Adjuncts Unite!


How much does your university value teaching?

The best way to learn exactly how much a university values teaching is to find out how much they pay their adjuncts. Take a look. It’s not pretty. Adjuncts come in two main forms. They are either the hopeful, hanging on in case a tenure track job appears, or the hopeless, hanging on until that local bookstore needs a clerk (which pays more than being an adjunct, even though its business model is in the toilet). Hopeful or hopeless, they are skilled, dedicated, overworked colleagues. Hopeful or hopeless, they share a common subaltern status they do not deserve.

The only way to get rid of the stigma and the trauma of the adjunct is the get rid of tenure. Kings and outcastes share a common logic. (See Bruce Caron, “On the Downtown Side of Japan’s Old Capital: Higashi-kujo,” in Public Culture, Fall 1999, 11(3):433-440; doi:10.1215/08992363-11-3-433). One way to get rid of tenure is to close departments and completely reorganize how the university runs. (This would present other opportunities to jettison a few vice-chancellors, provosts, deans, and their assistants and other administrative flotsam and spend more of the budget on teaching and students.) Getting rid of tenure will also remove the main obstacle to open access publication. This would blow a wide breach in Elsevier’s paywall. While getting rid of tenure would solve a lot of problems, some (most) readers might point out that this solution requires getting rid of tenure. From the perspective of the perennial adjunct, this is a small point. From the vantage point of the tenured professor, it’s a somewhat larger issue.

I can’t believe it’s not tenure

The challenge here is to come up with a new professional bargain between professors and universities that is better than tenure (or, at least better than what tenure has become). If this group really wants to build a future for the academy, I would argue that finding a better bargain is a central challenge we face. We need a new professional agreement between faculty and universities.

Tenure will fall on its own, at least in the US, and not because this change might be really good for science, but rather because neo-liberals in state houses will demand this at some point soon; say, the week after they gut public employee unions. To be extra cynical, we might also picture some lawsuit that will make it to the Supreme Court, who will decide that—apart from Supreme Court justices—nobody else really deserves tenure. Already, lawmakers can point to the economics of the growing adjunct teaching workforce and make a convincing argument to their public that tenure is a bad deal for the state. By hiring adjuncts and paying them so poorly, public universities are actively greasing the track to the end of tenure.

The best time to devise a beneficial alternative to tenure is now. What is possibly better than tenure? And better for whom? And how can this new arrangement be used strategically to create an optimal future for universities?

Better than tenure

What is better than tenure? Here are the beginnings of potential guidelines, a strawman to build from:

1) A university-wide pay scale for teaching courses that allows for incremental adjustments for years served, and bonuses for class size and results (how do we want to measure results?). No second-class citizens in this system. Everyone who steps up to teach has the rank of professor. The full-time teaching load is the same for all professors.

2) Four-year contracts for all professors, with a review after three years, and an expectation of renewal unless specific causes (bad results, etc.) are evident. At the end of two consecutive four-year contracts, one year of sabbatical is provided to every professor. Teaching is the only activity under review for contract renewal.

3) Release (for a semester, or a year, or more) for externally funded research stops the clock on contract review process. Research projects fund the researcher’s salary during these periods (as they now fund other research team members). Research results and publication are not reviewed for contract renewal. Of course, these are reviewed by funders and will impact future funding. Researchers are rewarded bonuses (culled from the overhead of research income) based, say, on the metrics of their publications in open source journals. When the funded research ends, the professor goes back to teaching full time and the contract review clock starts again.

4) Faculty-run review system to guard against university actions that might infringe on academic freedom, and also to review decisions to not rehire a faculty member.

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[Note: this was originally posted on Hastac.]

So, what are your ideas for a system that is better than tenure?

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