The Looming Crisis in Higher Education

The “real problem” behind the exploitation of adjunct faculty is quite obvious: universities have continued to produce a reasonable number of Ph.D.’s but no longer are willing to hire a reasonable number of them into full-time, never mind tenure-track, positions.

This situation will change when enrollment in graduate programs starts to contract, and even to crater, because students confront the reality that they have significantly less than a fifty percent chance of finding full-time employment after completing their doctorates—when they confront the reality that the majority of them are spending up to a decade or more in graduate school, and in the process accumulating far more debt on average than undergraduates accumulate, all in order to earn a wage comparable to what they could earn as an “associate” at WalMart.

Because the current pool of adjunct faculty has been built up over several decades but is continually eroded by the grim realities of such employment, any sudden decline in graduate enrollments will have a very significant and immediate impact.

Then our universities will have a dual crisis of major proportions on their hands: a sharp decline in the graduate enrollments that sustain the research monies that have become an increasingly significant source of institutional revenue and institutional prestige (directly affecting rankings, enrollments, and tuition revenue) and a great shortage of instructors to teach the “core” courses or even the majority of their courses.

And it will be largely a crisis of our institutions’ own making.

All of the institutional rationalizations about the unsustainability of hiring more full-time faculty, and in particular tenure-track faculty, are revealed as a sham as soon as one starts to look at all closely at the statistics and sees that there is a great deal of hiring occurring on the administrative side. Not even the Great Recession did much to slow that hiring.

To be very clear, none of the savings achieved by providing instruction on the cheap have been passed on to students. The monies have, instead, been re-allocated to the construction of massive institutional bureaucracies.

And anyone who claims that this is a bogus assertion is simply refusing to look at the very obvious and manifold evidence of it. It is a “secret” that is very literally maintained in plain sight.

And it is a direct result of corporatization–of the creation of a “professional” and largely itinerant administrative class. However well-meaning individual administrators may be, when a large percentage of administrators are looking continually toward their next positions, they are simply not looking at the long-term ramifications of their decisions on the institutions that are serially providing them with highly compensated personal careers.

So, when this crisis in instructional staffing does occur, we can expect most administrators to respond by (1) trying to find a massively imposed digital substitute for face-to-face instruction in the “core” courses (I believe that conglomerates such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are already anticipating such a “need”), and (2) creating positions for low-wage research assistants to sustain research programs.

One should not expect that there will be any broad reappraisal of the efficacy of so much administrative hiring. Why? Because there has not been any such broad reappraisal up to this point, even though such hiring already represents an outrageous re-allocation of institutional resources.

The only way that our administrative class will be prevented from completing the destruction of our profession is for all of us now to emphasize relentlessly and very publicly the waste of resources that our institutions’ administrative bureaucracies represent, the ways in which those costs are being passed directly on to students, and the ways in which the undermining of our profession is making the degrees that students earn significantly less valuable: that is, they are and will continue to be learning less, and their employers are going to be the first to recognize that fact.

Without some sort of public outcry that we instigate, nothing is going to change. Most administrators are doing quite well under the current system, and most will see no urgency to “upset” the status quo.


Postscript: My widely read post on the changing employment patterns in higher ed, which reports statistics that John Curtis compiled for the four decades from 1970 to 2010 [], was discussed on a number of other blogs.

I was most surprised that several bloggers worried that simply reporting those statistics and briefly commenting on their implications was creating an unnecessary and unconstructive tension between faculty and administrators. The discussions on those blogs were framed in a way that suggested that I was implicitly encouraging, if not openly advocating, personal attacks against all administrators, including some apparently much beloved deans. (“Much-beloved” does not, however, seem to extend to anyone above the rank of dean, especially not to vice-presidents and provosts, even if they have “assistant” or “associate” in their titles.)

I am certain that many administrators will view any criticism of our entrenched bureaucracies as a threat to their livelihoods and that they will try to frame the criticism as unprofessional, personalized attacks.

But the alternative is to allow what has been occurring to go unchallenged—and that is clearly not a constructive approach to a process that is so clearly and pointedly destructive of our profession.

Indeed, if we fail to fight to preserve our profession, I am sure that we will be admonished that if we thought it was so worth preserving, we should have fought for it more passionately.


9 thoughts on “The Looming Crisis in Higher Education

  1. I really doubt that this looming crisis (declining graduate enrollment and then declining pool of faculty applicants) will ever happen. The reason is simple: there is strong enough demand for Ph.D. programs that a drop in demand would only result in a slight increase in acceptance rates and lowered standards. Likewise, there are and will always be plenty of minimally qualified faculty available to teach, since a vast number of people with master’s degrees can always teach classes as adjuncts. The decision to slowly destroy tenure by replacing tracks with non-tenure-track positions is a choice of universities, and like many choices, it will not result in disaster no matter how much we might wish that bad choices resulted in bad consequences for the chooser. We cannot wait for some natural force to make administrators realize that casualization of the faculty is a disaster waiting to happen. We need to speak out and unify today because of the harms that casualization is doing to faculty and to universities right now.

