/The Tree Trunks Are Rotting in the Groves of Academe

The Tree Trunks Are Rotting in the Groves of Academe

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One thing that struck me when I became a teacher was the high degree of control that professors had over their work. We had considerable say about what we taught, when we taught, what went on inside the classroom, and how we used our time outside the classroom. Once we earned tenure (basically a guarantee of lifetime employment), our control deepened; we could do pretty much as we pleased, as long as we didn’t behave in an egregiously bad manner. By the time I retired, I was able to choose the days and times I taught; I could skip class or keep a class any length of time I chose; I had sole discretion when it came to textbooks, assignments, examinations, papers, and the like; I could ignore student complaints without much risk; and I could conduct my classes in any manner I chose. Although teachers sometimes abused the freedom accorded them, and occasionally violated every canon of human decency, most professors labored diligently until they retired. When I was young, I had disdain for the old-timers, who seemed out of touch and over the hill. But I had to admire the way they kept at their trade, the concern they had for their students, and the loyalty they had to the college. Although I never developed any loyalty, I was much like them when I got old. I taught a Principles of Economics class to non-majors for thirty-two years, and I gave lectures as enthusiastically and as larded with commentary on current events in the last year as the first. I was happy that I had tenure; it protected me from being fired because my analysis of society was too radical for my colleagues or supervisors or because students didn’t like having their cherished notions demolished in class every day.

The extraction of surplus labor from workers is central to the way a capitalist economy operates. To get this surplus labor time—the source of profits—from the workers requires that employers exert as much control over the labor process as they can. That is, it is incumbent upon businesses to structure their workplaces so that the employees can interfere as little as possible with the conversion of inputs into outputs. For example, a modern automobile plant is built so that a moving assembly line dictates the pace at which the workers labor. Each job along that line has been studied so that it can be done in as little time as possible. Each worker is given a set of detailed orders that tell him or her exactly what to do and in what sequence. Failure to do the work as specified and in the required time sets in motion a panoply of corrective mechanisms, including penalties paid by the workers. Modern computer technology allows the supervisors to minutely monitor the whole operation. Periodic stresses are placed on the system to compel the employees to work faster and with fewer errors. Laggards and malcontents are quickly eliminated. All possible efforts are made by management to prevent the one monkey wrench that workers could use to muck things up, namely collective action.

Many commentators, going back to Thorstein Veblen in the early 1920s, have argued persuasively that colleges and universities have come more and more to resemble corporations. They seek to maximize their revenues and minimize their costs, just like any business entity. Their reasons for doing so are many: to generate money for patent-producing research, to hire the ever-increasing number of administrators necessary for student recruitment and retention, applying for government and private-sector grants, seeking state aid, fund-raising, and hiring “star” faculty. As we shall see, the main way they have tried to keep costs in check has been to control faculty labor.

Higher education is a labor-intensive affair. To maintain a healthy surplus (and make it grow), attention must be paid to the cost of the labor, most especially relatively expensive faculty. However, the tenure system places an obvious roadblock in the way of labor cost control. From a management perspective (and most high-level college and university administrators see themselves as managers; in fact, more and more of them come directly from corporate management), it would be cheaper to replace tenured faculty with contingent teachers, that is, those with temporary and revocable contracts. The question is how to do this. Most colleges and universities have found it difficult to attack tenure directly. It is important for them to give lip service to lofty academic ideals, and firing tenured teachers or insisting that they sign ordinary labor contracts would be a public relations nightmare. Tenured teachers are not without some power and influence. They are, after all, the best-remembered teachers of state legislators, rich alumni, and the captains of industry. They may have deep local ties and national or international scholarly reputations. Therefore the captains of academe gradually, in fits and starts, hit upon less direct ways to gain the control over their academic workforce necessary for them to minimize labor costs.

