Without federal leadership, the crumbling faculty infrastructure will remain disproportionately white and male in the best-paying and most secure positions.

With everyone else getting bailed out, higher education is at an absolutely critical juncture, with profound implications for academic actors at all institution types, and their ambitions to serve racial and economic justice.

On the one hand, yesterday’s major AFT report on the permatemping of the faculty urges the necessity of reversing course on academic staffing. That would imply a greater investment in higher education, almost certainly including substantial federal leadership and funding. Most of the public don’t have any idea how many of the faculty are untenured, and are shocked–not in the Casablanca sense–to learn how much they’re paid. When they are given the true picture, every ordinary taxpayer gets it: something’s wrong when faculty earn less than bartenders; nobody would trust an accountant earning less than a living wage, etc.

On the other hand, as education “leaders” across the country have already made clear, their intentions aren’t really to get together and demand a “bailout” or a “new New Deal for higher ed,” etc. Why not? Instead they seem all too ready with even more grandiose plans for austerity.

That’s because administrations have found four decades of austerity useful to establish greater “productivity” (more work for less pay) and more “responsiveness to mission,” which is to say, more control over curriculum, research, and every dimension of teaching, from class size to pedagogy.

They anticipate the coming years will be even more of an opportunity in this respect. In addition to massive world-historical spending on the military, police, and prison sectors, the diversion of public funds to the financial and industrial sector gives the rhetoric and tactics of austerity a needed shot in the arm: just when we were about to stop falling for the “oh, this year it’s austerity again” rhetoric and demand restoration of public funds to a public good, we have the whole government standing in front of flags with their empty pockets turned out.

Yeah, I’m saying what you think I’m saying.

Many administrators welcome austerity

It’s what they live for. It’s what they know how to do; it’s their whole culture, the reason for their existence, the justification for their salary and perks, the core criteria for their bonuses–the quality way, 5% or 10% cheaper (or 5-10% more entrepreneurial revenue) every year.

Ya gotta be a good earner or pay the price, as quality-manager Tony Soprano liked to say. Toyota plus yakuza, what we used to call “Japanese management theory,” but which now has the unique American flavor of super-casualization and astonishingly crude, hostile anti-labor legislation. (Because we have capital’s gangsters serving in both parties across the nation.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re sweating the serfs in a pretty old-fashioned way: I don’t care how ya do it, ya gotta get me another ten percent next year, or you can “choose” whether you teach more classes or close your department. And they get direct seigneurial rewards–box seats at the jousting, the best cuts of the roast animal, jets and suites for their trysts.

Those of us on the ground in higher education will wonder how much more “productivity” is in fact possible, given that “leaders” have been taking advantage of the rhetoric of crisis for forty years to wring more “productivity”–faculty today teach more students more cheaply than at any point in the history of higher education.

Most of that cheapness has been established by the abuse of the apprentice system–substituting student labor for faculty labor, including increasingly undergraduate labor–or by abusing the notion of “flexibility” to establish a permanently “temporary” faculty working for peanuts. As I’ve been warning for fifteen years, the academy is moving toward realizing a sick ideal: reserving tenure for those who self-fund (by grants doled out by corporations) and those who administer a 100% casual labor force.

[I’ll save a full-fledged discussion of “technology” as a magic productivity bullet for another day, but David Noble and I agree, and most technology vendors admit, that courseware “productivity” gains are all about justifying larger class sizes, greater standardization, and the use of cheap nonfaculty, parafaculty, or student labor. There are good uses of classroom technology, and they all involve more, not less, faculty labor time. Where courseware does sometimes “improve teaching,” it’s generally because the teaching methods had already eroded to “information download” in the first place, typically in huge lecture halls followed by course-content testing.]

This is not a partisan political issue–as I’ve said before, Clinton and Gore via “quality in governance” are just as responsible for “increasing productivity” (but gutting education) by permatemping and extracting donated labor via “service,” “interns” (make your own joke here–I’m not in the mood today), and the like.

Republicans and Democrats share the wrong idea that squeezing the faculty has been to “control costs,” when in fact it’s just been to accumulate pots of either money (to spend on administrator perks, salaries, and sponsored projects or favored activities, especially big-time sports or, at religious institutions, social engineering) or capital (buildings, endowments, media infrastructure, investment in ventures and partnerships).

As a result of bipartisan belief in the fiction of benevolent austerity, the faculty infrastructure has crumbled. Most nontenurable faculty don’t do service; the remaining tenurable minority have seen their service loads double and triple, in addition to increased research expectations, larger classes, greater assessment burdens, longer terms in administration, and so on.

