Thursday, December 04, 2008

Some Thoughts on the AFT Report

The American Federation of Teachers has released a report (here) complete with an interactive excel tool designed to both motivate colleges to convert more adjuncts to full-time status and to pay adjuncts on a pro-rata basis. The spreadsheet allows you, in theory, to plug in the numbers from your own college to see what it would cost to hit a targeted full-time/adjunct ratio.

It's a surreal read. Check it out. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes.

Honestly, I'm the writer's equivalent of speechless. The report is so bad that it circles around and becomes a sort of unintentional black comedy. If this report reflects the state of union thinking about the adjunct trend, I'd bet the mortgage that the trend will continue. “Provincial” doesn't even begin to capture it. I'd be insulted if I weren't so flabbergasted.

Just for fun, take a gander at page 21 of the report, in which it presents numbers for what it calls Sample State University. It blandly reports that SSU will have to spend an extra 64 million dollars per year to achieve parity at a 75/25 ratio. 64 million per year! For no new output! I don't even know what to say to that. There's 'rent-seeking,' and then there's self-parody. From whence that extra 64 million will come is left unspecified. Just for the sake of comparison, 64 million is about 1 ½ times my cc's entire annual budget. So you'd be talking about the funding equivalent of opening multiple new campuses across the state, for no more student seats. A rational taxpayer would want to do that because...?

The authors of the report are apparently unaware that all colleges of any size have comptrollers and accountants and fiscal people who are entirely capable of calculating these costs. That's precisely why the adjunct trend is so tenacious. We know exactly what reversing the trend would cost, and we don't have that kind of money lying around.

The report doesn't really bother to explain why adjusting ratios or bringing 'parity' in pay would be worthwhile expenditures, which suggests that it isn't actually written to persuade. To persuade, it would have to quantify the benefits of paying an extra 64 million for the exact same output, and to compare the benefits from that use of 64 million to the benefits of other uses for it, like, say, opening entire new campuses with new employees and lots of new student seats. Or technology incubators, or enhanced basic research, or tax cuts, or infrastructure repair, or (insert your favorite goody here). The outcome of that comparison isn't hard to predict, which probably explains its absence.

Persuasion would also have to include some sort of explanation as to why existing full-time salaries are taken as the unquestioned standard. Mathematically, parity could result from paying both full-timers and adjuncts the per-course average of what the two groups get now. In other words, instead of full-timers making 6k per course and adjuncts 2k, everybody makes 4k. Cluster the salaries around some sort of market-clearing midpoint and see what happens. Hint: it doesn't involve an extra 64 million.

The report doesn't make any serious attempt to address the outside-of-class tasks for which full-timers are paid. Even at the cc level, where we really don't sponsor research in any serious way, we do require full-time faculty to advise students, to put in office hours, and to do various sorts of college service. Adjuncts aren't required to do any of those. To look at the full-timers' pay as if teaching comprised their entire jobs is simply to get it wrong.

This point is more delicate, but if we're putting it out there, let's put it out there. The average adjunct is not as qualified as the average new full-timer. (I'm not addressing the folks hired back in the 60's, when the market was entirely different.) And I'm not just talking about them receiving less institutional support, though that's certainly true. Full-timers are recruited nationally, and vetted by search committees, deans, and vice presidents. It's not unusual to get hundreds of applications for a single position, even at the cc level. When we hire someone to the tenure track, we've chosen the best of hundreds. Adjuncts are hired locally, ensuring a far smaller pool. They're often chosen based on their availability for a given time slot. Yes, some of them are excellent instructors. Yes, sometimes we luck out and find really good people whose life circumstances steer them to us. (That was me, back in the mid-90's.) But the idea that, on average, the best of hundreds aren't any better than the best who live within a thirty minute drive and are available on Tuesdays at 12:30 just doesn't pass the sniff test.

If you want parity of pay, establish parity of qualifications and parity of vetting. Otherwise, you're paying the same and getting less.

In reading the report, I keep circling back to the question of 'intended audience.' Who, exactly, is it written for? It's obviously not written for academic administrators – that is, those of us who actually make the budgeting decisions. We know what '64 million' actually means. It's not written for adjuncts, who know perfectly well that their pay sucks. It's not written for the public, since the public would want to know – fairly enough – just where all that new money would come from (hint: the public), and what benefits it would get for all that money. I don't even think it's written for full-time faculty, since many of them understand intuitively that leveling can work down as well as up. (The faculty union at Rutgers recognized this last year and actually accepted a smaller raise for its members in order to fund more new tenure-track positions. If a union is serious about helping, it should look to the Rutgers example.)

As near as I can figure, the report is written for the union itself. It's preaching to the choir, rallying the troops, waving the bloody shirt. It's written to the already-convinced, who, after all, don't need to be persuaded. The excel tool is a cute add-on to try to distract from the narcissism by doing something that looks all business-y and reasonable. Until you actually crunch the numbers.

But if the union itself were the issue, the trend would have evaporated decades ago.

The issue is both simpler and far more complicated. On a simple level, it's about public funding. At my cc, the operating budget for next year is currently projected to be 10 percent lower than two years ago, even before adjusting for inflation. (If you adjust, the cut is even worse.) 80 percent of the budget is labor. (Another 7 is utilities.) In this context, the AFT suggests massive increases in labor costs? Frankly, we'll be lucky to avoid layoffs.

The more complicated cause is the relative difficulty of increasing 'productivity' when the 'product' itself is measured in time. Other than increasing tuition, increasing class size, or decreasing pay, how do you improve the economic 'productivity' of someone teaching 45 hours a semester? When most of the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and we don't realize any for decades, a funding crunch is utterly predictable. Unless we get away from the 'seat time' model, we'll be stuck in a work-speedup/cost-runup cycle until we simply break the market. Which we're perilously close to doing now.

As regular readers know, I've been an adjunct, and I've fought tooth-and-nail where I've worked to increase the ranks of full-time faculty. I've advised prospective graduate students to dodge grad school altogether, the better to avoid feeding the system, and I haven't been shy about pushing public policies (single-payer health care, progressive taxation, no more wars of choice, etc.) that would free up resources for higher ed. In other words, I'm not the enemy. But I can't find a single praiseworthy element to this report. It's a mockery, and a shame.

I'm happy to join any campaign to rethink higher ed in constructive ways, the better to regain public support for it. But this report fails on every level. It takes the unsustainable as given, the dubious as obvious, and the reader as an idiot. I don't often advise unions, but my free advice for the AFT is to stop preaching to the choir and start listening to the public.