The main tactic employed to implement the strategy of breaking faculty power was to incessantly declare the schools to be in a state of emergency financial crisis. If it wasn’t a state legislature threatening to cut off funds, it was a shortfall in fund-raising or skyrocketing costs of one kind or another. Austerity measures would have to be taken so that the college could survive. Committees of tenured faculty were hastily formed, so that an appropriate air of gravitas could be given to the proceedings. The “crises” were used to justify what were called temporary measures but what were really permanent changes. Hiring of tenure-track faculty was slowed down, and temporary full- and part-time teachers were employed. This had the effect over time of reducing the fraction of all teachers who were tenured; in many cases, when tenured teachers retired, they were either not replaced or replaced by temporary faculty. Administrative control was increased both because there were now fewer tenured faculty to contend with and the temporary faculty were too insecure and harried by unconscionable teaching loads and meager pay to make many waves. To their shame, the tenured teachers usually went along with this because their positions and privileges remained secure. They could almost always be counted on to serve as administrative stooges when it came to any attempts by the teachers to unionize. They could always be counted on to agree to ever-increasing monitoring of untenured faculty (absurd qualifications for being hired, ever-more complex and always mandatory student evaluations, unrealistic and ridiculous demands for “professional development,” corporate-inspired requirements that teachers show that their classroom performances are “effective,” that is, that they have been “accountable”), buying into—no doubt because of their inbred elitism—the administrative contention that this would raise “standards” and improve the college’s national or regional ranking. Of course, when most untenured faculty failed such stringent tests, new teachers could be hired and the same process could be repeated. This meant that an almost permanent core of assistant professors could be attached to the schools, under the delusion of future tenure but with the reality that these unfortunates were exactly the same as adjunct or temporary teachers.

To raise money, our colleges and universities have continued to increase tuition in excess of the rate of inflation. At the same time, they dramatically intensified efforts to recruit new students. To accomplish these two possibly contradictory outcomes, they also had to make colleges more “student-friendly.” So, state of the art housing, gobs of high-tech equipment, a hundred food plans, wired classrooms, and the like were provided. Students came to be seen as “consumers,” and as such, they had to be assured that they were in charge of their purchase. Since it takes little effort to be a consumer, students as consumers of education couldn’t be expected to do a whole lot of work. But they were made to understand that they could make complaints about the product they had purchased. Administrators would be only too happy to listen. Students soon understood that they had great power over their professors, especially the untenured ones. All they had to do was give a teacher bad evaluations; enough of these and the professor was a goner. Teachers caught on too and wisely watered down their classes lest the consumers made it known that the product was defective and in need of replacement. At one school, when a teachers comes up for  contract renewal (usually two years after being hired), every student in every class the instructor taught is contacted for an evaluation, in effect, doubling the weight of every negative evaluation given the first time around in each class. To further ease the burden on the consumers, schools offered a wide range of consumer-friendly majors and course offerings. First-year students could, and often were required, to take a class that would teach them how to be consumers (er, I mean, students). This had the double advantage of giving the newcomers an easy credit and, since these classes were always small, the college a ratings boost, since the raters (like US News & World Report) give ratings points for small classes. New faculty were added to traditionally easy majors such as Business Administration, Education, and Communications. Many of these were adjuncts, outside the tenure stream. New majors were added, again with an eye toward consumer friendliness: Public Relations, Hospitality Management, Leisure Studies, Athletic Training, Sports Information, Broadcasting, and a host of others. At schools without real or imagined academic standards, job-training majors were introduced, with or without tenured faculty approval: Respiratory Therapy, Criminal Justice, Nursing, Real Estate, to name a few. Temporary faculty abound in these programs.

All of this student-centeredness has to be paid for. Some money comes from the tuition paid by the new students, some of it from higher tuition. But major cost savings are achieved by the hiring of temporary teachers. The great advantage of starting new programs but not hiring tenure-stream faculty, and of using temporary teachers for courses in traditional programs, is that such professors are completely under the thumb of administrators. They have no rights, not even those enjoyed by tenure-stream faculty before they win tenure. Therefore, they can be hired on the cheap—a few thousand dollars a course at most. I received about $8,500 a course plus full benefits when I retired from a mediocre and anything but high-paying college in 2001. Except for that rare adjunct who teaches a specialized course (for example, a respected full-time artist teaching a class in pottery for an art department, or a noted lawyer teaching a specialty course not offered by the regular law school faculty), no temporary college teachers earn anywhere near that amount. And whatever pittance is paid is sans benefits, perhaps not even an office.

