Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

25 thoughts on “Just not that into you

  1. MfD:

    I think I missed most of this. While I can see the root of your problem choosing sides, to suggest that adjuncts in the United States have somehow brought this upon themselves is beyond stupid. The system is exploitive. Period.

    Arguing that you can always quit (especially in this economy) represents the internalization of a right-wing talking point. We might as well abolish the safety net because it’s your fault if you get sick.

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  2. My argument is actually that you can quit, stay or lobby for change, but one of the clearest signals that you need to do something is if the institution’s own manifesto for growth, change and above all funding doesn’t include you.

    This is really the thing that we need to be clearer about: change in the way in which the professionalism of academics without tenure is respected and developed requires real funding, and for this to happen it needs to be a strategic focus of the institution–agreed on, measured and reported against at the highest level.

    Academics working without tenure didn’t create this situation (neither did academics working with tenure). We all need the current situation to change. I don’t know how US universities manage their planning and resourcing — for all I know this happens on the back of an envelope in a bar, but it seems unlikely to me, given the scale of your enterprise and the state of the global economy. In Australia strategic planning is a serious expression of institutional intent with a dollop of marketing, but the key is that it isn’t just put in a drawer: there is serious reporting against it at year end. Accountability is the key to change.

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    1. Hear Hear! The problem is that so many people – permanent academics included – never read strategic documents or participate in policy making processes. It’s vital to be in there and have a voice. I didn’t realise when I was a casual that I had the right to attend staff meetings. If anyone is reading this, I recommend it as a starting point.

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      1. I think this relates to one small practical strategy for academics with secure employment, which is that we need to stay engaged with policy ourselves. The general culture of academic disengagement from policy etc. is understandable at one level, but it makes it hard for information to travel outwards from the professional units who convene the strategic planning conversations to the casual workers who really need to know what the plan is.

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  3. Accountability and collecting accurate information are high on NFM’s list. Much of the time I speak entirely for myself, but on this I can speak for the group as well. The other is to be included, if not in planning then at least for input. Of course, asking does not mean we will automatically receive any more than being listened to means heeded. Personally, what I try to promote is that if you can’t or can’t bear to leave, find something to do, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. Be part of a network, share information, have each others’ backs, connect, comfort the afflicted. Afflicting the comfortable could be hazardous for the precariously employed. I don’t mind doing that though, actually relish the prospect.

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  4. Dear Kate,

    Thanks for picking up on my post on the Contingent Faculty Mailing List (Adj-L) inspired by the Robert Reich column and introducing your column with it.

    I guess one point to emphasize is that contingent faculty are not the only contingent employees in the marketplace these days. It would be great if those at the lower end of the wage scale, especially higher ed faculty with advanced degrees, could be treated equitably and be granted some job security, keeping contingency to a minimum. Great if we could get those who have the ear of public policy, like Robert Reich, along with the energy of people who have their careers out in front of them, to harness the energy of the Occupy/99 percent movement and direct it toward some constructive ends. As Reich mentions, the U.S. economy is hurting because consumers generally lack purchasing power these days.

    I’d vote that we go forward with a plan to reform the dysfunctional two-tier higher ed system, and one plan is the Program for Change. It’s based on the British Columbia model where all faculty, full-time or part-time, permanent or temporary, are paid according to the same salary schedule; where all faculty accrue seniority, and seniority is the primary, though not the sole determinant of workload assignment (not full- or part-time status) and where a part-timer can actually be senior to a full-timer; and where, after two years of teaching at 50 percent of a full-time load with satisfactory evaluation, a probationary instructor becomes permanent. It’s like all virtually all faculty are on the equivalent of tenure track. Anyway, the system works and exists–it’s not just some idealistic dream in the mind of some activist. The Program for Change is posted at the New Faculty Majority website, though the version that’s easier to work with is at the website of Vancouver Community College Faculty Association (http://vccfa.ca/ and select “Read more” or http://vccfa.ca/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/ProgramForChange_09-28-2010_001.pdf to access it directly).

    The Program for Change is about to be updated too, so any feedback or recommendations would be welcomed.

    Best wishes,

    Jack Longmate (jacklongmate@comcast.net)
    Adjunct English Instructor, Olympic College, Bremerton, WA

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  5. Thanks so much, Jack, and welcome to the deckchairs. I’ll certainly take a look at the Program for Change, and I agree strongly that we need to explain better what connects precarious labour in higher education to insecure work across the economy, because this is where public policy comes in, in relation to all those levers and drivers of people’s participation in meaningful, sustainable economic growth. Question: is there a way of arguing for improved working conditions in the second tier, without giving up on the horizon goal of a single-tier system?

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    1. The Program for Change is focused on transforming the working conditions of the lower tier to match those of the upper tier, as they exist at Vancouver Community College and other colleges in British Columbia. This strategy is at variance with the most commonly offered one in the U.S., which is creating new tenure-track lines. New tenure-track positions does little for the majority of those in U.S. higher education.

      There is no reason why those employment within higher education can’t be “normal,” whereby once undergoing a defined probationary period, one can essentially presume his/her job will continue.

      Best wishes,

      Jack

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  6. Reblogged this on Adjunct Project and commented:
    “Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff? That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

    If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.”

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  7. Jonathan Rees says: “Arguing that you can always quit (especially in this economy) represents the internalization of a right-wing talking point.”

    Jonathan, characterizing it as a “right-wing talking point” only obscures and obfuscates the fact that the leftest of the far left are also complicit in the oppression of Adjunct faculty. Methinks that it cuts across the entire left-right political spectrum.

