Welcome to Corporate U
By Andrew McIlwaine Bell
Perpsectives on History
Calvin Coolidge was right. It seems that even inside the walls of our country's most prestigious colleges and universities, "the chief business of the American people is business." Academic departments at both two-year and four-year institutions are increasingly being managed like big-box retail chains. Their survival and growth depend on a steady influx of cheap, exploitable workers.
Consider Iowa State University, for example. According to research compiled by the American Association of University Professors, most of the classes offered at Iowa State in 2006 were taught by either part-time instructors (those who were paid by the class) or contingent faculty, a category that includes temporary full-time employees, grad students, and postdoctoral fellows.
Iowa State is hardly unique. For more than three decades, colleges and universities across the country have been increasingly relying on part-time and nontenure-track employees to shoulder the lion's share of teaching responsibilities. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education shows a substantial increase in the number of part-time faculty at all institutions since 1975 (from 30.2 percent to 46.3 percent) coupled with a simultaneous drop in the number of full-time tenured professors (36.5 percent to 24.1 percent).
The numbers from history departments reveal a similar trend. A survey conducted by the AHA in 1981–82 found that part-time instructors at that time constituted barely 5 percent of the history faculty nationwide. Twenty years later, the number had jumped to nearly 30 percent. While this expansion of cheap labor translates into a better bottom line for administrators, many of the part-time instructors themselves are struggling to earn the respect and financial security enjoyed by their tenured peers.1
On many campuses, contingent faculty and adjuncts are treated like part-time retail workers. A survey conducted by the AHA in 2000 shed light on some of the problems they face: outdated equipment, job insecurity, lack of support for research trips and conferences, and limited prospects for career advancement. Of course, the same survey also indicated that not all of these workers are unhappy; some reported a high level of job satisfaction. But evidence from subsequent surveys suggests that most of these contented instructors were able to overlook the less pleasant aspects of part-time pedagogy because they derived the bulk of their income from sources outside the academy. School administrators seem either unable or unwilling to differentiate between adjuncts who depend on per-class stipends for survival and those who view their paychecks as icing on the cake.2
The result of this indifference, whether willful or not, has been the steady growth of a largely invisible underclass of struggling instructors whose concerns are rarely addressed by the academy. The AHA's survey of 380 temporary and part-time history professors revealed that fewer than a third have a way to file a formal complaint. Nearly 20 percent reported that they "didn't know" if their school had a grievance policy. But even when such policies are clearly spelled out, part-timers often feel afraid to say anything that might jeopardize their positions. As one adjunct put it, "any complaints, and you are never fired. You are simply never rehired." Teresa Knudsen believes she lost her adjunct job at Spokane Community College (SCC) for speaking out about the plight of part-time teachers. In February 2005, she published an op-ed piece in a Spokane newspaper that described Washington's community college network as a "state-run feudal system." Shortly afterwards, said Knudsen, she was called down to the dean's office and told that her comments had offended SCC's full-time faculty members. The following December, she was let go, though SCC administrators deny that Knudsen was fired because of her political views.
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