June 16, 2013

The decline of higher education

Not really hyperbole, and certainly not just about me and my latest battles with the job market.  I read this article yes, in Al Jazeera, of all places, that notes that today some 76% of college professors are adjuncts.  They average 2,700 per class with no benefits, no job security, and no say.  So I am far from alone.

And while the article focuses, perhaps too much, on the psychology of why people like me put themselves through this and don't just go find another job, it is still well worth reading.  After all, to be very honest, while I have been "exploited" pretty heavily since I started teaching college courses, for much of that time, it worked well for me.  Our economic situation was not that of many in the field, and so for a while, I was content to teach a few courses for the University (at a rate nearly double that average pay) with none of the meetings, advising, committee, to say nothing of not having to publish.  It was a symbiotic relationship with my tenured friends.  My work allowed them to do more research, and along the way, I was able to add small, but vibrant classes to majors and non-majors alike. In that, I was extremely fortunate for a while, and I am glad for that.

At my university, the student fees that paid for my modest stipend became too attractive for the administration to just let go back to the departments.  That ended my run there, and I am not exactly sure what to do with that.  Are they trying to avoid the "adjunctification" of the academy?  Or are they simply trying to make more revenue.  Student enrollment has not declined, and they already have tenure track people on salary.  I guess the argument was to make those people teach more and pocket those fees.  That seems to be what occurred, anyway.

Perhaps I am a bad one to complain about this as I was rather happy to be exploited while it lasted.  I think that in the long run, we are looking at a commodification of learning.  As one of my friends noted on Facebook this morning (and I should note that much of the support I am hearing from friends comes from tenured colleagues):
The recent mess causing all the layoffs is also a consequence of deliberate legislative efforts to starve public education into a must-commercialize mode that requires abolition of tenure and normalizes faculty work at much less than a living wage.
This is undoubtedly true.  State support for higher education has been in steep decline since the 80s, as has been support for national funding of research into science and technology.  All of that has served to force Universities to reach out to the private sector for funding.  On one hand, that isn't a bad thing, but on the other, it means that people like the Koch brothers can essentially purchase an economics department to continue support for their own economic needs.

I think all of those issues need addressing.  Universities appear to have embraced the idea of simply selling college as a consumer good, and are now building entertainment facilities to attract students.  Climbing walls, water parks, etc., rather than investing in smaller classrooms and more faculty.  Anglican and I are convinced that part of the problem with the University is that so many insiders still believe (rather naively) that their primary mission is still education and research, while the evidence suggests that for most administrations, the goal appears to be more revenue.  This is bad for the students as well, as I constantly run into students who see their degree as a consumer good they purchase, rather than a reflection of what they have learned.

For today, that is going to have to wait, and it looks increasingly like it will be someone else's issue.  The academy doesn't want me, so they will have to battle MOOCs, water parks, and the continued attacks on tenure and academic freedom.  For me, my bitterness is broadly at conservatives who continue to gleefully gut academics, but also directly at the community college for their open disrespect of my ability and contribution.  And finally, just frustration toward those inside the academy who seem to have internalized their own experience as to make them really more worthy than those of us outside.  From the Al Jazeera piece:
On Twitter, I wondered why so many professors who study injustice ignore the plight of their peers. "They don't consider us their peers," the adjuncts wrote back. Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy - which it is not - and those who have tenured jobs like to think they deserved them. They probably do - but with hundreds of applications per available position, an awful lot of deserving candidates have defaulted to the adjunct track.
The plight of the adjunct shows how personal success is not an excuse to excuse systemic failure. Success is meaningless when the system that sustained it - the higher education system - is no longer sustainable. When it falls, everyone falls. Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility.


http://abebedorespgondufo.blogs.sapo.pt/ said...

very good.

Jay said...


No argument on any of that. The educational aspect of academia needs to be scrutinized and "the cheapest solution is the best solution" mentality that pervades the community is one that troubles me deeply.

What also struck me some time in the last few days is that I think we were talking about different aspects (facets?) of academia in the previous thread. I was considering academia as a repository for advanced knowledge/information that can be used to inform personal/societal decisions. I was not really focusing on the educational side, beyond ensuring that we have enough experts to perform that function in the future. I suspect you were thinking of academia as a source of knowledge that provides a basis for training people to function in the modern world, and a source of the instructors who perform that function. I may be wrong, of course, but I wonder if that could also account for some of he disconnect in the previous thread.

A closing thought: I worked in France as a post-doc at a university in the late 1990s. In France, research scientists and science instructors are almost never the same person. They are entirely different jobs that do not even occur in the same building in many cases. When I was there, I never saw a classroom or, in fact, any students at the university beyond the graduate students working as research associates in the research building. It seems to me that the dynamic described in the linked article suggests that US universities are stumbling toward a similar model, albeit in a way that does not seem at all fair or equitable to the two groups involved.

Streak said...

Jay, I think that is really correct. All I know about the scientific research side is from my neighbors, who are both biologists. I suspect the research side is much more rational about grant applications, and how the science is all actually produced.

Interesting about French research universities. I think there is a really interesting component to the American model in that people who are doing research are always pushing themselves to learn new stuff, while, as I can well attest, those who only teach can easily fall back on old notes and old information.

Here in the states, the big problem, I think, is the broader corporatization of the university. And some conservatives I speak with really defend this and assume that the market is wise. I try to remind them that the market gives us Britney Spears and the Kardashians--who are famous for some reason of which I know nothing.