How the Student Became a Consumer and the Professor Became Precarious

Here is the text of the speech I gave to kick off a week of Campus Equity Week 2017 events at San Diego Mesa College.

Adjunctification and Corporatization: How Students Became Consumers and Professors Became Precarious

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech, “The American Scholar,” in which he made this comment. His words represent a resistance to the idea that education should be utilitarian, a notion rooted in anti-intellectualism. Emerson saw the mind as a creative force in the universe that could aspire to ideals such as the ones enshrined in the Constitution: Justice, Peace, and Compassion, for instance. Emerson saw the pursuit of these lofty aims as the appropriate aims of the American Scholar. The scholar, in seeking to know himself and his world, elevates the entire community. Emerson’s words speak to us today as we face the corporatization of higher education.

What is adjunctification? It is an ungainly and disquieting word, a neologism that is necessary to name a process that would otherwise be seen, and, regrettably, increasingly is seen, as business as usual in higher education. I use this idiom, “business as usual,” to heighten the connection between adjunctification and the paradigmatic ideology that higher education is a business, or, more precisely, a corporation, which brings me to the other unwieldy word in the title: “corporatization.”

These words, adjunctification and corporatization, together name the decades long process that has institutionalized in higher education the ideological assumptions that the student is a customer, education is a commodity, and the aim of higher education institutions is to maximize profit and minimize cost while delivering an easily consumable product: to achieve, in corporate rhetoric, “efficiency.” This is the opposite of what the aim of higher education should be and the implications of this failure of imagination for democracy, the failure to aim high, to aspire beyond the wrongheaded notion that a student is a customer, are dire.

Corporatism is the ideology that all social relations are explainable through market relations. One of the conclusions which follows from this ideology is that market value, the “bottom line,” is ultimate. The corporatization of higher education has been the applying of the idea by legislators and administrators that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education as a public good is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization ideology. A business sells a product and needs to balance the cost of production with profit, or the business will fail. Higher education is the public institution which, and this is the brief version, is entrusted with old knowledge, new knowledge, and with ways of making knowledge, of leading students to transform information into knowledge through critical thinking. It offers students not only knowledge of the world and the world of ideas, but also an opportunity to grow as individuals and mature into the best possible versions of themselves as free-thinking citizens, ready to participate in fulfilling the promise of democracy in America as well as fulfilling the promise of their lives. Higher education is a public good, not because it prepares students for the workforce, although it does this, but because college students, by reaching deep within to meet the challenge of learning, discover talents and skills they may not have otherwise known they have, which they then bring to the democratic community. If higher education fails, community fails. And when community fails, we have injustice and hate.

 Economist Guy Standing, in his groundbreaking 2010 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, explains that the term “precariat,” a combination of “precarious” and the Marxist term “proletariat,” also known as the “working class,” is a new word necessary to describe contemporary labor conditions. Today, according to Standing, the proletariat has been replaced by the precariat. The proletariat had unions and job security; the precariat is an “independent contractor” and has job insecurity. To achieve maximum “efficiency,” it is necessary to have maximum “flexibility” of labor. What is the most flexible labor? One that is temporary, disposable, and exploitable. Sounds like an adjunct. The aim of corporate ideology is to make the laborer precarious, insecure and fearful, and easy to manage.

 What is an adjunct professor? A member of the precariat of higher education. An adjunct is, by definition, non-essential and disposable to the mission of higher education. Roughly 75% of community college professors nationwide are adjunct: part-time, temporary. Yet, this description is a lie. Typically, adjunct faculty are rehired over and over, for many years. Why? Because they are, obviously, essential to the mission of the college.  To describe them as temporary and non-essential is absurd. At Mesa College, 85% of faculty are adjunct. That means only 15% of faculty are full-time. If you are a student looking for your professor, chances are she will not have her own office, or even be on the same campus.

Most adjuncts are career academics who have devoted their lives to the public good of higher education. Without them, higher education would disintegrate. Most adjuncts always intended to be academics, to teach, or research, or perform as experts in their field of expertise. Chances are these are people whose passion is teaching. They are professionals dedicated to teaching, to making the world a better place. These dedicated professionals devote most of their lives to gaining, maintaining, and teaching their subject matter. This is what they do; it is who they are. It is a calling.

 This is bad for students. Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The precarious nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. It makes her education precarious. For instance, students do not have equal access to adjunct professors who have no official, long-term relationship with the institution, in whom the institution has not fully invested. Nevertheless, enduring the unequal working conditions, adjuncts, most of whom would prefer a full-time position, most of whom would be full-time except for the dominant corporate ideology, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. Their qualifications are equal, their labor is equal, their commitment is equal. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are unequal. Most have more than one job, but earn half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. How is this situation equal access for students? You can’t say that it is.

The idea that the ultimate value of labor is determined by market “forces” dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. Adjunctification is the making of academic labor cost as low as possible. The result for faculty is financial insecurity and the powerlessness that goes with precarity.  The business model shortchanges both faculty and students. Students are not only shortchanged because they are denied access to full-time faculty; the business model also requires that students focus their study on a vocational plan. The purpose of a commodified education becomes training students to be good corporate workers as opposed to students seeking knowledge, who study in the liberal arts, which tends to liberate. Most of the traditional subjects of a liberal arts education, including math, science, and the humanities, seem to have no practical value in this paradigm. Of course, if value is cast as utilitarian, then  the liberal arts doesn’t.  Science perhaps, but only if it is connected to a technological development that leads to profit. But if the value of higher education is cast as what makes students able to fulfill the potential of their lives, then the deep, reflective thinking that is required to master language, math, and science, to think philosophically, to know the diverse nature of American culture, and global culture, is what higher education should be about, that is, fostering the growth of minds. In contrast, the commodification of higher education turns the mind into readily consumable fast food.

The question that remains is what do we do about this? First, we must begin by seeing that the student is not a consumer and that faculty, most of whom are precariat, need to be empowered to provide students with the learning opportunities they need to aspire to fulfill their potential. Empowering faculty will require a radical idea, one which now does not exist as a political goal, except in name. We want to fund more full-time positions. But in the current model, there will never be enough money allocated to accomplish this goal of 75% of courses taught by full-time faculty.  To accomplish this will require a radical paradigm shift.

Higher education operating under the limits of a business model offers a one-dimensional paradigm. Humans, like students and faculty, are multi-dimensional beings. When market values replace public values, education is cast as a commodity, and self-interest is held as the highest good in a super-competitive, economically defined world, individual and societal potential is diminished. Faculty are underpaid because ideas are undervalued. We need a paradigm shift. We need liberation from the business model. We need to aim higher.

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3 thoughts on “How the Student Became a Consumer and the Professor Became Precarious

  1. Pingback: How the Student Became a Consumer and the Professor Became Precarious – Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless

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