    • John, I agree wholeheartedly that there is a crisis now and that it needs to be addressed now in a very vocal and determined way. I am not suggesting that a cratering in graduate enrollments and in the pool of adjunct labor now available, which I do think are a very real possibility, will create some sort of moment for action. If we do get to that point, I think that it will be too late to sustain the profession as we now know it. Administrators will do the expedient things that need to be done to preserve their own positions, and our influence will by then have become too eroded to make any difference.

      In terms of the current situation, I think that we are already seeing some evidence of significant erosion in some places in grad enrollments in the humanities, the social sciences, and even the sciences. And I think that all of the corporatizers’ rhetoric about degrees in the humanities and social sciences being less “valuable” will have an impact even on the number of MAs in those disciplines. (For a parallel, consider how law school enrollments have recently collapsed as the demand for new attorneys has plummeted.)

      Moreover, the statistics on graduate student debt have not gotten very much attention, but that debt probably represents much more of a crisis, certainly in the short term and perhaps in the longer term, than undergraduate debt.

      I am now one of the senior faculty members at my campus. When I talk to younger colleagues and the discussion turns to the increases in compensation that we are trying to negotiate, they inevitably mention the amount of the student-debt that they are carrying, and although the amounts have been very consistently high, I nonetheless continue to be shocked. I remember how tight things were for me financially when I started my career, and I had no student debt! Although that was kind of rare even then, it would probably make me the subject of a feature story today. (How did I do it? I lived in an inexpensive, small, and very sparsely and cheaply furnished apartment, I worked full-time at other jobs each summer, and I spent very little money on anything beyond absolute necessities–and beer, lots of beer. I also drove an old “multi-colored” car, the body of which eventually may have had more “bondo” than metal in it. It was a time when one could still create nostalgic memories about being an impoverished graduate student.)

      When I consider how difficult it is for our new hires to make ends meet on full-time salaries, I simply cannot imagine how any adjunct faculty member manages to survive on what he or she is being paid, never mind while also paying on such debt.

      I found a full-time position 25 years ago. We thought that things seemed pretty bleak then, but we could not have imagined then how much worse things would be today. I enrolled in a small graduate program in the late 1970s, when the over-hiring during the Baby Boom years combined with an extended recession to make it almost impossible, for about half a decade, to get a full-time academic position. In the year that I started graduate school, there were 19 or 29 (I can no longer remember which) new Ph.D.s in English for every full-time position. But we did not think that that that crisis would become a permanent condition, because there was then no recent precedent for such a thing. But it has now become a seemingly permanent condition. And, by the way, even then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was one of only a half-dozen students in five successive MA cohorts of about twelve to fifteen students each to continue on to complete a Ph.D. And I believe that the MA completion rate also fell to less than 50% because many of those who left before finishing their theses lost the incentive and/or the capacity to do so.

      I think that the efforts by adjunct faculty to organize have been a very good and necessary thing, but they are also a symptom of the growing crisis. Twenty-five years ago, the idea that adjunct faculty would try to organize on any massive scale would have seemed very unlikely–a union organizer’s fantasy.

      But, twenty-five years ago, it would have seemed even more preposterous that about half the total faculty would be part-time and that tenured and tenure-track positions would constitute less than 30% of all instructional positions in our colleges and universities.

      Most crises do not happen overnight. There is an extended process of gradual erosion that most everyone becomes all too accustomed to, even jaded about, and then things seem suddenly to have reached a breaking point.

      Early in my career, the dean of our regional campus responded to a steady erosion in our student headcount by repeatedly reassuring us that the credit-hour count was not eroding at anywhere close to the rate of the headcount. (Yes, he actually said this almost offhandedly at the beginnings of four or five successive academic terms!) The tenured faculty must have recognized that this was an absurd way to look at the numbers, but they were tenured and must have assumed that they would simply outlast yet another disastrous dean. I was not yet tenured and much more worried–but also worried about looking too worried. Then, at the first faculty meeting of a new academic year, the dean suddenly announced that the credit hours had just cratered and that we were facing a major crisis. But he was no more capable of addressing the crisis than he had been in anticipating it, and he was gone before Christmas. And our new dean–and our entire campus–was put on notice that we had two years to reverse the enrollment declines or the campus would likely be closed.

      That may not be how all crises happen, but it is how many crises happen. There is a mixture of suppressed uneasiness and surface nonchalance that seems almost astounding in retrospect.

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