How American Universities Have Destroyed Scholarship in the U.S.

Put simply, universities traditionally have pursued a three-prong mission: 1) to provide excellent educational opportunities, 2) to support scholarly research and study, and 3) to encourage both professional and community service.

There has been a lot written recently about how the adjunct situation has negatively impacted our students’ education – and this blog will be addressing that extensive problem in a future post. But it is the second of the three-prong mission I’d like to talk about now, since I’m not seeing as much attention focused on this equally serious problem.

The labor abuse of university professors teaching on adjunct contracts is a problem that has become more widely reported: Seventy-five percent of America’s college faculty earn less than $25, 000 a year. Often hired one semester at a time with no healthcare or retirement benefits, paid per course an average of $2700, faculty are now academia’s migrant workers.

Historically, it has been the responsibility of our institutions of higher learning to provide financial and professional support for our country’s scholars, whose work extends far beyond the classroom and its instructional activities. It’s an essential part of the university’s role to support the nation’s intellectual class in their ongoing research, study, publishing and continued learning. Our scholars are the very life’s blood of an academic culture, and their work benefits society in a great variety of ways. Professors are public servants. The value of their research, rigor and learnedness lies at the heart of the traditional university’s very existence. When a university is fulfilling this part of its mission, faculty members are employed in full-time positions which make such rigorous research and scholarly work possible. Today, however, departments employ a small fraction of full-time faculty. The rest of their population is made up of short-term contract hires whose precarious, low-wage conditions render their scholarship largely impossible.

The few “lucky” tenured, or tenure-track faculty members receive more complete support. Often, they are able to research and complete books more quickly. They produce articles more frequently. They receive university reimbursement for attendance at conferences where they can present papers and collaborate with fellow scholars. But for the seventy-five percent of college faculty off the tenure-track in those one-semester contract positions, that life seems like an impossible dream. For them, the time it takes to research and write a book – or even a small article – is time they don’t have.

A member of this majority, Stephanie P.*, in California, states: “I drive 350 miles a week to three schools. I spend at least three hours a day driving to and from school. I spend at least four hours a day preparing when I am not teaching and two hours a day on a teaching day. This term, my car was hit by an SUV and was totaled. I have worked for various publishers as a content expert and started writing a textbook, but have not had the time to finish.”

Stephanie has been teaching for nearly ten years, and has yet to finish a book. Our 1.3 million “adjunct”** faculty scholars nationally are so over-extended, so underpaid, so stressed that the ability to find not only the time, but the emotional and psychological capital necessary to focus, to research, to write, is little more than a fantasy.

In all academic areas, these exploited scholars are struggling to survive in order to continue their work. More and more of them are fleeing the universities, finding a life of poverty and corporatized values intolerable. For those who suffer to stay, and those who go, the outcome to America’s scholarship is the same. We are losing millions of works of scholarship; we are failing to move scholarship forward when so many voices are silenced.

Many people outside of academia don’t see the work performed beyond our classroom activities. They don’t understand the amount of dedication and labor involved in researching and writing, in working as an expert in any particular field. That is why the “lazy tenured professor” image has lasted for so long. Far too many people believe that professors spend about ten hours a week in classroom instruction, and the rest of the time lounging around their well-appointed homes, reading books and sipping wine.

But that image is no more accurate than it would be to suggest that trial lawyers work only when they are in court. There are hundreds of hours spent in research, writing, preparation, correspondence, conferencing, and professional development, all of which command significant time and energy in both the attorney’s and the scholar’s work life.   Although largely invisible, such work is essential to the full practice of both professions.

The life of a scholar, which on average requires ten years of preparative graduate study, is made up of intensive work in a particular discipline. Let’s provide a few examples, and say a graduate student in linguistics undertakes a course of study that focuses on the ancient languages of the Middle East, and a history graduate student focuses on the history of the First Persian Empire. Our linguistics graduate student writes and defends a dissertation on the ancient Nabataean language. Our history graduate student does a dissertation on the religions that existed during the reign of Cyrus the Great.

To many people, those areas of study would seem entirely useless. Who needs someone to spend ten years in order to understand a language that hasn’t been spoken in a thousand years? Who cares about dead religions practiced in a time of a dead emperor from the 5th Century B.C.?

But, in 1947, a Beduoin shepherd discovered clay jars in a cave near the Dead Sea which contained scrolls of indecipherable languages. Over the next ten years, discoveries of more of these scrolls were made. Our scholars in the Nabataean language were crucial. It was necessary for them to come together with scholars expert in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in order to begin to decode and translate the content of what would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most important discoveries in modern history. Our history expert on the religions of the reign of Cyrus the Great would come together with other historians, anthropologists, archeologists, materials experts, restorationists, scholars who do carbon dating, others who do paleographic dating. Teams of people, all with very narrow, “esoteric” learning, would work together for years and years to present the learning provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls to the world.

