The economy has grown bored of the University

The economy is bored with the university – The expendable faculty majority.


The outcry is unavoidable, and its message though varied in circumstance, is largely the same – I am an adjunct professor and I am struggling.  Remarkably, the tensions have caused enough stir to illicit a report from the House Education and Workforce Committee, not to mention nearly every university organization across the country.  Terms like abuse and exploitation are bandied around the topic without irony, and unfortunately, I suspect the noisemaking is more akin to a toothache signaling heart disease than a begrudging cold.  We all want a way to support our communities, follow and share our passions and live without a constant fear of illness.  Yet, while these aspirations have historically been ripped from beneath the feet of the uneducated classes, it seems we are now seeing the black hole of debt gobbling further up the ladder.

At my college, contingent faculty outnumbers full-timers 1100 to 350.  Across the country adjunct pay since the 70's has reduced 49%.  Today contingent faculty accounts for three quarters of instructional staff and the statistics continue like this for a good while.  Clearly there is blatant inequality in these metrics but aren’t they reflecting the trends of the economy at large?

It’s not uncommon for my peers in the humanities to pause midsentence and relate the persistent concerns they have for their students who aspire to enter into their respective scholarship.  They know that even the brightest of them has little but capriciousness and fortune to rely on.  By this, it seems the arithmetic of tutelage is undermined at a basic level, where those promoting the values of their fields of study are themselves struggling to embrace them, not for lack of want, but for lack of opportunity.

 Of course we’re all aware it’s not the responsibility of schools to employ their alumni, and students are culpable for their career decisions.  But if our higher-ed institutions can’t support the millennia of development that is the culture of advancing human understanding then isn’t this tantamount to forfeiting the academic endeavor; isn’t it implicitly made obsolete?  If you can’t entertain, you lose - can’t produce a product, tough luck –get a real job.

Those basic precepts of capitalism are invoked as a final argument so often that their practicalities have burrowed into the heart of our culture, and they are threatening to render the majority of our higher education into something more closely resembling trade schools than institutions for advanced learning and understanding.  The motif of king profit reflects a basic misunderstanding of the function and promises of a liberal arts education, and as we are beginning to see with the asymptotic scaling of social-classes, are reverting us to a pre-university society – maybe we’ll feel the itch to begin a fifth crusade?  *wink wink, nudge nudge.

One proposed solution has been to create a tenured adjunct line.  Of course this appeal’s to College Inc. since any extra expenditure for faculty would be minimized and moreover it gives a new tool to deflect media onslaught.  Unfortunately, this still relies on the conventional methods of tenure placement, which in itself favors privilege.  Adjuncts already working several jobs to satisfy basic needs are certainly not the group qualifying for such a position.  And in this way we are only reaffirming the methods of the system already exacerbating these dilemmas - a patch on a body covered in patches, makes for a motley harlequin sight.

The majority of the proposals suggest reevaluating technical and administrative staff – cutting the fat.  Then there are those schools whose athletic programs are so significant we would be forgiven for forgetting they are firstly academic institutions.  The financial success of these schools incentivizes others to invest heavily in sports programs, and here also, to the detriment of the expendable faculty.

Some have taken to attacking the income gap between administrators and contingent faculty.  The implication being that some percentage of earnings can by siphoned from the top and invested on the factory floor.  But isn’t this robbing Peter to pay Paul?  The threat of intellectual collapse in the university system is what is at stake, and a redistribution of fluids within a body on dialysis still leaves us in a sick situation.

Few who use these arguments go over the numbers to see if salaries and redistribution of resources would sufficiently compensate the hundreds of thousands of contingent faculty living near poverty.  Many contingent faculty are in such a difficult situation that the gains for those who would receive such compensation would be peripheral and in the case of those in desperation, may not even cover medical, emergency or, most poetically, college loan debts.

The now infamous slight towards the study of art history from President Obama illustrates the systemic nature of this problem; that our profit-always culture places little value on critical thought and a diverse education.  For decades the national talking points have been couched in the needs for improved engineering, math and science in our classrooms, which in addition to being true, is a conspicuous omission of the value and importance of the humanities in a well-rounded advanced education.

The pathways initiative (an overarching streamlining of the general education requirements within the CUNY system) initially was so dismissive of the humanities that entire departments were threatened with removal – perhaps learning a new language is impractical and without financial utility.

Indeed there seems to be a potentially fatal pathology, and the chin-wagging regarding the graduate generation hit by the 2008 crash only reinforces that postulation.  In 2010 I received my MFA.  Teaching a single class each semester since has kept my head above water.   During this time I have fought to orchestrate my schedule around no less than a dozen sources of income.  While squeezing in time for my painting and writing, I have installed art shows and cabinets, baked cookies and managed theater performances, labored on a book and managed the organization and storage of an artist estate, grown food and donated time to several foundations, in addition to much more.  Moreover, my family, like most, has also been affected by the volatile economy and have been in need of whatever assistance I have been able to provide, preventing me from accruing anything resembling savings.  I am one of the successful ones.

  Last month my brother caught an unknown illness, we couldn’t afford tests and were consequently in limbo until he found out he qualified for Medicaid.  He currently attends my college and is earning his degree in photography, oh dear.  As even a superficial survey of our economy is far from encouraging, I am in the process of building a greenhouse to grow food and give myself a chance to help offset some of the fundamental costs my friends and family are challenged to meet – modern subsistence farming.

Is this as straight forward as a shift in the gravity of our economy; the relentless march of debt building upward momentum and marginalizing yet another subset of society?  I’m not sure, but for now I am resigned to be one of the highly educated poor, vitalized by academic labor and intellectual atmosphere but subject to a hustle on the street.  I was hoping to use my effort and passions somewhere outside my mother’s basement; it’s hard to paint while ducking away from the ceiling.

If we don't change the paradigm soon, the scales for those trying to put out the fires will tip in favor of those picking up the rocks.