Sunday, November 18, 2012


Will, Inertia, and Wile E. Coyote

As a kid, I loved the Roadrunner cartoons.  They were kid-friendly versions of the Sisyphus myth, with lovable characters, preposterous gadgetry, and an endearing disregard for the laws of physics.  (To this day, I can’t see the word “Acme” without picturing Wile E. Coyote crashing into the side of a canyon.)  I always laughed when the coyote found himself suspended in mid-air, looked down, looked at the camera, and then fell; the suggestion was that gravity only kicked in once you noticed it.

Last week I thought again of poor Wile E. suspended in mid-air.  

In a discussion with a serious-minded advocate for full-time jobs for everybody, I realized that my interlocutor’s sense of “political will” and its evil twin, “institutional inertia,” was similar to the coyote’s sense of gravity.  She seemed to believe that obstacles only exist if you believe they do.

“Political will” and “institutional inertia” are usually invoked when an advocate for a cause is asked why, if her position is so obviously correct, it hasn’t come to fruition yet.  They’re used to suggest that objections are really just excuses, and that if we would just wake up, or suck it up, or whatever, then we would put aside the silly excuses and just catch the damn roadrunner.  Raise consciousness, take a deep breath, and we can remake the world in the image of our obviously correct idea.

Which would be lovely, were it true.

But one person’s “political will” is another’s recognition that gravity is real.  

What would it take to give every adjunct who wants it a full-time permanent job?  Among other things, it would take an enormous, permanent, and ever-growing budget increase.  In other words, other people would have to fork over a lot more money.  Whether those other people are taxpayers, students, or other sectors of government, it would have to come from somewhere.  And I suspect that whomever would be tapped for that increase would have something to say about it.

As it happens, students are already paying dramatically more than they were just a few years ago; I really don’t see a defensible argument to the effect that the rate of tuition/fee increases has been too slow.  So that leaves taxpayers and other sectors of government.  (Yes, there’s also philanthropy, but we don’t usually get to use that for operating costs, such as salaries.)  I’m entirely on board with an argument that says, for example, that a more progressive tax code and a turn away from voluntary wars would free up valuable resources for higher education, among other things, and that the change would be a good thing.  But the obstacles to that go far beyond “inertia.”

I think of “political will” and “institutional inertia” as rhetorical placeholders.  They function as a way of saying “If I knew how things actually worked, I’d address them here.”  They’re signs that the speaker has run out of analytical gas.  (In politics, “partisan bickering” works much the same way.)  They lump disparate interests, agendas, and histories into a single dismissive aside, as if they could be wished away if only we  mustered enough panache.  They stop the discussion right where it should start.

Finding actual, workable solutions is a whole lot harder than just wishing competing interests away.  But it’s worth trying.  Wile E. may have had a comic delay before falling, but fall he did.  (I always laughed at the little puff of smoke when he hit the riverbed...)  As those of us in middle age know, gravity has a way of catching up with you, whether you acknowledge it or not.

The government could just print the money. Really!
@Anon 5:25pm - Alas, the one-time printing in that link isn't a viable solution. The current education funding problems (at least at my R1) don't seem like one-time expenses. Instead, they are expenses that are already growing faster than revenues (insurance for health care comes to mind). We've had several years of one-time fixes, and that only delays the problem. The hard problem is figuring out what we can do fairly to bring revenues and expenses into balance. Our one-time fixes have been analogous to Wile Coyote's delay of gravity.

That makes achieving more fair pay for adjuncts to be an even more difficult challenge. As DD points out, the direct conflict among different entrenched future views is exactly where we need to start this discussion. No one will be happy with the final result. Instead the discussion is which unhappiness we can best tolerate.
DD left out one other option: you could balance the budget by paying all of the permanent faculty on a new, lower, salary scale. I've asked that question here before: what would that salary be at his college?

But budget isn't the only reality. Our regular fall-spring enrollment patterns make teaching all sections by a permanent full-time faculty an absolute impossibility. Even 100% full time is impossible, unless you count one semester as "full time". You can't promise a full time job when you don't know how many students will show up in particular classes in a particular subject area next year.

We also have some very valuable instructors who already have a full time job (and teach at night) or are retired (and fill in gaps during the day).

A better question would be what fraction of the current adjunct pool could be replaced with full-time (but not permanent) instructors based only on medium-term demand and scheduling constraints, and what that would do to the salaries of permanent faculty or the budgets.

In my wild-ass-guess opinion, I think our college could do something like that (but with salaries of instructors still below the existing scale for tenure-track faculty) if we got the same amount per undergrad from the state as the universities do.

However, the state could not afford that and the universities could not afford getting an amount closer to what we get in our appropriation.

Replying HS lab partner:
There is a better way to deal with health care, but the real problem goes way beyond that. And the solution to confusion about "printing money" (a government task) and "expanding the money supply" (the fed, which works with plastic) is better education.

By the way, do the "hard money" folks really want an economy without electronic funds transfer?
This isn't just a college labor issue. While it is good to recognize the complexity of reality, it's also important to not assume workers can always be the one negotiable element just because they have the least inertia or political support as a group. It may be reality that Hostess was having trouble staying in business because its products are disgusting, for instance, but is it therefore reality that their only option for staying in business was cutting wages and benefits (again) of their workers?