The discovery of these scrolls took place largely over the years from 1946 to 1957, but scrolls are still being discovered in the region to this day. Even in this new millennium, a variety of scholars continue to work on them. This series of discoveries has been the life’s work of many, many learned people in the very fields of study that have been so denigrated by the more corporatized university. What we see regularly now is the shutting down of such programs as ancient history or languages. Programs that focus on these kinds of knowledge are seen, in this new business-model climate as useless, unnecessary – in other words: not profitable.

If those scrolls were found today, would we have a new generation of scholars in these fields, trained and ready to uncover their secrets? Or, if those scholars existed at all, would they be scattered, living in poverty, working several low-wage, instructional jobs, or tending a retail counter, waiting tables, bartending, driving taxis? Driven from their fuller roles in the traditional university, would our scholars be able to devote a lifetime to such an enormous endeavor? I’m afraid that the answer is no. America’s corporatized university cultivates no continuation of such learning, but instead tends the bottom line. So, when discoveries of this sort are made now, there will be fewer American scholars to join with other learned people around the globe in order to do this work. And, as this “American model” of academic labor is picked up in European universities (which the EU is currently pushing), there may well be no one anywhere in the world able to work on such a project. Given that very real possibility, we must ask: Will future generations look back to this time and see another Dark Age?

Whether it is medical research, musicology, linguistics, art history, each field of study is a living, changing area of learning. The responsibility of our scholars is to stay engaged in their field, work with their colleagues from around the world, and then to bring their research and work out to the public through writing, lecturing, and teaching. The second prong of a university’s mission is to support that, through maintaining a full-time faculty, financially supported so that they have the ability to perform the work they’ve trained a decade and more to do.

As you would expect, the last generation of full-time professors was much more productive than this generation of adjunct professors. Dr. Ron G.*, an English professor from a university in Georgia, has written or edited thirty books, and countless articles over the course of a 50 year career that began in the late 1960s. His current university employer, eager to attract him to their campus, worked with him to design an entire interdisciplinary program around his life’s work.   Dr. Samuel L.*, a prolific religion scholar in D.C., over a 50 year career that began in the late 1950s, wrote or edited nearly thirty-five books, and established an international foundation named after himself. Just two scholars provided over sixty books, countless articles, an international foundation and a new interdisciplinary program.

If those scholars had been born a generation later, trapped in a lifetime of adjunct contract work, how much of that output would have been possible? Would they have been able to progress in their scholarship and their career? Would they have been able to create university programs, or establish world-renowned foundations? Of course not. We will never know the amount of scholarship that’s been lost in this shift to casualizing the work of our professors. But if you assume even a 50% reduction in the output of a full-time faculty professor and multiply that by the 1.3 million adjuncts**, you begin to get a sense of the devastation. This is an invisible cost, suffered not only by the individual scholars themselves, but by the society in which we live.

So much of the activism currently taking place around the issues of faculty labor exploitation is focused – and of course it is a crucial first step – on restoring a professional wage scale and securing permanent positions for our university educators. But we simply CANNOT forget that part of what has been stolen from us is our profession itself. We can’t be scholars in the fullest sense if we are unable to research, to write, to present our ideas, to conference with fellow scholars in our fields, to present our work to the public. We can’t give our fullest measure of expertise and learning to society, which is one of the most significant roles we play as citizens and public intellectuals. The universities are cheating us by deprofessionalizing the faculty, that is certain. But it is cheating the entire country, robbing the people of the work we trained to do, not for ourselves, but for them. For the love of learning, for the love of scholarship, and for the love of future generations who will, I believe, one day, look back and see this as a dark age.


*Names here are changed to maintain privacy.

** We use the term “adjunct” only reluctantly, since it is a term created by the corporate university.  No scholar is “adjunct” to a university.  They are the very life’s blood of a university, unless, of course, that university is no longer a true university but a corporate-controlled institution trading on a myth.

