Monday, May 17, 2010

Who -- And How Many --Paid For Your Sabbatical This Year?

So what percentage of your faculty is adjunct or contingent labor?

In the first fall faculty meeting at Zenith every year, we vote faculty privileges to a long list of people. It includes athletic staff, librarians, and a long list of adjunct or contingent labor. Some come as post-docs and visiting full-time assistants (relatively well-paid contingent labor with benefits); long-term adjuncts with benefits (mostly in the languages, although there was one women who taught in an interdisciplinary program for well over ten years as an adjunct); and then a string of people brought in to teach a course or two. Lately this budget has gotten hammered as part of Zenith's attempt to restructure its budget to meet the financial crisis. I didn't see the list because I was on sabbatical, but it was probably cut to about two thirds of its usual size.

But still: it's usually about four pages long and, as I argue below, this is why I get to go on sabbatical. And that's just Zenith, a liberal arts college with just over 3000 undergrads. The truth is, our normal budget -- which covers a generous sabbatical/leave policy that has been fought for over time by faculty and administrators -- relies on the availability of cheap contingent labor. I often wonder, when I boot up our web page and see that Zenith boasts of a 9:1 student faculty ratio: Does that ratio include all that contingent labor? It must. Because even taking radically different course and advising loads across the university into consideration, I have two-three times more advisees and enroll between 60 and 80 students per semester in a normal teaching year.

Ain't no 9:1 in Radical country. Stupidly, I've always wondered about this.

So this morning, I received an email from one of the top correspondents for the Radical News Service, California Cathy, directing me to Confessions of a Tenured Professor by Peter D.G. Brown of SUNY-New Paltz, the tenured radical who founded The New Faculty Majority.

The article, which just appeared in Inside Higher Ed is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a clip or two:

I am also asked by tenured faculty why on earth I would be spending so much time and effort advocating for a group of "others" whose fate I have never shared. I suppose this is a perfectly legitimate question, but I do find it a bit odd. Why wouldn’t I insist that these precarious colleagues be allowed equitable compensation, job security, fringe benefits and academic freedom? And why shouldn’t I want them to have equitable access to unemployment compensation, professional development and advancement?

With a light touch that few of us are capable of, Brown argues that this this is a

scandal [that] is neither little nor secret: the vast majority of those well-educated, skilled professionals who daily teach millions of students in our classrooms are actually being paid far less than the workers who nightly clean them. Ad-cons are treated as chattel or as servants who can be dismissed at the will and whim of any administrator from departmental chair to dean or provost. And woe to those ad-cons who elicit the wrath of their campus presidents! They can be non-renewed without any due process whatsoever, simply zapped, either individually or by the hundreds. We all know this, but most tenured faculty colleagues choose to simply look the other way. C’est la vie. Tough luck. Life just isn’t fair. Keep on walking and change the subject....

It is time that more tenured faculty woke up to the fact that their entire professional existence, replete with their comfortable incomes, their fascinating research, their coveted sabbaticals, their agreeable teaching loads of less labor-intensive and more satisfying courses — all this is made possible by the indispensable efforts of a million ad-cons doing so much more for so much less.

This isn't news to the hundreds of people out there who comment on this blog during job season, with varying levels of rage. And it isn't news to me, but Brown's articulation of this problem as one that deserves a collective response has caused me to reconsider the question of whether advising young people not to go to graduate school isn't a feeble response to the state of the academy today. There are many, many things wrong with the way we do business as scholars. But thinking about it carefully, while I resent being asked to take personal responsibility for what is a structural problem (and occasionally display that resentment, to the dismay of some of my readers), the un- and under employed, and their close relatives the under-compensated and uninsured, are right to be angry at all of us who occupy tenured and tenure-track positions.

Brown is right: like the bourgeoisie everywhere, our perks, comforts and prestige rely on the exploitation of a vast reserve army of labor. Joining that reserve army is the threat held over every tenure-track person, the persuasion that molds them into conformity with the system in the very years that their ideas should be devoted to changing it. And if there were a commitment over a period of years by higher education to hire people full time, the job market would suck up unemployed Ph.D.'s like a sponge.

Here's the takeaway (other than the fact that every sabbatical I -- or you-- have ever had was essentially paid for by someone else's cheaply purchased labor. It's not that there are no jobs. There are plenty of jobs that pay virtually nothing, and higher education has balanced its budget on ill-paid labor, paid for course by course, grad student by grad student, for decades.


Historiann said...

I take your larger point. However, hiring adjuncts or one-year lecturers to cover courses for people on sick leave, parental leave, or sabbatical strikes me as unproblematic. The problems arise when unis rely more on ad-cons than tenured or tenure-track people to do the teaching.

Leave replacement is originally what adjuncts and lecturers were for--and back in the old days, it was a perfectly good way for new Ph.D.s to get some experience and build their teaching resumes. I worked for 3 semesters at 2 different universities as a visiting lecturer before taking my degree, and it was that teaching experience that I'm sure helped me get my first tenure-track job. (I will say that I was not paid as an adjunct--I was offered a very nice salary with bennies, which is not the typical experience any more for most ABDs or even Ph.D.s!) IIRC, you did this too--at BFU, which is where I first met you.

Brown is right that faculty must "join or die." Too many of us have found it convenient to pretend that tenure-track faculty are really different from ad-cons. But as your experiences and mine suggest, most of us on this side spent time on the other side, too.

Janice said...

Up until recently, we've had almost no contingent labour in our department besides having some far-distant Ph.D.s teaching in our continuing ed program. But then a few long-term sabbatical replacements were secured (at least with full 12-month salary, benefits and multi-year security). Then these dropped back to 10-months or less as hiring permissions were granted later and later in the summer. Now, there's nothing at all.

That said, I am pleased that our university has unions for both full-time faculty and those who serve as adjuncts. We need to protect the educational experience and the workers because we're all in this together!

As well, enrolment numbers are all smoke and mirrors. Every one of those Directed Readings courses we teach to help out one student helps the administration to counterbalance the 135+ registered in our regular courses and pretend to the world that there really are those small classes they want to sell.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks for the linkage to Peter's article and commentary. I'd love to see you wade in more often on related topics addressed by Marc Bousquet at the How the University Works blog, the AFT's FACE campaign, the UC-based remaking the university blog, and my own small efforts over at Citizen of Somewhere Else!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

IIRC, you did this too--at BFU, which is where I first met you.

Holy fucknoly! Another one!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the dirtier "dirty little secrets," isn't it. Even among my TT colleagues who are generally sympathetic to the realities faced by non-tenure faculty, I don't think I could raise this issue without being seen as rude, inappropriate, or uppity. And of course, non-tenure faculty can't afford to offend their TT colleagues, so I guess that means this will remain unsaid. Maybe I'll just print off copies of your post and scatter them around the department lounge.

It is a decidedly strange situation to cheer someone's announcement that they received a sabbatical or a competitive grant that relieves them of their teaching obligations not (only) because you may be genuinely happy for them, but (also) because it improves your chances of having a job for another year. Somebody has to actually deal with the students that person was allegedly hired to teach.

Tenured Radical said...


Of course -- I think that various circumstances create a need for beginning teacher/scholars who can get their feet under them. That year at BFU was invaluable, in many ways.

But if you look at a school like Zenith, we have a sabbatical policy that actually mandates a larger faculty. We get every seventh semester: this means that in any given semester you might have 1/5 of your staff on leave. It's my view that we need to increase our tenure track positions to make allowance for that, rather than hiring so many people by the course, or even by the year.

But there are staggering figures that suggest the problem is far worse in many places: MLA figures show over 60% of Ph.D.'s in that field working as adjuncts; Brown, I believe, started NFM because @ 80% of the courses at his school are taught by adjuncts.

Recently, I am told (haven't gone to a faculty meeting this year) that the Zenith administration was exploring the notion of hiring people on 5 year terminal contracts, which I find heart-stopping, in part because of the issues Brown raises, and in part because it would surely be a move away from effective faculty governance, collegiality, and the kind of dedicated scholar-teacher model that the SLAC experience is supposed to offer.

