Growing Timid: The Faculty in the 21st Century

One of the outgrowths of the reduction in tenure-track lines, the growing number of candidates for any academic job, and the willingness of college and university administrations to rely on adjunct workers to teach lower-level courses has been an increasing timidity on the part of those lucky enough to find themselves on the tenure track.

Fifty years ago, members of the American faculty felt empowered. They had successfully survived (relatively so—there certainly had been casualties) the witch hunts of the fifties and were beginning to show leadership in the nascent anti-war movement and support for the fight for civil rights, and they were challenging college and university administrations, insisting that their voices be heard and their suggestions acted upon.

Starting in the 1970s, five forces began to turn the faculty frail. The first was its own fault: It had boxed itself in with narrow definitions of things like affirmative action and in the arena of sexual politics, creating lines that people dared not cross—lines that still exist. The second was the rise of the right, and of people like David Horowitz who took advantage of new faculty orthodoxies to launch attacks—attacks that relied on public perception and not on reality, it is true, but attacks that themselves changed the way the greater public views the faculty. One result of this was a faculty turning inward, talking to itself, rarely crossing the line separating town from gown. The third stems from the rise of the use of contingent faculty, especially adjuncts. This has placed an increasing administrative burden on the tenured and tenure-track faculty, a burden that can be used against them at times of promotion and the granting of tenure. It has also created a line between tenured and tenure-track faculty and what has become, unfortunately, the real teaching faculty of temporary hires and adjuncts. Fourth is the growth of for-profit education with its business model of top-down control. This has created a line between worker and management that is becoming extremely difficult to cross—and it has seeped across into traditional educational institutions.

Add to these the fifth and probably most important force, the deliberate use of financial exigency as a threat that not only imperils tenured positions, squeezes the tenure track, and makes those who have achieved a tenure-track position feel especially vulnerable but that becomes a means of getting more out of an already over-worked and shrinking cadre of what have become part-time and unpaid (their pay is supposed to be for teaching and scholarship, with “service” a distant third) administrators—in addition to all of their other duties. At one time, faculty unions served as a buffer against this sort of abuse, but the national anti-union sentiment has emboldened administrations to try to push unions aside—something they have been succeeding at with too great a frequency.

The faculty is the only force that can save itself from its own timidity, something that gets harder and harder the more timid the faculty grows. The only way to counter that is to support and utilize faculty unions and other organizations—vocally. Senior faculty can’t afford even the perception of an “I’ve got mine, so to hell with the rest of you” attitude—for the “mine” can disappear, in today’s environment. Junior faculty can’t afford to simply draw in and look to themselves and their own careers either. They are being drafted into greater and greater administrative roles—then denied tenure for not publishing enough. Contingent faculty, both term hires and adjuncts, the most abused of all, can’t afford the abuse that has already been heaped on them.

Can we work our way out of our timidity? I don’t know. Junior faculty today seem less willing to stand up to their administrations today than they did even five years ago. This trend is troubling. If it continues, American college and university faculty will all be Taylorized, made into easily replaceable laborers paid extremely poorly. Education will suffer, of course—as will the United States.

Yes, we all know this.

But what are we doing about it?

Are we already too timid?

7 thoughts on “Growing Timid: The Faculty in the 21st Century

  1. Aaron,

    Can I call you on the Golden-Age myth? Fifty years ago we still had significant red-baiting attacks on academic freedom in both K-12 and higher ed (e.g., the Johns Committee in Florida), men were still the predominant beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill (and thus having a B.A. as a prerequisite for graduate study), there was no Civil Rights Act or Title IX pushing university faculties to be anything other than gold-old-boys’ clubs, and for the most part there was no collective bargaining among faculty. If faculty were empowered at the time, I’m not sure we should be particularly proud of WHO felt empowered.

    • You can. But my point is that people were much more willing to stand up to authority–even if it meant losing their jobs. It happened to my father a number of times in the fifties and sixties (we were an early example of a family of academic gypsies as a result). I see too few willing to do the same today.

  2. I know this (“They are being drafted into greater and greater administrative roles—then denied tenure for not publishing enough.”) isn’t the primary point of this call to arms, but I wanted to add that publishing is not the only reason we’re being denied tenure. We can be denied tenure based on enrollment declines that have nothing to do with our research productivity.