About junctrebellion

'Junct Rebellion was established to raise awareness of the corporate colonization that has taken over our U.S. universities, beginning in the 1980s and growing more and more dire with each decade. Our state universities used to be free, or very low-cost; they used to employ full-time faculty; they were run by faculty for the purpose of disseminating scholarship, to fellow academics and students and to society at large. Now, stratospheric tuitions and crippling student loan debt have been normalized, 80% of faculty across the country are hired on "adjunct" contracts, usually lasting one semester at a time. Classes are designed and overseen by administrators who have never taught. Administrators outnumber both faculty and students on most campuses across the U.S. In short, our academic system has been hijacked by for-profit "business models" and corporatist values. Education is a social good and should be seen, valued and supported as such. It is not a commodity. Our students are not sacrificial lambs. Our scholars are not untouchables, to be starved out of existence. Please join us in our efforts to restore high-quality academia to American society.
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19 Responses to How American Universities Have Destroyed Scholarship in the U.S.

  1. sethkahn says:


    And, along with it, the other side of the coin, that the corporatized university has infected the terrain (sorry for the mixed metaphor, but I can’t figure out how to fix it) of research that does get done. The Koch Brothers’ purchase of several Colleges of Business is just one (albeit stark) example. The Tea Party’s astroturfed effort to demand “relevance” (which they also sought to define in very Tea Party-ish ways) from federally funded social science research is another.

    So it’s a double whammy. A whole population of talented and motivated researchers is cut out from doing it by your working conditions, and the people who do get to do it are constrained by all kinds of economic and social pressures that have nothing to do with knowledge-making.

    And just in case anybody’s wondering, I’m not contending that both sides of that coin are equally bad places to be.

    • Seth, you are absolutely right. I plan another post about Koch Brothers money in academia — there are many front organizations through which they funnel funds, always with strings attached, so that they get to oversee what little full-time hiring is done – largely in departments like economics, or social sciences. They want influence over the books, the syllabi… is terrifying how much power they now have in American academia, exercising great control from the shadows.

  2. jrhoskins says:

    Reblogged this on The Adjunct Crisis and commented:
    This brilliant essay gives many examples what we will lost as a result of adjunctification and corporatization: we will lose a great part of our civilization. The first to go, it has been said, when fascists take over, are the intellectuals. We aren’t being shot, but one of the effects of corporatization is to render intellectuals, through deprofessionalization, incapable of attending to knowledge, and to education, which extends culture over generations. That this process is “invisible” makes it that much more insidious. And, the public doesn’t have a clue.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I completely agree that we are in the crosshairs – the entire intellectual class has been under attack now since the 1970s – as a way to make sure that the 1960s uprisings and cultural changes never happen again. I remember, as an elementary school child, being taught that the evil communists hated artists and intellectuals – that they threw them in prison, or executed them. Capitalists don’t imprison us or openly execute us. Instead, they drive us into poverty, use corporatized media to demonize us, render us voiceless by making our research and teaching impossible — so that our influence in society disappears.

      • Carol Jordan says:

        Thanks for the comment. I agree that unlike the protests of the 60s and 70s where police beat students with batons, the wealthy corporate “elite” are buying colleges and even placing CEOs in as administrators. When education is reduced to money and luring students into debt, what is the value of it? Moreover, when they keep the faculty in poverty where we have to work multiple jobs to just survive, it devalues education even further.

  3. supernunny says:

    Reblogged this on supernunny and commented:

  4. RAB says:

    This is an important and rarely discussed facet of the problem. I am editor of VANGUARD, the newsletter of the Connecticut Conference of AAUP, and we have a substantial multi-author column devoted to contingency-faculty issues. Would you be willing to let me reprint this blog post in that column? Of course I would link to the blog. {FYI, two years ago we ran a blog post by Jonathan Rees (moreorlessbunk) there; I continued to follow his blog into his extended study of MOOCs, and last year he was the featured speaker at our Conference’s annual spring meeting. We do commit!}
    Thanks for considering–Ruth Anne Baumgartner (visit my blog at!)

    • Hi Ruth — I will send you an email as well as posting this reply. Yes, absolutely, you may reprint this blog post to your column, and link to my blog. That would be wonderful. I’m heartened by the way the conversations about these issues of corporate colonization in our universities have been growing. I’ve given keynotes and other presentations, shown clips of our documentary (still in progress), and am currently developing a speaking tour for my presentations to parents and future college students, high school teachers and counselors — all stakeholders in our educational system who are unaware of a lot of this. I look forward to hearing from you if there is anything else I can do to partner with your organization to spread the conversation!

      • RAB says:

        Thank you SO much! I too have been talking about the various aspects of part-time labor in higher ed for many too many years. It’s heartening indeed to see the subject finally take a place on the stage. I’d love to talk more about your speaking tour! Meanwhile, I’ll send you a link to Vanguard once it’s up–next week, I hope!

      • Congrats on being FPd (Dec., 2014). That’s how I found you and read this piece. It’s all spot on, sadly. I’ve been teaching alternative HS for 15 years and had a limited stint at the local community college, teaching an intro to the Humanities course.

