Experts and Adjuncts: The New Model for Higher Education

The American professoriate once ranged from professionals who taught a course as an adjunct—a contribution to their professions, the compensation being almost nothing—to the regular (but generally poorly paid, often relying on family fortune to sustain them) faculty who generally assumed lifetime security at institutions whose operation their colleagues dominated. That changed over the decades starting with World War II, when research funding started to drive university budgets sharply upward and demand for higher education led to much higher government funding, expanding state university systems dramatically (especially in the realm of community colleges, but not only).

Today, the professoriate ranges from poorly paid professionals whose only income comes from part-time teaching at a number of different schools or who are working on a contingent and generally term limited contracts, to faculty at elite institutions, scholars who are able to augment their already substantial salaries through consulting and expert testimony, among other things. In between is a rump permanent faculty, the shrinking body of tenured professors (making much less than the elite scholars) representing what had once been the heart of the university. At the same time, faculty responsibilities have shrunk as a new class of administrators has arisen, shifting participation in institutional management away from the faculty and further justifying the move to temporary and part-time workers for classroom oversight.

Two articles today emphasize the dangers of this evolution. The title of one of them, on Salon, sums it up: “The corporatization of higher education: With a system that caters to the 1 percent, students and faculty get screwed.” The other, an op-ed in The New York Times, provides a caution about the top end of the spectrum, “Is Money Corrupting Research?” Together, they confirm the contemporary, money-obsessed nature of American higher education and make me wonder what the future might hold.

Toward the end of the years when I had no involvement at all in higher education, I served on a jury in federal court. Falise v. American Tobacco Co. was a billion-dollar RICO case attempting to secure more money for victims of asbestos. The idea was that tobacco use exacerbated the effects of asbestos on lungs and that the tobacco companies had conspired to hide the impact of tobacco itself and were, therefore, liable for a part of the ensuing medical costs. The trial, which ended in a hung jury, lasted two months. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and hardly an imposition. I was a retailer at the time, and my store was within walking distance of the courthouse. As the trial convened only four days a week, I had evenings, Fridays and weekends for completing my work there, allowing me to concentrate on the trial without distraction. I learned a great deal about tobacco, asbestos, corporate ethics, and legal procedures.

I also learned about expert witnesses. We had many, from a Nobel laureate and a Surgeon General to Jeffrey Wigand, whose tale as a whistleblower sparked the movie The Insider. Quite a few were law professors, mostly (or so it seemed) from Harvard and Yale. At that time, I had no idea what a lucrative business being an expert witness is. Since then, after returning to academia, I’ve had a small taste of my own, earning $500 for a few hours’ work on a trademark dispute—peanuts, compared with what the experts on Falise must have received, but a big deal for a cultural-studies professor.

The lawyers spent more time on the bona fides of the witnesses, it often seemed, than on their actual testimony. One side would set up the scholar as god’s gift to his (they were mostly men) field and as a disinterested observer of events. The other would tear him down as a callow chaser of dollars. One of the experts was a historian trying to show that Americans knew before the 1953 “Frank Statement” advertisement by the tobacco industry that cigarettes are less than healthy. I was perplexed. Just sitting in the jury box I ticked off a dozen or more examples from popular culture that would make a point he seemed straining toward. Though a historian, he obviously didn’t know American entertainment very well. His specialty, in fact, was military history with a focus on the Revolutionary War.

I got the impression that most of the experts were there because they were kept consultants either for one side or the other. They had not been chosen, in other words, for their expertise but because they had been presented as experts  before and had shown their loyalty to the company whose lawyers called them forward. They reminded me of the last line of the Kingston Trio version of “The Streets of Larado, “So get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy, too.” They were more interesting in being seen as experts and in making money than in real research or scholarship.

Which brings me to the Times column. It’s by Luigi Zingales, a business professor at the University of Chicago. He’s discussing “the integrity of research and expert opinions in Washington” but his points apply much more widely. Specifically, he uses the resignation from the Brookings Institution of Robert Litan after Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out that he was testifying before the Senate as a disinterested expert but that his research had been funded by a party which “has a stake in the debate.” Zingales states, with reason, that even “when we are paid to testify as expert witnesses, integrity is expected from us.”

Zingales is dealing with only one aspect of the problem, one he believes can be solved by transparency, writing that:

Congressional testimony and policy papers should be posted online at least two weeks in advance of a hearing and open for comments, so that Congress could crowdsource alternative experts’ comments.

And all expert witnesses should be disclosed to the public, with a time delay if needed for confidentiality.

He concludes: “Knowledge is essential to judge and deliberate. If the knowledge transmission process is corrupt, so is our judicial and legislative system.” He’s right to extend the problem to our judicial system where, as I saw, people make second careers out of being experts, of testifying even when it’s quite a stretch to match their qualifications to the subject at hand. I have come to include these scholars in what I like to call “rolodex experts,” people on tap for news media and court cases—generally for a price or for publicity that shores up their reputations as experts.

Because they are so high profile, these scholars have come to represent college and university faculty in the public imagination—and the public guesses—correctly—that they make quite a bit of money. People then assume—incorrectly—that the rest of us do, too.

Such scholars are the 1% of the faculty world. Unfortunately, getting to that status can be corrupting—if in no other manner than what the fundraising politicians have to do is also corrupting (one of Donald Trump’s few accurate points). But it is understandable, especially given what is increasingly the only academic alternative now that the concept of a permanent faculty is in serious decline. As Kyle Schmidlin, in the Salon article, writes, “This exploitation of low-wage faculty is part of what’s known as the corporatization of higher education. Increasingly, both public and private colleges are being run on the cost-cutting model of American business.”

If we are not careful, what we are going to have in American colleges and universities is a faculty of a corrupt (at least in appearance) and avaricious top tier and an exploited mass of interchangeable workers… much like we’ve been developing in the rest of society, these past decades. The vast difference between someone making less than $25,000 a year as an adjunct and their supposed colleagues making much more than ten times as much (given their university and consulting incomes combined) bodes poorly for the continuing success of our institutions of higher education. The latter become the face and the former the reality; the latter further erode cultural trust in the professoriate each time another conflict of interest is uncovered and the former become the servants to the new administrative class and its customers, the students.

Little good could result.


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