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Academic missionaries

March 23, 2006

In my morning routine, at least the routine that has evolved on this particular project, I skim over the headlines and drop into a blog or two. High on my list is the confessions of a CC dean, mainly because he is at times witty and always interesting posts. I usually agree. Today, he pissed me off.

His topic is an important one, and anyone who has listened to Bruce Springsteen or lived in the oil fields of West Texas knows that decline of a community is first felt in the local college. In order to survive, the CC must adapt to the immediate and pressing needs of the immediate, lower-level work force. For good or bad, CC’s fill the trade school role first and foremost. Need to learn machining, low-level CAD drafting or basic accounting? The CC is your place. Need to explore the nuances of Keats’s Odes? It may or may not be the place, depending on the missionary sense of the English faculty.

Which leads me to the line that pissed me off. Dead Dad observes:

In higher ed, the major operating expense is labor. Most of that labor is either tenured, and therefore uncuttable, or adjunct, and therefore too cheap to be worth cutting.

I think the idea he is relating is true, which is what annoys me so much. Coming from the experience of being such cheap labor, I don’t think Dean Dad glosses the financial role of the adjunct too quickly. Certainly his larger aim is to explore the decline of a CC (which he gets right–once you start cutting, you start dying), but financially he should explore cutting tenured positions.

I take a well publicized university from the Arizona area as an example. I will call it UofA (for university of adjunct). They employ almost exclusively (anyone have the number?) adjuncts. In fact, they market their approach by saying they employ teaching practitioners–that is, people who are employed full time in industry that teach a class on the side. Sounds great in theory. The student gets a “real world” instructor instead of some ivory tower egghead–someone who really knows the score and can give the inside dope (slipped into slang for a bit).

UofA pays on the lower side. You would be paid per class a set rate, which, depending on you speed and agility with the technology breaks out to around $20 an hour (I can break this down a little more if you wish). Considering they wish to only employ PhDs, such an hourly rate attracts a certain type: missionaries.

Academic missionaries are the mainstay of education. No one goes into teaching for the money. At best, people go into teaching for the security (health insurance, tenure, etc.). Which is why the UofA is so insidious. There is no security in adjuncting course to course. Each contract covers one course only. You are completely at the whim of market forces or the whiles of the deans.

Back to Dean Dad. His justification at keeping adjuncts around is that their cut of the total costs is low compared to the revenue they generate (enrollment tuition divided by stipend). They are easy money. There are no benefits and little risk (they go from semester to semester, class to class). Why not be honest and say that the real model is to follow the UofA? Well then the quality would suffer. Dean elaborates:

Major budget cuts require either eliminating entire programs, or therefore compromising our mission, or watering-down the full-time faculty with a greater percentage of adjuncts, which compromises quality over time.

“Watering down” at the expense of quality. This assumes that adjuncts are by definition inferior. What of the UofA’s approach? Are academic missionaries ipso facto inferior?

I am annoyed and intrigued at the same time.

  1. Vito permalink
    March 23, 2006 3:44 pm

    Having worked for one of UofA’s competitors, and seen the sausage factory up close, my thoughts are:

    1. They pay about half what the lowest paying CCs in the area pay their adjuncts. Closer to 1/4 of the higher paying CCs in the area.

    2. The quality of instructors at the school in non-vocational subjects is abysmally low. I was the only person in the math department with a graduate degree in mathematics (in fact, I only did it because I was in need of a summer teaching assignment). One of the faculty was amazed that I new trigonometry. TRIGONOMETRY for crissakes.

    3. The quality of the students is also abysmally low. When I was student teaching at the HS level, I heard one teacher’s disparaging comment about the teachers who taught the lower-track courses: “Gamma teachers for gamma students.” That appears to be the staffing rule at the for-profits as well.

    4. The screening process at the CCs for tenure-track faculty is considerably tighter (in these parts, at least), than it is for adjuncts. It would not surprise me that the average TT faculty member is a better instructor than the average adjunct. Controlling for time teaching at the school will likely reduce the effect size (if not eliminate it entirely), but if you increase your number of adjuncts, you’ll have a lot more churn and a lot more beginning instructors helming classes.

  2. Inside the Philosophy Factory permalink
    March 23, 2006 4:07 pm

    Vito seems to have the right idea —

    Additionally, since the adjunct is (rightly) only committed for the length of their contract, their persepctive is limited and their ability to make long-term committments to activities or committees is equally limited.

    Also, the ability of adjuncts to change programs or revise courses to reflect the current state of the world is limited, as those kinds of changes take longer than a semester and last longer than a semester. More adjuncts would mean that the program is stuck where it is now, and as such becomes less competitive over time.

    The fact of the matter is that at my CC the hiring process for tenure track positions is pretty competitive, to get an adjunct job you need to be in the right place at the right time — and get along with the dean in charge of your area.

    None of this is the fault of the under-paid adjuncts — rather it is a fact of the way the system is running.

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