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Who — And How Many –Paid For Your Sabbatical This Year?

May 17, 2010, 12:04 pm

So what percentage of your faculty is adjunct or contingent labor?

In the first fall faculty meeting at Zenith every year, we vote faculty privileges to a long list of people. It includes athletic staff, librarians, and a long list of adjunct or contingent labor. Some come as post-docs and visiting full-time assistants (relatively well-paid contingent labor with benefits); long-term adjuncts with benefits (mostly in the languages, although there was one women who taught in an interdisciplinary program for well over ten years as an adjunct); and then a string of people brought in to teach a course or two. Lately this budget has gotten hammered as part of Zenith’s attempt to restructure its budget to meet the financial crisis. I didn’t see the list because I was on sabbatical, but it was probably cut to about two thirds of its usual size.

But still: it’s usually about four pages long and, as I argue below, this is why I get to go on sabbatical. And that’s just Zenith, a liberal arts college with just over 3000 undergrads. The truth is, our normal budget — which covers a generous sabbatical/leave policy that has been fought for over time by faculty and administrators — relies on the availability of cheap contingent labor. I often wonder, when I boot up our web page and see that Zenith boasts of a 9:1 student faculty ratio: Does that ratio include all that contingent labor? It must. Because even taking radically different course and advising loads across the university into consideration, I have two-three times more advisees and enroll between 60 and 80 students per semester in a normal teaching year.

Ain’t no 9:1 in Radical country. Stupidly, I’ve always wondered about this.

So this morning, I received an email from one of the top correspondents for the Radical News Service, California Cathy, directing me to Confessions of a Tenured Professor by Peter D.G. Brown of SUNY-New Paltz, the tenured radical who founded The New Faculty Majority.

The article, which just appeared in Inside Higher Ed is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a clip or two:

I am also asked by tenured faculty why on earth I would be spending so much time and effort advocating for a group of “others” whose fate I have never shared. I suppose this is a perfectly legitimate question, but I do find it a bit odd. Why wouldn’t I insist that these precarious colleagues be allowed equitable compensation, job security, fringe benefits and academic freedom? And why shouldn’t I want them to have equitable access to unemployment compensation, professional development and advancement?

With a light touch that few of us are capable of, Brown argues that this this is a

scandal [that] is neither little nor secret: the vast majority of those well-educated, skilled professionals who daily teach millions of students in our classrooms are actually being paid far less than the workers who nightly clean them. Ad-cons are treated as chattel or as servants who can be dismissed at the will and whim of any administrator from departmental chair to dean or provost. And woe to those ad-cons who elicit the wrath of their campus presidents! They can be non-renewed without any due process whatsoever, simply zapped, either individually or by the hundreds. We all know this, but most tenured faculty colleagues choose to simply look the other way. C’est la vie. Tough luck. Life just isn’t fair. Keep on walking and change the subject….

It is time that more tenured faculty woke up to the fact that their entire professional existence, replete with their comfortable incomes, their fascinating research, their coveted sabbaticals, their agreeable teaching loads of less labor-intensive and more satisfying courses — all this is made possible by the indispensable efforts of a million ad-cons doing so much more for so much less.

This isn’t news to the hundreds of people out there who comment on this blog during job season, with varying levels of rage. And it isn’t news to me, but Brown’s articulation of this problem as one that deserves a collective response has caused me to reconsider the question of whether advising young people not to go to graduate school isn’t a feeble response to the state of the academy today. There are many, many things wrong with the way we do business as scholars. But thinking about it carefully, while I resent being asked to take personal responsibility for what is a structural problem (and occasionally display that resentment, to the dismay of some of my readers), the un- and under employed, and their close relatives the under-compensated and uninsured, are right to be angry at all of us who occupy tenured and tenure-track positions.

Brown is right: like the bourgeoisie everywhere, our perks, comforts and prestige rely on the exploitation of a vast reserve army of labor. Joining that reserve army is the threat held over every tenure-track person, the persuasion that molds them into conformity with the system in the very years that their ideas should be devoted to changing it. And if there were a commitment over a period of years by higher education to hire people full time, the job market would suck up unemployed Ph.D.’s like a sponge.

Here’s the takeaway (other than the fact that every sabbatical I — or you– have ever had was essentially paid for by someone else’s cheaply purchased labor. It’s not that there are no jobs. There are plenty of jobs that pay virtually nothing, and higher education has balanced its budget on ill-paid labor, paid for course by course, grad student by grad student, for decades.

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