My blog

NB: These are thoughts in process, and I welcome civil debate.  I reserve the right to change my mind, though, as the recent Buzzfeed scandal suggests, I need to find a way to indicate edits.  As of today, April 26, 2015, nothing has been retracted (though I am still tightening up the prose and making additions):

Contingent Labor and the University

Talking with colleagues from the AAUP about how to provided non-tenured faculty with living wages and job security, I learned that, at least at my PSU campus, full-time (non-tenure track) multi-year faculty make salaries that equal the US’s median household income.  Part-time faculty, however, are paid starvation wages:  the last time I checked, $3000 a course, at least for English Composition. (Apparently this is what local market conditions will bear). NB: I love how university administrators adopt a business model when it suits their ideological agendas but then abandon that model when it does not.  Specifically: if faculty salary differentials are driven by market demand, why did the crash of 2008 not result in lowering (or even capping) of salaries for Business faculty?

Clearly, we have hard choices ahead. We know the value of tenure: the protecting of intellectual freedom; the ability to provide students coherent programs of study (rather than isolated, unconnected classes); the ability to offer courses that respond to both long- and short-term curricular concerns, however controversial the latter might be.  But in the increasingly corporatized university, wherein faculty are deliberately kept in the dark on budget matters, administrators claim they need the economic “flexibility” that comes with contingent labor.

So here are some admittedly tentative ideas about how faculty might work with administrators to address over-reliance on contingent lines:

  • Eliminate part-time positions except in special circumstances: people who have a specific form of expertise, for example.  A few years ago, our English faculty made a deal: in return for the elimination of part time Composition positions, we would all teach at least one section of Composition a year.  This was a win/win situation.  It assured that students would be receiving careful instruction in one of the most important courses in their college careers and resulted in the need for fewer part-time positions.
  • Eliminate some graduate programs.  Why do both Indiana University of PA and Edinboro University offer MFA degrees?  Why is it possible to get a Master’s degree in English at West Chester U of PA, Indiana U of PA, Kutztown U of PA, Slippery Rock U of PA and Millersville U of PA?  In Pennsylvania, a state with declining demographics, one can choose a Masters in Education program from a whopping seventy-seven different schools! This is bound to result in a glut of people who cannot find jobs to match their credentials.  While not everyone with an MA wants to teach, contingent positions are often filled by people with MAs.
  • Non-research oriented universities in particular need to stop granting Ph Ds.  The sad fact is that, in academe, one never marries “up.”  In terms of job prospects, where you receive your Ph D does in fact matter. As my friend Dr. Donna Dunbar-Odom adds, programs should publicize their rate of job placement.
  • Do not hire people with Master’s Degrees to teach college courses.  MAs are not teaching degrees.
  • Institute rigorous but equitable standards for the renewal of multi-year contracts, hiring only the most qualified candidates. Conduct national searches whenever possible.
  • Develop separate tenure lines for teaching and teaching-plus-research positions.  This is a suggestion proposed by Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth. Admittedly, I am still thinking it through.  On the one hand, it provides a way for strong teachers to achieve job security. On the other, research is a way we keep abreast of changes in our fields; failure to conduct research might result in lower teaching standards. At my institution, FTM faculty, as a result of their research, have been assigned to teach literature courses that otherwise might not be covered.
  • Do not encourage students to go on to grad school minus financial support.

I am not convinced by arguments that “some people are fantastic teachers but terrible researchers, and the reverse is also true”; frankly, this has never been my experience.   And I also do not buy the argument that the university clearly values research over teaching.  As one of my female colleagues recently put it, research is, like housework, the invisible labor that keeps the university running.  Much depends on local conditions.  I, for example, have the same research budget — one thousand dollars — that I had in 1993. Yet I am expected to cultivate an international reputation. Most of the tenured faculty at PSU Erie teach a three/three load while they pursue their scholarship.  There has been discussion to increase the teaching load of tenured people who do not produce research or secure grants, and this has been supported not only by administrators but by research-producing faculty who perceive the current system as inequitable. There has also been discussion concerning how we might provide more research support for non-tenure faculty who desire it.

We all have a right to work and to do so in an environment where we make a living wage, and the struggle to achieve job security for non-tenure track faculty has to be conceived as part of this larger picture. But, perhaps because I began my working career as a musician and actor, I never assumed that simply having a degree would assure me of getting a job.  I realized that I might spend my whole life struggling and perhaps never achieve my goals; I didn’t feel entitled to work as an actor. I fully realize that a great deal of luck was involved in the securing of my tenure track job, and the job I have is the only one I have ever been offered. But when on the job market, I met people who had fancier Ph Ds than mine and were unemployed. And that was in 1992. Do people who enter Ph D programs today really not know the risk of un- or under-employment?

Yes, it is unjust that universities are taking advantage of a bloated labor market (and neoliberalist ideologies and practices) to exploit their employees.  That is undeniable. Welcome to life under capitalism.  And it is also incumbent upon tenured faculty to work more rigorously to guarantee job security for their skilled non-tenured colleagues, and to ensure that the tenure process itself remain rigorous and fair. Why we assume our working conditions ought to be superior to those of other professions, however, is perhaps also a question worth pursuing. But as Berube and Ruth suggest, we are now facing the de-professionalization of our occupation. We should be able to discuss the job market in our field without resorting to the self-defeating idea that everyone is equally good at being a college or university professor, providing he or she has a (any?) degree. Even Marx endorsed “from each according to his/her ability.”  This is not to suggest that unemployed Ph Ds “deserve” their fate or lack abilities. In fact, quite the opposite: more jobs will be available for qualified people when we stop hiring (and tenuring) people who are not.