[Marxism] The University Is a Ticking Time Bomb

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 17 06:24:41 MDT 2019

Chronicle of Higher Education, APRIL 16, 2019  PREMIUM

The University Is a Ticking Time Bomb
Treating nearly 75 percent of the professoriate as disposable is not 

By Aaron Hanlon

News of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of 
French at Duquesne University, went viral in 2013. The circumstances of 
her final months painted a jarring picture of how dire a professor’s 
living conditions could be. Before Vojtko learned her 
semester-to-semester contract would not be renewed, she was earning less 
than $25,000 per year for teaching eight courses, without health 
insurance or retirement benefits, and living on the edge of 
homelessness. Just as Duquesne told her to clear out her office, she 
learned from her doctor that she had six months to live, as the cancer 
she’d been battling got worse. Shortly after losing her job, she 
suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital two weeks later, at age 
83. "For a proud professional like Margaret Mary," wrote Vojtko’s 
lawyer, the termination of her tenuous contract "was the last straw."

Even as obscene tales of adjunct woe lay bare the cruelty of 
adjunctification, the percentage of contingent faculty members continues 
to rise. At the time of Vojtko’s death, those working without the 
possibility of tenure — and in many cases on a course-by-course, 
semester-to-semester basis, without salary or benefits — made up about 
two-thirds of all college instructors in America. Today, that figure is 
closer to three-fourths. Depending on the type of institution, one- to 
two-thirds of the vast faculty majority working without the prospect of 
permanent employment can’t count on having a job for more than a year at 
a time.

Appeals to empathy and outrage gin up so much hot, concentrated concern 
— witness the outrage after Vojtko’s death, and the more recent death of 
Thea Hunter, an adjunct professor of history — but inevitably, like the 
smallest of stars, such concentrated concern ends up dying a quiet 
death. We need to fundamentally reconceptualize the battle against 
adjunctification, shifting away from pity or outrage and toward 
arguments that universities themselves deny at their own peril.

Last year saw a wave of K-12 teacher strikes across the country: in 
Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, 
Oklahoma, and West Virginia. And now postsecondary faculty members have 
joined in, with recent strikes at Virginia Commonwealth University and 
at Wright State University over a range of issues, including health 
care, increased reliance on contingent labor, and low pay.

Meanwhile, Ph.D. students are facing an academic labor market in which, 
as of 2016, postsecondary institutions hired 30,865 contingent faculty 
members, compared with 21,511 tenure-track professors. Many of our Ph.D. 
students are exiting the profession, and not just in humanities 
disciplines. The current arrangement, in which a vast share of the 
professoriate is working a job that, by definition, has no future, is 
likely to provoke further strikes and unionization efforts. As the 
Wright State strike demonstrated, a desperate attempt to replace highly 
trained faculty members with anyone willing to show up and teach a 
course will never work. For all the public vitriol directed at 
professors, comically portrayed as radical, useless, and out of touch, 
it’s the students — as at Wright State, where they backed the faculty — 
who get the angriest when their professors are mistreated, because it’s 
the students who are in the best position to affirm the value of the 
people teaching them.

A purportedly world-leading American higher-education system that 
nevertheless relies on faculty members with no claim to stable 
employment, health insurance, retirement benefits, or even their own 
office is simply unsustainable. Even a society that doesn’t care about 
the feelings of adjunct professors, nor about their quality of life or 
health, should recognize that a system operating as if it has no future 
is not a good thing. Not for universities, not for the economy, and not 
for civic life.

When I say institutions of higher education today operate as if they 
have no future, I mean two things. First, a professoriate that can count 
on a job for only a year at a time is not well positioned to build, or 
even to consider, the future of knowledge. What is the future of plant 
science? What is the future of literary studies? What is the future of 
pedagogy, of rhetoric, of media, of communication? People with tenure 
and job security are now working on those things, in many cases in 
partnership with people outside the university, but if such people cease 
to exist in a professional capacity, what will become of their fields?

