The Profuse Use of Adjuncts Changes the Nature of Academic Institutions
I’ve previously written—though not on this blog—about the hazards of using large numbers of low-paid adjuncts to do a significant amount of the teaching of undergraduates. There are issues there of quality control, of fairness to instructors regarding pay and benefits, and more. But I have not seen discussions—admittedly, I have not looked all that far—about how these changes affect the very nature of academic institutions.
The classical organization of a college or university has the faculty determine educational policy, a big and complex topic. In my day, there were wild and woolly discussions on that subject, particularly when we moved to change undergraduate requirements fairly early in my stint as dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern. Some contributions to those discussions should be called “political,” since there were faculty members who voted to support policies primarily because they would steer more students into their departments. But, maybe surprisingly for skeptics, many of the discussions and votes were much more “high-minded,” in that participants expressed their often thoughtful beliefs as to what a good undergraduate education should be. I was very pleased with the outcome at Northwestern and pleased that many of the reforms instituted around thirty-five years ago are still in place.
Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone. The discussions by the entire faculty (who had to vote on them) about requirements and similar issues were not exactly scintillating. Educational policy couldn’t hold a candle to bread and butter issues. However, the committees charged with formulating curricular proposals were indeed focused on those issues, articulating different points of view and coming together on thoughtful final recommendations to be voted on at meetings of the faculty of Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences.
None of these discussions were hi-falutin’ debates about grand theories of what a liberal arts education should consist of. Pace Mortimer Adler! Some participants had thought a lot about that, many more had not. But just about all of the faculty members who took part in these deliberations had extensive experience teaching undergraduates.
What is taking the place now, when the faculty population has changed so radically? How are the features of undergraduate education determined under the current dispensation? There are two possibilities, neither of them very attractive. The first has only the tenured and tenure-track faculty have a say on the undergraduate curriculum. Makes sense? Yes, as fulltime at their institution, they are so to speak the keepers of their college or university. But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense: a significant fraction of this elite doesn’t teach undergraduates at all or they teach only such advanced courses as senior seminars. In short, many of this regular faculty lack experience with the students for whom educational policy is to be formulated. They have the choice of staying silent, waiting for the issue to pass, or they may sound off nevertheless. The latter is the more likely alternative, since ignorance seldom trumps a deeply ingrained habit among academics: to speak up.
The other alternative is to have adjuncts, who actually teach those undergraduates, participate in those curricular discussions. There are two serious problems with that course. From the institution’s point of view, is it appropriate to have its policies determined by people who have no stake in its future? No business would tolerate an analogous arrangement. Looked at from the other side, why should underpaid adjuncts, rushing off to teach another class at a distant institution, stay around to expound their on educational policy pertaining to undergraduates at this place? They are paid for teaching courses—usually not very much, usually without any of the benefits granted to “regular” faculty. Even if an institution invites their participation, why indeed should they bother?
My conclusion is not a happy one. The replacement by adjuncts of tenure-track faculty does not simply change the economics of institutions of higher education, but transforms those institutions in a much more fundamental way. When Eisenhower addressed the Columbia faculty just before assuming that university’s presidency, Nobel physicist, I. I. Rabi, responded to him by saying: “Please, General, don’t address us as if we were the employees of the university, we are the university.”
That is no longer an obvious statement. Not only has the cadre of “genuine” faculty shrunk radically, but the number of administrators of all kinds has veritably exploded. (A couple of years ago, I tediously counted faculty members and administrators at a top-rated New England college and found there were more or the latter than of the former.) At the same time, presidents of colleges and universities are no longer paid generously augmented professorial salaries, as used to be the case, but a great many of them now receive salaries and benefits not unlike those of CEOs of business companies.
In short, colleges and universities—not all of them yet; but just wait a few years—are progressively taking on the characteristics of commercial enterprises. That is not a good thing. However, why it is not, calls for another discussion.