[Marxism] Serfs of Academe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 20 07:07:15 MST 2020

NY Review of Books, MARCH 12, 2020 ISSUE
Serfs of Academe
by Charles Petersen


by Geoff Cebula
Self-published, 137 pp., $7.99 (paper)

Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education
by Joe Berry
Monthly Review, 162 pp., $75.00; $13.00 (paper)

The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for 
Radical Change
by Raewyn Connell
Zed, 233 pp., $22.95 (paper)

The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, 
Their Students, and Their Mission
by Herb Childress
University of Chicago Press, 213 pp., $24.00

Where Historians Work: An Interactive Database of History PhD Career 
American Historical Association. Available at 

Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America
edited by Kim Tolley
Johns Hopkins University Press, 219 pp., $34.95

The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, 
Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite
by Daniel Markovits
Penguin Press, 418 pp., $30.00

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
by Thomas Frank
Picador, 334 pp., $17.00 (paper)

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged 
the American Dream
by Suzanne Mettler
Basic Books, 261 pp., $27.99

Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution
by Wendy Brown
Zone, 295 pp., $29.95; $18.95 (paper)

The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix 
by Christopher Newfield
Johns Hopkins University Press, 430 pp., $36.95; $29.95 (paper)

Adjunct, a novel by Geoff Cebula, is a love letter to academia, a 
self-help book, a learned disquisition on an obscure genre of Italian 
film, and a surprisingly affecting satire-cum-horror-comedy. In other 
words, exactly the kind of strange, unlucrative, interdisciplinary work 
that university presses, if they take any risks at all, should exist to 
print. Given the parlous state of academic publishing—with Stanford 
University Press nearly shutting down and all but a few presses ordered 
to turn profits or else—it should perhaps come as no surprise that one 
of the best recent books on the contemporary university was instead 
self-published on Amazon. Cebula, a scholar of Slavic literature who 
finished his Ph.D. in 2016 and then taught in a variety of contingent 
positions, learned his lesson. Adjunct became the leading entry in the 
rapidly expanding genre of academic “quit-lit,” the lovelorn farewell 
letters from those who’ve broken up with the university for good. Rather 
than continue to try for a tenure-track teaching gig, Cebula’s moved on 
and is now studying law.

The novel’s heroine, Elena Malatesta, is an instructor of Italian at 
Bellwether College, an academically nondescript institution located 
somewhere in the northeast. Her teaching load—the number of officially 
designated “credit hours” per semester—has been reduced to just barely 
over half-time, allowing the college to offer minimum benefits even 
though her work seems to take up all of her day. Recently, the college 
has been advised to make still deeper cuts to the language departments, 
which are said to not only distract students but to actively harm them 
by inducing an interest in anything other than lucre. Elena responds 
with a mixture of paranoia and dark comedy: after the cuts there will be 
only so many jobs in languages left—maybe the Hindi teacher, anxious 
about her own position, is conspiring to bump her off? Then Elena had 
better launch a preemptive strike: this could be a “kill or be killed” 

Like a good slasher flick, Adjunct proceeds through misdirection and red 
herrings, pointing to one potential perp after another—does the 
department chair have a knife?—to keep the reader as anxious as Elena, 
while her colleagues, first to her delight and then alarm, begin 
disappearing. Conveniently, Elena’s own research centers on Italian 
giallo films, which combine elements of suspense and horror and are one 
of the cinematic sources for American classics like Halloween (1978), A 
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996). As she flees into the 
safe confines of her office hours—the attackers’ only fear seems to be 
endangering the college’s primary profit source, the students—she thinks 
of the films she has assigned to her class and the ways they mirror her 
own predicament. A giallo, Elena thinks, depicts a world where the 
“circumstances determining who would live or die were completely 
ridiculous,” a life of “pervasive contingency”—“contingent” being the 
most common term for part-time and contract-based academic labor. This 
is why horror, for Cebula, becomes the natural genre through which to 
depict the life of the contemporary adjunct, which is to say, the 
majority of academic workers today.

