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The Other Higher Education Bubble: Labor Supply

Conservatives have long lamented the progressive supermajority in higher ed, but wait until they see what happens when universities become union shops.

In the conservative imagination, the archetypal professor is Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys, Dave Jennings from Animal House, or Dr. Talc from A Confederacy of Dunces. They have old corduroy sports coats with worn suede elbows, stale lectures, incomprehensible publications, poorly kept offices, and leering stares for young co-eds. The truth is far different. Most professors are men and women in worn-out clothes from their senior year of college (the last time they could afford clothes). They no longer have offices, but they have up-to-date lectures. They chase jobs, not co-eds. The only continuity, perhaps, is the prose of their academic papers, when they have time to work on them. In other words, the archetypal professor is now the adjunct, and she is miserable.

The Once Silent Majority

Adjunct professors comprise upwards of 70 percent of university faculty nationwide. Often, they teach the introductory courses that tenured or tenure-track faculty wish to avoid. Adjuncts do a good job. One Northwestern University study found that they were better than the regular faculty. Considering how badly adjuncts need to show strong evaluations, they have better reason to teach well, since evaluations are important both to the tenure-track job search as well as preserving one’s position as adjunct at the college.

Adjunct professors were originally experienced professionals offering their experience and insights in courses for students. They were modestly compensated for their efforts, since they already had an income in their profession. As costs rose in higher education, the adjunct position changed. No longer were the experienced professionals among their ranks; instead, adjuncts were increasingly doctoral students either finishing or having recently finished their dissertations. With the academic job market sluggish, or much worse among many humanities departments, adjuncts clung to their positions in hope of eventually landing a tenure-track position. Departments kept them on the rolls to accommodate student demand for courses for which departments could not afford to hire full-time faculty to teach.

The trouble with the adjunct position is how poorly it serves someone wishing to secure a tenure-track position. Adjuncts receive no benefits in addition to their salary per course. With courses per semester running about $2500, adjuncts need to spread out their efforts across two or more colleges to ensure a sufficiently income to cover living expenses. To secure a tenure-track job requires attending conferences, which can run $1000 or more, making one or two of the courses essentially the “travel budget” for the year. The number of courses intrudes on research and publication time, and too long on the adjunct track can earn a bad reputation, i.e. “She has not gotten a tenure-track job after a few years on the job market. What do other potential employers know that I don’t?”

The result is a significant number of faculty whose annual incomes are at or below the poverty level. Why do they persist? As Adam Davidson explained, academia is a lottery industry, in which chances of a payoff are low but (once) incredibly rewarding. The second reason is the fallacy of sunk cost. Many adjuncts want not merely their research but their choices in life to pay off. If they wasted their 20s looking for something that wasn’t there, then they feel foolish, and no one in academia will tell them otherwise, at least until recently.

Check for the Union Label

Benjamin Ginsberg wrote in his 2011 book and reiterated here that faculty show focus anger on bloated administrations that compensate themselves well at the expense of students—by hiking tuition—and faculty—by cutting budgets. The faculty has answered that call but perhaps not in a way he would prefer: by unionizing.

Last September, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette ran a story online titled “Death of an adjunct,” which provided an account of Margaret Mary Vojtko. Vojtko had been an adjunct professor at Duquesne University for twenty-five years but had experienced, over the years, a reduction in course contracts. In the spring 2013, Duquesne declined to offer her any courses, despite knowing she was fighting cancer. She died September 1. Daniel Kovalik, the author of the story, is also an attorney for the United Steelworkers union. He hoped to use her story to draw positive attention to efforts at unionizing adjunct faculty.

The Vojkto story went viral immediately. Adjuncts across the country let off steam, sharing and tweeting the story on social networks and sounding off in print and online outlets. At the time, many thought interest in adjuncts would dissipate, as so many viral events do. They were wrong.

Even as the United Auto Workers union recently failed to organize a plant in Tennessee, the Service Employees International Union has been organizing adjuncts across the nation. They started the website to publicize their efforts. The American Association of University Professors has also organized adjuncts, most recently at the University of New Hampshire. In fact, earlier this month, Rutgers University agreed on long-term contracts for non-tenure track faculty, likely to head off more aggressive future efforts and all the bad publicity they can bring. The faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago just ended a strike demanding better contracts. University administrations are beginning to panic.

The plight of the adjunct has drawn more than union attention. The New York Times published an op-ed denouncing the treatment of adjuncts. The op-ed linked to two studies. One, “The Just-in-Time Professor” was published by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff. This study was the result of a forum conducted by House Democratic staff to assess the situation for adjuncts, no doubt as a response to union outreach efforts. The report features interesting interviews of adjuncts but is sadly anecdotal, making a reader concerned about its objectivity. However, that Democrats are responding to unionizing adjuncts is itself news.

