Friday, February 10, 2012

The Costs of Higher Education: to Whom?

I saw the Fordham University student newspaper, The Ramon February 1 and was not surprised to read an editorial therein, that discussed President Obama’s recent remarks on the costs of higher education, and his calls for accountability.

The Ram specifically mentioned that, as college students, they were obviously glad to “hear about a possible tuition decrease.” Left out of the editorial, unfortunately, as indeed it has been left out of most of the discussion of “reform” in higher education, is any discussion of the position of the faculty, which is that community in any college or university which is charged with the production, evaluation, and transmission of knowledge, and without which, one can easily argue, there is no higher education left to reform.

The general shape of the problem of faculty in higher education—its continual decades-long disempowerment—is complicated by such things as Vice-President Biden’s recent and inaccurate statement that “salaries for college professors have escalated significantly.” You can see him saying this here at about the 47th minute. (The guy does go on a bit: I know, I know: look who’s talking.)

VP Biden makes it seem as though many if not most college and university instructors are full-timers who are commanding very high salaries and costing tax-payers and/or tuition-paying students and their parents an arm and a leg. This is a serious mischaracterization of the facts, as pointed out by Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority (disclosure: I am an NFM board member), who writes, correctly, that what has escalated is the “number of so-called ‘part-time’ faculty, who together with graduate students constitute over 60.5% of the teaching faculty (often 80% at community colleges).

Indeed, while some full-time faculty do make $100,000 or more, as Biden apparent believes, the median salary for full-timers is closer to $40,000, and the average annual wage for the now-majority contingents or adjuncts is closer to $25,000.

Well, several petitions have been posted in protest of VP Biden’s mischaracterizations, but some damage has no doubt been done, and one wonders whether or not any of the administration’s views on higher education can be reliable, if such key figures as Biden are so obviously in the dark. Already, in other areas, “efficiency” notions, and the magic of “metrics,” borrowed from the business sector, have damaged the public’s trust in K-12 education, and now, as the testing-and-accountability veteran Diane Ravitch has warned, the “accountability juggernaut” is moving into higher education, urged on by such popular notions as Biden’s, that faculty are growing fat and happy at the expense of students and their parents.

This was once the mantra of only one political sector in the nation, but it seems to be rolling on toward complete hegemony.

To be clear: whatever the causes of ever-higher tuitions may be—one administrator told me, some twenty years ago, when the problem was already old news, that the main culprit was “heating costs” (I kid you not)—it would be a great mistake to finger “instructional costs,” at least as these are represented by the wages and benefits of faculty. Look elsewhere.

Why? Because for forty years now, while demand for higher education has risen, the faculty staffing to meet this increase has come in the form of adjunct or contingent faculty, who typically receive 1/3 or less than the pro-rata rate per course of traditional full-time faculty, and who enjoy either few or no benefits in regard to health insurance or retirement support, thus making their total cost per “client,” so to say—or “customer,” or “consumer” as many ed-think-tank types have by now long characterized students—even lower. One could easily argue, and I do, that adjuncts have long provided a hidden subsidy for students.
This trend has prospered and proliferated—for obvious reasons it is immensely popular with many administrators—at a rate such that, at one of the campuses where I work, in anthropology and sociology, about 90% of all courses under those headings are taught by adjuncts.

Working conditions for the now-majority faculty (nationally) create hardships. Many adjuncts, for instance, work at either non-teaching jobs, or at several different colleges (their hours are usually capped, at any one institution, in line with old standards that were put into place to protect graduate students from being exploited), and this in itself can be problematic. However, many adjuncts are indeed able to juggle schedules and venues in a way that affords an adequate if meager livelihood. Leave them to their own devices, is often the response to this, and let them leave the profession if they cannot find decent employment.

Ok, but there are hardships, out of this ever-increasing reliance on adjuncts, for the dwindling percentage of full-time faculty as well, who must now do all of the work of a normally function academic department, even as student enrollments increase. While student numbers rise, a fixed and small number of full-time faculty much now take on all of these tasks: budgetary planning, maintenance and review of degree requirements and standards, coordination and of curricular matters (often in a climate of invigorating but challenging intra-disciplinary debate), evaluation and promotion of regular faculty members, tenure review, hiring processes (for both the occasional new full-timer and the every shifting cadre of adjuncts who must be placed), and so-on.

This is real work, hard and time-consuming, and the way that it gets done has real consequences for students and scholars. Adjuncts, on the other hand, who would be able to contribute a great deal in the way of insight, not to mention pure elbow grease, are for the most part uninvolved in the necessary work of departments, and therefore in the necessary non-teaching work of higher education. And why would they be, unless the extra labor is somehow regularized and compensated in a manner that recognizes their talents and accomplishments?

This is a problem. At the present rate, full-time faculty will simply disappear at some time in the fairly near future, and whatever higher education is available, at whatever cost, will be taught by adjuncts or contingents who (currently) receive less than the median annual national income per capita. This is hardly a good advertisement for the ability of higher education to either attain or maintain a middle class lifestyle: a claim quite uncritically put forth by almost all of the nation’s political factions, who are urged on in their enthusiasms by private foundations who provide “education experts,” most with little or no actual experience as scholar-teacher-citizens in actual academic communities, and who are champions of all manner of electronic enhancements of human faculty or outright replacements thereof, and who are supremely unaware of the working conditions of actual faculty.

The good news is that there is some push-back, and it seems to be on the rise. For instance, at a recent (January 28) conferenceReclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education, sponsored by New Faculty Majority and held in conjunction with the Association of American Colleges and Universities: A National Summit, participants discussed methods for raising the public consciousness about these matters, and models for the repair the faculty community, without which, it is hard to imagine how higher education will survive.

Also, as most of you reading this post already know, the new President of the Modern Language Association, Professor Michael Berube, has made it a key goal to work toward a future when “non-tenure-track faculty members are getting the respect they deserve,” which will mean that the faculty as whole will have been restored to its central place as that community which is at the heart of this thing called higher education.

In my original letter to The Ram, I tried to get all pedagogical, and wrote: This is a big topic, but I have to end, but I would urge students, as they listen to the “cost” rhetoric, and worry about where their tuitions are going, to be alert to the complications. There are no simple answer, but at the least, they should know that the working conditions of their professors have an impact on their own learning conditions. What is that impact? How is it felt? What does it mean, not just for students and faculty now, but for higher education in the long run? To explore this requires good information, and some investment into its analysis. I hope you will take up this challenge.

But they cut that part out. (But I still love teaching, really.)

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