One suspects that Cebula’s inspiration for this lark came directly from 
genuine academic horror stories. Among the best known involves an 
adjunct at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who taught French for 
twenty-five years, her salary never rising above $20,000, before dying 
nearly homeless in 2013 at the age of eighty-three, her classes cut, 
with no retirement benefits or health insurance. At San José State 
University in Silicon Valley, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, 
one English teacher lives out of her car, grading papers after dark by 
headlamp and keeping things neat so as to “avoid suspicion.” Another 
adjunct in an unidentified “large US city,” reports The Guardian, turned 
to sex work rather than lose her apartment.

Though these stories are extreme, they are illustrative of the current 
academic workplace. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 25 
percent of part-time faculty nationally rely on public assistance 
programs. In 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff at US institutions 
of higher education were tenured or on the tenure track; today, after 
decades of institutional expansion amid stagnant or dwindling budgets, 
the figure is 33 percent. More than one million workers now serve as 
nonpermanent faculty in the US, constituting 50 percent of the 
instructional workforce at public Ph.D.-granting institutions, 56 
percent at public masters degree–granting institutions, 62 percent at 
public bachelors degree–granting institutions, 83 percent at public 
community colleges, and 93 percent at for-profit institutions.

To account for these developments, some may look to the increasing age 
of retirement of tenure-track faculty, which now stands at well over 
seventy. But, anecdotally at least, the reason many tenured faculty wait 
so long to retire may be the knowledge that they will not be 
replaced—when a Victorian poetry professor calls it quits, so, at many 
institutions, does her entire subfield. Who wants to know they will be 
the last person to teach a seminar on Tennyson? Others will blame the 
explosion of nonacademic staff: between 1975 and 2005, the number of 
full-time faculty in US higher education increased by 51 percent, while 
the number of administrators increased by 85 percent and the number of 
nonmanagerial professional staff increased by 240 percent. Such 
criticism can easily become unfair, as when teachers resent other 
workers who have taken over some of their old tasks—in fact sparing them 
chores like advising or curricula development—or when they act as though 
the university could do without programs that have made possible greater 
openness (such as Title IX officers and support for first-generation 

The clearest cause for the poor pay and job insecurity of today’s 
adjuncts is the decline in public support for higher education. Between 
1990 and 2010, state investment per student dropped by 26 percent, even 
as costs per student increased. In most state budgets, “mandatory” 
spending for health care and K–12 schools steadily crowded out the 
single largest “discretionary” item, higher education. But if cuts in 
public support have been the clearest source of the crisis in academia, 
the reason the brunt of that crisis has fallen on adjuncts is a matter 
of quite specific power relations. Since the 1980s there has been a 
craze across the American workplace for cost-saving by “downsizing” 
management. But in private industry, there is strong evidence that 
initial cuts were rapidly followed by further hires, with the result 
that there were increases in both the relative number of managers and 
the pay they received, along with higher returns to shareholders—all 
paid for through reduced worker salaries and increased job insecurity.1

Although the evidence is less clear in the academy, an analogous process 
appears to have been at work. Just as business managers in private 
industry squeezed workers to satisfy ever more demanding shareholders, 
taking home a cut for themselves in the process, so university 
administrators have reduced teacher pay and increased job insecurity in 
an effort to make possible expansions in operations that typically 
resulted in yet more administrative and professional staff, and higher 
salaries for those who directed them. In this process, teachers, because 
of their commitment to their jobs and the relative nontransferability of 
their skills, were simply more exploitable than, say, financial 
compliance officers. Notably, between 1975 and 2005, the proportion of 
part-time administrators in higher education decreased from 4 percent to 
3 percent, even as the proportion of part-time adjuncts exploded. As one 
college vice-president advised a group of adjuncts at a large community 
college in the 2000s (the specific details are left vague for fear of 
retaliation), “You should realize that you are not considered faculty, 
or even people. You are units of flexibility.”

