The "New Civics" in Action


In an opinion piece published by The New York Times, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, writes:

American colleges and universities, public and private, are properly seen as nonpartisan elements in civil society, committed to research and teaching in a manner that transcends ordinary politics. But to succeed, these institutions must ensure that academic freedom and the highest standards of scholarship prevail. This means respect for the rules of evidence, rigorous skepticism and the honoring of the distinction between truth and falsehood.

This also means that all of us involved in higher education—and not just its leaders—must step up within and outside of our institutions, defending not only the colleges and universities themselves but the essential structures for learning and growth they are built upon. This is our civic duty, based upon the privileges we receive through institutions we should also be trying to improve—and not further restrict, as political forces today often want (look at Wisconsin and the other states now trying to limit tenure or otherwise mold higher education into a compliant political tool).

One of our first tasks, as promoters of what I think we should call the “New Civics,” is to lead by example. For too long, we have been complacent in the face of a growing reliance on what has come to be an abusive system of academic labor, a “class” system that should be anathema in egalitarian America. Adjuncts and contingent hires are segregated from the “real” faculty in pay, benefits and responsibilities—though they teach the same courses and, sometimes, have the same academic credentials. This system has grown through financial pressures, for the most part, but it is unacceptable (and unknown at the small, elite colleges like Bard and my own cherished alma mater, Beloit).

The pressures that are sure to come from an administration whose education policies will be shaped by Betsy DeVos, an uninformed billionaire, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., a “legacy” (his father founded it) president of a rightwing “Christian” university, are certainly going to be intense. As Botstein argues, we can’t “turn a blind eye” to the authoritarian strategies of the Trump regime that turn truth to “alternative facts.” Nor can we stand idly by as one of the great sources of American academic strength—immigration—is torn to shreds. Though we must step up in vigorous defense of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and all of the other governmental sources of support for research and education, we must also continue to fight for—to start to fight for, in many cases—equitable employment practices at home and adequate funding to support them.

Though I approve wholeheartedly of Botstein’s sentiments, I don’t want to see us moving more intently into the political realm without a parallel strengthening of our commitment to change within our institutions. This may not be an issue at Bard or Beloit, or Carleton or Kenyon, but these elite colleges serve only a small percentage of American students. At state-funded institutions, where state support has been in decline for a generation (at least), far more than half of the courses may be taught by instructors who scurry from campus to campus yet are barely able to make ends meet. Though many of them are talented and skilled, they haven’t the resources to do their jobs as well as they  could. They are abused by the system and, consequently, so are their students.

When it began, the concept of the adjunct was of someone working in a profession sharing their skills on a part-time basis with students on campus. There are still instances of this. For the most part, though, adjunct work has become full-time work, though spread across a number of part-time contracts. Because the adjuncts have to move from campus to campus, they are rarely involved in the life outside of the classroom of any single institution. In my own department, we have twice the number of adjuncts as full-timers and I know hardly any of them. That is a loss to me, to them and to the college, but it is the nature of the system.

As we become advocates of the “New Civics,” we need to ensure we embrace it fully, not simply in the national political realm but in our own statehouses and on our own campuses. We need to rally around figures like Botstein, one of the most extraordinary people of my baby-boomer generation, but we also need to look to the needs of those right next to us, people who, in too many cases, we don’t even see.

(Photo: By Frim99954p at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,


17 thoughts on “The "New Civics" in Action

  1. In relation to the previous exchange on the “New Civics”, those within the Ivory Tower need to take care that they don’t see “The Tower” as a bully pulpit from which to speak “ex cathedra” on issues regardless of a disciplinary imprimatur. That seems to be the internal and unspoken argument within the academy when the left/right balance seems out of “wack”. It is important to also remember that much that has been pulled into the academy was developed by individuals and organizations that are outside, from science/technologies to the humanities; and, often they provide much that enriches regardless of whether they fit into neat packages called academic departments. The walls of the Tower have been breached and that flow runs in both directions.

    To reflect back on the assertion that it might be anathema to cross out of the humanities into the civics arena, one might look at the writings of the muck rakers (writings of Upton Sinclair) that lead to government actions, the novels of Ayn Rand on the right and many of the “great books” which are used in academia but not discipline vetted except by adoption and cited in refereed academic journals.

    At one time there were great libraries maintained by scholars (even in Pratchett’s “unseen university”). Today there is the ubiquitous cloud while much scholarly writing that was curated behind journal pay walls are now accessible, legally or not thru “SciHub”, for example.

    In many ways there are bypasses, including alternative certification, or not, which are routing around the Tower. It’s not just a matter of the dissonance within the academy but that, in the Christensen model of disruption, there are competitive alternatives.

