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.

When I was non-tenure-track faculty, I was allowed to take classes at the institution for free. I took computer science. Now I work full-time in the private sector, and I make much better money than what I was being paid when I was teaching.
I would like to see accreditation agencies & audits hold colleges accountable for the full-time professor/student ratio they claim or change the accreditation qualifications. That would solve some of the underemployment of highly educated people.
That is a very interesting suggestion. For example, there are some tech jobs (such as a fair segment of computer programming) that require logical thinking or a design sense but hardly any math skills. That is the sort of question that the Labor Dept stats people should be able to explore.

One thing that I think you dismiss too easily is the arms race at top research universities and its impact on budgets. Unfortunately, I can't seem to locate the one minor datum I might have from the ancient past on faculty salaries or I would generate at least an anecdote on what top people made "back in the day", although I do know that their teaching load was higher than is common today.

That might not help fund a better mix at community colleges, but more full-time adjunct positions at universities would be a start.

PS - We have a number of full-time tenured faculty who teach in the afternoon and night. Some even prefer that time slot, just as some find better students by teaching at 8:00 AM or earlier. (And either slot can improve the overlap of two working parents with young children.)
and some good and innocent people have been left out in the cold

Still, the most obvious solution for those people—smart, highly educated, knowledgeable about their situations—is to go find something else to do. That so many of them don't may be a signal of their own quality.

There seem to be many, many people who want to work as adjuncts. I've been digging for an adjunct gig teaching English or grant writing in New York City for the past two semesters; in my real job, I'm a grant writer, but that primarily entails sitting in front of a computer, alone, day after day. I like teaching and think it's important; therefore I'd like to keep doing it. But finding a gig has been much harder than I thought it would be. A lot of people evidently want these jobs and are qualified for them.

Incidentally, we've been hired to do at least one TAACCT. And yes, the acronym is horrible, but not particularly more horrible than many other acronyms we've heard over the years.
Alt-Ac can't deliver any fundamental improvements here. It can do something to help a few people on the margin, but think it through: Suppose that we put half of all adjuncts into alt-ac positions. Depending on the stats you read, adjuncts are between 50 and 70 percent of the academic workforce. To use round numbers that are favorable to this proposal, let's say 50%. So we put half of those adjuncts into alt-ac positions, and their sections are picked up by the other adjuncts.

Well, great, we've just improved things for all those adjuncts, right, either by giving them higher-status and higher-paid jobs, or at least by giving them more sections and proportionately more pay. Problem solved, right?

Well, half the adjuncts are now doing....something. Running tutoring centers, giving curriculum reform workshops, overseeing mentoring programs, developing digital resources, whatever. Great and important things, and the students are benefiting, but where are their improved salaries coming from? Their instructional salaries have mostly been transferred to other adjuncts. All these new pipeline program coordinators and digital information literacy specialists and cultural center directors and whatnot need salaries. Where are those salaries coming from? What's that? We'll pay them crap wages? Oh, then they're in the same boat they were in as adjuncts. Except that the total amount of crap wages paid had to go up. So the price tag of education _still_ went up.

However, the managerial classes seem to have better luck at getting the political system to fund positions for the managerial class than positions for educators in the trenches. So maybe the political system could be persuaded to fund these positions, if they were labeled Director of Pipeline Programs and Associate Dean for Digital Resources and Deputy Associate Dean of the Cultural Center. In other words, get support for them through the same channels that have been willing (and even eager, through mandates) to support the growth of administrative bloat throughout the system.

If you won't go there, free tuition for adjuncts to take practical courses, and minimal/zero paperwork and hoops to take that benefit (I've seen schools demand evidence that the use of the tuition benefit is going to improve performance in immediate instructional duties) is probably the only way to help them transition. And then you have to also go to the PhD programs and implement an academic birth control program that comes perilously close to the Chinese One Child Policy.
The reason this would never fly is that from the DOL perspective, this is a group of people who are not displaced by global competition. They chose their career path poorly and got screwed. There isn't a DOL grant for that.

What differentiates them from the people DOL likes to help is that they have advanced degrees. I had a heck of a time selling a grant that went to people with Bachelor's degrees even though it raised their earning potential by about $20 per hour and their chance of employment after the fact was almost 100% guaranteed. I don’t like your chances with folks with doctorates.

This is not a group that needs a DOL program. What they need is a wealthy spouse or sponsor to financially support them (I'm not kidding - half the faculty of my old school had this). Barring that, they need faculty advisors who understand the exigencies of the current job market enough to encourage their students to 1)get internships as an undergrad that prepare them for paid employment after school in a field that they could pursue for at least 10 years, 2)wait a couple years before going to grad school and establish a professional skill – in the sciences this might mean working in a lab as a research associate for a couple of years – critically, establishing your skills so that if you need to go back to industry you have some experience and contacts and 3)allow grad students to have employment outside of school, other than teaching, that could translate into non-academic work. Basically, every student should have a robust back-up plan and should make some real money before going to grad school.

I feel badly for adjuncts because I know that feeling of failure that comes from walking away from academia. But there are lots of other things out there for smart people to do and we should have the self-esteem to say “I’m better than this” even if we are good at teaching, even if we love research, because the reality is that our economic health is important to us, our family, and our community. It is hard to walk away from something that you love but there’s a big world out there and we all deserve to have a part of it that doesn’t involve the 21st century equivalent of starving in a garret for our art.

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