Crises Connected like Spokes of a Wheel—or the Pockets on a Roulette Wheel

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an editorial, signed by the editorial board, titled “The College Faculty Crisis” [].

In many ways, the editorial does not say much that should be new to anyone in higher education, but it is certainly significant that the most highly regarded newspaper in the country is highlighting the issues related to the declining state support for public colleges and universities and the effects of the increasing contingency among faculty.

Citing a new study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research center at the University of Texas at Austin, a study that is based on the responses of some 71,000 faculty about their working conditions, the editorial writer emphasizes four major points, which I not only will summarize but will also elaborate on to some degree.

First, the over-reliance on adjunct faculty inevitably reduces the time that those faculty have to devote to basic things such as course preparation because they are often either teaching at multiple institutions or supplementing their income from teaching with employment outside of academia. The editorial even extends the point to the impact on the professional development of these faculty. Since professional development generally involves some investment of both time and money, most adjunct faculty simply do not have either the opportunity or the resources to pursue it.

Second, institutions ultimately get what they pay for when they exploit adjunct faculty. This is not to say that many adjunct faculty are not very dedicated teachers, but when an institution hires faculty at the last minute, when it provides minimal pay with no benefits and then very little if any instructional support, and when it conveys to those faculty that the most important thing is that they not do anything that creates student dissatisfaction, there is little incentive for those faculty to do much beyond the minimum. That many adjunct faculty do a great deal more than that is to very much to their credit, but institutionally, their efforts almost always go unrecognized. Moreover, that lack of recognition often gradually erodes the enthusiasm of adjunct faculty for the work that they are doing.

Third, over-reliance on adjunct faculty has a major impact on student learning, especially at community colleges where students typically need more contact with and attention from faculty in order to succeed and where the adjunct faculty often teach 80% to 90% of the courses. Adjunct faculty typically come and go from the campuses at which they teach much as commuter students do. The transient nature of their employment greatly reduces, if not entirely eliminates, the opportunities for students to meet with them outside of class time. And even if adjunct faculty do stay on campus and make themselves available to students, some of them have no offices, and those who do typically share those offices with a number of other adjuncts; so, more often than not, all sorts of things combine to make their meetings with students much less productive than they might otherwise be.

Lastly, the whole system has become so casually exploitative that many institutions have simply become careless about whom they are hiring to teach courses. When the most important thing is simply to find, often at that last minute, a body to put at the front of the classroom, then who that person is becomes less and less important—to the person doing the hiring, but of course not to the students.

The editorial concludes that the only solution to this crisis is to increase funding for public colleges and universities—to reverse decades of declining state and federal support for public higher education.

I will extend the point by saying that the same mindset that has led to the reduced funding has also led to the increased corporatization of our institutions. All of the problems created by the insufficient funding are thus very closely connected: contingency, reduced affordability, reduced access, low completion rates, uneven skill sets among even those who do graduate, and, last but not least, administrative bloat.

Moreover, all of the more “cost-effective” solutions—the “cheap fixes”—to these deepening problems are being pushed forward by much the same “experts” who have reduced funding and have promoted corporatization, and the implementation of those solutions will make things only worse. Replacing faculty with technology and leaving any assessment to “contracted evaluators” will exacerbate the obstacles to student learning and achievement created by increased contingency, and it will encourage looser standards of assessment by allowing ever more corporate “flexibility” in the selection of those employed to do the assessing.

Higher education has become a major economic factor, both in determining individual affluence and in insuring the nation’s economic prosperity. So undermining the quality of higher education is simply counterproductive—a short-term savings with a long-term cost. It makes no more sense than shifting the cost to the students themselves: if students with degrees have to pay off the cost of their educations over significant portions of their working lives, then they will not not spending the higher incomes that they are earning on products and services that contribute to economic growth and prosperity.

Lastly, and this is a reiteration of a point that I have made previously in these posts, if the employment trends for faculty continue, the pool of contingent faculty—the pool of cheap labor–is going to dry up. People who are intelligent enough to complete graduate degrees are also intelligent enough to recognize their shrinking chances of securing full-time positions and pursuing satisfying careers. Graduate enrollments will quite suddenly begin to decline dramatically. In fact, such declines are already being seen in some disciplines–not just in the humanities in social sciences, but also in the sciences. And then, with a brief lag between the two trend lines, the pool of adjunct faculty will also begin to shrink dramatically. The graduate programs will then not be able to ramp up again quickly enough to meet the needs.

Addressing the problem with funding now will actually be much more cost-effective than trying to address it in the middle of such a crisis, but funding is at its core a political issue, and there is little to no political advantage in forestalling a crisis, whereas there might be considerable political risk. So, one can add to the list of ironies and paradoxes in this mix of issues that political courage is now required to do the most sensible and precautionary thing.



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