Point #1: “Contingent” Faculty
It is true the current COVID pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated the systemic problems in higher education. The first is the continual decline of state dollars within state institutions of higher learning, traced all the way back to California’s Proposition 13 (1978) (Sacks, 2007, 167). This decline combined with higher institutional competition, competition from freely available online information, capital expenditures on the part of colleges and universities to attract students, and students’ resultant perceptions of college as “too expensive”, all add up to our current institutional challenges.
One of those challenges is the common and too simplistic equation that a college or university hires part-time faculty on a “contingent” basis based on enrollment numbers solely. When in reality, due to the financial realities outlined above, colleges and universities have had to somewhat quietly rely on such underpaid members of their faculties to provide basic curriculum content. It is not so much contingent faculty on the basis of enrollment dollars, but rather contingent faculty as a default due to how those dollars are chosen to be allocated. For example, let’s use a mid-sized northeastern college as a case study. Using “easy” math, let’s say the admin reported having approximately $15 million in cash reserves at the start of the pandemic. Whereas other financial personnel in the know provide an alternative estimate. This estimate includes particulars such as dormitory reserves and is closer to $30 million. Often at the start and throughout the middle of the pandemic, the admin’s narrative was akin to “there is no pie left”. However, the alternative estimate reveals not so much that there is no pie left, or even that we’re making no more pies, but rather how many slices are we cutting, and how can we be equitable in serving them?
Some institutions at the start of the pandemic, working from the “no pie left” perspective, made the knee-jerk reaction of blanket non-renewals of their adjuncts. Legally, this was done so as to stay within the parameters outlined within certain union contracts. Yet, the result is nonetheless an unnecessary cut to faculty who allow the institution to fulfill its core curriculum to students. Additionally, viewed through the lens of public relations “optics” it is seen as a particularly flawed vision when this relatively small savings (approximately $2,600 for a 3-credit course multiplied by the no. of adjuncts) can be gained without such sweeping nonrenewals for vital faculty members.
Point #2: Narrow Economic Perspectives Put Forth by Consultants
All societies possess some institutional systems of economy, governance, and organized belief. When a society gives too much weight to any one of these systems, the culture contained within are poorer for it. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. college, and later the university, had a preoccupation with a student’s character, morality, and appreciation of both the natural and social worlds beyond the campus boundaries (Delbanco, 2012, 40). Today we couch these same sentiments using terms like “engaged citizenry”, “ethical students”, and “critical thinkers” who make connections between their faculties’ curricula and their own everyday lives.
Due to the aforementioned state funding cuts referenced in my Point #1, combined with a rising populist rage – not against the wealthy but the educated (Rich, 2010) – leads to an increasing desire and ability to define the contemporary university in a limiting perspective of dollars and cents only. Beyond the simple and admittedly easy observation that higher education consultants (e.g. Robert C. Dickeson) are doing what consultants do – sell a consulting plan – there are more important issues with their approach. The outcomes Dickeson says a university can achieve by using his approach is to “save time and money, reduce agony, and enhance quality” (2010, xxi) which seems more appropriate to turning around an automobile manufacturing factory rather than a university. Dickeson’s “culprit” in the contemporary university’s struggles is the “needless proliferation of programs” (2010, xxi). “Needless”, quite obviously is a problematic word because when you define a university’s purpose in so narrow of economic terms, a great bulk of human knowledge and experience suddenly become “needless”.
While Dickeson is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of consultants peddling their wares, such a mindset puts the university at risk of becoming just an ancillary of our economic system rather than a space for understanding epistemologies that help us to better engage with, and question ontologies. Or as Peter Seybold warned, turning our academic communities into merely “corporate service stations” (2008, 1-2).
To summarize this short reflection piece: The global pandemic has forced us to take a hard look at the systemic problems within higher education. One of the symbols for these problems are the habitual over-reliance on adjunct faculty not based on contingency but necessity due to the lack of funding at both the state and federal levels. The solution is not to transform the academy into a corporate campus or understand its significance and role as that akin to a mom-and-pop business hoping to cover their monthly nut. Access to higher education remains the strongest determinant for socio-economic rise but more importantly, helps to grow and evolve how we understand what it means to be human, how we innovate, and how we reap those benefits to grow societally as a people. We don’t need more college and university programs that “fit conveniently” into students’ “busy” lives. Quite the opposite. We need to finally get back around to having the courage to be a college by putting college first. To believe in the importance of what it is we’re offering, to stand behind our mission statement, and to invest financially (states and fed) in the education of our young people.
Delbanco, A. (2012). College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dickeson, R. (2010). Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rich, F. (Nov. 10, 2010). “Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha”. The New York Times.
Sacks, P. (2007). Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Seybold, P. (2008). “The Struggle against Corporate Takeover of the University”. Socialism and Democracy. 22(1), 1-2.