Monday, January 07, 2013


Admins as Inkblot Tests

Over the break, I had a welcome chance to catch up on my reading.  Through the miracle of Twitter -- which I think of as an annotated bibliography that self-updates in real time -- I ran across these two articles, and couldn’t help noticing how they crash into each other.

The first, by Keith Kroll, is a pretty standard lament for the good old days by an English professor.  Surveying the rise of adjunct instruction and the decline in full-time faculty jobs, Kroll concludes that the issue boils down to political will.  He calls on faculty, and prospective faculty, to “push back.”  From reading his piece, you’d think that the only reason that we don’t have the academic job market of 1966 is that deans are foolishly caught up in faddish imitation of the private sector.  I was particularly struck at the portrayal of administrators as either feckless (“leave it alone”) or evil, focused on short term cost-cutting.

The second is a more forward-looking piece by Nathan Harden, who claims that the internet will do to higher ed what it did to the music industry.  Recorded music still exists -- in many ways, it’s far more available than it has ever been -- but its economic underpinnings have changed fundamentally.  Music consumers have more and better options than ever, but both musicians and what used to be called record companies have lost revenue. (Elsewhere, I’ve read that the new model is based entirely on speculation.  Neither Pandora nor Spotify is actually profitable, but they attract investment capital based on rapid growth.)  In this version, the key story is the shift of market power from producers to consumers.

In this version, administrators are painted as the foot-dragging guardians of the status quo, defending the economic rents derived from exclusivity.  

Both visions of administrators -- everybody knows that they’re bent on the destruction of tradition, and everybody knows that they’re unthinking guardians of tradition -- have just enough evidence to be plausible.  On the “bent on destruction” side, it’s easy to point to the shift towards adjunct faculty, and a sort of chronic cost-consciousness that results in saying “no” to plenty of otherwise good ideas.  On the “guardian of tradition” side, it’s easy to point to decades of faster-than-inflation tuition increases in both the private and public sectors, as well as to construction booms among the elites.  

But evidence for one discredits the other.  If administrators were actually market apparatchiks, why do they keep raising tuition faster than inflation?  (In the free market, it’s normal to compete on price.)  Alternately, if administrators are docents of tradition, why do they keep watering it down by converting full-time positions to part-time?

What both versions capture, if only half-consciously, is that the underlying structure of higher education is under strain. Decades of Baumol’s cost disease, economic polarization, and questionable political choices have led to a series of split-the-difference decisions.  But you can’t just “push back” against time-bound measures of productivity and expect to get anywhere.  Until the 1990’s, there was no serious alternative to traditional higher education, so it was able to thrive by default.  The for-profits mounted a threat for a while.  Now MOOCs are starting to threaten.  Unlike the for-profits, MOOCs have solved the productivity problem.

I don’t think the current cohort of MOOCs will be fatal -- as the New York Times acknowledged yesterday, nobody has yet figured out a business model for them -- but they are radically different from anything that has come before them.  In this context, it’s more helpful to see many administrators as neither feckless nor evil, but instead as doing the best they can to maintain a structure that’s becoming harder to maintain.  

In my perfect world, we’d get past calls for Restoration -- those never quite work out like they’re supposed to -- and instead work on innovation.  Rearguard actions don’t lead to victory, and I’m not interested in surrender.  We need to adapt.  The critique to make of administrators isn’t that they’re backwards-looking or slaves to the market; it’s that they need to confront more deliberately the forces that drive their decisions.  And that will take the collective intelligence of faculty, staff, and administrators, all working together.

I suppose that there will always be tension and friction between the academic and administrative sides of a college or university. Faculty members often argue that the vast majority of the real work of the university is being done by the faculty, the students, and the staff of the institution, and that administration is simply an expensive overhead. As the Berkeley radicals of the 1960s often said, the role of administration should simply be to keep the streets clean. Faculty members often complain that there are too many administrators, all supposedly drawing six-figure salaries, and that all they ever think about is money. But administrators are more intimately aware that just about everything that the college or university does costs money, and that this money has to come from somewhere.

The academic sides and the financial sides of the institution often come into conflict with each other. Because of declining enrollments and rapidly-rising costs, there is a steady movement in many colleges and universities towards a more corporate-style management structure, one where bottom-line issues become paramount, where cutting costs and increasing the income stream become more important than the educational and research goals that the institution is presumably there to serve.

Under such a corporate model, there is a subtle but definite shift in the goals of the university—instead of the traditional mission of increasing knowledge and educating the next generation of citizens, the university goal is now to maximize profits and to minimize costs.

Under such a corporate model, academic programs become franchises, students become consumers, donors become investors, the fruits of research become proprietary and secret, faculty members become employees, courses become business products, and other peer institutions become competitors. Pressures on university administrations to cut labor costs has led to an increasing “adjunctification” of the faculty—with each passing year, more and more of the classroom teaching is performed by part-time, poorly-paid workers who get no benefits, who have no job security and who have little prospect of ever getting full-time employment. In the pursuit of lower costs, college and university administrators have outsourced many university functions and jobs, ranging from groundskeeping and janitorial serves, all the way to bookstores and food services. Some university administrators are toying with outsourcing even the education function itself, investing heavily in online educational systems and packages in the hope that costs will be reduced even further. The constant pressure to cut costs has led to stagnant wages for faculty, a steady erosion of benefits, and poverty-level wages for most university workers. Under such a corporate-style system, there is an increasing tendency for university and college administrators to confuse means and ends—academic activity becomes a means to raise money rather than the other way around.