Even among the few tenurable faculty that won’t serve in some administrative capacity or as grant-getters, most have shouldered the permanent, career-long burden of participating in the perma-temp/apprenticeship system: admitting, training, supervising & evaluating grad student employees and/or hiring, training, and supervising the permanently temporary. The majority of both groups leave within a few years, creating a constant cycle of hire-train-supervise-evaluate, and then hire again.

Faculty senates have become in most cases all but toothless–administrations actively encourage and preserve them as a useful “garbage can” for faculty opinion, an “energy sink” for troublemakers, as any higher-ed organizational theorist will tell you. Many faculty unions just preserve the interests of the tenured minority at the expense of student and casual faculty labor. Shared governance is in disarray–at most institutions, the administration has near-total control of the faculty: certainly of the nontenurable majority, but also of the tenurable, because their numbers are so small, or because they are married to a vulnerable nontenurable person, or because they have become acculturated to act self-interestedly, chase corporate dollars, etc.

After four decades, the results of this near-total administrative control and a cheap, “highly productive” faculty workforce are clear: it stinks. Student success rates by any measure are a racist, class-specific national embarrassment. White men have the highest paying jobs in higher education; women work disproportionately in insecure positions and poorly paid fields, and higher education as “job training” reproduces similar trends in the larger economy.

Consequences for Diversifying the Faculty

Faculty identifying themselves as of Hispanic or African heritage comprise about 9% of the faculty, at a rate of about one-third of the percentage of persons similarly identifying themselves in the general population (less if one includes those identifying as multiracial).

This substantial disproportion is the more noteworthy considering that rectifying the disproportion has for some time represented an area of substantial agreement between most faculty and administrators, as well as substantial external actors in legislatures, foundations, corporate philanthropists, etc etc. , and that numerous initiatives have been in place to address it for decades.

Some of the reasons for this have to do with what Kozol dubs the “savage inequalities” of K-12 education and the larger society, including the wealth gap. Non-Hispanic white households are on average seven times wealthier than African-American and Hispanic households: impoverishing the public sphere, including education and higher education, disadvantages the poor and therefore disproportionately disadvantages African-Americans and Hispanics.

Higher-ed quality management has radically increased that disadvantage. By relying on the “psychic wage” to push actual compensation for faculty work lower and lower, so that the majority work for what used to be called pin money, with much of the same gendered implications, they’ve turned faculty work into an “irrational” economic decision–a luxury lifestyle choice that persons from wealthier circumstances are far more likely to make than those from modest circumstances.

Since non-Hispanic white households are wealthier, they’re on average more “free” to make this choice than others.

The unfreedom to choose faculty life runs all the way down a decades-long series of decisions about one’s education–where one goes to school and feels comfortable in school, where one majors and where one’s peers are majoring, whether one can choose graduate school and in what field, and how one feels about the way graduate school is funded, etc. It is a structural and cultural reality, with structural inequalities influencing cultural values, norms, and fields of individual perception and actual possibility.

As today’s Chronicle reports, stark disparity persists in the number of minority students earning doctorates despite three three decades of concerted federal, administrative, and foundation efforts. A Council of Graduate Schools study has concluded that diversifying doctoral programs rests on fundamentally improving “the academic climate for all of their students.”

The same is true for diversifying the faculty. No true diversification of the faculty can occur as long as the majority of teaching is done as lightly-paid volunteerism by those who can afford it as a lifestyle choice.

We cannot afford to let Obama take the austerity bait and “make college more affordable” by further eroding the faculty infrastructure, substituting online test modules and undergraduate tutors for faculty interaction. This will only compound the train wreck of the past four decades.

AFT is right. To diversify the faculty, improve learning outcomes and make higher education a place where the ethnically and economically subordinated can once more enjoy freedom, Obama must provide leadership on “reversing course” in academic staffing.

He can make college more affordable while reversing austerity in staffing by investing in it, and “incentivizing” states to invest in it, especially by demanding high ratios of full-time tenurable faculty–including tenure for those who primarily teach, and are vetted for good teaching by other good teachers by reasonable, sound holistic measures, not fake quickie metrics. He can provide leadership by demanding accountability from management.

Obama is a poker player. That’s a good thing–poker’s not gambling; it’s a game of political skill, nerve, daring, and ambition.

He has no choice but to call the bet handed him by the economic situation, but the right play is to raise the stakes, as FDR was eventually forced to do: “I call your several trillion and raise you a couple more!”

Having the courage to raise the stakes will separate Obama from Clinton for the history books in the way we hope and need. Clinton guarded his chips. Obama will have to go all in.






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