On academic freedom, again

I hope people actually respond to this. I had a huge argument today with some people in the adjunct movement, about this. They are convinced I do not understand that they are in poverty and I do not think their position is actually very well thought out. They have massive amounts of documentation of poor salaries, high teaching loads and poor working conditions. I don’t see how a move to 100% contract faculty with slightly better than adjunct pay would alleviate this. I also don’t see how nominally writing academic freedom into these contracts would really preserve academic freedom in all its aspects.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty and the professional organizations have failed to stem the overuse and exploitation of contract faculty, they say, and it is out of bad faith. We do well because they do poorly.  Neoliberalism has won, they say, the Humboldtian university is long gone, and they want decent jobs in the corporate one. I, wanting to push back and get more tenure lines while also getting good contracts for those who seriously do not want tenure lines, am not living in the real world. (This is, of course, what the adminstration says as well.) Also, it is meritocratic of me to say the Ph.D. has value or that having a research program does, and it means I do not value teaching.

Here is what I think, a grandes rasgos. 1. Without academic freedom you do not have a university, and tenure is what guarantees academic freedom. 2. Without academic freedom and tenure you weaken shared governance. 3. Universities are nonetheless very hierarchical and the faculty, without a union, do not have enough power to end the inappropriate overuse of contract positions completely. 4. It is not a question of NTT versus T faculty. Better pay for contract faculty means they are not less expensive, so there is less motivation to cut T lines. 5. And more T lines means better market. So you need  unions, and you need the professional organizations. (The NFM says the professional organizations have failed them and exists in part because of this, but without union-like action and follow-through can they do better? Does any advocacy organization have the power to remedy, by moral suasion, the economy and the kinds of business practices universities have now adopted?)

Where do the objections to my views 1-5 (above) lie, beyond the fact that people do not think I am talking about a currently existing university stucture and mission (they think the university I speak of is long dead)? What are the answers to the following anti-tenure, and sometimes anti-research line questions?: 1. “I have been a VAP in this line for 5 years and if it turns TT there will be a search and I will not be selected. I prefer it to be turned into a more permanent contract line for me.” 2. “I am an M.A. and cannot get onto the TT. I want more contract lines and also more power for people like me. The presence of Ph.D. and TT/T faculty limits my career.” 3. “All TT lines go to very new Ph.Ds. My Ph.D. is three years old, so I have more chances at NTT than TT jobs. I would therefore like the numbers of the former increased.”

Aren’t these questions all about how tenure is (mis)used, not about tenure, academic freedom and shared governance themselves? One of my objections to the project of making everyone contingent is that I do want faculty who are current in field, and I don’t see moving to an all-contingent faculty as a road to getting that at all–especially not in right-to-work states. I do think that in the context of the bad job market the search for tenure-track work and the traditional insistence that only that is viable has ravaged many people, including myself. But I also think it is very short-sighted to say the solution is to get rid of it.

I also know that at good schools, there are Ph.D. VAPs who deserve tenure-track jobs, and M.A.s with valuable experience and current expertise. But for us, here, if we cannot offer a T job, we are then reduced to searching for M.A.s living locally. This is not easy. With the tenure track, we get applications from people with a lot of skills. I don’t know how we could get comparable people on a contingent basis without offering a great deal more money. So with the tenure track, we can afford them, and we can also offer them something tangible, and we have the prospect of actually building faculty and program.

As I write this I am trying to envision more clearly an all-contingent world. There are places like that–Evergreen College. You have a lot of people there who are as good as tenured, just as our contingent faculty is (ours are effectively permanent as soon as they are hired). So people do get some form of permanence, and I doubt the anti-tenurists’ fantasy of “flushing out the bad” and opening up more jobs for the truly deserving is realized. But how real are academic freedom and shared governance there–or how real would they be if the place were bigger? What if large community colleges like Miami-Dade eliminated the tenure track–would there be academic freedom then? (Shared governance is no longer very real where I am, I must say, but does that mean we should renounce the idea of it?)

So in any case: how is it that the push to improve conditions for contingent faculty and to win back more tenure lines do not support each other? They do so far as I can tell, and I want as many people as possible on tenure lines. And that is not because of job security, it is because of the role of research in teaching and of tenured faculty in governance. Am I terribly conservative, elitist, out of date? Also, is it that bad to want at least half your faculty to have the terminal degree?


