Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education
Corporatization is a feature of 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 that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization. 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. 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 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.
Critiquing the corporatization of higher education is not a new thing; many have written about it at least since the ‘90s, but, given the current political climate, it never has been more important to talk about it. The first step in the implementation of a corporatization ideology is to make working conditions precarious, that is, to make workers insecure, easier to exploit, and to weaken or destroy workers’ unions. In higher education, this first step in the process has been adjunctification, a way to end tenure by not hiring professors for tenure-track positions, and to over-rely on part-time professors. The over-reliance on adjuncts has been increasing now for decades. Today, 75% of college faculty are part-time adjuncts, the reverse of what was once intended. I often describe adjunctification as tenure leaving by the back door. No one sees it going, and then it’s gone. Everyone wonders where it went. And with it goes academic freedom, because tenure is the only real protection for academic freedom. Today, only 25% of faculty have tenure and secure academic freedom. We are getting precariously close to not having tenure or full-time faculty.
Union protection of academic freedom depends largely on union protection of tenure. Adjunctification, to be clear, is the effective end of tenure. Adjuncts don’t have tenure and so lack academic freedom. Even when adjuncts belong to a union that is active in protecting academic freedom, like ours, adjuncts’ academic freedom is not equal to tenured academic freedom. Since adjuncts are hired only for one semester, and they must receive a new contract each semester; their academic freedom depends on the commitment to academic freedom of those who have the power to not rehire them. In other words, adjuncts don’t possess academic freedom, at least not full and secure academic freedom.
Faculty academic freedom is student academic freedom, just like faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The oppressive nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. 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, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are oppressive. Most have more than one job, but make half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. The idea that the market value is the ultimate value of labor dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. This shortchanges both faculty and students.
In a few weeks, adjuncts, the 75% majority of faculty, will be unemployed, not on summer break like full-time faculty, but jobless. This is what precarious working conditions look like. We are obviously needed because we are hired again and again. Many people, when they understand the situation, ask, why don’t they just hire you full-time? Good question. No one has a good answer. But we could start with equal pay for equal work.
What would be best for students?
The answer is not Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, who specifically took aim at adjuncts in comments she made to students attending the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community.” I don’t know any faculty who said exactly that. She exhorted the students to “fight against the education establishment.” She was calling, in other words, for an attack on academic freedom. Adjuncts, 75% of the higher education faculty, precarious, underpaid, serially unemployed, are named because she realizes that if the majority can be intimidated, the tenured minority, who have an empowered position within the institution, will be weakened. The new regime in Washington, with a corporatization-oriented cabinet, will seek to use this weak link to undermine academic freedom further and to make academic laborers even more precarious. We cannot let that happen. Faculty, adjuncts and tenured, need to stand together with students as community to resist the corporatization of higher education, to resist injustice, to resist hate.
Let us celebrate May Day, and recognize the contributions of workers to the economy and to society. After all, we are the majority.