Professional Status and Academic Freedom: Bridging the Gaps (Once Again)

Discussion, at least via social media, is growing relating to the evolving caste system in higher education and the real meaning (that is, the actual impact) of academic freedom. Many of the basics—the shrinking tenure-track/tenured faculty, the contractual limitations to codified academic freedom—have been bandied about so much that they are now almost clichés. The unfortunate conclusion of much of the talk is that academic freedom, though we might talk about it as a professional right, just isn’t—not anymore, not is a situation dominated by contingency.

Most of us, even as we fight for academic freedom protections in cases of its abridgement and violation, have long recognized the truth of this. In many of our colleges and universities, care is taken to assure academic-freedom protection for TT/T faculty in terms of textbook selection, for example. Adjuncts, often, have no such right. Part of this is practicality. Adjuncts are rarely vetted as extensively as TT faculty and often are not familiar with course expectations within particular institutional settings—at least, not at first.

Part of this, unfortunately, is that adjuncts—and even full-time contingent hires—are not often considered professional peers by the elders in our profession, not even when they have terminal degrees. This hearkens back to an unfortunate idea of the professional as described by Stanley Fish in Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution:

Professionalism is essentially a form of market monopoly. A successful profession is one that has (a) identified, or in some instances created, a need; (b) developed mechanisms for producing the service that meets the need; and (c) persuaded the state, or some ruling elite, to award it an exclusive franchise for the delivery of the service. You can’t simply declare yourself a doctor or lawyer or university professor; those titles are conferred by professional associations that have been recognized by the government as credentialing agencies. The profession controls the flow of licensed practitioners and institutes gate-keeping mechanisms that ensure a scarcity of competence.

Because the category “adjunct” includes graduate instructors—there is rarely, today, a distinction between the two in terms of hiring or assignment—adjuncts are often treated as interns and not as full professionals. Though contingent full-time hires are also often not seen as fully “professional,” they are seen by many tenured professors as “on their way,” so deserving of greater protection than a graduate student or another part-timer.

This is the glaring weakness of Fish’s “It’s Just a Job” approach to academic freedom. The guild approach doesn’t work when the guild is being squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner of its professional activities. Like the for-profit online colleges, many of our universities have decided that a Master’s degree is sufficient for most university teaching but that these instructors are not in positions warranting the protection of academic freedom. This creates a caste system of the sort that helped led to the demise of the guilds—too few credentialed insiders available to do the job always leads to a breaking of guild control. The only way to counter this is to expand the guild.

Anybody teaching in a higher-education setting should be covered by the principles of academic freedom. Of course, we in the profession cannot, right now, insist on this contractually, but we can insist on in it the way we view our fellow professionals—and in whom we consider to be our fellow professionals. I would even go so far as to argue that anyone with a credentialing degree deserves full benefit of academic freedom as they try to enter the profession. That is, hiring committees should consider prior activities as covered in their decisions as much as they are for a tenured full professor.

No professional academic should ever argue, as former AAUP president Cary Nelson (someone I like quite a bit on a personal level) has, that Steven Salaita should not join the faculty based on statements that would be protected were he already a tenured member of the faculty. Nelson argues, “this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be.” It should be, and not simply because he was tenured in his last job and had been hired with tenure (though the position had not yet started). It should be so because Salaita is a member of the profession.

What we, as academic professionals, need to be doing is changing our own attitudes toward who is, and who is not covered by the principles of academic freedom. For too long, we have allowed contractual and institutional regulations to determine its limit. When we rally against abrogation of academic freedom, we should not being looking at it in terms of regulation, as Nelson is doing in the Salaita case, but in terms of the broader principles that should cover all of our activities, whether we be tenured and promoted or a newly minted MA seeking employment while pursuing a PhD.

We need to make as much noise as we can any time principles of academic freedom are violated, the status of the individual affected notwithstanding.

Only then can we start bridging the divide between TT/T and everyone else in our common profession.

5 thoughts on “Professional Status and Academic Freedom: Bridging the Gaps (Once Again)

  1. “…the shrinking tenure-track/tenured faculty…”

    Can you provide a source for this claim? The AAUP’s own report in 2013 shows a steady increase in the number of TT faculty in the U.S. between 1975 and 2011, and Bureau of Labor statistics show increases in the past two years as well. While the number of TT faculty positions has probably not kept pace with the number of students, the notion that new PhDs are forced into adjunct positions because of shrinking numbers of TT lines strikes me as questionable.

  2. “And there’s no question that there are more PhDs than jobs in many fields.”

    And there have been for the five decades in which I have been involved in higher education. My program produced the same number of PhDs this past year as it did 25 years ago. Our students’ concern is the number of TT jobs available. That number has increased. What has changed is that the new PhDs who are not fortunate enough to find a TT job used to go into industry, but now can find adjunct work, a response to the rapid growth of student populations in community colleges and for-profits, as the report you cite notes. So the good news is that more of our new PhDs are finding TT jobs. The bad news is that the other new PhDs are often seduced into precarious, contingent positions, where they would have found other careers in the past.

    Apart from my quibble, let me say that the point of your essay is important, even critical, and one that I endorse. The fragility of academic freedom is a large enough problem without the sword of contingency hanging over the heads of roughly half of faculty in the U.S., and upwards of 4/5 of faculty in two year colleges. It’s depressing to have to warn a new PhD that, if they accept that community-college adjunct position, their job rests upon the administration’s expectation of good behavior. I can poke a little fun at your original phrase, but I know you’re fighting the good fight here, and I’m damn glad you are.

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