If you spend much time visiting academic departments, one thing you will likely notice is a strange generational gap that exists in many of them: there are tenured profs, who are usually in their 50s and 60s; adjuncts and a few postdocs who are generally mid-30s; and gaggles of grad students in their mid to late 20s. With time, the remaining profs will retire or die out and, one presumes given the trend towards “adjunctification”, be replaced by the armies of adjuncts and postdocs. Unfortunately, one also imagines that adjuncts (called “sessionals” here in Canada), like most high school teachers, will burn out after a few years in the trenches, teaching courses for a few thousand dollars a pop, without benefits, job security, or even office space in many cases.
Kevin Birmingham, a recent winner of the Truman Capote Award, has argued that the humanities “thrive on the exploitation” of these “contingent faculty”. In response, Blaine Greteman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has said “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis“. My first thoughts upon reading this were “Yes, but…” It’s not like Greteman is wrong, here, but…
It really is a punishing system and more than a little exploitative. Megan McArdle has suggested persuasively that the hostility many academics feel towards “capitalism” or “corporations” might well come from working in such a brutal system for their entire professional lives. If anything, academia has been a laboratory for employment techniques that are becoming normal throughout the corporate world: short-term contracts, just-in-time labor, doing away with pensions or job protections. The abolition of the social contract between labor and management, in other words. Academics were just proletarianized early.
In response, one could huff “Well, they don’t need to work in academia, do they?” But, plenty do choose to leave. Having made the decision to walk away from the “job market” (which never seems to function thus) and, instead, work as a university cleaner, where the pay is actually better and there is more job security, I am sympathetic to this argument. Nevertheless, undergrads pay entirely too much tuition to be taught by greenhorn grad students and, eventually, universities might well run out of people willing to take on debt and strain their marriages for the chance to become highly trained just-in-time labor for courses that pay $3,000 for a semester.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the current situation, here and in many industries, is that no one is really “to blame” for the structural transformations that have taken place. Tenured academics gain from lightened teaching loads, but they can hardly be blamed, since they can’t hire for tenure track positions if university admins won’t open tenure lines. Administrators benefit from a bloated administrative level at most universities- the “director of student fun” and fifteen subdirectors and so forth- but can hardly be blamed, since they have to “compete” with other universities in the marketplace at the same time as they have lost billions in state funding and enrollments have soared. Meanwhile, state politicians can hardly be blamed for defunding higher education because, they claim, the public is clamoring for it. As for the public, well, I’ve yet to meet a great number of them who actually want the government to stop funding state universities, but anything is possible in these extraordinary times.
The results are what we see throughout academia and a number of professions. Specific policy decisions have brought specific outcomes. And yet, nobody can imagine how to change those outcomes for the better; certainly not through different policy decisions! Since no one is to blame, no one can fix anything.