    [As a recovering liberal Democrat, there is great temptation for me to go off into an analysis of the left-wing psyche with respect to the issue, but if I were to do that, then I would be just as guilty of obscuring and obfuscating the notion that Adjunct oppression emanates from all across the political spectrum. Neither the political left nor the political right is a true friend of Adjunct faculty, and the folks at either extreme would be pleased to have the Adjuncts’ attentions focused toward the blame of their respective opposites for the problem.].

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    1. Hi Kenneth, thanks for this. I think the issues of left and right, not to mention the role of unions, might play out very slightly differently in Australia than in the US, but I do agree that there are some some very sensitive political issues here that trouble academics working with and without tenure or benefits. This is the kind of tough conversation we need to work through if we’re to achieve any kind of collective step forward.

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    2. Kenneth:

      Just because that argument is an internalization of a right-wing talking point does not mean that very liberal people won’t do it anyways.

      However, there are at least some non-institutional liberal people who do care about adjuncts. On the other hand, I defy you to find anyone on the right who gives a hoot. After all, not caring about distressed workers is a big part of what puts them on the right in the first place.

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  8. I was an hourly-paid lecturer from 2000-2007, before getting two temporary 0.5 contracts in different departments, renewed each year until this year, when I acquired a legal opinion which pushed the university into giving me permanent contracts.

    I recognize all the aspects of adjunct thought here. Yes, I was exploited. Despite struggling with a PhD in my own area, I accepted work in seven different departments, because the £6000 scholarship hardly made a dent in my BA and MA debts, let alone provided enough to live on. The hourly rate was good, but covered the minimum hours and weeks available: preparation and marking were not covered. Payment was frequently six months late because the managers whose signatures were needed would lose or forget about the forms. How you lived during the holidays was a matter of supreme indifference to them. We weren’t (and current ones aren’t) colleagues: we were ‘the help’.

    Course materials and lecture notes (for weeks when I led seminars after colleagues’ lectures) were never provided in advance. Teacher-training was never mentioned, and the only career progression was the vague hint that if someone died, I might get some additional hours. This is actually how I acquired the first 0.5 contract. The university hired and fired us casually – we were (and are) cannon fodder rather than colleagues. The union made no effort to recruit or support us either.

    Why did I stick with it? Well, I enjoyed teaching very much, and I lack the imagination and confidence to strike out into the non-academic world. Despite all the intellectual and institutional pressures, my full-time colleagues’ lives looked rather wonderful – teaching and research are enjoyable, and worthwhile: I can’t imagine getting any pleasure from a life spent working for a corporation, for instance. Staging a coup and becoming President-for-Life is the only alternative career of which I’ve ever dreamed. Oh, or becoming an influential media commentator. But as the intelligent press is shrinking faster than my research output, academia is the only option for me. Like many of us, I’m institutionalised. I’ve got used to irregular working hours, the space to be spiky and wayward and to pursue to some extent my interests in a way which is pretty much impossible ‘out there’ for anyone who isn’t Worst Professor Ever. However, there were long periods as a PhD student and hourly-paid lecturer when any hope of an academic career seemed ridiculous.

    Another factor is this: everyone else out there is worse off than us. We have decent pensions, strong unions, and much more chance of successfully resisting the deprofessionalisation and McDonaldization that’s coming. I’ve just come back from UCU Congress, and from many of the speeches, you’d think we’re approaching Pol Pot’s treatment of academics. Sure, there are problems – and the exploitation of adjuncts is one of the most outrageous – but we’re not at the head of the suffering queue.

    I don’t know what proportion of adjuncts become proper employees – low, I suspect. I would never have finished my PhD without that income, and the teaching experience was invaluable, but the widening practice of replacing experienced academics with cheaper and less-experienced adjuncts is exactly the kind of thing Ritzer talks about in his work on the McDonaldization of education. Trades unions need to organise them and universities need to develop proper policies for career progression (something that just does not exist at my institution). As things stand, managements know that an academic career is a dream for which adjuncts will do anything – and they exploit this.

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  9. Hey Vanessa,

    It’s been a while — I’ve been in “retreat” since the Spring push to bring adjunct equity into the public. Working behind the scenes; working on raising funds (and armies!) for our direct action across 2012-13.

    //at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.//

    100% agree.
    I think this is the target argument.
    Flush them all out.
    Show their positions.
    Then decide how to engage.

    Peace in our restless world (is possible),
    Migrant Intellectual

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    1. Caro migrante… I’d been thinking about you and wondering what you have been up to… personally delighted to hear it is mischief. Happy to help spread word when you are ready. Perhaps OT here, perhaps not, but I think (hope) Affordable Care Act loophole actions (cutting courses and hours) and ensuing reactions could stir things up. Anyplace we could rent a troupe of Canadians? 

      ________________________________

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      1. VT is know for its armies of progressives — we’re also VERY connected to French Canadians. We can make this happen!

        I like how you’re thinking here, especially about ACA, course cancellations, and so forth are great places to look for tactics. I also think one of the best places to pressure the colleges is Stafford and other funding entities.

        Why? Because the money they are spending on students and tuition and living stipends are pretty much all being sucked dry by the administrative parasites who should remain the targets of our righteous rage. Not–full–time–faculty.

        Well, only the real assholes.🙂

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  10. Financial Aid staff and administration have been covering up countless Administrative crimes for years. I think they would be relieved to know there is a way out and they, too, do not have to remain silent. We need action that triggers state and federal investigation as well as workplace legislation that may apply for lawsuits.

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