Thursday, October 05, 2006

Actions and Intentions

In the comments to yesterday's post about Rio Salado and the 99% adjunct faculty, someone asked:

Do you think that the emergence of adjunct exploitation is simply a rational management response, the only available avenue for restoring control over faculty that have been abusing their privileges? By radically reducing the body count of the tenured?

I can't speak for the leadership of Rio Salado, since I don't know them and they don't know me. But the point of the question, I think, goes beyond the individual case. It's really asking about the driving force behind the shift to adjuncts.

At my college, the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts has been creeping upward for several years. My college is not unique in this. Having been in the closed-door meetings in which decisions have been made to replace half of a given year's retirees with adjuncts, I can honestly say that the driving force has been financial. We've never had conversations about how nice it would be to stick it to the faculty union, or how we'd be relieved to get rid of people whose politics differ from our own, or how much we'd enjoy having an all-contingent workforce. I've never seen anyone rub his hands and cackle.

Quite the opposite. Each dean considers it a victory when s/he can hire full-timers. New full-timers are great, since we can select to fill the weaknesses we currently have. Since new full-timers, by definition, don't have tenure yet, we can pretty much assume that they'll be on their good behavior for the next several years. They bring new perspectives, they're eager to make good impressions, and, in the best cases, they can spur some overly-contented colleagues to action, if only to salvage their own pride in comparison. From an egotistical point of view, there's something profoundly satisfying about seeing 'your hire' emerge as a star. I take pride in knowing that, whatever else one might say about my record, I've hired well every time. As they say in show biz, casting is everything. Besides, we like to believe, the deadwood (not that we have any, of course...) was hired by previous administrations, who were clearly far less smart than ourselves.

Since every dean at my college has been a department chair at one time or another, we've all dealt with the reality of adjunct staffing. We've all, at one time or another, been at the point where classes start in two days, three full sections are still unstaffed, and all of the old reliables have been spoken for. As the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts creeps upward, those hit-the-wall moments become more common, and those last-minute gambles (“I hope this one will be okay”) more desperate. Full-time faculty are much less likely to simply blow off classes, or to walk away mid-semester. Good full-timers are a manager's dream, since you can assign them to classes and then not have to think about it. You know they'll be fine.

None of this is to deny that some tenured faculty retire on the job or otherwise abuse their positions, and those cases drive administrators batty. Regular readers have seen me vent on that repeatedly. It's especially maddening when you get a cluster like that, since they reinforce each other and usually turn what energies they do have to internal politics. They're parasitic on the organization, and they give tenure a bad name.

But I've never – never, not once, not ever – heard that line of argument make its way into administrators' discussions of who to replace. It's a separate issue. (I've heard the connection made by two groups: free-market idealists who object to tenure on ideological grounds, and faculty union leaders who are trying to rally the troops through demagoguery. I've never heard it made within the administration.)

The financial issue is real and daunting. With health insurance costs doubling every 5-6 years at a time when public-sector subsidies are flat or declining and significant tuition increases are politically verboten, it's impossible to balance the budget without cutting positions. Since education is labor-intensive, and our return on the increasingly sophisticated technology required in certain programs is negative, we shift to adjuncts for lack of any better alternatives. We don't like it either.

One of the frustrations of administration is that your choices are more constrained than most people realize, but people feel free to infer your intentions from your actions. So choices made as the least-bad options are taken to reflect your secret preferences. I take no glee in slowly hollowing-out my faculty. If anything, I take glee in the rare occasions I actually get to hire. Given my druthers, I'd hire much more often. I'm good at it, it's fun, and it's the right thing to do for the students. It's just not an option right now.