25 thoughts on “On academic freedom, again

  1. You are absolutely right. The problem is, though, that the position of your interlocutors is not about searching for the best higher ed model. It’s about venting grievances. It’s useless to get into an argument because you are coming to the discussion with very different goals. No matter how reasonable your argument, people won’t accept it until they have manifested all their woundedness and have gotten you to accept your share of blame for it.

    I have learned to quit such discussions a long time ago because they can’t possibly lead anywhere. People need to come to a discussion with a shared goal or it will fail.

      1. But this is where I fear the lack of shared goal. They have a very organized movement and they do identify tenured and tenure track faculty as the enemy. When questioned they backtrack and say no they are not against tenure, but at the same time they say stop thinking about expanding the number of tenure track lines and put them on NTT permanent VAP-like lines now. Some even say they prefer that to a tenure track alternative. I even have a senior colleague like this — she would have preferred to be an instructor. I am not at all against decent pay and working conditions for those not on TT but I think that goal and the expansion of TT lines go together.

  2. I think it’s very important for students to get instruction from faculty who have academic freedom. I don’t have much respect for people who earnestly want “decent jobs in a corporate university”. Nor for students who want to attend such a thing. But, yes, those people exist.

    I imagine the math is something like the following: If students are currently getting half their instruction form tenured faculty and half from contingent faculty, then the only way to get rid of contingent faculty is to give, say, 75% percent of the instruction they are currently getting.

    I haven’t looked any of this up, I’m just assuming that a tenured hour of instruction is twice as expensive as a contingent one.

    The argument that we seem to have lost is the one that shows that a half hour of instruction under conditions of academic freedom is worth more than an hour of instruction under corporate conditions. This is especially true if the students committed to writing a well-formed prose paragraph about something they know in the half hour that is made available to them by cutting back on their class time.

    The university is becoming too much an organization of cheap activities, rather than the refinement of disciplined perceptions. By making work for contingent faculty, we’re not just destroying academic freedom, we’re robbing students of valuable time for self-reflection and self-fashioning.

    1. One of the things the contingent say is that they are as good teachers as, or better teachers than, tenure track and tenured faculty, have more experience, etc. I am not convinced by this. One also just told me conference papers were as good as publications. Is upset that someone got a tenure track job without having ever taught a graduate course before whereas she did not and she has taught a graduate course, and the reason given was that that person had published and she had not. Thinks this is unfair but my immediate (elitist, discriminatory) reaction, I guess, is that the first graduate seminar happens to everyone sometime and that publications do matter over conference presentations.

  3. Well making everyone contingent will certainly abolish the distinction between two classes of faculty members! At my university we still have some shared governance and a relatively low number of adjuncts. I am not an expert on this issues but I have seen hysteric responses to people like Berubé, who has some good ideas.

  4. Someone: “National AAUP must make a strong move toward saying poorly paid and supported adjuncts are a rip-off for students and institutions alike. Time to stop the charade and actually pay the people who do the work of your institution. Time for AAUP to openly support strikers like APSCUF, Barnard adjuncts, LIU. Time for them to openly help push for organizing and lobby the DOJ and the DOE. That 11K signature petition launched two years ago aimed at the DOJ’s wage and hour division got nothing from AAUP. There is a groundswell of grassroots organizing and AAUP politely ignores it unless it means another chapter for them, and then, that chapter is too often dominated by the tenured.”


    1. On this, I don’t agree that AAUP is not working on it and in the case of my local chapter, the reason everyone in it is tenured is that nobody else is interested. I understand, since I didn’t get importance of AAUP until late on either, but we’d be thrilled if more people would join, or even just show up to meetings and events. (I think AAUP could afford to be a little less decorous, yes.)

  5. I’m not remotely qualified to comment on the specific issues but I suspect that there’s no argument you could make that they would not react negatively to because no matter what you said they will interpret it as support for a system that is screwing them over. I even suspect if you said “I support you 100%” they would find a way to turn that into an attack.

    I’m also not sure I completely understand how tenure protects academic freedom since institutions can always find reasons and ways to get rid of people they really don’t want to keep around. Clarissa has mentioned tenured faculty being fired more than once.

    If it’s not a guarantee of employment and access to students then it’s not academic freedom.