This is a story common across the American economy since the 1980s, and 
one should remember that the squeeze is being felt not only in higher 
education. A number of studies advocate for a sense of solidarity 
between workers in the academy and in the larger economy. Joe Berry, in 
his landmark book on unionizing adjuncts, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower 
(2005), notes that the characteristics that might make academic workers 
appear out of place in traditional labor unions—their high levels of 
education and strong personal commitments to their jobs—can allow them, 
in a society where 65 percent of young adults have some college 
education, to serve as “prototypes for the new union members of the future.”

Raewyn Connell, an emerita professor of sociology at the University of 
Sidney and veteran union activist, makes a similar argument in The Good 
University. At most institutions, she writes, the academic staff and the 
operations staff share a love for their work, a dedication to the 
students, and a sense that their labor serves the common good—a firm 
ground, she hopes, upon which to build a full-scale industrial union, 
bringing together all the workers in the sector into one overarching 

Nonetheless, one of the reasons many adjuncts stay in poorly paid jobs 
is the dream of a position that would lead to tenure, and it is in the 
competition for such positions that the academic workplace may become 
distinctively terrible. “This is what faculty life looks like now,” Herb 
Childress writes in The Adjunct Underclass, “living in hope about the 
promises that are made to keep everyone quiet”—the whisper in an 
adjunct’s ear that “there may be a tenure-track line ahead.” The 
numbers, of course, belie such promises. To take the field of history, 
in 2017–2018 there were an average of 122 applications for each 
tenure-track position, with some openings receiving almost seven hundred 
applications. Instead of a market, the tenure-track labor system has 
come to resemble a lottery—“a supreme arbiter,” as Cebula writes in his 
slasher novel, “the magic of which [is] only confirmed by the seeming 
arbitrariness of its judgments.”

Behind these numbers lies a larger structural transformation. As 
recently as the 1990s, there were largely two separate strata at which 
tenure-track hiring tended to occur: a national-level market with Ph.D.s 
from the magic circle of highly advantaged “top programs” migrating to 
less highly ranked research universities (the University of Washington 
hiring from UC Berkeley, for example), and a number of regional markets 
fed by Ph.D.s from regional centers (Western Washington University 
hiring from the University of Washington). Over the course of the 1990s 
and 2000s, in many humanities fields at least, these markets 
increasingly came to overlap; in the past decade, they have all but 
unified, with Ph.D.s from schools like Princeton and Berkeley now 
fighting over nearly every tenure-track job at four-year institutions 
across the country.

Yet even with the movement of national markets into regional ones, there 
still are not enough positions for graduates from the most prestigious 
programs—let alone for all the other Ph.D.s produced each year. The 
American Historical Association has published the most complete 
statistics on career outcomes available in any humanities discipline, 
and its database, “Where Historians Work,” shows that in the field of 
modern American history, to take one example, only 56 percent of Ph.D.s 
at roughly the top ten programs from 2004–2008 attained tenure-track 
positions at four-year institutions—a figure that dropped to 48 percent 
for the 2009–2014 Ph.D. cohort, as the job market crashed after the 
recession and failed to recover. (Job listings across the humanities 
remained down 31 percent between 2007 and 2016.)2 There are, however, 
around 150 universities offering history Ph.D.s in the US, and at a 
sample of mid-level institutions the proportion of graduates who found 
such jobs declined from 35 percent to 26 percent. In other words, while 
the national and regional job markets have become more unified, the 
outcomes for graduates of the most privileged programs have nonetheless 
declined—even as these Ph.D.s appear to have further crowded out the 
graduates of less well-off institutions. Both the academically rich and 
the academically poor are getting poorer together, although some of 
those at the top are maintaining their positions, to a significant 
degree, at the expense of those at the bottom.

