide). Teacher/student ratios are better when lower, right?
It's easier to quantify learning in K-12 where curriculum is more universal and allows for standardized tests. That makes room for merit-based teacher pay, as DC Public Schools is trying to work out with their teachers' union. But, how do you work out knowledge "productivity" in higher ed while also opening space for student-directed learning? Moreover, I taught art... I hope you don't expect my students to go out and land drawing jobs. (Wouldn't that be great?) I'm not sure there's even a way to measure the application of the critical analysis skills learned in art class to other aspects of students' lives.
Perhaps with smart advocacy, the tax-to-college chain of command could be convinced to focus accountability and prioritize education in a way that is as different from the corporate world as, say, is everything else in academic culture.
I also think that this model makes it easier to envision converting some of those adjunct positions to FT positions down the road.
Don't know what the answer is but I do know that I will look at the full-time/adjunct ratio carefully when picking college for my children
--And if ensuring high-quality education isn't a compelling "output", how about this: it's cheaper to retain students than recruit new ones. Thus improving student outcomes by hiring a stable, permanent, and well-vetted faculty workforce is a prudent economic investment.
My sense is that sometimes one is true, sometimes the other. In the big cities -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. Washington, Boston -- there are plenty of talented adjuncts, just as good as existing t-t folks, probably better than many already tenured: better teachers and actually do more (uncompensated) research. In Murfreesburg TN, not so much. Undesirable colleges need to offer t-t slots to get adequate teachers to apply to relocate there.
Nor am I persuaded that a search committee can identify the best of hundreds. The best of ten or twenty perhaps, but hundreds swamp perception. The choice of a search committee when hundreds apply is essentially random.
Adjunctification to the present degree has beent he result of several decades and there is no magic bullet available to reverse it overnight. But pressure needs to be exerted to reverse it and that pressure needs to be exerted over time.
And it needs to be exerted on you and your colleagues. As long as you react to budget pressures by increasing adjunctification, adjunctification will increase.
"you'd be talking about the funding equivalent of opening multiple new campuses across the state, for no more student seats. A rational taxpayer would want to do that because...?"
The average taxpayer is not especially aware of the consequences of the staffing choices of higher education.
In fact, they may association tenure in higher ed with tenure in K-12, and possibly also with bad teachers in that environment. (DC's experimentation with eliminating tenure has gotten a lot of press!)
To them, it really is about paying a dumptruck full of money and not getting any more teachers for it.
I've been convinced for MANY years now that all of this kibitzing at the college level is useless. As long as the broader political choice is prisons and roads over colleges, things are just going to keep going the same way.
And the post tops out at nearly 1400 words. Actually, exactly 1400 if you count the title.
I worry about our students. I get that adjuncts are usually good teachers. But if they are not as good, then what does this mean for our students.
- 2/2 teaching load (considered part-time)
- full benefits
- 3 yr initial contract, renewable on yearly basis thereafter
- my own office
- a promotion ladder (Clinical Asst. to Clinical Assoc. to Clinical full Professor), presumably with salary increases
- teaching undergrad literature and creative writing, with possibly some grad classes eventually, if need arises (i.e., not just teaching freshman comp., which is what most English departments seem to assume is all adjuncts are capable of)
- no administrative responsibilities (i.e., notable lower workload that tt person)
- the ability to take on such if I want to (I'm advising a few theses in the spring because the students' asked me to, and am organizing some student events), although such is not compensated
- a lot more respect than I had as an adjunct; my colleagues are still not certain what this whole 'clinical' track means, but they seem to be working off the assumption that I'm as qualified as they are
I still cost the university far less than a tt person (about a third of what they cost, I think), but I also do less work (no required admin/service), so it ends up feeling like a much more viable position long-term. If universities could convert more of their adjunct positions to clinical positions, people would be a lot happier, and I don't *think* it would cost so much?
IT contracts typically 3-5 years.
TT makes ~$100k+ direct salary; IT for same position makes ~$50k+ direct salary. TT typically on a 3-2 load. IT needs to serve on at least 3-3 load.
Adjuncts still paid piece rate (can opt for medical and dental package which is paid by them) at around ~$4k per class.
We can have the same faculty in the same department teaching the same classes (well, TT gets relief from one class) at
TT: $100k (3-2)
IT: $50k (3-3)
Ad: $24k (3-3)
This provides a measure of flexibility for departments and programs.
You hire TT lines for "core" workload, add IT lines for "strategic" above core workload, and use Adjuncts for tactical workload needs.
Hmmm . . . just like well-run businesses in the private sector!
The sceanario is a company faced with both demand uncertainty and variability, which can only be serviced with highly skilled workforce.
The "portfolio approach" to capacitating your process under these circumstances would be to hire "corporate memory" (long term) assets at the lowest sustainable number, augmented by strategic full-timers to cover a certain percentagae of the predictable peak load, and "on calls or "temps" to cover the peaks.
Depending on the labor markets (surplus or shortage of qualified people) the "temps" may be paid a lot less, the same, or even more than the permanent workers.
If we want adjuncts to be paid more, we need to have less of them around. Or we need unions to create artificial shortages; but typically unions are only effective when they control a monopoly on the source of labor.
Until we have a shortage of adjuncts (real or artificial) willing to be paid X, they will continue to be paid X.
Of course, this varies *considerably* by discipline . . .
A lot of graduate students take on really low paid adjunct jobs at smaller colleges nearby to supplement income. From what I've seen being a teaching assistant for tenured faculty, observing other graduate student colleagues teaching, and doing my own teaching, I feel comfortable saying I teach better than most of the faculty. At least when it comes to lower level courses for undergraduates. The way that faculty pay is determined supports this. They get merit raises for publishing, not teaching. There's no institutional incentive for them to get better at teaching.
And when I teach and when all the adjuncts here teach we do office hours. I routinely do two hours of extra time with students beyond my office hours because my students are hungry for someone to talk with them about their work and their ideas. The same is true for many of my graduate student and adjunct colleagues.
All this probably does hurt our ability to be top notch scholars, because of the time it takes, so if a place wants to hire the best expert on this or that arcane subject maybe they really are better off hiring someone who never has taught or who adjuncted less. But those people tend to be worse teachers and to dislike teaching. At least that's my experience.