Would you like to spend 10 years in higher education getting an advanced degree so you can work part time at poverty level wages? That’s the situation many are finding themselves in, as this article on the adjunct crisis explains.
Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.
Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. Unlike the legal and the traditional news industries, higher education has been booming in recent years. Nor does higher ed seem to follow the pattern of other industries being transformed by contingent employment. In his book The Fissured Workplace, David Weil of the Boston University School of Management (and currently the administrator of the U.S. Wage and Hour Division in the U.S. Department of Labor) writes that the growth of contingent employment is being driven mostly by firms focusing on their core businesses and outsourcing the rest of the work to contractors. But teaching students is—or at least is supposed to be—the core mission of higher education. That colleges and universities have turned more and more of their frontline employees into part-time contractors suggests how far they have drifted from what they say they are all about (teaching students) to what they are increasingly all about (conducting research, running sports franchises, or, among for-profits, delivering shareholder value).
It doesn’t really get into the declining support for state universities from our government, but yeah, I can see how that’s a good point. I am fortunate to be at a university where sports are a very low priority, and where teaching is much more important than research, and our percentages of tenure vs. non-tenure faculty makes us look like we’re living in 1969.
However, I don’t know that research represents a drift away from what universities are all about. Before WWII, universities were engines of basic research — professors were hired for their expertise in a field, which made them competent to teach a subject, but also meant they were trained for, committed to, and loved that subject, so of course research was an important role for them. Consider Edwin Conklin, for instance: he worked in an era before big government grants were a thing, was strongly invested in teaching, and every summer he skedaddled off to a marine biology laboratory to stare at sea squirt embryos, and even after he retired he was working, working, working in developmental biology. You are not going to hire great teachers who are competent to teach the most advanced topics in a field if you’re not willing to hire people who want opportunities to do research. It really is part of the job.
(By the way, during and after WWII there were changes made to increase the importance of basic research and tap into the talents at universities by throwing much more money at them — NSF and the NIH, for instance, skew universities’ perspective on the value of teaching vs. research. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the system is still trying to digest the changes.)
That, however, is also one of the ways the adjunct system is screwing over the professoriate. Adjuncts don’t get to do much research. They get assigned heavier teaching loads, and are paid so poorly that may have to moonlight at other jobs (or piece together more and more adjunct assignments), so they don’t get the opportunity to do the research that makes them valued for those more difficult, upper-level teaching assignments.
So don’t belittle the research role of universities. That shouldn’t go away. But I agree that there should be better integration of research with teaching and vice versa, and that adjuncts and part-time instructors ought also to be given the respect and opportunity and support their position deserves.