Monday, July 04, 2016

Sounds Wrong, But…

A new piece in Liberal Education claims that for-profits caused the rise in the use of adjuncts.  Did they?

Intuitively, I’d say no.  For one thing, the adjunct trend started in the 1970’s, but for-profits didn’t become major players in higher education in America until the 1990’s.  And the adjunct trend is most pronounced in disciplines that for-profits either downplay or ignore entirely, like English and history.  The idea that DeVry’s hiring pattern made one whit of difference at, say, Rutgers just doesn’t ring true.

That said, the piece (by Phillip Magness) makes a pretty strong case.

Magness charts the rise of for-profits and the rise of adjunct hiring against each other, showing a strong correlation.  He also shows that despite what we often hear, the ratio of full-time faculty to enrolled students has remained fairly steady since about the mid-1970’s.  (Narratives of decline from the Golden Age typically start at 1970, and fail to mention that the late 60’s to early 70’s were an outlier, historically.)  He also makes a useful distinction between “non-tenure-track” or “contingent” faculty and “adjunct” faculty.  The former group could include full-time faculty at colleges without tenure systems -- a role I occupied at DeVry for several years -- as well as “term” appointments at more traditional places.

Magness shows two major periods of growth in the percentage of positions defined as adjunct.  The first, in the early 1970’s, he correlates to the rise of community colleges.  The second, in the 1990’s and 2000’s, correlates to the rise of for-profits.  Underlying both trends, he notes, is an absolute increase in the number of full-time, tenure-track positions; the shift in percentages reflects the even greater growth in adjunct positions.  In other words, adjunct positions weren’t primarily replacements for existing full-time ones, though they may have been alternatives to new full-time ones.

The rapid decline of the for-profit sector over the last few years will likely bring with it a decline in the overall percentage of faculty positions covered by adjuncts, given the sector’s much heavier reliance on adjunct faculty.  But the reduced percentage, which looks like good news at first blush, doesn’t necessarily imply meaningful growth in tenure-track jobs.  It mostly means fewer adjunct jobs, and more competition for them.  (I’d add that declining enrollment at community colleges may have a similar, if less dramatic, effect.  The first sections to be cut are adjunct sections.)

Part of the reason that Magness’ argument feels so wrong may be that the more popular understanding of adjunctification actually fits English departments pretty well.  English departments tend to be staffed by people who like to write, so they occupy more of the discursive space than their raw numbers would warrant.  But their own discipline is a bit of an outlier, statistically.

In part, I think, the intuitive wrongness of it stems from different definitions.  If you look at higher education as a whole, and positions as a whole, it’s hard to argue with much of Magness’ thesis.  If you use “adjunctification” as a sort of shorthand for “it’s hard to get tenure-track jobs in academic fields, but easy to find adjunct gigs,” then his argument mostly comes off as irrelevant.

The larger issue, though, is causality.  If you define the rise of adjuncts as covering higher education as a whole, then yes, the abrupt rise of an adjunct-heavy sector would cause the overall numbers to move.  But if you look at hiring and resource decisions at the level of an individual institution, there’s no evidence that DeVry influenced Rutgers one way or the other.  The University of Phoenix may have moved the dial systemically, but it wasn’t the reason I didn’t get hired at Oberlin.  The questions are related, but distinct.

Any study like this is prone to methodological quibbles.  For example, is a full-time staff person or administrator who teaches a class on the side properly considered an adjunct?  If the goal is to distinguish tenure-track from not, then yes; if the goal is to distinguish benefited from not, then no.  If a tenured professor teaches an overload section for adjunct pay -- about a third of ours do -- are those sections properly considered adjunct?  (They’re coded that way in our system.)  Those may sound like nitpicks, but the numbers aren’t small.  A few tweaks to the definitions can shift the lines significantly.

Magness’ article has that “I don’t quite buy it, but I can’t quite refute it” feel that can stick in my craw for a good, long time.  I mean that as a compliment.  It’s a different way of looking at what I thought was a fairly settled question.  It’s well worth the read, and the argument.