    Suggesting that denials are enabled by a lack of scholarly activity (albeit due to increased service obligation) still suggests denials are rooted in flaws in candidates themselves and ignores one of the more insidious developments in recent years. The denial of tenure based on enrollments–there are at least 9 cases at my university in which candidates were or were nearly denied for that reason and have instead been deferred thanks to union intervention–is legal and allowable under my university’s CBA. In fact, many university contracts have clauses about “long term needs” that will allow them to terminate junior faculty via tenure cases when department numbers decrease. It’s not yet a universal practice, and so is only a tiny part of this larger story you’re laying out, but worth watching…

  3. The reorganized and refocused national leadership of AAUP is intent on making AAUP a more potent force for faculty push-back against the trends that you have so succinctly delineated.

    And the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, an informal consortium of faculty unions and associations, is attempting to provide an even broader mechanism for faculty voices not just to be heard but to be leveraged.

    But too many of the people most centrally involved in the leadership of both groups are senior–sometimes already retired–faculty. In many ways, this is understandable. Senior faculty may be not just the most qualified but the most available to serve in leadership roles.

    But as one of the faculty now in leadership roles at the chapter, state conference, and national levels, I can say without reservation that we would welcome much fuller participation by our younger colleagues.

    It is sometimes very difficult to convince faculty who have finally jumped through all of the hoops to full professorships to shift gears and step into new roles as advocates for the profession.

    But without such advocates, the profession will continue to be undermined until it no longer bears any resemblance to what it has been for most of the history of American universities.

  4. As a relative newcomer to academia, I admit to being initially taken aback by the seeming docile nature of faculty. After all, they seemed to hold such secure positions that they could easily speak and act on their own behalf and for others. Only after experiencing the University for a few years does one begin to truly appreciate how the blessings of academia are used to disarm, confuse and intimidate intellectual workers – as is noted in this article.

    Constant assaults have left college professors, often so brilliant, as a remarkably confused group of workers. Many do not know how many hours they work, what their pay rates are, or even if they are workers at all.

    The restructuring of intellectual labor is similar to the rationalization of work in many other industries. We are left with a small layer of workers who cling to the gains of past generations, while the overwhelming majority are newcomers entering as second-class citizens lacking living wages and benefits.

    But all is not lost! Despite the current fear and confusion, history has shown that educators are among the first to respond to mass social movements and have frequently led in the struggle for social justice. And today, the survival of public education and decent working conditions for college professors will depend on how willing we are to reach out and build solidarity with those that are already engaged in protest.

    If faculty unions persist in acting as a job trust for a small section of aging professors, we will continue to decline in power, influence and numbers. Our challenge is the same as with the rest of the labor movement: our unions must be transformed back into the instruments of struggle as they were originally envisioned. In particular, we have to end the disastrous policy of relying on “friends of labor” – politicians that are, in fact, imposing the new corporate educational models.

    By mobilizing with working people – with the antiwar movement, immigrant workers and generations of young people who are being driven into lifelong debt servitude, we can inspire and reawaken the faculty to action.

  5. “It is sometimes very difficult to convince faculty who have finally jumped through all of the hoops to full professorships to shift gears and step into new roles as advocates for the profession.”

    Alas, the quote above describes how the present situation was created with the complicity of the majority of the current senior faculty: once they became the full professoriate, they did not, by and large, act as advocates for others than themselves. The adjunctification of the university was not opposed by the senior professoriate of the past decades because they perceived its development as, among other things, a way for themselves to “double dip” in the system after retirement by serving as adjuncts themselves — as if oblivious to the destruction of tenure lines which result from such practices. The last AAUP President was apparently, himself, one of such senior faculty “adjuncts” drawing both retirement pensions and per course salaries.

    As for unions and the need to transform them into effective organizations for equity and the advancement of the AAUP principles, such indeed does not appear to be their goal or modus operandi. How many academic unions do not negotiate across the board percentage raises into their contracts, the single most destructive practice undermining salary equity and the preservation of funding for the tenure track? Instead, unions appear to have developed into machines which exacerbate the inequities through their privileging of the principle of seniority over the principle of equal pay for equal work.

    Would that it were not so, but it is clear that the senior faculty who could use their academic freedom to advocate for the preservation of the AAUP principles are instead by and large both self-absorbed and self-preserving. The collective nature of our enterprise, having been undermined by administration and the senior professoriate alike, is slowly unraveling into “single course” pieces of knowledge “delivery” — and there is little on the AAUP scene which provides proof of better leadership for the future. It is easy for senior AAUPers to talk a good game — the difficulty is to live the principles and to be willing to pay the daily price in merit raises lost, in course schedules manipulated by administrators (and faculty chairs alike) to “punish” those who exercise their academic freedom, etc.

    Where are the leaders who actually live the AAUP vision? Few and far between.

  6. Pingback: The Mirror Is a Harsh Mistress | Academe Blog

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