The second study is the more objective “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive?” by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research. It shows a relationship between two problems in higher education. One is the rapid hiring of expensive administrative staff. The other is the increasing costs of compensation for existing staff. Since faculty compensation has remained stagnant, it is easy to determine which employees are being so richly compensated. In a conversation with a former student of mine, he remarked, “Yes, why hire a professor to teach the course I need to graduate next semester, when you can hire four more registrar officials to tell me why they don’t know why I have a hold on my account.”

Things That Cannot Go on Forever Won’t

If unions are successful, then they will prop up already hired adjuncts and create a second barrier of entry to academic positions with negotiated salaries driving up faculty costs. For a long time, academics have discussed the possibility of a “teaching” track and a “research” track for faculty, and current changes may be, in effect, creating this system. Because unions protect incumbent workers with seniority, adding newer and cheaper instructors into the teaching track will prove expensive and difficult—to say nothing of adding onto the already impossibly high tuition rates (someone has to pay for those contracts).  With no “cheap” option for teaching personnel, universities will have to explore options. What will happen next?

I have two predictions. The first concerns adjuncts: their number will begin declining in the near future, since fewer college students will opt for graduate school. We have already seen a collapse in law school applications, and graduate schools will suffer the same fate. Some have wondered why this is not already the case, and the best answer is the lack of information for the would-be graduate student on the job market. How could that be? Humanities professors are skeptical that there is a problem, and they are the ones advising undergraduate and graduate students like about careers. One loudly dissenting voice, however, a former anthropologist Karen Kelsky (who left academia to start an academic market consulting service) has vociferously denounced admitting new humanities graduate students as unethical. Kelsky has made waves with her “PhD Debt Survey” that showcased how even “funded” graduate students go into debt that they then must service often on adjunct salaries. It is only a matter of time before this information becomes as commonly known as the situation with law schools.

With fewer graduate students, the adjunct pool will shrink on its own, making the union efforts something of a lagging indicator of a once abundant supply of labor in higher education. The already organized faculty might secure their benefits but will not experience much growth after the existing pool joins up. An additional result will be graduate programs will close or become more professionally oriented (i.e. training public policy analysts).

The second prediction concerns administrators: they will try to prop up shrinking labor supply not with full-time faculty but with online correspondence courses, commonly called “MOOCs” (massively open online courses), which we are already seeing today. These courses are dreams come true for administrators who wish to draw in student tuition but not allocate tuition to faculty. Instead, they can lower tuition while promising education in the opportunity for peers to discuss material taught in MOOCs. By cutting out the faculty altogether, administrators can focus on the true purpose of the twenty-first century university: offering students well-prepared organic food, having the highest rock walls in the state, a competitive NCAA football team, and establishing a new Associate Dean of Administrative Efficiency.

For conservative critics, the fate of the adjunct might provoke some schadenfreude. After all, how could one not smirk at the doctoral graduate student in Literature, who opted for a dissertation on a post-colonial interpretation of gender in magical realist works, or the philosopher—three years on the market and counting—with one among hundreds of unpublished manuscripts on Wittgenstein? The answer is that most adjuncts were misled, believing that the market was as bad as it sounded or had a bad adviser. However decadent or trivial one might find academic research, adjuncts should be treated with compassion, since many had no idea how bad the market was for either their writing or their knowledge.

“So what?” a conservative critic might respond. What importance does the adjuncting problem have to do with conservatives? First, many conservatives were banking on MOOCs to replace high-cost university education, but that hope has begun to fade. The future for higher education, then, is imperiled. Either they will have no classes, as I predict, or ones run entirely by adjuncts formally tied to the single largest donor base for the Democratic Party. Conservatives have long lamented the progressive supermajority among university faculty, but wait until they see what happens when American colleges and universities start becoming union shops. Actually, we don’t need to wait.

For me, however, the political consequences are less important than the tremendous personal costs that come with adjuncting. Nothing can quite explain what it is like to master one’s area of research, feel the passion for bringing that knowledge to young minds, and then witness exactly how little—both in income as well as in public recognition—anyone values the vast majority of faculty who provide undergraduate education. I was there myself and could very well return. One of my most embarrassing moments in over a decade of teaching came when one of my students unwittingly approached me at a big box electronics store where I worked to help make ends meet, despite also teaching three courses. He needed to find an HDMI cord. After I began to explain where they were, he recognized me and could not understand why I worked there. I did not have the heart to tell him.

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