Wednesday, November 29, 2006


A professor at another college once told me that he was tired of the administration giving all the fertilizer to the seasonals, and neglecting the evergreens. It's an easy trap to fall into.

Evergreens are those disciplines that have to get taught, no matter what. They also get called 'general education,' which always struck me as just a cut above 'miscellaneous' as a label. The usual suspects include English, math, history, science, and psychology, among others. What distinguishes these from most other departments is that the intro courses are required or highly popular among people who don't major in the disciplines themselves, so the teaching load is bottom-heavy. In a given semester, we might run 30 sections of General Psych or 50 of Composition 1, but only one each of Psych of Personality or Women in Literature. That's because Nursing and engineering and criminal justice majors take Composition and General Psych to fulfill 'gen ed' requirements, but only English majors go on to the literature classes.

In departments that are more self-contained, the teaching is distributed more evenly over the spectrum from intro to upper-level courses.

As a general rule, the 'gen ed' disciplines tend to accumulate higher proportions of adjuncts than the more self-contained disciplines. The adjuncts are usually clustered in the intro courses, since the full-time faculty (who usually have first dibs) generally prefer to stick to the upper levels, to the extent possible. (At a cc, it isn't really possible, so even full professors in psych and English teach plenty of intro sections.) Evergreen disciplines usually have pretty reliable labor surpluses, in terms of faculty, and they always have plenty of intro sections, so they carry staggering quantities of adjuncts.

The contrast to 'boutique' programs is striking. Any given program has a minimum of full-time staff it needs to run at all. If the program is small, that full-time staff will cover most of the sections. A new program carries with it the prospect of growth (which is usually why it got introduced in the first place), so administrators are more willing to put in additional resources, since there's a prospect of it paying back. If you grow the full-time cohort in, say, English, the payback is harder to measure.

Over time, the perverse outcome is that the central, core teaching areas are the likeliest to be outsourced to high-turnover, part-time instructors, while the smaller and more peripheral areas are likelier to get the full-time lines. I can't think of another industry in which this pattern would hold.

In most industries, off the top of my head, one of two patterns holds: either you have a full-time core and add temps for seasonal fluctuations (like retail at Christmas), or you have a full-time core and add 'consultants' (who are temps who get paid more than the full-time staff) for individual projects with sunset clauses. In the first case, low-paid temps help with peak demand. In the second, high-paid temps give you flexibility, albeit at a serious financial cost. In academia, we have highly-trained but low-paid temps who help with the core function. There's something deeply weird about that.

(The disparity is even more annoying when you contrast faculty and office staff. Office temps cost more than do full-timers, even while adjuncts cost less than full-timers. In my first year at my cc, I lost four professors and a secretary to retirement, and was only able to replace the secretary.)

My suspicion is that the uniquely awful situation of adjuncts in academia is a direct result of the unique institution of tenure. Tenure isn't the solution; it's part of the problem. The incredible lack of fiscal and personnel flexibility that tenure in the boutique programs imposes on the institution has to be made up somewhere. If a boutique program's enrollments slide, but its faculty still has tenure, there isn't much the college can do. But there will always be composition, and there will be retirements that can be adjuncted-out.

Worse, when a college struggles financially, one of the time-honored moves it will make to try to recover is to start some new programs that it thinks will sell. Any new program has to start with a full-time core. Any new program will lose money initially. That has to be made up somewhere, too.

I still haven't seen a systematic effort to address the causal connection between tenure and adjuncting. Richard Chait published a book a few years ago, The Questions of Tenure, in which he examined a few isolated, marginal colleges that had moved away from tenure systems to see what happened. The research design there was so basically flawed that the book really doesn't help. I don't much care what happens when Life Support College in East Briarpatch abolishes tenure for its fifteen faculty. That doesn't answer the question. (For the record, Chait found that abolishing tenure didn't matter much either way.) The real issue is systemic.

I'll take it farther. The dream of tenure motivates people to pile into overcrowded fields, thereby replenishing the reserve army of adjuncts made necessary by tenure's costs. (According to Freakonomics, drug dealing works by the same principle. Most dealers make below the minimum wage, all told, but they stick with it on the off-chance of becoming one of the conspicuous winners in a winner-take-all, tournament-style system. This strikes me as an undesirable parallel.)

A friend of mine applied for a position teaching history at NYU. NYU has a program, apparently, in which full-time faculty are hired on non-renewable three-year contracts to teach the gen ed evergreens. He complained that it was exploitative. I thought it was innovative, and actually admirable. The real alternative wouldn't be dream positions; it would be ever more adjuncts. I'm not wild about the 'non-renewable' part, but I would guess it's a way to get around the AAUP guidelines about the tenure clock. My preferred model would be full-time multi-year renewable contracts, with renewal premised on both performance and enrollments. Am I right to prefer it? I haven't yet seen a rigorous analysis that would convince me either way. It's a guess, and it could well be wrong.

But I'm tired of apologizing for a failing status quo. The existing system is broken; any serious conversation about it has to start from that premise. There's an inexorable pull to starve the evergreens to feed the seasonals. Do that long enough, and you're in for a nasty winter.