The prospect of a full-time position may be a standard way to pacify 
contingent employees across the contemporary workplace, but there are 
few other sectors in which the differences in pay, prestige, or job 
security are as large as between contingent and core staff in the 
academy. There is also no other field in which one trains, on average, 
for eight years—with around half of one’s peers failing to complete the 
degree—only to line up a poorly paid, insecure position, or else embark 
on a series of wide-ranging travels to take up short-term jobs (postdoc 
positions have nearly tripled in the humanities since 1996) in the hope 
that you may eventually get lucky and attain a permanent position. 
Pursuing a life in academia has become more like trying to become a 
professional athlete or a star musician than a doctor, a lawyer, or even 
a typical service sector worker. Little wonder that there are articles 
in mainstream publications like Slate with headlines such as “Getting a 
Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You into an Emotional Trainwreck, Not a 

Circumstances are not much better in many of the social sciences than in 
the humanities, and while career prospects outside of academia are more 
attractive for those in STEM fields, there have been severe drops in the 
proportion of STEM Ph.D.s securing postdocs and, for those who want to 
stay in the academy, tenure-track positions. This is one reason graduate 
student unions have recently found success at institutions like 
Brandeis, Columbia, Harvard, and Tufts. A decade ago, when unions tried 
to organize graduate-worker bargaining units that stretched across 
entire universities, STEM students saw their interests as fundamentally 
different from those of students in the social sciences and humanities. 
Now, prospective Ph.D.s across the university find themselves facing 
comparable—if by no means identical—prospects.

Public discussion of the academic labor crisis has remained limited over 
the past decade, although progressive candidates in the 2020 
presidential election have made the economics of college education a 
major focus. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street defined student debt and medical 
bankruptcy as the chief afflictions of the “99 percent.” In 2015 Bernie 
Sanders, in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, 
included free public college along with Medicare for All and a $15 
minimum wage in his stump speeches. Sanders’s College for All Act now 
demands that institutions increase the proportion of tenure-track 
faculty to an astonishing 75 percent; Elizabeth Warren, similarly, has 
put forward proposals that would strengthen the workplace rights of 
insecure workers across the economy and make college tuition-free for 
all—a universal program that, unlike Medicare for All, she has not yet 
walked back. But it’s all too easy to imagine how this dream of 
increasing access to higher education could be built on the backs of 
adjuncts. In 2015 President Obama proposed making community college 
effectively free, based on the model of a highly touted program at 
Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee, the institution where 
Obama announced the plan. A full 57 percent of its instructional staff 
are on part-time contracts.

Demands for free college have been driven in part by nostalgia for the 
social safety net of the midcentury United States. “In those days,” 
Sanders observes of his own youth, “public colleges and universities 
were virtually free,” which is why, he argues, the elimination of 
tuition should not be considered a radical idea. But the golden age of 
higher education, when increasing enrollments were matched by increasing 
public funds, salaries, and secure positions, was remarkably short, 
roughly 1950 to 1980, and coincided with the period economists call the 
Great Compression (for the reductions in economic inequality) and 
historians call the New Deal Order (for the normalization of union 
contracts and social benefits). College enrollment grew from 3.5 million 
in 1960 to 12 million in 1980, while community college enrollment boomed 
from 400,000 to 4 million.

The great majority of these students attended public institutions, or 
private institutions using federal grants, and thanks to steady 
increases in public funding the cost of college attendance remained 
stable relative to family income. Looking back on this inspirational if 
deeply imperfect era (one need only consider the position of 
African-Americans and women), it is easy to conclude that the only 
salvation for higher education as a whole, and adjuncts in particular, 
will be an improved version of the egalitarian model that briefly 
flowered thanks to the New Deal—not piecemeal, as with student debt 
relief or free college proposals, but wholesale.

Among the most promising starting points for such a transformation are 
Joe Berry’s and Raewyn Connell’s observations about the overlap between 
the struggles of academe and those of the larger service sector economy. 
The rise of unions for instructional staff in higher education has been 
limited by the Supreme Court’s NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979) 
and NLRB v. Yeshiva (1980) decisions, which held that teachers at 
religious institutions and tenure-track faculty at private institutions 
did not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations 
Board. It is for this reason that in 2012, 25 percent of teachers at 
public four-year colleges, where state law determines bargaining rights, 
were unionized, while only 7 percent of teachers at private institutions 
had joined unions.

