The Tenured, the Adjunct, and Lecturers, Oh My! The Destruction of Higher Education in the US

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 3.15.50 PMI have been complaining about my underemployed status for about ten years. As I wrote in my last post, I chose to leap off the career gravy train and have been wandering around in the misty lands inhabited by similarly “overqualified,” “overeducated,” and underemployed misfits. Recently I told a friend that while I know the complete transformation of US culture and economy has been a gradual process, it still feels like I woke up one day and quite suddenly realized that savage American capitalism had won game, set, and match against the ragtag bunch of intellectuals and artists among whom I dwell.

Every week or so this summer I have discovered a heretofore unknown (to me) corner of the commodification of, well, everything in US culture. Understandably, given my vocation as an educator, a more-than-average number of these insights regard education in general and higher education in particular.

Today’s lesson? How the “adjunctification” of of the US professoriate has become unequivocally and without challenge, the new normal, and how, even more tragically, there is no going back. I have talked about this for so long and in so many different fora that if you are a friend or family member, you may be tempted to stop reading. I urge you not to because what I figured out today genuinely blew my mind.  I now have enough information to see emerging something like an endgame for those who wish to savagely capitalize every tedious and monumental aspect of American life.

When I started my Ph.D. program in 1992, roughly 35% of all faculty in the US were adjuncts and about 65% were tenure-track. That is an average, across all universities and colleges and all academic departments. By the time I finished my PhD, that number flipped. The details vary depending on whose data you look at, but I have not found this the trend disputed anywhere. Be wary of losing the forest for the trees.

It is August 11, and I am in high gear in terms of hustling to find adjunct gigs. I have worked my way through the entire Maryland community college system, and I am now hard at it with the Master’s granting institutions, the various schools with titles like: “[Region or City] State University.” When I get to the website for Towson State University it takes me some time to find out how to either be placed in the “adjunct pool” (a practice that is well-known to me) or to apply directly for an open position as an adjunct. Interestingly, I cannot find this information on their website (and I am a tenacious and creative website researcher). Stumped, I called Towson State’s Human Resources office. The young woman who answered the phone inquired if there was anything posted on the HR website. (No ma’am, that is why I am calling). She displayed remarkable ingenuity by placing me on hold so she could inquire further (I am not being sarcastic; I have placed many similar calls that end not with further inquiry, but rather with a “Sorry” and abrupt disconnection). I was informed that regarding adjunct work, I should contact the “Provost’s Budget Office.” No need to call back; she connected me right away. Somewhere inside my skull, a little alarm bell started ringing. The HR office was now  connecting me to a Budget office (albeit in the Academic side of the house) to inquire about a faculty position.

The Provost’s Budget Office told me that they had nothing to do with faculty hiring (the lingering alarm tolled: still interesting that the keyword “adjunct” had landed me there), and that I should be in touch with the English department directly. I felt a sense of calm descend as the little alarm bell receded back into my limbic system, and I returned to familiar ground.

I know this drill, I had just done it yesterday for the University of Maryland—Baltimore County. So now it is Towson State and I am back online at the English Department website, searching for their list of faculty or any other list that would reveal to me the identity of the department chair. I scrolled up and down. I looked left and right. I checked and double checked. There was no link to a list of faculty. [Call me neurotic, but I was so surprised by this that I just checked, again, as I am writing.] To answer what I anticipate as some of your questions: Towson State is a fairly well-regarded Master’s level university in Maryland’s fairly well-regarded public higher education system. While Towson does not offer a master’s in English, you can major in the discipline. So yes, I think it is a bit strange that their faculty listing is not right there, obviously, on the department home page. Now of course, perhaps Towson State is in the middle of overhauling their whole website. Perhaps some financial aid student worker left out the faculty link on the main page. Or perhaps I am the only one in the entire world who considers it relevant for a publicly-funded and well-regarded University to list their faculty in a major discipline just 17 days before the start of the semester.

Nevertheless I persisted.

I performed a regular (as opposed to an institution-focused) Google search for “chair Towson State English” or something to that effect. I found the list, replete with clickable links to every faculty member.

Here are the numbers for Towson using the two-category classification noted earlier:

27 tenure-track faculty

20 adjuncts

That is not the worst ratio I have ever seen, by far. The New England Institute of Technology, where I last taught, has an enrollment of approximately 3,000 students and offers Associate’s, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 50 different programs. While an English major is not available, one would think that for all of those programs at three degree levels, there would be sufficient need to hire a decent- sized core faculty to get all of those students through their Gen Ed requirements. But there are only seven (N=7) full-time faculty in the entire Division of Humanities and Social Sciences. This is, of course, beyond unethical and probably only just legal, but for purposes of this blog post,  I am simply providing context: from my perspective, having roughly 57% of faculty on the tenure track seems, if not ideal, at least reasonable.

If only that were true.

Upon further inspection, I find a third category of faculty in the English department at Towson State University: “lecturer.” I will leave the analyses about the distinction between “Lecturer” at Towson State and “Lecturer” at, say the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), to people who are actually paid for such analyses. I can only say that at RISD, I was adjunct faculty. My title was “Lecturer.”

Simply put, by using the category “Lecturer,” Towson State (and perhaps many other colleges and universities in the country), obscures the simple reality that there are only 27 tenure track personnel in a department of 65 faculty. Put another way, about 40% of the English faculty at Towson State are tenure track. This puts Towson State pretty squarely in the range of “normal” in national faculty rank data.

In the past decade especially, I have not been alone in my dire prognostications regarding the adjunctification of US higher education. Among the providers of higher education and their ancillary operatives, many a research hour has been spent on quantifying this situation (I go so far as to call it a “crisis,” and when I am in a particularly resplendent mood, a “catastrophe.”) And there has been something like a growing awareness, if not concern, among the general public, who might well be considered the the consumers, buyers, or customers of higher education. Thus it is quite sensible for Towson State—and doubtless many other institutions—to respond to both increasing alarm on the part of its sales force and the enhanced awareness of its customers.

So here is my buried lede [sic] and today’s conclusion: the rapid and devastating adjunctification of higher education in the US could have been addressed differently. With the eight-year spurt of optimism that was allowed to flourish under the Obama administration, one could have hoped for a substantive change. The dead tenure lines lost in the Culture Wars that have been raging right under our noses for the last three or four (or five) decades could have been revived. The meaning of tenure could be torn from the grip of the fascists who have cynically used the phrase “politically correct” to destroy academic freedom in our nation. The public could have been educated about what tenure does and why it matters. 


But none of that happened. Instead—and this should surprise no one—the corporatizers simply scraped the surface clean and applied a fresh coat of varnish.  In this particular case study, the varnish is rather simple, hanging on a single word: lecturer.

It is quite a trick. Allowed to metaphorize (or simile-ize, but who the fuck cares?)–and because I am in a resplendent mood–this English professor might liken the addition to the database of another category of non-tenure track faculty to waving a stick of Febreze over the rotting carcass of American higher education. 

And now I see the endgame emerge. Like the manufacturing jobs of the Rust Belt, tenure-track faculty positions are gone. And like those jobs, they are not coming back.

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