Why volunteer labor is too expensive for American universities


Tune in, turn on, teach in!

The University of North Carolina to its emeriti faculty who have volunteered to return to the classroom for no pay:  Drop Dead!  (Via The University Diaries–the blue bracketed editorial comments are UD proprietor Margaret Soltan’s.)

In February, an association of retired UNC-Chapel Hill professors sought to help ease daunting budget cuts by offering to jump back into teaching, free of charge.

The response from the university, they say, has been underwhelming.

“It was more than a gesture; it was a well-thought-out offer to the university,” said Andrew Dobelstein, a retired professor of social welfare policy and the group’s president. “I’m quite frankly surprised we haven’t gotten much response.” [Top-heavy with overpaid administrators, Chapel Hill responds to this offer with paralysis. Mouth hangs open. Doesn’t know what to do. In its world, people don’t behave this way. Doesn’t understand what has happened. It doesn’t compute.]

This year, UNC has had to pare its operating budget by more than $60 million, a 10 percent cut. While most of the reductions have to come in nonacademic areas, students are seeing the effects in classrooms, which have become more crowded this fall.

Whatwhatwhat!?!?  A university administration adverse to faculty performing uncompensated labor?  Oh–that’s right.  Retired faculty really aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer now, are they? 

But for university officials, the offer isn’t quite that simple.

While budget cuts have strained many academic departments, university leaders are leery of plugging retired faculty members into roles that may not fit them perfectly.

“This really has to be one of those things where matches get made,” said Ron Strauss, executive associate provost. “We don’t want to bring back people who ended their academic careers several years ago and aren’t keeping on the cutting edge of their disciplines, just as a stopgap measure.” [Yes, let’s act cautiously. Or not at all. After all, we can put a sh!tload of courses online and have them taught by part-timers and grad students! Who needs these guys?]

I might add:  what’s with the gratuitous and insulting assumption that the gaffers are spending their days playing shuffleboard?  My bet is that if they won tenure at UNC–even if it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago–that they’re pretty darn smart and probably still very active scholars.  (I know UNC has smart grad students–but really, even the most promising grad student doesn’t have as much to offer, as even grad students themselves will agree.)  Soltan concludes:  “Really, even a university-wide email from the executive associate provost encouraging departments to do this would be a big help. But we wouldn’t want him to act too fast.”

This strange hesitation to take advantage of volunteers–and moreover the strange need to insult the volunteers as too old and out-of-touch to offer anything of value to UNC’s students–isn’t strange if we understand that universities now operate on the assumptions of corporate America, and that their object is to turn their workforce into at-will wage slaves who don’t have a voice in university policy or governance.  The opinions and commands of university administrators will mean less than nothing to emeriti faculty working for free–because university administrators have no leverage whatsoever over these folks and can’t instill fear in them.  They’re already working for free–what’s UNC going to take away from them?  (I guess it could revoke their library privileges and cancel their e-mail accounts, or something like that, for their daring and totally threatening generosity!)

I thought francofou had another great point in the comments at UD:  “It would be a different story if the administration had initiated a cutting-edge, ground-breaking Center for Wisdom Resources, with a new associate provost, a full staff and a 5-million-dollar budget. Now we’re in grant-getting territory.”  Indeed.

If I were an emerita faculty member at UNC, I might start holidng teach-ins or be-ins on campus, or do something similarly generationally appropriate like that.  (Consciousness raising?  EST?  Wev–to borrow a corporate slogan from my youth, just do it!)

0 thoughts on “Why volunteer labor is too expensive for American universities

  1. I suspect that the justification being given for not taking the emeriti up on the offer is disingenuous. Our department has traditionally used retired faculty to do quite a bit of teaching, but we’ve encountered significant resistance to it in the last year or so. The reasons for this most involve enforcing blanket policies and rules outside the range of situations where they make sense. For example, there have been big cuts in the budgets for temporary faculty; that much was basically unavoidable. However, many retired professors would like to continue teaching, even if we can’t pay them the couple thousand dollars per class that we were. But they can’t, because if we’re not paying them, they don’t fall under the university’s liability insurance. (One guy is still able to teach, because even though he’s not paid, he still has a research grant administered through the university.) The insurance concern is valid, but I’m sure there would be a low-cost way to get these emeritus faculty covered, if somebody cared enough to figure it out.

    Based on this experience, I suspect that the real reason that UNC has rejected the offer is much more bureaucratic, and that their public statement is just an effort to defend (in what they believe sound like reasonable terms) a decision that was made for entirely different reasons.


  2. It is also slightly problematic from the perspective of paid scholars, because if people will teach for free, then there is less need to pay people to do it. Admittedly when there is no money to pay anyone, this may seem like quibbling, but in the long run, if adjuncts and grad students are cut out of teaching as they cost more than free retirees, many young scholars will not be able to afford to stay in the discipline in their early years. Furthermore, if dept’s want to put more pressure on administration to divert what resources there are into teaching, then free labour undermines these demands. In the long run, it will effectively make the retired volunteers the scabs or blacklegs of any industrial action departments and students enact to get more money.