    1. I appreciate your response!

      Tenure protecting academic freedom, on the definition of tenure it means joining the university, you are part of it, you are a policymaker in it, you are not just an employee of it. This gives a lot more freedom and power. But yes, it’s hard to understand right off. Tenured faculty get fired yes but not casually. That’s complicated too. But yes: I feel in this conversation like I am the stand-in for all forms of oppression. Also what they do not realize is that the problems they confront are not problems only they have, they are problems of the whole university. Not that one shouldn’t fix them, but there are more problems like that that you don’t see until you get further inside the system — there’s a huge set and they *do* actually get worked on

  6. I think Clarissa called it: different agendas. And when people need (or think they need, which comes to the same thing) to vent and blame, there’s no talking to them.

    1. Different agendas, yes. That is what I am concerned about. They say one faculty but they also say we are their enemy. They also say I am only familiar with one campus, have never worked anywhere but where I am now, and am not aware of what happens on other campuses now.

      The entire exchange doesn’t change my politics or what I will do but did cause me pain since I am the one who always gets yelled at, for doing too much, for being willing to talk, for only being one person and being powerless to do more. I got to this never-again point this time, and lost respect.

      1. I’m chiming in to agree with Dame Eleanor, Clarissa, and others who say that no matter what the arguments are, you won’t be able to win them because from their perspective everything you say is suspect because of your position. Different agendas, as you say. Even if it’s elusive, tenure is important, and so is academic freedom. I wrote about this one time: without tenured people, the next thing the university will chip away at is job security for contingents, and don’t think it won’t happen. Tenured faculty don’t have a lot of power, but they are indeed working to make conditions better/more lines available/better salaries. It can never be enough, though.
        As for getting yelled at: nope, nope, nope, no one gets to do that. I had enough of it when I was younger, and I am not having it now, at all, for any reason. An Icy stare helps, as does turning away and closing my office door. If people can’t be civil, I have no obligation to talk to them, and neither do you.

  7. Another problem is that “tenured” and “contingent” are used to mean wildly different things. For example, tenured in these discussions means everything from “does research and participates in shared governance as a stakeholder in the university” to just “permanent position with benefits”. Similarly, contingent means everything from “anything not tenured or tenure-track” to “people getting paid a crap amount per class with no benefits and living below the poverty line”. I personally agree with your vision, but I think the larger problem is the lack of value U.S. society at large places on quality education/research. Thus we quibble among ourselves while we continue to lose ground.

    1. Yes — this is key, both the fuzziness of the categories and the larger problem. It’s like the circular firing squad on the so-called US left post election of Trump. If there were a national walk-out day I would join it. But a huge problem I see, in my field, is that many NTT faculty are not in the same game. If they are a FL instructor with an M.A., in a school that has a language requirement, and they are teaching to that requirement and sometimes other courses in the minor, then they have no investment in the maintenance of the major and may even prefer that the major be cut so that the department can settle into a more community college-like routine. Or even if they do not prefer it, program loss does not matter to them in an immediate way. So I don’t see them as being or becoming an activist group, even though the same people at an R1 would be more committed to the discipline and to other colleagues, would walk out in solidarity with those not on FTE, would do all kinds of things.

  8. I am taking the time to read everything here. I am very worried about the future of higher education. You need to get your message out to the public at large, because at this point it’s like you are in an echo chamber.
    So step back a bit. The assault is on public education in general.

    1. Yes, nobody disagrees with that, but it’s a different question. I don’t want to collude in said assault and if the message is, we’ll give up tenure, academic freedom, autonomy, etc. in exchange for a small raise I am not for it

  9. Here is what someone else said, off line:

    –… if what you describe is accurate (and I’m not in the middle of this so I’m going off your description) these people are advocating for themselves in a rational way. Many of them probably do have a reason to believe the ideal university you describe is gone and never coming back, so they may as well fight for what they can get in the world as it exists. I think this is a completely reasonable position for them to take

    ***Me: sure, they think so.

    –You’re also right that there is more to it. And excellence matters. But omg, they give out Ph.D.s to some real fucking morons as well. And some of those fucking morons, being white men who can do no wrong, get books published too, and nice TT jobs from which they shit on NTT workers from their great height.

