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?