Let me give readers a concrete example of how the new dispensation in higher education works. For a few years after I quit full-time teaching, I taught web-based classes in Labor Studies programs at several schools. These were invariably small classes (fewer than twenty students and often no more than a dozen), comprised of union members and local staff persons, most of whom would have had a hard time attending regular on-campus classes. I had mixed feelings about teaching online classes. I was aware of the arguments against online classes—they are impersonal and cannot duplicate the student-teacher interaction that can be so important to both parties; they are open to administrative abuses, such as a college taking ownership of all online materials put up by the instructor; they could be used to permanently replace regular teachers by the simple expedient of having one online instructor teach thousands of students. However, I rationalized my participation by telling myself that my union students didn’t have good alternatives and would gain something from a labor-friendly teacher that they were unlikely to get from a typical economics professor.

Unfortunately, online education has exploded far beyond an imperfect but reasonable solution to problems faced by some nontraditional students. Like many others, Labor Studies departments have been under great pressure to generate revenue (they have been under other pressure as well, from a hostile business community and anti-labor politicians who do not want students exposed to the “union virus.”) So they jumped on the online bandwagon and greatly expanded their offerings and audience. In the process, they succumbed to the imperatives of managerial control discussed above. Last year, I asked a labor studies person I knew at a Big Ten university about teaching an online class in economics. He was enthusiastic about this, and I sent him a prospective syllabus. I figured that if I decided to do the class, this syllabus and my forty years of experience and numerous books and articles would make the approval of the class a formality. I was wrong.

The steps I would have to take to teach this course were remarkable, both in their number and their focus upon controlling every aspect of what I would do. It was as if Frederick Taylor had come back to life and was waging war against professors instead of machinists. Here are the “instructions” I received (I have not identified the school out of consideration for my friend):

1. Our online program is called “Global Labor Studies,” and we’ve been directed – now that we’ve designed 11 courses – to ensure that half of all future courses have a global focus. Given that, and given that your book has “global economy” in the title, and given that the financial crisis is global, and that capitalism is global – Would it be possible for your class to be called “Labor, Work, and the Global Economy”? (We can play with the words, but something with “global” and “economy” in the title.)

2. In your syllabus you mention that students are unionists or labor studies majors. That won’t be true [here]. We have had 1,000 enrollments a semester, but only about twenty are unionists. We have hired a publicity director to expand those numbers, but you should design the class with the assumption that you’ll have (after drops) about 30 full-time students who are 18 to 21 years old; and perhaps 2-3 unionists.

3. I think assigning your two books is fine. I’d ask that you supplement those, where needed, with web-based newspaper and magazine articles, and possibly journal articles, in order to keep the material extremely current. You would need to list all reading material in the syllabus. (In the syllabus you sent me, it instead says the class will be told of web readings each week.)

4. Where appropriate and possible, we try to supplement course reading material with web-based videos. YouTube has a huge number of videos that have educational value; as do websites for PBS NOW, Frontline, and American Experience.

5. We use a standard syllabus template. We’d ask you to use this template, filling in your contact information, bio, grading of papers/exams/extra credit, and course schedule.

6. We all use the same forum grading format, and we’d ask you to use that. (We are, however, have ongoing discussions about how to reward or punish students in forum grading in order to prod active discussion.)

7. For your information, all instructors are assigned graders (students with a bachelor’s degree or who are graduate students). We want our instructors to focus on teaching students through actively participating in the forums. As you’ll read in the “Guidelines” file, we expect instructors to log on daily, and to post 140-200 substantive posts per class. Graders are paid $12 to $15 an hour.

8. Attached are two documents about our program we send to all instructors: “Guidelines for Online Instructors” and “Frequently Asked Questions for Instructors.” There is also a FAQ for Graders.