    ***Me: sure, they do, and they are terrible to everyone else, too.

    –I actually think the ideal of the university you describe is worth preserving as an ideal and fighting for rather than giving up on. But I also think a lot of your commenters fundamentally do not get where the NTT workers are coming from, and probably can’t. That one guy who said they would complain even if you told them “I support you 100%” — probably they WOULD, because they have by now had multiple experiences where people told them that while working directly against their own interests!!

    ***Me: well, just saying “I support you 100%” is lame. I think there is a serious problem insofar as the NTT people do not know how much work goes into *everything*. I was blown away by the service and administration load increase, and the pressure increase, on the tenure track and then once again after tenure. This is why my senior colleague says she would rather be NTT, for instance. She has a husband who works so doesn’t really need a high salary, and I do suppose the university of the future could in fact be a middle or high school, with people teaching on these terms.

    –As a grad student I met a total of ONE professor who truly cared about good and just working conditions for grad students. When I say “truly cared” I don’t mean made sympathetic noises, I mean tried to put a just vision of how the work could be arranged into practice in the courses she taught. And also advised grad students to insist on justice in their working conditions. (A lot of other professors said “We support you 100%” and dumped all the shit work they didn’t want to do on us making us work unpaid hours and many other indignities.) That one professor who did it for real got no end of shit from other profs (who would just as soon let the grad students do a bunch of free work) and from us grad students (because we had bought so thorougly into the bullshit culture of academia that we thought her attempts to protect us from abuse meant she thought we weren’t whatever enough to handle the abuse).

    ***Me: right. And I am that professor. And exactly whose fault is it that the graduate students had bought into not “the bullshit culture of academia” but all these ridiculous neoliberal, anti-labor ideas? Not mine.

    –I guess this is to say I think you’re probably right in terms of long term priorities if the university is to be preserved as a useful and valuable institution instead of gutted like, say, journalism everywhere. But, the adjuncts have no reason whatsoever to trust any TT professor who says “I’m on your side” because even the leftiest TT profs drop their sacred lefty principles the second they pull their noses out of their books.

    ***Journalism, you’re right, this is a key analogy. On “the adjuncts” it is important to distinguish between FTE contingent, FTE contingent with security of employment, people paid by the course, etc. We, in my department, have things so arranged that every Ph.D. is tenure track or tenured and every M.A. is FTE with benefits. And some key reasons I want the next hire to be Ph.D. and TT is so that they can start at a higher salary and have more guarantees. And I work on related issues at university, state, and national level. Adjunct movement people appear to say I do not work hard enough for them and that it is the existence of tenure that limits their opportunities.

    –And “how do we get back to that ideal from where we are without asking NTT workers to continue to eat this shit sandwich in the meantime” is a question I can’t answer and I don’t even know if there is an answer.

    ***I think people paid by the course should quit and underemployed PhDs should refuse to be exploited. I think salaries should be raised now. I’ve never been for supporting the university on the backs of the underpaid, and I am not for it now.

    1. Maybe one more comment: your adjuncts have FTE and benefits? That is much better than at many places. “Adjunct movement people” need to find someone else to attack, and besides, you can work yourself to death and they will still say it is not enough.

      1. It is definitely true that the job security of the contingent is the next thing to go. And I am in principle for the idea of one faculty but albeit certain phrasing in the adjunct movement manifestos what they say most clearly is, let’s all go contingent, it’s the future, which is what the neoliberal privatizers also say. And it is true, the academic world is classist: to get a really good job you need to come from certain famous schools, and there is a lot of unfairness, and many deserving persons do not get jobs, and less deserving ones do. But killing tenure, which means killing shared governance, faculty control of curriculum, etc., is not going to fix that and will finish off the university. And I don’t believe it is impossible to push back and retake the tenure track lines, turn back the clock on adjunctification (and cut out the deanlets and so-called professional advisors).

  10. Stolen from Clarissa, Zizek on liberal guilt:

    “The more Western liberal Leftists probe their own guilt, the more they are accused by Muslims of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam. Such a paradigm perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: the more you obey what the pseudo-moral agency demands of you, the more guilty you are. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be. The same holds true for the influx of refugees: the more Western Europe is open to them, the more it will be made to feel guilty that it failed to accept even more of them.”

    Am I falling prey to the paradox of the superego? This is in my history. I must read this:


    and other things, Zizek on the postmodern subject – http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n06/slavoj-zizek/you-may

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