The Wal-Martization of Academe

The surveys conducted by Money, TIAA-CREF, and others appear to turn a blind eye to the changes occurring in academe that Rich Moser has termed “the new academic labor system.”10 Under this system, according to Moser, “the exploitation of graduate students and the abuse and overuse of adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty is the most prominent characteristic of a new employment strategy sometimes referred to as the two or multitiered labor system.”11

In the past thirty-eight years, the percentage of professors holding tenure-track positions has been cut nearly in half. Full-time tenure-stream professors went from 45.1 percent of America’s professoriate in 1975 to only 24.1 percent in 2011, with only one in six (16.7 percent) professors now possessing tenure.12

In the meantime, the percentage of professors teaching off the tenure track increased from 54.8 percent in 1975 to 76 percent in 2011. In 1975, there were 268,883 full-time non-tenure-track and part-time professors, as well as 160,806 graduate teaching assistants. In 2011, there were 1,046,299 full-time non-tenure-track and part-time faculty, as well as 355,916 graduate assistants. Part-time college professors went from 24 percent of the total in 1975 to 41.3 percent in 2011, with numbers now exceeding three-quarters of a million (761,996). From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenure-track and tenured professors increased by only 35.6 percent nationwide, while the number of part-time professors increased by 305.3 percent.

Wal-Mart seems to provide an apt analogy for the economic trend that has occurred in academia. Wal-Mart has become well known for keeping its number of full-time workers to a minimum, and hiring many part-time workers, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. “There has been a widescale transformation of the faculty work force,” says Gwen Bradley, communications director for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “It’s reflecting what’s happening in the economy in general. Some call it the Wal-Martization of higher education. It’s much cheaper in the short term to hire part-time faculty.”13

While it is true that college and university revenue from state and local funds has been declining for several decades—even more so with the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and its aftermath—the academy has hardly been a distressed industry. Though the percentage of college and university revenue coming from state and local funds dropped from 35 percent in the 1975–76 academic year to 27.2 percent in 2000–2001, private grants and gifts grew from 4.8 percent to 9.1 percent, with overall revenue more than doubling from $141 billion to $293 billion (in constant 2005) dollars.14

Academe has certainly not cut “production” in the past thirty years. Student enrollments increased by 60 percent from 1975 to 2005. Academe may be a growth industry, but it has nevertheless adopted the same business practices as corporate giants.

Wal-Mart has been the subject of several video documentaries, including Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price by Robert Greenwald, and David Faber’s The New Age of Wal-Mart.15 Independent film producer Barbara Wolf has made two documentaries on the exploitation of adjunct professors: Degrees of Shame (modeled after Edward R. Murrow’s famous Harvest of Shame, about migrant farm workers) and A Simple Matter of Justice.16

Though the devastating labor upheavals caused by the new global economy have been widely noted, this new academic labor system has been imposed with hardly any notice by the public at large.

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