“… [O]nce Reagan became president in 1981…, government funding of higher education had decreased nearly 50%. So just as demand increased, supply was relegated to the market.
“In order to maintain the quality of the good they supplied, institutions had to uphold standards of teaching, research, and student acceptance, while also offering the expanding technological, cultural, and social resources increasingly expected of a world-class college or university. This pressure affected both public and private institutions to varying degrees.
“For example, public universities increasingly sought out-of-state and foreign students who paid significantly higher tuition, effectively abandoning their mandates. Elite non-profit private institutions could afford to protect their value with higher tuition and lower acceptance rates.
“For-profit institutions expanded exponentially over the past 20 years to absorb the demand the public sector could no longer serve. Across these different kinds of institutions, students were increasingly viewed as customers who were provided a service for their payments.
“Administrative functions and positions grew as the task of attracting and satisfying students and donors, as well as managing revenues and investments became a central focus of colleges and universities. This has frequently been termed the ‘corporatization’ of higher education but can more specifically be understood as the subsumption of every aspect of the university by capital – the result of a process that had been set in motion after WWII and the recognition of the American university’s socio-economic role.
“A key challenge faced by university administrations was how to offer an expanding number and array of courses to accommodate the growing demand. The tenure structure of higher education was antithetical to the new system because it required a lifetime commitment with salary, health care, and pension responsibilities borne almost exclusively by the institution.
“Furthermore, the self-governance structure of tenure maintained an essentially craft mode of production of knowledge by establishing its own research and teaching norms, evaluative processes and promotional procedures. As such, tenure [became] analogous to the guild system whereby associations of skilled workers control the practice of their craft.
“Indeed, the guild framework was at the heart of the emergence of the earliest universities during the medieval period in Europe. However, within the emergent system of mass higher education, tenure at all but the most elite institutions became something akin to the hiring of classically trained chefs to fry burgers and fries at McDonalds. The only way this state of affairs could be sustained was through a dramatic increase in tuition and a compensatory expansion of credit in the form of student loans. Between 1993 and 2013 tuition rose at public institutions by 94% and at private institutions by 74%, while national student debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion.
“Enter the Adjunct: This condition was obviously unsustainable. McDonalds cannot afford to pay top chefs and offer a dollar menu to millions of customers. The same problem beset the university since higher education cannot exist as an expensive luxury good and as a mass-produced commodity. Expanding credit, rather than offsetting this contradiction, fueled a surplus that further drove down the value of the product of higher education (to say nothing of the social consequences of mass debt). Costs at the point of production would have to be minimized even as tuition was raised.
“The solution, almost universally adopted by colleges and universities, was to turn to part-time, temporary teaching contracts rather than offer tenure positions. In 1969 about 80 percent of college faculty were tenured or tenure-track. By 2015, the number was closer to 25 percent. Over 70 percent of courses at nonprofit public and private colleges and universities are today taught by adjuncts.
“Needless to say, adjunct professors are paid a fraction of their full-time counterparts and lack the job security of tenure. Some estimates have calculated an average pay of $2,700 per course for lecturers. About a third of adjunct professors live near or below the federal poverty line. Most adjuncts are hired to teach one course per semester or quarter and are contracted on a term-by-term basis without any possibility of promotion or entry into the tenure stream. Many make their meager living by cobbling together courses from multiple institutions. They generally do not receive health insurance, research or conference travel funding, retirement benefits, office space, summer break, or paid family leave from their employers…
“These workers are expected – both by the institution and the labor market, which have essentially become one and the same – to have the same basic qualifications and offer the same level of instruction as tenured faculty. Yet they are not provided with the support, resources, or job security ensured by the tenure system.
“Multiple studies have associated the poor working conditions, lack of support and commitment from the institution, and time constraints experienced by non-tenured faculty with diminished student outcomes, including lower rates of retention and graduation…
“It is enough to point out that in order to accommodate the growth of higher education over the past few decades, colleges and universities have increasingly chosen to spend money on things other than faculty; administrative positions and salaries, staff, consultants, new technology, athletic programs and facilities, dorms, other building projects, cultural and recreational resources, have all expanded greatly during this period while tenure-track faculty positions have essentially flat-lined.
“Many of these increased expenditures are important and necessary for institutions to adapt to increased enrollments and the demands of a more technologically integrated global society, but to imagine that these investments can be made by reducing the value of the educational labor that produces knowledge – i.e. the core product of the institution – is to play a dangerous game. For, like any product on a market, the value of that knowledge is an expression of the labor that produces it…
“Each institution decides how many faculty they will hire and what the compensation will be depending on a myriad of factors such as enrollment numbers, mission statements, endowments, diversity initiatives, spousal appointments, etc.
“[However], with the subsumption of higher education by capital that has occurred since the 1980s, these decisions are increasingly dictated by market pressures. Indeed it can be quite easily argued that teaching produces significant surplus value for the institution, which is absorbed by its highest paid employees or invested in its ever more lavish trappings. As has occurred in other sectors of the economy, the labor protections of academia have been eroded over time through a combination of deregulation, automation, and outsourcing.
“Instead of union-busting, there has been guild-busting, as the power of organized labor in academia was diminished by turning to low-wage temporary contract workers while online teaching further diminished worker control over the product and lowered the number of instructors needed. Division of labor was increased by separating administrative, research, and pedagogical functions, placing further downward pressure on wages in the most labor-intensive sector.
“Some believe that this overproduction crisis will resolve when fewer students choose to pursue PhDs and/or institutions limit the number of advanced degrees or programs they offer. This, however, ignores the fundamental shift that has occurred by imagining that the craft mode of production can be preserved at a smaller scale within the mass production of the humanities and higher education in general. Furthermore, it offers no solutions to the tens of thousands of PhD students and adjuncts whose exploited labor currently props up the entire system. Adjunct labor, far from posing a problem in the eyes of college and university administrations, is viewed as the solution…
“Therefore, the sole remaining way to… restore the value of the labor which produces it… [is to] push for adjunct and grad student unionization that is spreading across campuses at both public and private institutions. Contingent faculty at many campuses have voted to join larger organizations such as the AFT and SEIU. By resisting the downward pressure on wages and erosion of job security, unionization counteracts the casualization of academic labor responsible for the loss of value of its product.
“This means that not only must adjunct unions fight for better compensation and working conditions but also for a reinvestment in the humanities by the university: more courses, smaller courses, curricular prioritization, and increased program funding.
“Currently, the divisions in the labor force across institutions, disciplines, and levels of seniority have created impediments to unionization. Furthermore, the tenure-adjunct divide has bifurcated the faculty between the older craft producers and the growing proportion of waged laborers. Tenured faculty, whatever their stated level of solidarity or sympathy for the struggles of the ever-increasing masses of proletarianized academic workers may be, are reluctant to directly intervene or ally with them. One effect of this is a deepening separation between research and teaching at many schools. Unionization must also address and contest this division.
“Finally, unions for academic workers must be willing to withhold the value they produce for institutions of higher education by striking. Only then will the source and magnitude of the crisis become clear...”
Excerpted from “Once More, the Value of the Humanities” by Sami Siegelbaum
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