March 6 2017
Who is to blame for the sorry state of higher education? There is no shortage of answers to this question. But the Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade publication of professional academics, is probably not the place to look for them. So it was a little surprising when, a couple of weeks ago, the editors decided to reprint a speech called, “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the humanities survive on exploitation.”
Given by Harvard writing instructor Kevin Birmingham upon receipt of the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, the speech lays out the ways in which academia screws the people at the bottom of the ladder. According to Birmingham:
Tenured faculty represent only seventeen percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled . . . A 2014 congressional report suggests that eighty-nine percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; thirteen percent work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. … An English-department adjunct at Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course.
Birmingham is right to note that adjuncts are great for universities’ budgets. They are not only cheap but they also provide flexibility in the curricula. You can add and drop classes and subjects quickly. And he is also right that it is not simply administrators who are culpable for this—though certainly they have chosen not to prioritize teaching at most universities. (Even at small liberal arts colleges publication is more likely to get you promoted than good teaching.)
It is the senior faculty themselves who benefit from having cheap labor who can take over the daily grind of grading papers and exams. They are in fact actively helping to create this lower class of academics. “The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new Ph.Ds. who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates,” Birmingham argues.
This is not the first time an academic has pointed out the hypocrisy of academic institutions filled with people who love to criticize every other industry for mistreating workers and making too much money off the backs of the poor. But every time senior faculty hear this cry, they get just a teensy bit defensive.
Which is why the Chronicle immediately published a response by Blaine Greteman, a tenured professor of English at the University of Iowa, with the unsurprising title, “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis.”
Greteman argues that it is not senior faculty who are to blame for adjuncts’ abysmal situation, but America itself. “The plight of adjunct laborers in our system is a serious one,” he writes. “But if we are going to understand and address its systemic causes, it is essential that we understand it as one of the worst symptoms of a larger devaluation of labor, of academic access, and of intellectual work.” (There is no acknowledgement, of course, that by teaching a great deal of nonsense, academics have devalued intellectual work themselves).
In fact, Greteman believes he has found the real culprit: Republicans! “The share of workers receiving defined-benefit pensions [has] collapsed, dropping from sixty percent in 1980 to ten percent in 2006. During the same period, jobs offering health insurance and livable wages also declined precipitously. In my state, earlier this month, Republicans at the Capitol followed Scott Walker’s Wisconsin playbook to strip graduate students, teachers, and other public employees of the right to bargain for decent wages and benefits,” he argues.
That’s right; this academic is arguing that if only we had more unions and defined-benefit pension plans (and fewer Republicans), then we could ensure that adjuncts would be paid fairly. (He fails to mention that our universities would then end up looking like Detroit.)
Sadly, though, Greteman is right about one thing: No matter what academics argue about other industries, or criticize Republican politicians for doing, or claim would make the global economy more fair and resources more equitably distributed, there’s no way senior academics are going to give up what they have in order to help the little guy. In academia, at least, hypocrisy is the price professors are willing to pay for total job security. And equality is far more appealing in theory than in practice.