Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Adjunct Adjustment Act

Jennifer Dalby (@injenuity) had a great line on Twitter this weekend. She noted that the Federal TAACCCT grant -- possibly the worst acronym of the decade -- provides funds to retrain workers who have been displaced by global trade and to place them into fields in which they’re likelier to be able to make an adult living.  But the very retraining provided is likely to be provided by adjuncts, who themselves are badly underpaid.  She suggested a TAACCCT grant -- presumably with a better acronym -- for adjuncts.  Call it the Adjunct Adjustment Act.

As dark as it is, there’s some real truth to it.  As with many other industries, the business model of higher education has shifted in what appear to be irreversible ways, and some good and innocent people have been left out in the cold. The extent to which that’s a result of global trade is debatable, but it’s a long-term, structural displacement either way.  In the case of higher ed, the folks who draw the short straw tend to be highly educated themselves. That’s how they got to be where they are in the first place.  People who have done that well for that long in the credential accumulation business should be highly trainable, if they’re willing.

That said, though, I’m having trouble getting past a few barriers.  Maybe some wise and worldly readers can help me see around these corners.

At the most basic level, passing an Adjunct Adjustment Act would require admitting that there’s a serious structural problem with the employment system in higher education.. “Structural” is the key word in that sentence.  If it were a matter of this administrator or that one being blinkered, then we’d see issues here and there, but not across the country, at every level, in every state, regardless of who is in charge.  But the issues are pervasive, and they outlast any given provost or president.  To my reading, that suggests that the usual pitchforks-and-torches approach misses the point. It’s simply not credible to assert that we could restore a golden age of tenure track employment if we just tried harder. The issues are far deeper than that.

But the constituency that’s willing to hear that message is thin.  Outside of higher education, “college” functions as a politically neutral way to address class mobility.  It offers a veneer of merit to an increasingly polarized distribution of wealth, and it offers an answer to people asking how the poor might escape poverty (or how the children of the middle class can remain middle class).  There’s enough truth to that story on an individual level that people can believe it, and it helps to deflect class resentment away from more radical options.  Suddenly calling the redemptive function of education into question could lead to some uncomfortable “now what?” moments that some people would much rather avoid.

Within higher education, any sustained effort to increase labor costs will run quickly into concerns about higher tuition.  An effort to equalize compensation across ranks would generate massive opposition from incumbents.  And given the rapid pace of production of new doctorates, even a massive infusion of money would only serve to feed an even larger structural problem going forward.  As long as supply and demand remain out of whack, we’ll have a problem.

(And that’s if we only look at labor costs.  Looking at my own college, for example, making everyone full-time who wanted to be would require constructing new buildings for several hundred new faculty offices.  That money would have to come from somewhere.  We’d also have to repeal the “no full-timers teach at night” rule.)

The “alt-ac” movement strikes me as one of the smarter and more hopeful developments I’ve seen in a while.  It’s an attempt to open up new job avenues for liberal arts doctorates, and to encourage graduate programs to take those alternatives seriously.  An Adjunct Adjustment Act, done right, could give the “alt-ac” movement a push, in terms of both money and visibility.  

Although the politics of it would be difficult, I can’t help but think that the chronic underemployment of so many highly educated people represents a massive social waste.  We’re wasting talent.  Surely, if we put our minds to it, we could find other uses for all that talent, beyond just yelling at colleges to metastasize.  There must be a better way.  The irony of adjuncts teaching the retraining courses is real, but there’s no conceptual reason those positions couldn’t be full-time.  They probably couldn’t be tenured, but they could be full-time.

I’m not sure what the AAA would look like, but there’s enough truth to the concept that I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand.  Thank you, Jennifer Dalby, for connecting those dots.  Now we just have to figure out what the constellation looks like.