Historiann said...

Wow, TR--every seventh SEMESTER? That's an extraordinarily and ununusally generous leave policy. Most of us get only ONE semester every seven YEARS, so even with one or two faculty winning grants and paying for their own leaves of absence, hiring a few more adjuncts or full-time lecturers to cover their classes isn't as much of an interruption in the way we do business as hiring them year after year to cover tenure lines that were vacated long ago. I agree with you that 5-year contracts you describe would in fact undermine Zenith's identity as an elite SLAC.

And to Anonymous, who wrote: "Somebody has to actually deal with the students that person was allegedly hired to teach. Someday, you'll have to write a post for my blog in which you describe all of the major grants and national fellowships you turned down because of your devotion to your students. But in any case, you're wrong: I was only hired to teach with 50% of my time. 35% of my time must be spent on research, and the other 15% on service. I am not evaluated solely on my teaching, nor is any other tenured or tenure-track faculty member in the U.S., so your comment is curiously hostile to scholarship and service. If you're uninterested in them, then presumably you'll be happier as a lecturer than on the tenure track.

Anonymous said...

I think adjuncts and advocates for adjuncts miss the mark when they pretend that a university professor's sole job is teaching.

At my school, research is equally important (and more time consuming) and service is also required.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 did say s/he couldn't "raise this issue without being seen as rude, inappropriate, or uppity," and, indeed, that appears to be how s/he is perceived. How can ad-cons and tt faculty have an open conversation about structural flaws (and, potentially, improvements that would benefit everyone) when mispercpetions by those who are permitted only limited participation in the professional life of their institutions provoke defensiveness from those who are beneficiaries of the current system? Maybe Anonymous #1 appears uninterested in the research commitments of tt colleagues becasue the research of ad-cons typically goes unacknowledged and unrewarded and often will never lead to a tt position, no matter how good it is.

TR, thank you for this post.

The Constructivist said...

Here's a piece by Marc Bousquet in response to Megan McArdle's apparently picking up on Brown's and TR's ideas....

Jonathan said...

I think the "you get to go on sabbatical because of ad-cons" misses the point because of the negative case. Let's say tenured faculty never took sabbaticals (or parental or sick leaves) and always taught their courses. This would theoretically eliminate a portion of the positions available to ad-cons in a given year.

But of course it turns out that this is a very SMALL portion of the temporary academic labor force. The much larger portion of positions exist because schools are unable, unwilling (or both) to commit the salary necessary to hire enough full time faculty.

And at schools with a good sabbatical policy, "enough" must clearly include a number of profs equal to yearly course demand, allowing that 1/7th of the faculty will be on sabbatical in any given year, give or take.

That system would be way better than what we have now, but it would still leave lots of PhDs unemployed or underemployed.

Anonymous said...

I am the "Anonymous" who said that "Somebody has to actually deal with the students that person was allegedly hired to teach."

Let me be clear: I am very cognizant, and appreciative, of the research and service aspects of tenure-track jobs. I do feel genuine excitement for my colleagues when they win release time because I know what that means for their research agenda. And since I also do regular research and service (despite not being truly compensated for them and typically paying my own registration and travel costs to participate in conferences), I certainly do not wish to downplay the importance of those roles in the sustenance of a vibrant academic community.

On the other hand, I have colleagues who either take sabbaticals, have grants, or buy themselves out of most (or all) of their classes EVERY semester. There are a couple who have not taught more than one or two classes a year in a decade. Most of these people clearly do work very hard, but the fact is that they don't teach (much). Since I work at a "teaching" institution and not an R1 by any means, this seems problematic when it becomes a regular pattern for several people in a department.

Look, if you want to focus almost solely on research or engage in heroic levels of service, great. But the problem is that schools then hire a series of "temporary" adjuncts to carry your teaching load. This is inefficient and a bit dishonest - not of the individuals, but of the institutions.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 8:10 --

I think you are absolutely right. Thank you.