If American higher education is going to continue to aspire to excellence, its institutions need to address and reverse the growing reliance on adjuncts as teachers. Not only is this exploitative of the adjuncts (to say nothing of the students), but it reduces our colleges and universities to factories, effectively excluding academic freedom and removing research components from teaching responsibilities. Two of the three aspects of a professor’s job, teaching, scholarship and service, are eliminated, for adjuncts are expected to do nothing but complete classroom activities.
Though reliance on adjuncts has risen primarily because it is a cheap alternative to tenured and tenure-track faculty, it also fits into the corporate top-down models of governance, models of efficiency that see shared governance as a waste of time and energy. To date, college and university administrations have been given little incentive to move in another direction. To them, use of adjuncts provides a situation where they not only save money but they get rid of pesky faculty involvement in what they see as exclusively their own responsibilities. They are not going to make a change unless countering incentives, or new oversight structures, are offered.
It’s nice to see that the plight of adjuncts is finally getting play in American media. The New York Times, for example, ran an editorial today that ends:
the new college campus, rife with adjuncts and administrators, does not seem geared to fulfill what is, after all, the major mission of universities: educating students.
But the editorial, like most all of the other hand-wringing about the situation, offers no remedy.
The first thing we have to do is start advocating more forcefully for real shared governance, for a substantive presence on boards of trustees of faculty, students and parents, the people most directly invested in the education an institution provides (and not simply in the institution itself). Unions, faculty organizations, student organizations and parents need to band together to demand a voice in decision-making at the highest levels of our colleges and universities–something that has eroded over the past 50 years. Together, they have the economic power to insist upon returning to it. Rather than emphasizing their differences, they need to present themselves as a single constituency though one with disparate parts.
At the same time, seats on boards should be restricted to people with actual experience with institutions of higher education as more than just students. Ability to raise money should not be seen as sufficient.
Second, we need to lobby our legislatures to restore funding of public institutions to the levels of half-a-century ago.
Third, we need to develop pathways to full-time, tenure-track employment for qualified adjuncts within the institutions currently employing them. The problem with adjuncts is not the quality of their teaching but the fact that they are constricted in their teaching and are over-burdened through lack of support.
In order for this to happen, all of the affected parties need to buy in. Students need to understand that they are being cheated when taught by so-called “professors” who are not given the privileges and support one assumes professors to have (adjuncts are aware of this conflation and are beginning to rebel against it). Parents need to see that they are paying for cut-rate instruction, that the “name” professors paraded before them will rarely grace their children’s classrooms. Tenured and tenure-track instructors need to understand that the growing reliance on adjuncts is a threat to them, too. Their influence dwindles each time an adjunct is hired to teach a course. The adjuncts themselves, of course, are already well aware of the burdens imposed upon them.
Right now, I know of no organization that is trying to organize all four of these groups in order to address this issue. Until one appears, all of the hand-wringing in the world will do nothing to change things.
Perhaps the AAUP can work to establish one.