Friday, December 01, 2006

A Response to the AFT

According to IHE, the American Federation of Teachers is putting together a major state-by-state initiative to lobby state legislatures to achieve the following:

- A full-time/adjunct ratio of 3:1 in public colleges.
- Hiring preferences for adjuncts in applying for full-time positions
- Pay and benefit parity for adjuncts, relative to full-timers, presumably on a pro-rata basis

To which I say, respectively:

- Great, show me the money.
- No *#%)@#%ing way.
- Great, show me the money.

In this political climate, it's fantasy to suggest that state legislatures are going to commit to showering public higher ed with substantially increased appropriations for operating costs on a permanent basis. Not. Going. To. Happen. In the absence of dramatically (and sustainably) increased appropriations, a 3:1 quota would be nothing more than a budget-busting unfunded mandate. (The alternative, of course, would be backbreaking tuition increases, but we catch so much political heat for the current level of tuition increases that, again, we're talking fantasyland.)

Assume that a legislature passed a 3:1 quota and/or a parity mandate, and didn't pass a correspondingly sufficient appropriation increase to pay for it. Likely consequences:

- Elimination of programs altogether
- Accelerated rates of tuition increase
- New definitions of positions that violate current common sense
- Workarounds beyond belief
- Outright non-compliance until a court overturns the mandate(s), which it would

Variation: the state passes a sufficient appropriation for the first year or two, then starts chipping away at it until the next recession, when it takes a cleaver to it, expecting the colleges to somehow make up the difference out of, I don't know, toner and paper clips.

Given that state budgets include services that don't have other revenue sources and aren't culturally considered 'private goods' – K-12 education, the corrections system, infrastructure, etc. -- higher ed will always be easier to cut than other things. Every time a recession hits, higher ed gives more than its pound of flesh. I see no reason to think this will change.

The suggestion for hiring preferences for existing adjuncts strikes me as the likeliest to actually pass, but also the most objectionable. Here in the real world, the existing adjunct pool has been chosen primarily for geographic propinquity, time-slot availability, and the personal taste of department chairs. These are not the criteria to use when looking for people to fill tenure-eligible roles. (This is not to deny that many adjuncts are excellent teachers. It's just to say that, in the real world, adjunct staffing typically is as much or more a function of availability as it is of excellence.)

In a very white, very affluent area like mine, the existing adjunct pool is mostly white people who bought homes here many years ago when it was still affordable, or spouses of wealthy people. Giving these folks preference in hiring is affirmative action for older, wealthier white people. I'll pass, thanks. (To forestall the inevitable flaming, I know this is atypical. My point is that geography is a powerful determinant of who fills adjunct positions, and we'd be ratifying existing provincialism.)

Establishing preference for adjuncts also creates a de facto extension of grad school, during which new Ph.D.'s, awash in student loan debt, will be consigned to adjunct ranks regardless of talent, until they've built up enough chits to break through. By that point, their research will have aged significantly, and more like tuna salad than a fine wine. Grad school is long enough now. (Yes, I know that the sciences have a system of 'post-docs' that constitute another hoop, but those pay considerably better than adjunct gigs, and usually come with at least basic benefits. They also involve further work on the research, which adjuncting does not.)

Most disturbingly, the entire concept of preference for adjuncts gets the priorities wrong. Full-time faculty positions, whether in a tenure system or a renewable-contract system, aren't entitlements or rewards. They're jobs, like other jobs. They should go to whomever seems best able to do the work. Yes, that will involve some subjective judgments, and yes, some of those judgments will be wrong. But to give up the national market for faculty in favor of “I got here first” is to enshrine an incestuous spoils-based system and to ensure provincialism for decades to come. Terrible, terrible idea.

I fully agree with the AFT that the way adjuncts, as a group, are treated is exploitative and disgusting. (Regular readers know my stand on that.) But the AFT's proposals, however well-intentioned, are disasters waiting to happen. If you really want to solve the problem, you have to attack it at its root: graduate admissions. Until the labor surplus goes away, exploitation will continue.