        Please know, the high school teachers are well aware of what’s going on in edumacation these days. It’s all about data and the benchmarks and more data. This year, 25% of a K-12 teacher’s evaluation will be based on student test scores. Thanks to the legislative arm and the governor of MI. Next year, it will be 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. Yes, learning is so easy to quantify, isn’t it?

        Twenty years ago I switched careers from business to education, encompassing 2 years and $20K returning to school to become state certified, a requirement in K-12 education. I never dreamed that the profession would be so viciously attacked from all fronts over the last 3-5 years, demonizing teachers as part-time workers who have it too good. Meh.

        While I would love to teach at the college level now, I’m not willing to get a PhD. at this age and for the cost and effort it would require. And, you can’t live on adjunct pay for 1-3 courses/semester. What’s a teacher to do?

        The end of public education as a social contract for the benefit of learning, and society, is already in great peril. And it is historically and economically linked to the erosion of the middle class. Thank you for such a succinct summary of the reality in education. Too bad John Q. Public doesn’t get it.

  5. Thanks! I look forward to hearing from you!

  6. Pingback: Tuesday Shazbat | Gerry Canavan

  7. Howard A. Doughty says:

    I don`t want to get all scholarly and such, and it`s not that I don`t believe your various statistics; however, when I tell others that there are 1.3 million contingent college teachers in the USA or that the average wage per course is $2,700, or that 75% of American faculty earn less than $25,000, I know I am going to be asked where I got such numbers. I also know that I will strain credibility if I say that I read them on a blog.

    So, although footnotes would be nice, I`d be happy if I could merely be directed to some more-or-less reliable source. (Although I have taught for about five semesters in the USA – 3 in 1967-1968 and 2 in 2006-2007 – I am not an American and am abysmally ignorant of the resources that are no doubt available, but with which I am unfamiliar.

    Please advise by sending an email to me at:

    • The statistics cited in this post are easily substantiated. Articles have been written in publications such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed. I include a link here to an article that provides statistics, breakdowns of historical shifts, and sources for further reading:

      I would suggest that, if the topic is of interest and concern, you join the voices being raised, and help us call attention to the serious damage that is being done to the United States’ academic institutions.

  8. this is one of the best and most complete analyses of the problem that I have seen, and i thank you for it. I saw this coming back in the 1980s when i was a ph.d student in comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley. The decimation of public education in California began with Proposition 13, which wiped out funding for schools, and it has continued ever since. I feel some hope in that there seems to be a bit of a swing back — Dean Ernest Wilson at the Annenberg School at USC, among others, are finding that there is a real need for people with liberal arts backgrounds in many companies. But until people wake up and realized that there has been a systematic unraveling of humanities education, etc. this horror will continue and result in an increasingly poisonous, ignorant society. I urge you to reach out to people like Bill Moyers and Robert Reich who can help you get this word out.

    • Hi, and thanks for reading the blog. I appreciate your comments. The systematic and very intentional devaluing of Humanities study and of Liberal Arts in general has been so successful that we will need concerted effort on a large platform to change the narrative that stands against it. Even my students have been so indoctrinated that they will say things like, “I see no value in the Liberal Arts. Sure, they teach critical thinking. But they don’t teach anything practical.” Most of them don’t even realize that, traditionally, the Liberal Arts include the sciences. In our documentary, we have been fortunate to interview Jim Hightower on the issue. I would love to build a bridge to someone like Bill Moyers, since I have respected him for decades. He’s a wonderful man who has done an enormous amount of work to keep truth alive.

  9. Stephen says:

    Hey, I haven’t read everything on your blog yet, but I hope you’ve addressed the for-profit “universities”. They are even more blatant in their disinterest in scholarship and I believe they use only adjuncts (no full-timers) who are paid much, much less than adjuncts at the not-for-profit universities. Most of my younger students aren’t even aware of the distinction between the for-profits and the not-for-profits. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the $90K in debt they have acquired from courses at Phoenix is much more than they would have owed, had they attended the local state university. Some actually believe the TV ads that sell the idea of the superiority of a Phoenix or a Kaplan.

    • Stephen, thanks for reading the blog, and for your post. I have addressed the for-profit schools obliquely, but haven’t devoted an entire post to them yet. I have spoken about the MOOCs, which I think are equally dangerous and anti-scholarship.

  10. aliyacheyanne says:

    Reblogged this on aliyacheyanne and commented:
    As a college student completing an undergraduate degree in sociology, this piece makes perfect sense to me.

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