But starting in 2013 the Service Employees International Union began a 
campaign focused on private institutions, which to date has organized 
54,000 faculty and graduate students at more than sixty campuses. The 
United Auto Workers (under their “Uniting Academic Workers” campaign) 
and the American Federation of Teachers have been organizing faculty and 
graduate students as well, and the lessons from a few of these campaigns 
have been collected in Professors in the Gig Economy. These organizing 
drives were aided by decisions from the Obama-era NLRB, which held that 
instructors in nonreligious departments at religious institutions and 
non-tenure-track faculty generally (as well as graduate students) fell 
under its jurisdiction. So far, union victories for adjuncts have 
included salary increases as high as 90 percent, greater job stability, 
paid parental leave, sick leave, dependent health care benefits, 
retirement benefits, caps on course sizes, fairer teaching evaluation 
processes, and substantial professional development funds.

Such wins have redounded to the benefit of not only the workers 
involved: recent studies suggest that one of the main reasons for 
declines in student outcomes has been the rise of part-time teachers. As 
one rallying cry has it, “Faculty working conditions are student 
learning conditions.” With K–12 unions leading a widely publicized 
teachers’ movement in recent years—there were more workers on strike or 
locked out across the American economy in 2018 than in any year since 
1986—it is not hard to imagine that strikes by adjuncts, who are if 
anything more exploited, could be the next decisive moment in the rise 
of a newly militant labor movement across the entire service sector.

But union organizing on its own can go only so far. A union drive can 
redress some of the balance of power between managers and workers in 
higher education, but the dramatic cuts in public financial support 
remain. Solving the adjunct crisis will require the reform of higher 
education in toto, and this will be impossible until political leaders 
are brought to recognize the sector’s ambiguous function in the 
contemporary American political economy. Medicare for All, a $15 minimum 
wage, a Green New Deal, the rollback of mass incarceration, the repeal 
of Citizens United, the expansion of voting rights—these proposals are 
all unambiguously egalitarian. But while higher education is frequently 
presented as a path to the middle class, the system as a whole—with its 
fine gradations between institutions that are, in the words of one 
standard application guidebook, “most competitive,” “highly 
competitive,” “very competitive,” “competitive,” “less competitive,” and 
the vast domain of the “noncompetitive”—now does far more to reflect the 
American class system than it does to equalize it.

One sign that the connection between higher education and egalitarianism 
has come under strain is the growing number of exposés of the “myth of 
meritocracy.” But while public attention may focus on the illegal fraud 
uncovered in the 2019 college admissions sting, and pundits point to the 
legal fraud that is the long-standing admissions advantage for alumni’s 
children, the real scandal—in which such preferences constitute little 
more than a rounding error—is that a majority of Ivy League colleges 
regularly admit more students from the top one percent of families than 
they do from the entire bottom 60 percent. A still deeper analysis, 
offered in exhaustive form in Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap, 
suggests that inequalities in higher education, and education more 
generally, do not just reflect broader changes in economic inequality 
but actively work to make those inequalities more extreme. It is no 
accident, on this view, that the wage premium for college graduates, 
after declining in the 1970s, began its steep and continuing ascent 
around 1980, when income inequality more generally began its long march 
upward. Between 1980 and 2005, the wage premium for recent college 
graduates relative to high school graduates more than doubled, and as of 
2018 the average college graduate received wages 80 percent higher than 
those of the average high school graduate.

Nonetheless, to this day higher education retains its image as a social 
equalizer. One of the primary reasons may be the Democratic Party’s 
peculiar attraction to policies that can appear egalitarian but that 
predominately work to the benefit of the top percentiles. At midcentury, 
Thomas Frank argues in Listen, Liberal, higher education occupied a 
relatively small part of the political imagination of the Democratic 
Party; it was only in the 1980s and 1990s, as the party moved to the 
right, that it became a fixture in the speeches of Democratic candidates.

