The New Academic Labor System is Getting Old

Education

An ongoing theme at this site has been the corporatization of higher education. Commercial influence is nothing new in American higher education and has been with us at least since the Morill Land Grant Act of the 1860s brought agriculture and engineering to the university. As David Noble has demonstrated, the industrial revolution of the early twentieth century was an outcome of partnerships between campus and industry. However, one could argue that corporatization began to take off in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the onset of increased research spending — in an emerging climate President Eisenhower should have called “the military-industrial-educational complex.” Since then corporatization in higher education has increasingly gained the attention of scholars.

So, exactly what are we talking about? What is corporatization?

AAUP banner

Richard Moser, a professional historian and a member of the national staff of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in an article entitled “Corporatization, Its Discontents and the Renewal of Academic Citizenship“:

[Corporatization] is the term now being used to describe a number of historical developments. For higher education it refers to the retreat of service to the common good as the purpose of our colleges and universities. In general it describes the decline of a social contract that prevailed in America during the mid-[twentieth] century and the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, for the purpose of maximizing profits

Corporatization is far from a perfect term, as there are many different approaches possible even in a corporate economy. Corporatization may well be viewed as the misapplication of a regressive corporate ideology to a non-market activity (education). As such, corporatization is as much an ideological project as it is a political or economic one. The Canadians call this process “commercialization” and the British “privatization,” and those concepts capture important aspects of the changes we are experiencing…

[T]he years between W.W.II and 1975 were characterized primarily by powerful government interventions in higher education that were a central component in what may be called the mid-century social contract [emphasis added].

This notion of a social contract, or compact, has also been described by Neil W. Hamilton, in his 2002 book, Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance. It refers to the unwritten agreement between faculty members at colleges and universities and the society these institutions serve. Mr. Moser characterizes the social contract in the post-war period as a bargain between government, higher education, and business:

Government promoted and sustained economic growth through investment in higher education. The GI bill, the shift toward service industries, and demographic trends dramatically increased student enrollment. Higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post-war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by permitting a rising standard of living for most working people…This period was also characterized by a high degree of respect for the AAUP’s 1940 Statement. Tenure, due process, and shared governance became the almost universally accepted ethical foundation for higher education…

In this so-called “golden era” the university was part of and dedicated to the public good [emphasis added].

So what ended the “golden era” of higher education? The demise of the social contract had begun by the late 1960s, according to Mr. Moser:

Slower economic growth and heightened competition were evoked to change popular expectations concerning living standards and public expenditures. In higher education the changing times were characterized by decreased public funding. That occurred simultaneously with the ascendancy of a corporate style of management and the subsequent shifting of costs and risks to those who teach, research and study…

The cutting edge of the corporatization of higher education was the restructuring of the workforce around a multi-tiered structure into what I call the “New Academic Labor System.” In the typical multi-tiered system new or younger employees are not offered the same level of compensation and job security as existing staff. A report on faculty appointments by the AAUP’s Ernst Benjamin revealed:

  • The change since 1975 is striking. Part-time faculty have grown four-times (103%) more than full-time (27%).
  • The number of non-tenure-track faculty has increased by 92%, while the number of probationary (tenure-track) faculty has actually declined by 12%.
  • Adjunct appointments went from 22% in 1970 to 32% in 1982, to 42% in 1993, to a current level of about 46 percent of all faculty [emphasis added].

In fact, the situation in higher education has become even worse than when Mr. Benjamin compiled his statistics in 2002. Today, about two-thirds of the faculty nationwide is contingent, and at community colleges, which enroll about 50 percent of all college students, the professoriate is about 70 to 80 percent contingent. How did this happen? Mr. Moser continues:

This multi-tiered approach succeeded, because it blunted opposition by implicitly promising not to affect existing constituencies. Tenured faculty were enticed with short-term benefits. The faculty did cooperate in their own demise, but not by formal decree. No faculty senate, AAUP chapter, or union ever explicitly agreed to abolish tenure for the majority of future faculty in exchange for cheap replacements for introductory courses or sabbaticals, but such complicity is rarely formalized…

The over-use and exploitation of contingent faculty is the linchpin of this process of corporatization, because it has fragmented the faculty and weakened our ability to act as a constituency.

The fact is that, even without this fragmentation, most academics tend to be “loners” — highly independent and concerned mostly with their own professional cliques. They shy away from political activism, and in general are oblivious to the plight of other academics outside their inner circle. The individualistic nature of intellectuals makes organized resistance against corporatization difficult. This was clearly explained in an article published on 29 November 2006 in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “An Adjunct Bill of Rights“:

Tenured professors may well be in the best position to champion academic freedom for both full-timers and part-timers. After all, they are far less likely to lose their jobs for speaking out.

However, Judith Wagner DeCew, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, has pointed out that most full-time faculty members have not seen fit to concern themselves with the increased hiring and exploitation of part-time faculty members. In Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), she writes: “While some full-time faculty members speak out for and support part-timers, there is a sense that most full-time appointees are concerned about their own salaries and working conditions, whether unionized or not. . . . Numerous studies have shown that the difficulties that part-time faculty confront can often be attributed to the fact that full-time faculty in academia are primarily concerned with protecting their own professional positions and privileges, not employment equity.”

Ken Jacobsen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle and a frequent advocate for part-time faculty members, has said that the reason the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service back in 1997 was because the full-timers felt the increasing use of part-timers would mean less work for them, since UPS could always choose to call in the lower-paid temporary workers. But since tenured professors are guaranteed a full-time workload year after year, Jacobsen says, they have not felt threatened by academe’s increased hiring of part-timers, and thus have looked the other way, feeling that the adjuncts’ plight does not affect them. Full-timers, Jacobsen said, have their piece of the pie, and their primary goal is to hang on to it, and to make sure that no one else takes it away.

How does corporatization affect the average faculty member? As Mr. Moser points out:

For faculty, corporatization means more authoritarian governance practices, not simply as reflected in handbooks but changes in the culture, as administrators get used to bossing around the majority of the faculty who have no hope of tenure or job security.

So, how can we, the faculty, oppose corporatization? A work action like that conducted by the Teamsters against UPS in 1997 would be unpopular and ineffective since there are so many unemployed adjuncts now who no doubt would ignore it. James G. Andrews, an emeritus professor at the University of Iowa who held an adjunct appointment in medicine, a secondary appointment in liberal arts and sciences, a primary appointment in engineering, and is active in the AAUP at the local, state, and national levels, cites a suggestion by Neil Hamilton in his book mentioned above, namely, that the academic profession “renew the social compact through continuing education”.  Andrews writes:

Under the social compact Hamilton describes, society ensures the environment and resources needed for professors to fulfill their responsibilities in exchange for the high-quality educational opportunities that faculty provide. That is, society agrees to subsidize an educational environment in which faculty can pursue teaching, scholarship or creative work, and service free from pressure to raise funds. Traditionally, this environment has been characterized by academic freedom, tenured appointments, shared governance, and due process protections. This explicit identification of society’s fundamental responsibility to support higher education may eventually lead to a resolution of the corporatization problem…

We need a better understanding, on the part of the public and the professoriate, of the mutual responsibilities of each.

As Hamilton notes, “If, in a market economy, a profession does not renew the social compact through continuing education, [then] money and economic efficiency will eventually sweep the field to define all professional relationships as simply economic transactions between consumers and service providers for profit.”  Practitioners must remind society, generation after generation, of the agreement’s purpose and demonstrate how the profession serves the common good.

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