Original sin: What responsibility do tenure track faculty have for the rise of adjuncts?

18 06 2012

I’ve seen a lot of material lately which implies that tenure track faculty are somehow complicit in the increasing use of adjuncts on American college campuses. Take, for example, this essay by Robert Oscar Lopez (another part of which I have praised elsewhere):

Academics like to form cliques and submit to high priests; they expect chastity, poverty, and obedience from newcomers and thrive on emotional torture and ostracism as punishment for apostasy. Not only does this allow for a lack of ideological diversity, which affects us as conservatives, but it also produces an underclass of adjunct labor — virtual slaves who do most of university teaching while pampered elitists doing “important research” get light teaching loads, sabbaticals, and disproportionate fanfare.

One of many problems with that analysis is that it assumes that the level of funding is a given. In response, a brief history lesson is in order. What follows is how I understand the development of the academic labor market in history based on talks with my elders (including a few distinguished historians who are now retired or dead). It probably applies to a lot of other disciplines too.

The 1960s were the magical era when your advisor could pick up the phone and get you a tenure-track job (assuming, of course, that you were white and male) on the basis of their recommendation. There was no need to invent the adjunct during the 1960s because enrollments were booming. Adjuncts came in during the 1970s, the same time that the first great job crisis in history occurred. That was a result of the end of the Postwar Prosperity. Faculty accepted the rise of adjuncts because they were too shell-shocked about their own longterm job security in order to say anything. They certainly didn’t say, “Let’s exploit people in order to keep our lives cushy” because their lives mostly weren’t cushy at all.

The real nature of the culpability that tenure track faculty bear for the adjunct problem is a sin of omission, not comission. What you can rightfully blame us for is short-sightedness. This is where I think Tom Abeles’ zoo metaphor fits well:

Think of a university as a large zoological park but instead of area called the plains for ungulates, the ocean for fish and the mountains, it has schools and departments. The faculty “plays” in their area which has been carefully constructed with food and other resources.

Who cares if the penguins are suffering as long as we lions are getting fed?

But what happens to the lions when raw meat gets too expensive? The American Council for Trustees and Alumni thinks that raw meat is too expensive now, at least in California:

Rather than driving up the price of tuition further, the report argues that public universities should cut programs with low enrollment and utilize online technology and cross-campus collaboration to make them become more efficient and accessible.

And as you’ve probably read already, UVA’s Board of Visitors wants to stop feeding the animals in the Classics and German departments entirely. Unless you teach business or economics (which have plenty of private donors to keep them afloat), this is important because the same principles that created adjuncts back in the day are getting closer to your livelihood all the time.

That’s why “There but for the grace of God go I” needs to become every professor’s mantra. We tenure-track people have to start thinking about the financial predicaments of people besides ourselves, especially adjuncts. As Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That’s especially true when we’re all stuck together in the same zoo.




6 responses

18 06 2012

As a tenured, promoted faculty member in English, I’m with you most of the way here, but think our responsibility runs deeper than this. Those of us who take reassign time need to be very aware of who teaches the courses we get reassigned from.

I’m not arguing we shouldn’t take sabbaticals, or take reassignments for administrative work, or whatever–but we do need to be MUCH more sharply aware of when and how much of that we do, and people who take reassign time habitually, who exploit it for their own personal or professional gain, etc–they *are* just as bad as managers who hire adjunct faculty willy-nilly because of cost.

18 06 2012
Alan Trevithick

I am not concerned much with “us as conservatives,” which seems to be where this meditation begins, but i certainly agree with this: “The real nature of the culpability that tenure track faculty bear for the adjunct problem is a sin of omission, not comission.”
Good start. We can blame you now, though, most of you, for much worse: wringing your hands in a show of despair and sympathy- well, when you’re not sitting on them in a determined campaign to do nothing. So, we’re watching, as you can imagine, to see when and how every “tenure-track people…..start thinking about the financial predicaments of people besides ourselves, especially adjuncts.”

18 06 2012
Jonathan Rees


If you’re asking about me, I spent the last year trying to organize ours along with the rest of the faculty because we’re all in this together.

18 06 2012
Alan Trevithick

Was talking to who’s listening and, ok, good on you. You’ve had the news for awhile. That’s wonderful.

19 06 2012
“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time?” « More or Less Bunk

[…] he’s in very good company. If the Cal example or the UVA example in this post weren’t enough to convince you that it’s open season on college professors, then […]

16 07 2013
What We’re Reading: June 21, 2012 | American Historical Association

[…] Original Sin: What Responsibility Do Tenure-Track Faculty Have for the Rise of Adjuncts Jonathan Rees writes: “We tenure-track people have to start thinking about the financial predicaments of people besides ourselves, especially adjuncts.” […]

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