    As long as scholars continue to argue across the Ivory Tower commons and don’t find common ground and disciplined direction, including recognizing that there is construction, not to breach, already permeable walls, but to create a bypass, whichever side wants to claim the moral and intellectual high ground may find the victory Pyrrhic. It’s not a matter of “Truth or Social Justice”. That’s cognitive dissonance. Both are needed.

  2. “Adjuncts and contingent hires are segregated from the “real” faculty in pay, benefits and responsibilities—though they teach the same courses and, sometimes, have the same academic credentials.”

    A couple empirical points:

    1. The adjunct/full time pay gap is actually not as large as you insinuate when the two groups are adjusted for hours of work performed, credentials, and teaching vs. non-teaching contractual obligations. The relevant data and full calculations are available in Section 2 of this article, though I remain skeptical that you are honestly interested in what the numbers say.

    2. Possession of “the same academic credentials” is actually a pronounced exception to the norm in the adjunct workforce. Multiple studies over the last decade have conclusively shown that the vast majority of adjuncts do not actually possess a terminal degree. Fewer than 30% of adjuncts have a PhD, and some studies indicate it may even be less than 20% (and many of the adjuncts who do are “moonlighting professionals” with full salaries and day jobs). For sources that affirm the problem of subpar credentials in the adjunct workforce, see the Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey table 9, the HERI 2010 undergraduate faculty, the AFT 2010 adjunct workforce survey, and Digest of Education Statistics Table 315.70

    • Phil, I would like to see you live on what an adjunct makes teaching 4 or 5 classes with no other income–especially with the minimal benefits an adjunct receives. It can be done, but it is difficult–and the total compensation is much less than a T/TT professor makes. Also, breaking it down into hours is disingenuous, for you probably are not counting the additional travel hours of an adjunct. I know, those are not paid hours for anyone, but they do have an impact on adjunct performance. Nor are you counting other hours that are, in effect, compensated for T/TT but not for adjuncts.

      As to your second point, please note that I used the word “sometimes.”

      • Aaron – I’ve actually “been there & done that,” so to speak, on an adjunct salary back in the tail end of graduate school. I’m curious – can you claim the same? It’s accurate to say that the conditions were lean, but the other pertinent factor is that more permanent employment opportunities open up when you (1) finish a terminal degree and (2) produce a body of published research output. Most of the “career” adjuncts who complain about their salaries also appear to be unwilling to take either of those two steps to improve their situation…or investigate other career paths outside of academia for which they might be better qualified given a non-terminal degree and lack of research output.

        Regarding this: “Also, breaking it down into hours is disingenuous, for you probably are not counting the additional travel hours of an adjunct. I know, those are not paid hours for anyone, but they do have an impact on adjunct performance. Nor are you counting other hours that are, in effect, compensated for T/TT but not for adjuncts.”

        Actually no. It’s not disingenuous at all because we did address the travel hours claim in our analysis (thanks for revealing that you didn’t bother reading it before attempting to critique it though!). As per the CAW study, only about 4% of the adjunct workforce faces the “freeway flyer” scenario you describe. The overwhelming majority – 78% – only teach at one single campus just like the rest of us, and most of the remainder only split their time between two. We also did in fact count other non-compensated hours for both types of faculty, using US Dept. of Education survey data that actually give us a picture of the paid vs. unpaid hours of each. Even taking that into account, the adjunct pay rate works out to only slightly less than an entry level full time position after both are adjusted for hours worked and differences in non-teaching contractual obligations.

        As always, you’re free to check the math if you like. But that would also entail reading it before jumping in with false and erroneous criticisms.

        • “At the tail end of graduate school.” Again, I am sorry I muddied that water, but that’s not the same thing. And, yes, I can claim the same, both as a graduate student and after (I once taught at three schools at the same time).

          One of the problems an adjunct faces is lack of time and space for doing the research that can lead to a TT position. I have yet to speak to any who would not like to be able to do that.

          I’m taking you at your word when you say “compensated hours.” Travel time is not compensated. And I am not interested in either reading or critiquing your study but in sticking to the points I am trying to make. Your focus on pay rate in terms of hours worked, after all, is only another red herring. The actual pay of a T/TT professor is quite a bit greater than the actual pay of an adjunct. I’m not even interested in your breakdown into hours for, as my wife would tell you, I probably make much less per hour actually worked than I have at any job (adjusted for inflation) I have ever held, including my 14 years as a business owner. It is rare that I work less than a 12-hour day, seven days a week (and I rarely take a vacation). That’s not relevant, however: I work that much because I can and I want to, not because I have to, just to survive. That’s the difference between the privilege of a tenured Full Professor and an adjunct.