  3. Comrade PP, you have a point there.

    As for Historiann’s original point, however: Out-of-touch and retired do not correlate, in either direction. Sure, some retired faculty *have* been teaching from the same notes for almost 30 years. But then again, so have some non-retired faculty. I have a colleague (co-head of a major interdisciplinary program) who *refuses* to learn how to send or open e-mail attachments. Another senior faculty member rarely assigns his grad students a book published since 1978.

    On the other hand, you have retired faculty like my 80-something former dissertation advisor, who still crank out national award-winning UP books every few years, just like he did when he was teaching. At his retirement party, I asked him how many articles & essays (leaving out the half-dozen or so books) he had published over his 40-year career. He thought for a moment, then said, “About 360 or so, I think.” And that’s not even counting what he’s done in the decade *since* he’s retired.

    We evaluate our lecturers on the skills they actually bring to the classroom; I don’t get why all contingent labor shouldn’t be evaluated this way.


  4. Well, you think that would be the case CPP–but that’s why I’m sticking with my theory that they don’t want volunteers because volunteers can’t be herded and intimidated like people who don’t have pensions and social security checks coming in.

    Feminist Avatar–shockingly, I’m going to disagree with you! I don’t think the temporary use of retired volunteers represents a real threat to the pay structure of American universities. Presumably once the happy days are here again, the gaffers will be happy to cede the classroom to the working stiffs and to return to their creative solitude.

    Buzz’s comments on the liability insurance (?!?) are interesting. But like your department Buzz, my department has retired faculty teaching a course or two, here or there. Furthermore, some retired faculty are still sitting on grad committees and doing that kind of volunteer labor–so I just don’t understand how having volunteer faculty on the staff would present that huge of a bureaucratic hurdle. (Besides, if you click the link and read the whole commentary at UD or the whole article, there are some department chairs who haven’t let this kind of bureaucratic farting around deter them from enlisting the help of retired colleagues–and she apparently found no barriers to doing this.


  5. Actually, when I read this at UD my thought was much the same as Feminist Avatar’s. But otherwise, I think it is a great idea to have retired people teaching. I was introduced to my field by an eminent scholar who had “retired”; and I’ve known retired scholars who just wanted to keep teaching. (I’ve known others who were ready to retire from teaching and keep writing — as one said to me, I don’t need to grade any more papers.)

    It’s kind of crazy.


  6. Shockingly, I am disagreeing with Historiann and siding with Feminist Avatar on this one. I mean, sure, the admin didn’t need to insult the geezers and departments could do a much better job of tapping into the wisdom and experience of emeritus faculty, but teaching for free is a dangerous precedent to set when a lot of faculties (at UC, for example) are fighting to take furloughs on instructional days to make visible the fact that teaching costs money.


  7. I’m a bit on both sides here. As a member of a unionized faculty (who often disagrees with the union, and thinks *some* aspects of union operating principles map awkwardly onto academic culture) I think it’s scary to envision almost any form of free labor. Although our retirees (can) remain in a sort of adjunct wing of the union, and could, of course, re-activate. What would departments say about how specific appointment decisions were made? On the other hand, cutting edge? Come on. In a perfect information world we would see that it’s a keyword that has a huge corellation with corporatistic vocabularies about “partnering,” “synergy,” and the other kinds of things that newly-appointed university presidents like to spout. People in the actual trenches of messy inquiry are more circumspect. Maybe in photoelectronics, but in many or most of our humanities disciplines, the “cutting edge” is about as sharp as the backside of your average household amoeba. I’m way-for Historiann’s idea of senior teach-ins. They might draw off a lot of bodies, or “seats” as we say around here, from the classrooms.


  8. Hey I was just at a union presentation where their money crunchers were making the argument that UC closes sections and makes massive, student-impacting cuts *that they do not need to* because it becomes great justification for raising student fees and tuition. If you bring in enough retired faculty for free to re-open all those sections we have just closed, students won’t have to stand out in the quad for six hours trying to get overload classes, and then they might actually push back against more fee hikes.

    And the idea of retired faculty working for free *really* pisses me off —- it’s like the people who say I shouldn’t care whether the university pays me because I love my subject so much. And, seriously, after promising grad students for 20 years now that there would be a massive wave of faculty retirements and open up new tenure lines, yer gonna bring back faculty from retirement and maybe even the dead so that you don’t have to pay any salaries at all? Rrrrr!

    I invite the retired faculty instead to join the current faculty, grads, adjuncts and staff on the picket lines and protest meetings to fight budget cuts and demand that our legislatures fully fund our public universities. Since many of them were active in the free-speech and civil rights movements, they have important skills and experience from outside the classroom that they can bring to the table.


