Jonathan Rees draws our attention to comments by Thomas Frank in a recent issue of Harper’s (sorry–no link) about why he left academia to pursue a career as an independent writer and journalist:
“Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a Ph.D. in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A’s while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them-a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was then just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.”
I argued over there that his “tenured elders” weren’t the authors of this system–at least, not unless they were the Deans and Provosts who decided to use adjuncts instead of permitting departments to run tenure-track searches. No tenured faculty in any department I’ve ever been a member of has cackled with glee at the prospect of seeing our ranks depleted and populated instead with adjuncts. In fact, the faculty I’m on is always up in arms about the erosion in our ranks. The chairs of my department, and the chairs of all other departments I know of in my college, have made the hiring of tenure-track colleagues their number-one request for the last several years.
Frank has created a straw-man argument here that describes no department I know of. No academic department or tenured faculty member I know of has the budgetary authority either to authorize or deny a tenure-track line. Here’s how the adjunctification of a department happens: when my senior colleagues retire or a colleague resigns to take another job, we lose not only the tenure line but we also lose the money. The Dean’s and Provost’s office–or some other entity farther up–hoovers up the salary savings, and my department gets nothing, except more service work spread around among the remaining tenured or tenure-track faculty.
My father is not a philosophical man, but he has left me with a very wise observation about human nature: people find the time and the money for the things that are important to them. Tenured and tenure-track faculty, in my experience, don’t make arguments about how they can do more with less, nor are they the people who have been cutting the instructional budget at their universities. Administrators are the authors of this shift from tenured to casual labor, and they’re the ones who benefit from it directly. At least, that’s my perspective. I’d love to hear what the rest of you think about this: who’s to blame?