by Dennis Selder
On February 6th, the PBS Newshour, ran a show “Is academia suffering from ‘adjunctivitis’? Low-paid adjunct professors struggle to make ends meet.” In it are the familiar cast of characters—the full-timer who is outraged, the clueless new adjunct who finds herself shocked to discover academia does not have her back, the seasoned adjunct professor desperate to get out. But then PBS brings a fresh face on the stage, Terry Hartle from the American Council on Education. Presumably Paul Solman of PBS chose him to represent the voice of administrators—who have been busily, as the show reports, raising their own wages by 35% over the last twenty years while converting decent academic positions into gigs for the super-cheap contingent crowd.
In the exchange below, Hartle characterizes this feat of career engineering as, on the one hand, a smart bargain for academic institutions, and on the other, as an inevitable cave-in to the forces of external economic conditions:
TERRY HARTLE, American Council on Education: In some disciplines, particularly occupationally-oriented fields, you may be ahead by having an adjunct faculty member who’s got extraordinary levels of real-world experience.
PAUL SOLMAN: But don’t adjuncts teach in all disciplines? Look, says Hartle, bottom line, schools have no choice.
TERRY HARTLE: The pressures on colleges and universities to maintain tuition, to prevent tuition hikes are extraordinarily high.
Does the use of contingent faculty like adjuncts provide more flexibility to colleges and universities as economic enterprises that need to stay in business? Yes, it certainly does that.
PAUL SOLMAN: Would you be happy if your members were paying a little more to adjuncts?
TERRY HARTLE: Nobody forces someone to become an adjunct. It is a very difficult way to make a full-time living.
If you have studied neoliberalism or about globalization, Hartle’s arguments will be familiar to you. They are the same ones that global capital uses to justify how it deploys the power of money and corporate organizational practices to extract resources—both human and material—from developing countries. Unfortunately for academia, these practices along with the attendant logic have come home to roost. For example, Hartle claims that colleges and universities don’t have a choice when it comes to paying adjuncts more. In the private sector, the claim is justified on the basis of pressure from competitors, whereas here it is the public. Still, the claim seems strange when at the same time administrators portray themselves as masters of raising and deploying capital. Why are they suddenly so helpless? I argue they are not. The most obvious example of their economic muscle is the constant and ongoing construction that seems ubiquitous on college campuses. How is it that there are always ample funds to build new stadiums and gyms that outshine the commercial sector, while at the same time they can’t find funds to raise some hapless part-timer’s wages above $17,000/ year?
But it is not just infrastructure that administrators lavish funds on. According to a report recently released by American Institutes for research, Universities and colleges, teachers are not driving increasing costs, ancillary staff are. The report notes “widespread increases in the number of administrative jobs – with mid-level professional positions like business analysts, human resource staff, counselors and health workers driving the growth.” Far from helpless, Hartle and the administrative community he represents, are the perpetrators of current compensation practices. They hold the steering wheel, and the argument that someone else is driving is a ruse.
The other argument familiar to students of neoliberalism is the “nobody-forcing-you-to-do it” riff Hartle employs at the end of the exchange noted above. If you look carefully at how this one works, it’s always the rejoinder to the question of whether what you as manager/ administrator are doing is ethical. The trick answer works by deflection: it sidesteps answering the question by redirecting responsibility away from the agent—the one who pays the wages—to the one on the receiving end (no pun intended). It becomes the worker’s responsibility, we are told, to look for better wages elsewhere.
But what is the ethics of the person paying a non-livable wage? Well, to fill in for Mr. Hartle—maybe I’m going out on a limb here—the market determines what the payer can get away with. It is the ethics of being the one with the cash, a reiteration of Plato’s exchange with Thrasymachus in the Republic in which justice is the interest of the stronger. So for instance, if you’ve got people living on a typical dollar a day in Bangladesh, then paying a buck fifty will guarantee an adequate supply of workers, and the workers lucky enough to get the buck fifty can thank you. They are fifty cents better off than their cohorts. When one achieves the elevated status of a neoliberal capitalist, people are one of a number of commodities with variable prices that need to be attended to to maximize profits. In the academic market, there are a glut of educated folk out there, driving down wages. Administrators are simply being attentive.
And the question of oversupply leads to the last of Mr. Hartle’s cynical arguments. Further down in the interview, Paul Solman asks if higher education behaves irresponsibly “turning out as many Ph.D.s into a job market where some people wind up on food stamps?”
Hartle again deflects the question away from the perpetrators: “People who get Ph.D.s owe it to themselves to think long and hard about the labor market that they’re entering,” he states, leaving the role administrators play in marketing their programs out of the discussion. In other words, from Hartle’s perspective administrators have no responsibility if aspiring students are stupid enough to enroll in a Ph.D. program. It’s up to you, Ph.D. student, to investigate what is happening across the United States with higher education and—if you are wise–gracefully bow out. As an alternative, Mr. Hartle might suggest driving a truck for Neiman Marcus and studying business admin on the side.
What lessons, other than the inference that the Council on Higher Education is the lap dog of corporate America, should we learn from this PBS interview? For me, it’s that academics everywhere need to get off their asses and be more involved in the management and politics of their institutions. Given that I teach a couple of English classes on the border of Mexico and I can figure this all out leads me to think that the rest of my community must be on top of this as well. As academics, we have a sacred trust to safeguard the knowledge that has been painfully bestowed on us over countless centuries. This knowledge is not just in our libraries; it is also a living thing, the knowledge of the peculiarities of our disciplines and how we share our traditions of conducting research and thinking with the next generation. We are failing in this trust, losing it in fact to a bunch of money-grubbers. We know better. We need to act collectively on behalf of that knowledge and recreate the academy we don’t have to make excuses for.
You can follow Dennis Selder on twitter at @erasmusonline