Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Response to The New Faculty Majority

The New Faculty Majority has drafted a proposal calling for adjuncts to get tenure (or its functional equivalent) and proportional pay and benefits for their teaching.

A few thoughts:

First, I understand the impulse, and there’s some validity to it. Folks on my side of the desk often claim, correctly, that part of the appeal of adjuncts is flexibility. In return, union activists typically brush aside concerns from flexibility as euphemisms for cheapness. Controlling for cost actually isolates flexibility as a variable. Given parity, would we still have adjuncts? I say yes, because enrollments aren’t perfectly predictable, departures aren’t perfectly predictable, and some subject areas will never have high enrollments. (Will we ever have enough students to justify a full-time professor for every instrument the music department teaches? No.) When you have enrollment peaks and valleys following economic cycles, you simply can’t have perfectly steady-state staffing. It cannot be done. Flexibility is not just a euphemism.

It’s also true that the expectations for professionalism in the classroom are the same. I don’t expect adjuncts to attend meetings for which they aren’t paid, but when teaching a class, I fully expect them to do a good job. And most do. In my adjuncting days, I did. If the expectations are the same, there’s an argument for the pay to be the same.

I’ll even grant that it’s true that many newer adjuncts are as qualified, if not more so, than some of the folks who get tenure decades ago. To my mind, that says as much about tenure as it does about adjuncts, but you can read it the other way, too.

And I get the basic awfulness of trying to cobble together a living one course at a time. Been there, done that. No argument there.

I’ll stipulate that the NFM basically means well, and is motivated by sincere concern for some folks who’ve been struggling for a long time.

All of that granted, though, I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m not even convinced they’re asking the right questions.

I’ll start with a really basic fact. Over 80 percent of my college’s budget is labor, and instruction is the single largest part of that. The college’s operating income -- that is, the money that we can use to pay for salaries and ongoing expenses -- comes from exactly two sources: tuition and the state. If you push through a drastic increase in labor costs, how, exactly, do you propose to pay for it?

Do you propose doubling tuition? Are you seriously trying to argue that the major issue with the economics of higher education is that tuition hasn’t been going up fast enough? That students are graduating (or dropping out) with insufficient loan debt? To my mind, and to most of the public’s mind, this argument is dead on arrival. If anything, we need to reduce the rate of tuition increase, not accelerate it. A drastic hike in tuition costs is simply off the table.

Do you propose squeezing more out of the state? I’d love to see that happen, too. What’s the missing tactic? What can we try that hasn’t been tried? And how do we ensure that the increase survives administrations of both parties, and both good times and bad? How do you help the state meet its obligations to K-12, corrections, health care, and pensions, and still have enough left over to meet the newly-raised needs of higher ed? If you have an idea, I’m all ears. If not, your proposal is not to be taken seriously.

You could always demagogue it and go with administration and/or athletics. Go ahead. Do the math. I make less than the average tenured English professor at the state university; if you want to talk bloat, let’s really talk bloat. In the community college world, administration and athletics are not, by and large, big ticket items. My college has fewer deans now than it had two years ago, and it has cut several teams already. I have no issue with those who say that, for example, Rutgers University’s decision to double down on football was tragically stupid; it was. But we don’t have a football team. You can’t cut below zero.

In terms of administration, what would you cut? Should we stop trying to comply with the ADA? Should we stop evaluating faculty altogether, and just trust that everybody is perfect? Perhaps we should stop giving financial aid, since it requires so many staff. Who cares about accreditation? Who cares about IT? Who cares about payroll? (Whoops.)

In my experience, carping about “administrative bloat” is similar to Republicans carping about “wasteful government.” It feels good, it gives a common enemy, and it lets you dodge some difficult questions. But until you actually specify what you’re talking about, it’s bluffing. You want to reduce the salaries of a few Big 10 Presidents? Knock yourself out, but don’t pretend for one minute that that’ll help me balance my books. It won’t.

Can you guarantee that enrollments will never go down? How? Because if you can’t, then asking me to commit to the current staffing level -- which is what tenure for adjuncts would amount to -- would guarantee insolvency at the first enrollment dip. If you can, I’d love to hear how...

Can you guarantee that the distribution of students among programs will never change? If not, then building in tenure for everybody will guarantee underused staff the first time the enrollments shift. And it will guarantee seat shortages in the newly popular areas, since I’ll be so swamped trying to pay for the tenured that I won’t be able to hire new people.

Or, are you proposing that we add up all the tenured and adjunct salaries, and simply divide? That would be revenue-neutral, and would result in some serious raises for the adjuncts. The tenured folk would probably get a little crabby, though. (For that matter, I’d love to see the faculty meeting in which you guys float your proposal to ban overloads. Hoo boy, good luck with that...) Hell, while we’re at it, ‘parity’ with whom, exactly? Different tenure-track professors make different salaries, based on all kinds of variables. And would freeway fliers get tenure at three or four different places simultaneously? Would I be obligated to work with those schools for years to come to cobble together schedules? If so, we’ll need a lot more administrators to coordinate it...

This proposal is so far removed from the reality of running a college that it’s genuinely difficult to take seriously. It’s the result of asking the wrong questions.

The right question is not how to squeeze more people into an unsustainable structure. The right question is how to make the structure sustainable. That requires serious discussions of flexibility, productivity, accountability, and funding streams. It requires acknowledging the reality of the tuition cost spiral, state budget deficits, and Republicans. Wish lists won’t cut it.

If the NFM wanted to engage the right questions, I would be more than happy to welcome it to the discussion. But if the best it can muster is “the same, but more,” I have work to do. We all do.