A central episode in this shift, carefully documented in Suzanne 
Mettler’s Degrees of Inequality, was Bill Clinton’s decision to promote 
a tax credit for higher education during the 1996 election. Signed into 
law in 1997, these credits were opposed by no less a figure than 
Clinton’s Wall Street–friendly treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, as a 
handout to the well-off. But for Clinton and his political advisers, the 
class-skewed nature of the program’s benefits was a feature, not a bug. 
In a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that serves as an emblem for the 
political economy of higher education throughout this period, Clinton 
accurately claimed the programs would be open to all, even as he knew 
that their structure channeled benefits to the well-off. There was never 
any doubt that the credits would be used mostly by families in upper 
income brackets, and their main effect, later studies demonstrated, was 
to lead colleges to increase tuition prices. By the 2000s, Clinton’s tax 
credits cost nearly as much to provide as the entire Pell Grant program 
for low-income students—a fact that did not prevent Obama from further 
expanding the credits in 2009.

Sanders and Warren, perhaps hoping to mitigate the association of higher 
education with the rich, limit the funds appropriated in their proposed 
plans to public institutions (as well as some historically black and 
minority-oriented private institutions). But it is not only Harvard, 
Stanford, and the other “Ivy Plus” institutions that have been at the 
center of the post-1980 Democratic embrace of inequality under the 
ostensibly egalitarian cover of higher education; it is also public 
institutions like the University of Michigan, where expenses for 
out-of-state students (49 percent of the entering class) run $64,000 a 
year, and where the median family income, whether for in-state or 
out-of-state students, is $154,000. It is these kinds of inequities that 
can make public investment in higher education appear, not entirely 
incorrectly, as a kind of kickback for the top percentiles.

One solution, proposed by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and recently promoted 
by Pete Buttigieg on the campaign trail, would limit benefits so that no 
aid flows to the children of the wealthy. Buttigieg has argued that 
proposals to entirely eliminate college tuition would result in “turning 
off half the country” in an election; political expedience aside, he has 
also argued that means-testing is the best “governing strategy.” But 
while this may represent an economically efficient approach, and would 
certainly be more egalitarian than the Clinton and Obama tax credits, 
the main lesson of public policy over the past sixty years is that 
means-tested benefits, in contrast with universal programs like Social 
Security and Medicare, become stigmatized and lose public support 
through their association with the poor. As Representative Alexandria 
Ocasio-Cortez explained in one recent tweet, “Universal public systems 
are designed to benefit EVERYBODY!… Everyone contributes and everyone 
enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or 
libraries because they are public goods.” If fixing the adjunct crisis 
is to become feasible—which is to say, if we are to envision a new era 
of more democratic higher education—a College for All policy must be 
made universally available, while addressing the part the university has 
played in producing and legitimating the rise of inequality.

Ironically enough, it is the Republicans who have pointed the way toward 
such a policy, by enacting a 1.4 percent tax in 2017 on the investment 
returns of institutions with small student bodies and large endowments. 
Introduced to pay for tax cuts for the rich, the origins of this program 
should not obscure its potential. The endowment tax is an institutional 
counterpart to the wealth tax proposed by Warren and Sanders. The law 
also offers a clear way to escape the tax, although one that would 
require well-endowed institutions to radically change their approach to 
education. If an institution does not want to see its endowment returns 
diminished, it can simply become less elite and admit more students.

Princeton, for instance, could escape the tax by becoming just a bit 
less elite than Berkeley (43,000 students) or UCLA (46,000 
students)—both among the top-ranked universities in the world—and 
increasing its student body from eight thousand students to 52,000 
students (Princeton’s endowment is $26 billion, and the law only applies 
to endowments over $500,000 per student). While some might feel that 
changes of this scale would alter the character of the institution, much 
the same was said when the old pastoral training grounds of the 
northeast first became modern research universities—and when those same 
institutions began to admit women and more people of color. One 
Princeton undergraduate in 1942 claimed that “the Negroes are not 
improved by their admission to a group with relatively high standards, 
but the group is corrupted to the lower level of the new members.” An 
alumnus in 1969 said, “Let’s be frank. Girls are being sent to Princeton 
less to educate them than to pacify, placate, and amuse the boys who are 
now there.” A more ambitious College for All bill might apply demands 
concerning student-to-endowment radios to all federal funding, forcing 
colleges and universities, whether public or private, to stop hoarding 
resources if they want public support.