This is a story that's getting written in awfully similar ways across the economy, and even though for-profit companies and public colleges have very different revenue sources, the common element is that the workers at the bottom are so often expected to bear the risk on their own backs.

In many cases, this strategy is cold, market-driven reality just because individual workers are the least powerful. Yes, some ideas like giving all adjuncts full time jobs are not feasible. But if we act like it's a law of gravity that least powerful = least valuable, we're not going to find ANY solutions.
PS I'm the Anon just above - I want to add that I know public colleges are making a lot of cuts and tradeoffs well beyond just hiring adjuncts. My comment was lumping together different industries intentially and therefore failed to acknowledge the difficult decisions colleges are making across the board.
You're in Massachusetts, how about you try taxing the rich? By that I mean, Harvard University? They are sitting on what, $35 billion? How about they share some of the wealth?

At least make them pay taxes on their investment income.

There might be some policy justification to permit tax-free endowments up to some level, maybe $1 billion or so, but there is absolutely no reason for this shocking tax subsidy to a school that educates so few people.
Why aren't there any part-time, administrators who are paid by the hour with no benefits or job security?
Um . . . no?

Your friend is right, but she's shallow. The reason we don't have a jobs guarantee is that we don't have the political will to do so. What she fails to understand is that this is lack of political will is due to conflicting values. Liberals tend to assume that people have good will (like themselves) and have a really hard time accepting that to a conservative, high unemployment is an unambiguous good. That is, the program would work fine; we've had times in this country when unemployment was quite low. It's the fact that some people have an ideological commitment to harming the middle and working class that keeps us from running the economy sanely.

It would be nice if it was actually possible to give all of the struggling adjuncts full-time positions with benefits, but the money just isn’t there. Or at least that is what they say.

Organizations will always say in public lots of nice things about what activities and things they value and find important. Schools and colleges will say in public that they are student-centered and that their students are always first, they will tell you that they nuture and value their faculty members, and they will say that they truly value the contributions of their employees, etc. But Vice President Joe Biden said that when you want to find out what an organization truly values, ask to see their budget. That will tell you what they *really* value.

The reason why a lot of colleges and universities have adjuncted-out much of their teaching duties is that they *can* do it. The graduate schools have produced such a surplus of degreed professionals that it is quite easy for a university to find a more-than-adequate supply of applicants for these part-time gigs that pay miserable wages and provide no benefits. The money needed to improve this situation will simply never be made available, since there is absolutely no inducement that would force universities and colleges to do so. The situation will never improve until the graduate schools begin to address this surplus issue.

You know what DD, your friend may be naive, but you are too, in the opposite direction here.

At the school where I work, 50% of the faculty are non-tenure track and they teach very close to half of the classes. The median seniority among non-tenure faculty at this school is about 8 years.

I'll give a nod to desires for flexibility, but the truth is that a lot of the demand by admins for "flexibility" is really just a reflection of poor medium-term planning on their parts. If I teach the same 4 or 5 classes every semester on the same days/times with stable enrollment for a period of many years, I think that shows you don't need quite as much flexibility as you are claiming you do - or you wouldn't, if you chose to confront the records and look at the data. Even if you don't raise my salary or provide benefits, you could at least end the fiction that you must employ me on a short-term 4 month contract for years on end because you "don't know" what might happen next semester.

I will also grant that cost a real issue. It does cost more to provide reasonable pay and benefits to workers. Students cannot be expected to absorb wave after wave of cost increases and public funding has certainly dropped, it is true.

On the other hand, the median income for just the FULL TIME non-tenure faculty at my school is only about $36k, and that's just about equal to the median for our clericals and our janitorial staff. Not knocking our secretaries and janitors, but it is unusual to assert that people with advanced degrees should be paid on par with those job classifications.

Clerical and janitorial staff at my school get full benefits including health insurance if they work at least 50% of "full time." So don't tell me it can't be done. If a school can do it for the janitors and secretaries (who definitely deserve it), then they can find ways to do it for the people who actually teach half of their classes.
Out here in California, part-time classified employees earn pro-rata pay and benefits from day one.

I'm not saying that teachers are better human beings than janitors or vice versa, but it certainly is, um, inequitable that a janitor working 19 hours/week gets 19/4o of a full-time janitor's pay and 19/40 of a janitor's H & W benefits packgage.

Part-time teachers, of course, get nothing remotely similar.

And how about my question: Why is there no such thing as an adjunct administrator, paid by the hour with no benefits or job security?
Or does administrative work automatically come in 40 hour/week quanta?

There's a simple way to turn all adjunct positions into permanent f/t positions:

Stop turning out MA's and PhD's in disciplines that are overrun with adjuncts.

That's right: shut down the graduate programs. Or cut them way, way back. Establish a nationwide limit to the number of PhD's and MA's that can be granted in, say, English literature or rhet-comp. And stick to it.

The result, over time, will be many fewer people eligible to teach on the college or university level. In twenty years or so, all faculty in such disciplines will be full-time because there will no longer be a surplus of qualified applicants.

As for the "struggling adjuncts" out there now: someone needs to clue them that you can make a much better living checking groceries at Costco than you can wasting your time teaching adjunct, and that a person who's bright enough to earn an MA or a PhD in any subject is likely to move into executive management quickly. No, it's not your "calling" (whatever that may be). But neither is it shameless exploitation.
Clay Shirky has just written on MOOCs at

Really interesting approach to the arguments for and against
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