Second, if Ph.D. students are training for but then leaving the 
profession, and if the humane, short-term solution to adjunctification 
is to close down or drastically shrink Ph.D. programs, then universities 
are effectively admitting that there is no future for those fields.

This is what I mean when I say that the current scenario is 
unsustainable. I don’t mean that it’s morally or emotionally 
unsustainable — though it’s those too — but that it’s a recipe for the 
implosion of the university itself. If the professoriate is the past, 
and something else is the future, then the obvious question for anyone 
running a university right now should be: Are you content to usher in 
your own obsolescence?

This is not a rhetorical question. Studies have shown that the cost 
reductions associated with reliance on contingent faculty members do not 
translate to greater savings or tuition decreases, but that instead more 
money is spent elsewhere: on recruitment, admissions, athletics, 
nonacademic student programming, and so on. In other words, the 
hollowing out of the professoriate is not a viable strategy for making 
the university cheaper, better, or more nimble; it’s devastating the 
core functions of the university itself.

What’s the way forward? Treating nearly 75 percent of the professoriate 
as disposable, ancillary to the mission of higher education, has become 
the norm. Our objective should be to push this corrosive norm back 
outside the bounds of acceptability, and to introduce new norms at every 

Faculty members at Wright State have shown that one path is to organize 
and strike. I expect to see more such strikes in the near future, as 
tenure-track hiring continues to decline. But a strike needs a strategy, 
including a set of justifications and proposals. The way to achieve a 
shared sense of what must be done and why is not simply to antagonize 
our administrations, to complain about cruelty, or to rail against the 
tenure system. It will take, on the one hand, unionization across all 
ranks of faculty members, and on the other a vigorous campaign to make 
clear that adjunctification weakens every institution that relies on it 
— that it is the accelerant in the self-immolation of the university. 
Not because contingent faculty members themselves are weak, but because 
the conditions under which they work — and I’ve been there myself — 
prevent them from building the future of knowledge.

Without committing to a professoriate with a future, tenured faculty 
members and administrators are guaranteeing the obsolescence of their 
own institutions and the eventual erasure of their own careers and 
legacies. A professor who’s forced to leave after one semester or one 
year can’t be there to write recommendation letters, advise students on 
the job market, or just listen to what students have on their minds. 
Every student and parent needs to know this.

In addition to striking, faculty members should audit course offerings 
and enrollments, and recalculate average course sizes and 
student-­to-faculty ratios based on full-time, tenured or tenure-track 
faculty members. Influential rankings, like U.S. News & World Report, 
are frequently based on flattened faculty-labor categories. For highly 
selective institutions, those metrics matter; and for more open 
institutions, faculty attention and stability offer a competitive edge 
in student recruitment.

A more realistic calculation of student-to-faculty ratio — that is, 
student-to-permanent-faculty ratio — can also allow for more honest 
comparisons with peer institutions. In short, we need to make faculty 
stability a visible and influential metric that signals a higher-quality 
education. This will require exposing all the ways colleges juke the 
stats to make it seem as if your contingent writing instructor who’s 
teaching six courses per semester at three different colleges is the 
same kind of resource as your tenured English professor teaching two or 
three courses with a stable office and a research budget.

Finally, we need to determine how many routinely offered courses are 
taught by contingent faculty members. If your department regularly 
demonstrates a need for first-year writing or social-science statistics 
over a 10-year period, but that need isn’t staffed by a permanent 
faculty position, there’s a clear mismatch between stated institutional 
mission and provisions for achieving that mission. These kinds of 
findings can be publicized to (if not through) admissions offices, in 
public writing aimed at prospective students and their parents, in 
departmental and institutional audits and external reviews, and in every 
single meeting at your institution for which the problem of 
adjunctification is applicable.

We need to call a lie a lie. The point of pushing this kind of 
corrective information at every turn is not to antagonize tenured 
faculty members and administrators, but to help them — and the wider 
public — see with clarity the extent to which we are all, together, 
marching toward the cliff’s edge.

Aaron Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College. He 
is the author of A World of Disorderly Notions, due out in May from the 
University of Virginia Press.

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