Unfortunately, if recent attempts at reform are any guide, a more likely 
outcome is not a diminishment of higher education’s role in producing 
inequality but the enshrinement of a way of thinking that will increase 
the forces that have brought on the adjunct crisis: “accountability.” 
For a fearful example of what this can look like, one need only consider 
the United Kingdom, which from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to David 
Cameron raised tuition, lowered the academic quality of its 
universities, and further ratcheted up the demands on teachers by 
quantifying every element of education in the most reductive ways 
possible, whether the total number of times other scholars cite an 
article or the measurable economic impact of research. In 2013 Obama 
promoted an approach to accountability that would have set the United 
States down a similar path, proposing to rank American colleges “on 
who’s offering the best value so that students and taxpayers get a 
bigger bang for their buck,” with the chief metric being “how well 
do…graduates do in the workforce?”

Sanders and Warren have done much to put forward policies that insist on 
the wide-reaching public goods offered by higher education, proposing to 
cancel virtually all student debt along with eliminating tuition at 
public institutions. But while Sanders and Warren have described higher 
education as a “right” and “basic need,” both have otherwise struggled 
to find a language with which to defend these proposals. Even Sanders, 
in an otherwise forceful statement accompanying the latest version of 
his College for All Act, offered little more than the market-oriented 
argument that “when our young people are competing with workers from 
around the world, we have got to have the best educated workforce 
possible.” Warren, similarly, often resorts to financial rhetoric, 
saying, “We need to make an investment in our future, and the best way 
to do that is to make an investment in the public education of our 

The political theorist Wendy Brown, in Undoing the Demos, offers a model 
of the kind of rhetoric that would go much further to argue for higher 
education as a necessary public good. After World War II, she writes, 
“extending liberal arts education from the elite to the many was nothing 
short of a radical democratic event”; a new offer of college to all 
should not hinge on economic results but on the promise to bring about 
“an order in which the masses would be educated for freedom.” If these 
words anticipate the revolution in public language that we need in order 
to advance toward social democracy for both teachers and students, 
Christopher Newfield, in The Great Mistake, provides a helpfully 
detailed vision for how to get there. Market-oriented thinking has 
fatally undermined the grounds on which public investment in higher 
education can be defended, he argues. Champions of an egalitarian 
university—publicly minded unions, mobilized students, or enlightened 
administrators—must show through every reform how higher education 
already does or can be brought to serve the public good, by, for 
instance, shedding outside contracts with self-interested businesses, 
reducing tuition and debt to provide broad-based opportunity, or pushing 
back against racial and gender inequalities.

Sanders’s and Warren’s proposals point in this direction, and while the 
barriers to success in the event that either enters the White House will 
remain enormous—the US Senate not least among them—one has to hope that 
if their plans were to approach passage, the cancellation of student 
debt and the elimination of tuition at public institutions would be 
combined with an additional set of policies, and a new political 
language, that would not only reduce students’ financial exigencies but 
also bring equity to the academic workplace and radically lessen the way 
higher education drives inequality in the US. This can only be achieved 
by building movements, not simply making plans, and in this respect 
Sanders clearly has an advantage. If something like this vision 
succeeded, the university would become neither an engine of inequality 
nor a growth machine for human capital; it would represent a foundation 
for an economically and culturally progressive egalitarian 
democracy—achieved as much through the efforts of teachers, students, 
and staff as through the passage of any particular law or the election 
of any political leader. If the adjunct crisis can be not just mitigated 
but solved, this is how it will happen.

For the original version of this thesis, see David M. Gordon, Fat and 
Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of 
Managerial “Downsizing” (Free Press, 1996). For a careful empirical 
verification, see Adam Goldstein, “Revenge of the Managers: Labor 
Cost-Cutting and the Paradoxical Resurgence of Managerialism in the 
Shareholder Value Era, 1984 to 2001,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 
77, No. 2 (April 1, 2012). ↩

A similar though less detailed study of Ph.D.s in literary disciplines 
is also available: Modern Language Association Office of Programs, 
“Where Are They Now? Occupations of 1996–2011 Ph.D. Recipients in 2013.” ↩

More information about the Marxism mailing list