Who’s Teaching University Classes — and Why it Matters

By Rudy Fichtenbaum
University halls

Image: Russell Snowden/Flickr

In recent years, there have been dramatic changes to who university and college administrations hire to teach classes. These changes, however, are detrimental to almost all of us—the 1 percent excluded.

American higher education faces an unprecedented crisis. It has transformed labor markets for faculty, has diminished the quality of education for most students, and is undermining a core purpose of higher education — namely serving the common good.

To fully comprehend the crisis and its impact on faculty, students, and society at large, one must place it in the broader context of the neoliberal attack on working people. The tenets of neoliberalism are the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working- and middle-class families, mass incarceration of African-American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods. Growing income inequality and a shrinking “middle class” measure the success of this agenda.

In public higher education, two key mechanisms have occasioned the crisis. These are concerted defunding, i.e., precipitously declining state support, and the corporatization of institutions.

Externally, these two mechanisms are both part of the broader campaign aimed at privatization of higher education and, more generally, the elimination of public services. Within universities, they have engendered changes that immediately and adversely impact students: skyrocketing tuition and fees, simultaneously skyrocketing student debt, and the exploding use of faculty working on contingent appointments—commonly known as adjuncts.

The last of these is probably the most significant change in higher education labor markets and has profound consequences for the role of higher education in our society. Instructional spending per faculty member, adjusted for inflation, has gone from $80,840 to just $53,720: clearly contingent faculty are considerably cheaper than those they have supplanted. This is a key manifestation of the corporatization of American higher education, which has also seen the metastatic growth of administrative spending. In its 2014 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, AAUP reported a 369 percent growth in full-time non-faculty professional positions between 1976 and 2011. During the same time period, part-time faculty increased 286 percent, full-time non-tenure track faculty increased 259 percent, and full-time executives increased 141 percent. Full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty increased only 23 percent in the same period.

The best available data show that in 1975, approximately 57 percent of faculty were tenured or tenure-track faculty, about 13 percent were full-time non-tenure-track, and 30 percent were part-time. By 2013, approximately 33 percent of faculty were tenured or tenure-track, 21 percent were full-time non-tenure-track, and 46 percent were part-time. Counting graduate students who teach, along with part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty, over three-fourths of faculty teach on contingent contracts.

The recent study A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members was based on a 2010 survey and reported that the median pay for part-time faculty members ranged from $2,235 per course at community colleges to $3,400 per course at doctoral and research institutions. If a faculty member could teach five courses per semester (and many are limited to two or three courses at most), this would yield an annual income of $22,350 to $34,000 per year. Compare that to 2010 average annual earnings for all full-time workers with high school diplomas: $43,140 for men and $32,227 for women. This is truly a sad state of affairs when one remembers that the overwhelming majority of faculty hold not just high school diplomas but also bachelors degrees and graduate degrees, too.

According to the survey, most part-time faculty work under terrible conditions. Only 9 percent had their own office, 59 percent shared an office, and 32 percent had no office at all. Likewise, 81 percent reported getting no regular salary increase and 61 percent received no pay for office hours. Only 12 percent had access to a single-user computer, 48 percent had no telephone access in an office, 74 percent had no secretarial assistance, and 26 percent had no department-supported copying. Most have no employer-provided health insurance, and few have any type of pension or retirement plan.

Working conditions for faculty are learning conditions for students. Indeed, it’s hard to meet students and help them while sharing an office with one, two, or 10 other faculty. How can students make appointments to see faculty members with no office telephone and no office computer? Faculty without secretarial assistance must type and duplicate all handouts, assignments, and exams for themselves. How does one duplicate exams without access to copiers? Moreover, diverting time to these other functions diminishes time helping students or preparing for class.

Although pay, benefits, and working conditions for full-time contingent (non-tenure-track) faculty tend to be better than those of their part-time colleagues, they are often excluded from decisions over curriculum and academic policy, so they have no ownership of the curriculum they teach and thus little stake in how well it is delivered. Also, since most are hired for a year at a time, they recognize they’re always just one bad student evaluation away from being fired. They are therefore less likely to hold students to appropriately rigorous academic standards, to introduce them to controversial ideas, or otherwise to teach as if they had an appropriate voice in curriculum and academic policy.