  9. I don’t know, right now, where I stand on this. I agree that the UNC administrator’s comments are insulting: many scholars end their employment with universities but not their professional careers nor their scholarly work.

    Thinking like an administrator: Are there issues of state retirement rules about returning to one’s former employer or to public teaching generally (my state has that rule)? Volunteering may not include a paycheck, but are there are other costs or perquisites that would make states or the IRS edgy? On the other hand, has there been a practice of hiring emeriti for a course or two, and would this act of kindness and dedication upend that practice, perhaps to the detriment of those individuals who may need the additional pay? How would volunteer workers affect a university’s liability insurance? What’s in the faculty union contract (if there is a union)? Where’s the AAUP on this? And are there issues for administrators who have to deal with the mysteries of accreditation?

    Now, I don’t know the answers to those questions, and they may not be germane. But the article does not explain the contents of the retired faculty’s “well-thought-out offer.” It seems that they’ve figured it all out, and if that’s true, the administration should have been able to respond quickly. Then again, the administration’s “leery” attitude is not an outright objection (aside from the well-documented bloat of administration at UNC making for a non-response).

    Then there’s the whole issue of teaching’s value: teaching has, historically, been devalued–poor pay (especially when women entered the profession), poor support, and the like. If universities could really find highly skilled individuals with years of experience who would teach for free….


  10. I applaud the retirees’ wish to do some good for their former institutions, but I also agree that we need to recognize that work is worth pay.

    Maybe I’d really rather see the retirees use their wisdom and experience where it could do even more good: not teaching classes, but taking on the administrative work of deans and provosts and vice presidents and presidents on a volunteer basis. Now that might save some money! Four or five retirees collaborating to do the work of one vice president would not save the (relatively) few dollars spent on a handful of sections of classes, but a real six-figure amount!


  11. Ha! I like Tom’s suggestion that the retirees volunteer to be administrators. That would save a hell of a lot more money.

    HistoryMaven, Sisyphus, Roxie, and all of you make good points. But–since most of us agree that Corporate University (TM) is the evil way things are going right now–how do you account for the UNC administration’s utter lack of interest in the retirees’ offer? Why wouldn’t the Vice Provost of Institutional Efficiency seize on this as a strategy to undermine faculty and adjunct pay? If this scheme is as insidious (however well meaning, as Tom notes) as most of you think it is, why aren’t the evil geniuses at UNC cackling with delight and signing up emeriti right and left?


  12. That last suggestion is a screenplay waiting to happen. Revolving teams of forty or fifty emeriti making dispensible the entire suit brigade. And possibly by the by taking selective revenge on still-active cutting edge juniors who may have hounded them into retirement.

    Patch me through to Richard Russo!


  13. I, too, am part of a unionized faculty but at an institution without graduate students. We don’t have the TA’s to handle the general education courses and that is where we really need the help. I don’t think I want our administrators to get the idea that if they can get retired faculty to volunteer, they can avoid hiring the tenure tracks we really need.

    Do retired faculty have any idea of what’s been happening to class sizes since they retired? In 5 years, the “standard” size of an introductory course on my campus has gone from 30 to 45 students–and many sections are at 100 or 120. Fortunately, physical classroom size stops administrators from expanding further.

    If retired faculty want to help out, they can serve as tutors for all of the students who need more individualized attention that the PAID faculty can’t get to.


  14. I *really* like Tom’s idea. They could run the university out of the faculty club or the local espresso house (which would mean their meetings would be semi-public, too).


  15. P.S. I also really like the idea of retired faculty volunteering to serve as TA types and writing center personnel at institutions that don’t have these, but need them.


  16. In a museum/ archive that I used to work for, we had quite a few volunteers, and one of the rules for using them was, that they could not perform the functions of paid staff. Any work they did must be in addition to normal work such as special projects (like transcribing documents which normal staff would never have time to do, or digitising photographs). The reason for this was that volunteers should not be seen as ‘free labour’ which is exploitative. Furthermore, using volunteers to do staff duties effectively acknowledged that staff could not do their job without volunteers, lending weight to requests for overtime payments and demands for greater staffing. This was something that management insisted was not true (in a long-running dispute about staffing levels).

    This is probably why university’s aren’t jumping all over the ‘free’ workers idea- it means agreeing that the current situation is unnacceptable. [Which I realise is kind of the opposite from what I argued above, but I actually think both can be true, because once free labour is agreed to, it’s a slippery slope]


  17. The difficult thing about volunteers is that if they turn out to be lousy teachers, it’s hard to get them to improve. As you say, no one has leverage over them. So if volunteers are inclined to bad behavior (telling war stories instead of covering the material, not showing up for class, showing up drunk, sexually harassing students etc.) all you can do is get rid of them, which can be an unpleasant business as they usually will not go quietly.


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