Thursday, October 01, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Buying the Cow

A semi-new correspondent writes:

You mentioned having too few faculty for student advising... do you or would you use "adjuncts" for this? My gig is asking me (and other adjuncts) to do de facto full time duties: attend weekly meetings, advise students, etc. They pay a decent stipend for this which is nice but my fear is that by using us in this manner they are able to able to not commit to hiring more full timers. Also because they're not offering me a full time course load I have to moonlight elsewhere and often can't attend these meetings I'm now supposed to attend. Is this like the dating adage "why would you buy the cow when you get the milk for free"? Would love the admin's perspective on this.

(signed) Adjunct Human

This strikes me as related to the post from a couple of months ago about permatemping.

Yes, my cc uses adjuncts as academic advisors. They're paid for their time, they're trained, and some of them are among the best advisors on campus. We do that because the full-time faculty contract stipulates a maximum number of advisees that f-t faculty can be assigned, and if we didn't augment that somehow, about two-thirds of our students wouldn't have advisors at all. It's born of necessity.

(There's also the sheer fact of the academic year. We can't require f-t faculty to show up in August, but many of their advisees show up in August looking for help.)

As I mentioned in the permatemp post, I've tried to maintain a bright line somewhere distinguishing adjunct work from full-time work. While it's sometimes inconvenient, and educationally suboptimal, it's a way to prevent 'permatemp' lawsuits that would bankrupt the college. I won't pretend for a minute that it's an ideal solution, but given extraordinarily limited resources and a litigious climate, it's the best we can do.

In terms of the cow/milk metaphor, I'll make a distinction between the individual cow and the collective cow.

I've been doing this for a while now, and I can say that one statement I've never heard is "Jen is such a great adjunct -- let's not hire her!" That's simply not how it has played out.

On the individual level, doing a great job at every aspect of the work makes you more valuable to keep around. I have hired incumbent adjuncts to full-time positions, and on those occasions, their excellent track records locally were major selling points.

On the collective level, though, it's true that the more that can be done on the cheap, the more will be. There are limits to that, but the force of economic gravity is strong. So behavior that's individually rational -- doing the best job you can -- is collectively destructive.

In the case of cows, where the best milk producers are valuable but too much milk on the market reduces the worth of each cow, the paradox is resolved through an expensive and complicated system of farm subsidies. Excess cows are subsidized; extra faculty aren't. I choose not to devote too much thought to this, since it's pretty depressing.

A couple of weeks ago, the academic blogosphere got all worked up about a college that turned down retired faculty teaching on a volunteer (that is, free) basis. The bloggers assumed that it was The Administration not wanting anybody they couldn't control. I don't know the situation on that campus, but I can say that when we've had volunteers offer to help with advising or tutoring here, the union objected. They were afraid that the volunteers would allow the college to get by with fewer union jobs. A similar logic applies here. When facing both a double-digit budget cut and a double-digit enrollment increase, the short-term temptation to get work done on the cheap is very compelling. Blame whomever you want; the math speaks for itself. If your income dropped twenty percent and your rent increased twenty percent, wouldn't you cut your spending on other things?

This situation didn't develop overnight, and it won't be fixed overnight. Elements of a fix could include widespread work stoppages by organized adjuncts, greatly reduced numbers of people going to grad school in the evergreen disciplines, and/or a substantial and sustained infusion of money into colleges' operating budgets. I'm not holding my breath on any of those. Unless supply comes more into line with demand, the overall situation will remain bleak. I don't like it either.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on the paradox of the collective cow?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

a college that turned down retired faculty teaching on a volunteer (that is, free) basis. The bloggers assumed that it was The Administration not wanting anybody they couldn't control. I don't know the situation on that campus, but I can say that when we've had volunteers offer to help with advising or tutoring here, the union objected.

The university in question was UNC, and since North Carolina is a "right-to-work" state, I'm fairly certain that the faculty there aren't unionized. This means that there is no one to look after the interests of faculty, and if the administration chose not to accept the offer of volunteer labor, it's because they saw it as not in the administration's interest for some reason...
I was the union president at my SoCal cc when I learned about an adjunct who was working for free, and of course I raised hell about it--especially since his dean praised him in a department meeting as an example of what all faculty members should be doing.

This is why we have collective bargaining. Imagine what would happen if people who were the most "student-oriented"--in other words, the ones who kicked back the most of their salaries--were the ones who got jobs.

If someone is well-off enough to work for "free," then she should collect her paycheck and then donate it to her school's student scholarship fund.

Shane in Utah,

Florida is also a right-to-work state, and I can assure you that faculty at Florida state universities are unionized (see I don't know for sure about UNC, though.
I think the key is that the advising work is compensated (even if at a lower overall cost than adding a full-timer). I have been asked to do committee work and advising for free as an adjunct, and it is a horrible position to be in.
I think that the key to figuring out how to increase the ratio of full time:part time faculty is to nickel and dime the compensation for any out-of-class work done by part-time instructors. We raised the hourly rate for part-time teaching, then we agreed to designate "Senior Associate" faculty who have been around a long time and have had good teaching evaluations. Senior Associates have first dibs on adjunct classes and are paid a stipend to hold office hours. Lastly, we set up a pay scale for compensating part-time faculty for holding office hours and for doing advising.

The bottom line is that a Senior Associate teaching a full load of classes, with office hour and advising responsibilities is making only a few thousand dollars less than a full-time instructor. At that point, it is much easier to justify the hiring of a new full-time instructor.

Even so, we are running into a lot of flack now, as nobody wants to make the "long-term commitment" to tenure-track faculty, given the financial uncertainties that abound.
Actually North Carolina has a law on the books that prohibits collective bargaining by public workers [General Statute (GS) 95-98].
Demand-side solutions are absurd.
Texas is a right to work state and state employees cannot unionize, but we can organize! The question is though why don't we?
I'm in the UNC system (where the volunteer teachers were), and I've never heard faculty memebrs talk seriously about unionization. The Provost at Chapel Hill apparently said that the retirees "aren't up to date in their specialization," which makes sense for grad classes, but is pretty near irrelevant for intro survey courses that students are having trouble getting into. The "if retirees work the school will take away full-time lines" sounds pretty silly, though, because those retirees aren't going to be working for long, and then the school will have to do something.
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