So, having such a high percentage of our faculty employed on a contingent basis is a problem, and not only for these faculty members. It is a problem for students because it diminishes the quality of the education they receive.

It is a problem for society, because when faculty lack the protection (tenure) to teach about controversial ideas, students are less likely to become the critical thinkers on which a truly democratic society depends.

When faculty only deliver the curriculum rather than also developing it, what’s taught is much more likely to be dictated by corporate interests who want clones trained to produce rather than human beings educated to think. For example, administrators who may be more concerned about course completion and graduation rates can dictate what textbooks are used—they may even purchase entire courses that have been developed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill.

Moreover, faculty who work as at-will employees are less likely to engage in independent research, to comment candidly on institutional policy, or to speak freely about matters of broad public concern. After all, criticism of the president (of the university or the U.S.) and publishing research challenging the status quo (in physics, medicine, history, or politics) can bring swift retribution and the loss of one’s job. For example, Louisiana State University, worried unorthodox views might jeopardize future funding, fired a non-tenured associate professor of civil and environment engineering who found that the Army Corp of Engineers was responsible for the catastrophic failure of levies during Hurricane Katrina.

Students taught to think for themselves and faculty who are unafraid to challenge the ideology of the moment are not what society’s fat cats — powerful corporations and wealthy individuals — desire. This is not mere conspiracy theory: Bloomberg News recently revealed that Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm (an oil company executive) had urged University of Oklahoma leadership to fire scientists investigating the role of fracking in Oklahoma’s recent spate of earthquakes.

Faculty with tenure have academic freedom. Having academic freedom means that faculty can choose, individually or collectively, to explore unpopular ideas in their classrooms. It means that they can uphold legitimate academic standards. It means they can truthfully share their expertise today — and still have a job tomorrow— when appearing before a university or college’s Board of Trustees, or the local Rotary Club, or the Senate Appropriations Committee. It means they can announce the truth they discover in their laboratories, even if it undermines the “wisdom” of the day. It means that they enjoy analogous freedom in their musical performances and artistic works. Ultimately, academic freedom insures that American higher education serves the public interest.

The corporatized university, on the other hand, is overstaffed in administrators. Count the Vice Presidents on the nearest state university’s payroll in 1965, 1985, and 2015. Most who do so are shocked. Search for “administratium” online, laugh at the humor, and cry at the underlying truth. Remember, this army of administrators does not teach students or undertake research. Instead, it directs the growing ranks of untenured, insecure, and underpaid faculty working on contingent contracts, telling them what to teach and how to teach it, and reminding them that too giving too many mediocre grades is a no-no regardless of actual student performance. It fawns over fat-cats’ donations (that have partially replaced ever-shrinking public funding) and jumps when the attached strings are pulled. It leeches resources — money! — from the public goods of teaching students and conducting independent research, and instead diverts them to intercollegiate athletics, to the next layer of Associate Deputy Deans, and to pseudo-“research” that rationalizes the values and interests of the privileged few.

America’s system of public higher education was once the envy of the world, offering as it did high-quality education founded on the arts and sciences, accessible to — affordable by — large swaths of the citizenry, and serving the broader public interest. Largely, corporatization has emasculated this system and replaced it by one beholden not to the citizens as a whole but to the elite few. Increasingly, it has displaced the tenured faculty with their independence in thinking, teaching, and speaking by contingent faculty who they can control with relative ease.

The solution to this problem is complicated, but a good start would be to restore public funding to higher education using a financial transactions tax on the trading of stock, bonds and other financial instruments. States would only qualify for this funding if they also increased funding for higher education, and made sure that all of this additional funding was used to hire tenured and tenure-track faculty and reduce tuition.

authorRudy Fichtenbaum is the Professor Emeritus of Economics, Wright State University and President, the American Association of University Professors.

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