I have never been in administration, and I must admit that I often tend to think of administrators as class enemies, whose interests are inevitably in conflict with mine. But they are not really greedy and selfish individuals who want to drive everyone down to poverty wages. They don’t really want to adjunct-out the teaching function of the university, but cost pressures force them to do this. They do it because they can do it.

I have a LOT of trouble with this key paragraph by Harden, particularly the parts I bolded:

"How do I know this will happen? Because recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information. The internet destroyed the livelihoods of traditional stock brokers and bonds salesmen by throwing open to everyone access to the proprietary information they used to sell. The same technology enabled bankers and financiers to develop new products and methods, but, as it turned out, the experience necessary to manage it all did not keep up."

Education is not "selling information," and his ascription of the financial meltdown to lack of experience managing the new technology is ridiculous. Higher ed is facing a lot of changes, many of them deeply entwined with technological changes, but we won't get very far if we start with analyses like this one.
Two observations:

I would really like to see a reference to a long-term study that documents the change the use of adjunct labor over the last 40 to 50 years (and 70 would be even better) rather than just the past decade. Such a study would probably have to be done at a handful of similar institutions and must pay careful attention to the changing categories of adjuncts. Specifically, when I was a grad student, a "grad TA" (and sometimes an undergrad TA) did what an "adjunct" does today. I suspect there are mostly legal reasons for this, but it confuses the data.

Along a similar vein, exactly when in the past does ArtMathProf think that universities did not file for patents? Were large enrollment courses taught over cable TV forty years ago NOT driven by economies of scale rather than "innovation"?
As for the changes in adjunct labor over the last 40 to 50 years, I can only refer to my own experience.

I did my undergraduate work in the early 1960s at a SLAC. My SLAC did not have a graduate school so we had no TAs. The physics and chemistry laboratory sections were all taught by regular full-time faculty. But these were the good old days in which student enrollments kept increasing and grant money flowed freely.

But we actually did have one or two adjuncts who taught there. These adjuncts were outside professionals who taught specialized courses that the regular faculty were not qualified to handle, much in the same sense that Barack Obama was an adjunct instructor at the University of Chicago Law School while he was serving as a state senator. For example, I took an engineering draftsmanship course taught by an adjunct who was a working mechanical engineer.

Later on in the 1960s, while I was in graduate school, I was a TA for the first year and I taught a couple of the laboratory sections of the large introductory physics course, as well as a couple of recitation sections. The graduate student TAs were restricted to handling Laboratory and recitation sections and were not trusted to handle any of the regular classes. As far as I am aware, all of the regular physics courses (both introductory and advanced) in the department were taught by full-time tenure-track faculty members. I was unaware of any part-time or adjunct faculty teaching there. But these were the days of expanding universities and freely-flowing research grant money, and just about every graduate student could be assured of landing a tenure-track job upon graduation.

But the bottom dropped out shortly thereafter, and by the time that I graduated, the job market had severely tightened, and a lot of fresh graduates (including me) had a hard time landing anything at all, or they drifted gypsy-like from one temporary postdoc to another while they vainly tried to find a full-time teaching position.

After a couple of years as a postdoc, I eventually landed a gig at Research Intensive Technological Institution, and I taught there throughout the 1970s. There were actually a couple of part-timers who taught evening classes there, but all of the regular day classes (including the lab sections and the recitation sections) were taught by regular full-time tenure-track or tenured faculty members. Our department chairman would often point out with pride that we were not running a “mail-order” department.

While I was there, the school experimented with an off-site television program, designed to attract student working at jobs in the suburbs. The classes were taught by live instructors in a classroom with live students, but the sessions were televised to students sitting in studios at remotely-located facilities.

Later after I went to work at Large Telecommunications Company, I actually continued for a couple of years to teach evening classes part time at my old employer at Research Intensive Technological Institute.

So up to this time, I did indeed encounter adjuncts and part-timers (I was one of them), but they were always a small minority, and most of the teaching was still being done by regular, full-time faculty members.

But when I got back into the academic game in 2002, things had changed. Rather than being a small minority, part-timers were now a majority. When I started teaching at Proprietary Art Institute, most of the faculty teaching there (including me) were part-timers, some of them being “freeway fliers”, teaching at two or even three institutions at the same time. The graduate schools had produced a massive oversupply of people seeking to get higher-ed teaching positions, most of them doomed to never being able to get full-time employment.

The dominance of adjuncts and part-timers in the academic world is a relatively recent phenomenon.
"you’d think that the only reason that we don’t have the academic job market of 1966 is that deans are foolishly caught up in faddish imitation of the private sector. "

Well, um, aren't you in favor of eliminating tenure and view improving "productivity" despite the lack of observable metrics in "critical thinking" as a major goal? And you're one of the good guys!

Thanks for that feedback, ArtMathProf, concerning a similar era to my own (if a bit earlier and at a smaller undergrad school).

One tricky situation is that it is not always obvious who is actually tenure track as opposed to full time but not in a permanent line. I'm thinking of one case where the post-doc doing a recitation looked older than the young Asst Professor teaching the course. i only found out his status a year or two later.

My experience as a TA sounds similar to yours. Were we considered adjuncts? My contract was not for a specific course or courses, and our names were nowhere to be seen on any course-level info, yet we signed the grade forms as instructor of record for our recitation section. We would be invisible to anyone researching adjuncts, yet we -- along with some regular faculty with a similar assignment -- had almost half of the contact hours for the class.

PS - I'm fascinated by your 1970s example of off-site use of live TV lectures. Distance ed is definitely not a new thing.
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