Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I've read a fair number of pieces about 'casualization' over the last few years, particularly in the context of higher education. 'Casualization' is usually defined as the reallocation of work from full-time (that is, benefited) employees to part-time (or 'casual') employees. Since 'casual' employees can be fired relatively easily and don't cost very much, the argument goes, administrations like them. The argument is applied to adjuncts, who are then likened to people who work for temp agencies, Walmart, and any other villain conveniently at hand.

I've never been terribly fond of the argument, since it strikes me as taking something simple and making it complicated. But today, while in the middle of writing another post, I realized a more basic way in which it misses the mark.

The very same people who angrily make the 'casualization' argument about college faculty also routinely bemoan what they usually call "administrative bloat," or the proliferation of people in non-teaching positions. (Generally speaking, that argument is just descriptively false at the community college level, but never mind that.) I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't even notice the contradiction until today.

If the shift to adjuncts is really about 'casualization,' then why are universities hiring more full-time staff? Wouldn't they apply the adjunct model there, too?

It isn't about 'casualization' at all. It's about cost, which is not the same thing.

When a secretary goes on medical leave and we hire a temp as a replacement, we actually spend more on the temp than we did on the full-timer. That's because as a public agency, the college can't just hire whomever; it has to go through temp agencies. Temp agencies take substantial commissions, so even if the actual worker doesn't get paid all that much, the cost to the employer is higher. It's cheaper to go with full-time staff than with temps, so we hire full-timers.

In 'administration,' there are really two ways to go part-time. One way is through reassigned time for full-time faculty. In that model, we basically adjunct-out some of the full-timer's teaching load so she can focus on administrative work. (That's standard practice for department chairs, for example.) That model works fairly well for certain functions that are clearly within the academic area. But for other areas -- facilities, financial aid, human resources, etc. -- the model just doesn't work. And in a collective bargaining environment, you can't have unit members evaluate other unit members; for legal reasons, you need people whose job specifically involves evaluating personnel.

If you can't go the reassigned-time route -- that is, the adjunct route -- then the other way to go part-time is to hire 'consultants.' But like temps, consultants at this level are far more expensive than full-time employees. It's cheaper to have full-time deans than it would be to have a posse of consultants come through to do most of the same stuff. (I'd also be wary of allowing high-level temps to evaluate personnel.) Since it's cheaper to hire full-timers, we do.

On the faculty side, it's the opposite. There, adjuncts are markedly cheaper than full-timers. There, it makes short-term economic sense to go with 'casual' labor. (I've gone on record saying I think it's destructive over the long haul to let this percentage get and stay high, but that's a separate issue.)

Given these basic economic facts, we don't need to assert a weirdly contradictory global trend. We can just look at cost and basically get it.

None of this is to say that administrative "bloat" -- when that's what it actually is -- is good, or to deny that hollowing out the faculty is bad. It's just to say that we don't need Grand Unified Theories of Capitalism to explain them. The rationales for each are pretty straightforward. That also suggests that any practical analysis -- that is, any analysis in the service of a sustainable change -- needs to take these cost differentials into account. If you want to change the trends, change the costs. Germanic verb constructions and angry analogies to Wal-mart aren't gonna cut it. It's both simpler and deeper than that.