          You can massage the numbers all you want, but you are never going to be able to show a true equivalency between an adjunct and someone on a T/TT line.

          If you are interested in learning something about my own background rather than flailing about with oblique attacks, you can read this:

      • On the second point, I raised it to note that the scenario you describe as being “sometimes” the case is actually more rare than you let on.

        A secondary purpose is to test the logic of your claim. Surely you’d agree that an adjunct with a PhD deserves to be paid more than an adjunct without a PhD, all else equal between them? Just the same, wouldn’t a full time professor with a PhD also deserve higher pay than an adjunct without a PhD? If yes, then any comparison of wages between the two needs to take into account what portion of the compensation differential is actually a feature of unequal qualifications for the position as opposed to the level of work performed.

      • “One of the problems an adjunct faces is lack of time and space for doing the research that can lead to a TT position.”

        This is a popular claim. But again, the Dept. of Ed. survey data suggest otherwise. The typical adjunct reports working a significantly smaller number of total hours per week (including compensated and uncompensated work hours) than the typical full time faculty member.

        That’s why we need to adjust each group for hours worked when comparing the two – otherwise you’re stuck in the world of apples to oranges. It makes no sense to take an adjunct with a master’s degree and no publications who puts in 25 hours/week only teaching, compare him with a widely published and tenured PhD-holding late career full professor who works 52 hours a week on teaching + research + university service, and then conclude that the adjunct is being abused because he gets $25K vs. the full prof’s $100K salary. At the end of the day, the adjunct in that scenario (1) has substantially weaker qualifications and (2) works substantially fewer hours.

        You keep raising travel time as if it were sufficient to close the gap in time worked, but as I’ve already established with reputable statistics from a source that is highly sympathetic to adjunct workers, the travel time scenario you describe is actually extremely rare. An overwhelming majority of adjuncts do not face anything of the sort, and most of those who do travel for multiple jobs are only moving between 2 campuses. So why do you insist on peddling an erroneous claim over and over again?

      • Not that I get much chance to talk to them, but the full timers at the schools I teach at usually complain about being on committees. It doesn’t sound like they do much work at all, so probably that shouldn’t really count as part of an hourly comparison. I mean, I wouldn’t count it if I got to be on a committee, because participating in making all the rules about how the school operates and the decisions that get made is part of your duty and a valuable experience besides. I’d volunteer for committee work if they didn’t keep us part-timers out of those decisions (probably just afraid we’ll take over hahaha!)

  3. “For the most part, though, adjunct work has become full-time work, though spread across a number of part-time contracts. Because the adjuncts have to move from campus to campus, they are rarely involved in the life outside of the classroom of any single institution.”

    Again, your claims are at odds with empirical evidence. The so-called “freeway flyer” adjunct scenario you describe is actually very rare. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey specifically investigated it and found that it describes the tiny 4% of adjuncts who teach at three or more colleges (table 17 at this link 78% of adjuncts teach at only one campus and 18% teach at two.

    • Your numbers are misleading for they include graduate instructors and not simply adjuncts. I, too, include those when, perhaps, I should not, for the situations are quite different. Maybe I muddied the issue.

      On the other hand, Phil, you are beginning to resemble a one-trick pony. You are bringing up points that have little to do with the real concern, which is that we have a two-track (possibly more) system of academic employment that is inequitable. Nothing you have said, here or elsewhere, refutes that.

      I certainly can’t believe you would argue that the current system is better than finding a way of creating more full-time positions for teachers, though sometimes you come close to that (as when you try to claim that the pay is somehow equivalent). If your point is that being an adjunct is as fine a career goal as being a T/TT professor, go ahead.

      All you’ve really done, here and in response to my last post, is provide misleading information and tangential arguments. If you want to do that on your own blog, fine. Please, here, try to stick to the point.

      • Graduate student instructors accounted for less than 10% of the CAW survey respondents. So actually, no, they aren’t enough of a factor to drastically alter the empirical findings of a survey in a way that would make it support your erroneous portrayal of the adjunct workforce.

        Looking past your continued indulgence in gratuitous ad hominems on my motives and person, I’ll simply point out that your responses to the points raised above reveal a profound reluctance to engage with actual empirical evidence about the state of academic employment. That’s a shame, because there are other serious and substantive issues at play with the adjunct problem that you are missing because you insist on pushing a preconceived political narrative in spite of the evidence.

    • A lot of semesters I work at two campuses. I used to work at three, but I kept showing up late because it was so hard to get there on time. Now it’s still hard because my first class is at 9:30 and there’s rush hour traffic unless I get up early and spend two hours in the library grading papers. But then I have to wake up so early that I’m tired all day! So instead I grade my papers at night and that means that I can’t wake up early without giving up much needed sleep.

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