9. Also attached are two documents we send to course designers: Writing Forums; and Writing Lectures.

10. All course lectures would have to be finished and submitted to me at least six weeks before the class begins; the first half of lectures would have to be submitted three months before the class begins. (If you’d like to see lectures from any of our courses, please let me know.)

11. We would require a different format for the discussion forum topics then stated in the syllabus you sent. You would need to write all forums out before the course begins, and introduce them in each lecture. Ideas for designing forums can be found in the “Writing Forums” file. (If you’d like to see forums from any courses, please let me know.)

12. Depending on how much you can utilize your existing lectures, and how much time you need to spend designing the class, there may be development funds available to pay you for designing the course. We’d have to discuss this on the phone.

13. We would put all course material up on Compass for you. I will get you a Net ID so you can navigate the system and see what our courses look like.

14. We pay $4,000 per section.

15. If you wanted to proceed, and we talk on the phone and all is agreeable, the next step would be for you to finalize the course syllabus. Then we’d submit it to the LER Curriculum Committee for approval; then the Provost’s office and the campus-wide faculty committee, for approval.

I wrote and asked my friend why I would ever agree to lose all independence in developing and teaching a class. This seemed like assembly line labor to me. He replied that his school now had a state of the art online program, on of the best in the nation. I said, count me out.

Once faculty power is broken, and it is badly cracked now, colleges and universities can finally be “rationalized,” that is, conducted like ordinary business enterprises. The ingeniousness of hiring temporary teachers, introducing “nontraditional” majors, and building entirely new entities such as online colleges is that the once powerful tenured faculty have been pretty much kept out of the loop. As the new faculty become the majority, administrators will have much more complete control over the labor process, the dream of all employers.

Allow me a few final observations. First, what is happening on our campuses has nothing to do with giving students the opportunity to get a quality education. This I know from all my experience in the groves of academe. Poorly paid, temporary, and insecure (and online) teachers cannot provide such an education. Second, a college that sees higher education as a consumer good and consumer-driven cannot provide such an education. Third, if good education has nothing to do with what ahs been happening, some other possibilities come to mind. Perhaps colleges and universities are now, as David Noble argues in his book Digital Diploma Mills, simply sites of capital accumulation, places where large sums of money can be made. If this is so, the constant cost-cutting and use of contingent labor make sense. Fourth, the hype about the need for people to get a college education has little to do with higher education as a place where critical skills are learned. College education is associated with higher earnings not because of the skills imparted but because schooling serves as a way to differentiate workers and fit them into the hierarchy of jobs that our economic system automatically creates. There has always been a hierarchy of schools. The top universities will be more immune to the changes discussed in this essay, and these will provide society with the relatively small number of scientific and skilled workers needed by modern capitalist industry. It may be that such schools will have to get more and more students from China and India, but this will be of little concern to them or to our business and political elite. The lesser schools will provide the vast middle of jobs that require some skills but not too many. The “dumbing down” of these schools now occurring fits nicely into the lowering of middle class expectations engendered by the current economic crisis. Community colleges (President Obama’s main recipient of federal education aid) will give us the vast number of lower level technical, criminal justice, administrative, and health-related personnel that modern-day capitalism still needs in large numbers. Fifth, the creation of a low-wage academic labor force has been made possible in part because of the oversupply (in terms of demand and not necessarily social need) of workers with PhDs. No doubt, young people seek PHDs because they see college teaching as a way to have a creative and autonomous work life. Unless tenured faculty somehow manage a thoroughgoing revolt against what is going on now, this pool will dry up. However, it won’t be needed; less educated employees will be able to give the consumers of higher education a good enough product (and how would these consumers know the difference between excellence and mediocrity in the first place?). Finally, once the new labor regimen in education has been accomplished, the last high employment job category in which workers enjoyed with real control over their labor will have disappeared, the good example it set for other workers gone forever.

For more on the subject of the transformation of higher education, see thw writings of Henry Giroux and Louis Proyect: