Inequality, MOOCs and The Predator Elite

It’s been too long since I’ve written here on The Homeless Adjunct blog, but I am back and ready to move forward.  The silence was caused by a particularly hard year of never-ending job searching.  Two of my three adjunct teaching jobs disappeared, leaving me with barely 30% of what was already a poverty level income.  I suspect that this has had something to do with my outspokenness on the issue of adjunct labor abuse, but as those of you working on contingency contracts all know far too well — there is simply no way to definitively prove such retaliation.  And after a year of falling victim to the severe trauma that we adjuncts are always facing, I have gotten myself back up, and have determined that I won’t let myself be silenced by poverty, or fear.  While it has certainly proven to be an effective tactic, it can only be effective if we allow it to take our spirit along with our income.  It’s pretty clear that this is a Braveheart moment, where I either continue to fight against tyranny — and the corporatized university is a tyrannical institution — or I let them win.

And thanks to the Scottish warrior blood in my veins, I choose to fight.

Since many people have kindly asked, I should also say that my co-producer, Chris Labree, and I are putting together a fundraising campaign shortly, to help us raise the money we need to get the remainder of the film shot, and into post-production.  So, you’ll be hearing a good bit on these pages about how that’s going.  You’ll also be reading about some of the people we’ve already interviewed, and the issues we’ll be addressing in the film and in the book.

So, since my last article, what’s been happening in higher education?  Tuitions are continuing to increase.   Student loan debt is continuing to increase.  Administrative jobs are continuing to increase.  Use of low-wage adjuncts is continuing to increase. Presidential salaries are continuing to increase.  But the quality of education is plummeting.

Yes, more people are talking about the terrible situation in academia.  But the focus still seems to be skewed.  The myth of the “lazy tenured professor” still gets bandied about by too many people as if it were a truth.  For profit “information delivery” methods are on the rise.  MOOCs proliferate, despite plenty of research that points out the serious flaws in
this “model”.  The game plan seems clear – destroy the teaching profession, then blame those educators still struggling against all odds to teach, hold them responsible for the systemic failures.  Then replace a system which focused on the social good of education with a for-profit model run like an edu-factory.  There is a reason that billionaires like Bill Gates have bought into education – and its the same reason that Gates owns over a half million dollars worth of Monsanto stock.  Factory farming and factory-ed have the same goal: profit.  And not for you or me.  Certainly not for our children.  But for Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates and the other 1%-ers who have muscled their way into ownership of the “education industry”.  And, I will say it until I’m blue in the face (and yes that’s another Braveheart reference):  Education is NOT a for-profit endeavor, any more than medicine should be.  It is a social good, and must be treated as such.  Teachers are professionals and know more about the complexities of educating individuals than the “Instructional Designers” and curriculum technicians who are doing their best to take over.

An article from outside of academia caught my attention the other day.  It’s an interview from with Jaron Lanier, long seen as an internet visionary.  Lanier has grown more than a little concerned about the ways in which the internet has become a driving force for inequality and, sees it at the root of the destruction of the middle class.  He points to several professions – artists, musicians, journalists – whose livelihoods have all but disappeared.   His new book Who Owns the Future continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.”

The idea of this erosion of professions is what caught my attention the most.  He warns that internet technology has been destroying the middle class by destabilizing jobs – by both shrinking the pool of possible jobs, and then creating instability in the few jobs available.  Instability comes in two ways: job instability (part-time, contract work has been replacing full-time work) and the low wages and lack of benefits that go with such part-time jobs.
While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices
aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

Lanier talks about what happened when digital photography overtook the old style of photograph development.  He uses Kodak as an example.  At one point they employed over 140,000 workers.  Instagram, at the point it was sold for….about a billion dollars was it?….to Facebook, had 13 employees.  THIRTEEN.

Digitizing does away with the need for the human.  In the case of MOOCs, it is a scholarship killer. Education, at the university level especially, is the outgrowth of ongoing scholarship by the faculty.  A lifetime of research, writing, speaking, engaging with other scholars in your field, produces not just the articles and books of each scholar’s work, but the classes – NEW classes, exciting never-before-given classes, which provide a furtherance of study and scholarship in a given area.  By MOOC-ing college classes, an illusion of higher education is created.  Nothing more.  It’s “virtual” education in all the worst ways.

Remember when SAG and AFTRA did bloody battle with the film studios and TV studios in the early days of VCRs?  When a whole new way of distributing the work of the actors and crew on films and TV shows offered tremendous increase in revenue….but not for THEM?  Well, that’s what the MOOC model does in academia.  The owners of the MOOC platform, the universities under contract with the MOOC companies — those are the beneficiaries of all this digitized “information delivery”.  The shrinking career of the professor just got diminished even more.  And, unlike the members of SAG/AFTRA, we have no union capable of providing significant pushback.  The traditional educational unions have been nearly worthless – they haven’t been able to stop the casualization of the majority of university professors in the country, for instance.  They’ve been notoriously short-sighted.  Who is there to fight against the already-impoverished professoriate being MOOCed?

Lanier talks about the social contract that is being broken by the casualization of more and more areas of labor — he calls it the “informal” economy of our current employment situation. “We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?”

This observation is certainly relevant to what he sees happening in the creative industries, and in journalism.  But it is just as true in academia.  The idea that if a person loves what they do — even if it takes a lot of work and dedication to do it — they don’t deserve to be paid a middle-class salary to DO it — is part of what fuels the disappearance of the scholar as a professional.

The problem is, as Lanier points out, that we are not living in an informal economy, simply suffering with the income of an informal hiring system.  This informal, casualized labor situation puts far too many people, across all professions, into a terrible situation when they crash up against the formal economy we actually LIVE in — that’s the economy where you must still use cold, hard cash to pay for your housing, your utilities, your food, your healthcare.

“It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed… is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining.”

Think about the writing-for-free model that has taken over journalism.  His point can be supported by the millions made by Arianna Huffington, while many of her writers worked for little or nothing.  Yes, writing is one of what Lanier is calling the “pleasant” jobs — as is teaching (I didn’t say easy.  But dedicated writers and educators alike see what they do as rewarding and important work.)  Why should journalists or educators be working for little to no money, living at the edge of poverty, while the people at the top of this sort of economic structure are reaping enormous fortune?  According to Lanier, this is a conscious breach of the all-important social contract that not only provides what he calls the “hump” of middle class citizens — that middle area surge on the economic chart where the majority of people fall — but that large, sustained middle class keeps the rest of the system going.  Without it, the economy fails, as does democracy itself.

“We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs…The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.”

Technology will get to everybody eventually.  Well, it’s already more than started in the professions he lists.  Internet diagnosis and the silo-ing of medical treatment.  Lawyers’ duties being unbundled, with online document reviewers being outsourced to other low-wage countries.  Scholars being reduced to migrant status, teaching conveyor-belt classes with “common syllabi”.

We’re all screwed.  And we’ll stay screwed if we keep struggling as individuals, or as separate classes of professionals.  We’ve got to come together and rise up together – all workers, across all platforms and industries – and put our talents and our multiple intelligences to use for our own benefit.  Stop giving our talents and abilities away to the Predator Elite, and start working together to figure out how to use our talents for each other.  If all exploited journalists stopped writing; if all exploited artists stopped creating; if all exploited educators stopped teaching — what would these exploiters have?  A great big bunch of nothing.  No articles or news stories.  No music, theatre, film, visual art.  Empty classrooms and campuses.

The most exploited are the most necessary.  We can never forget that.

Posted in Social and Economic Inequality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are now movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful “assessment” tools, to offer “free” university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of “fix” for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.

To explain my perspective here, I need to go back in time. Let’s go back to post World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability – and sometimes free access – to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations, the war-mongers, those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.

I suspect that, given the opportunity, those groups would have liked nothing more than to shut down the universities. Destroy them outright. But a country claiming to have democratic values can’t just shut down its universities. That would reveal something about that country which would not support the image they are determined to portray – that of a country of freedom, justice, opportunity for all. So, how do you kill the universities of the country without showing your hand? As a child growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the communist countries in the first half of the 20th Century put their scholars, intellectuals and artists into prison camps, called “re-education camps”. What I’ve come to realize as an adult is that American corporatism despises those same individuals as much as we were told communism did. But instead of doing anything so obvious as throwing them into prison, here those same people are thrown into dire poverty. The outcome is the same. Desperate poverty controls and ultimately breaks people as effectively as prison…..and some research says that it works even MORE powerfully.

So: here is the recipe for killing universities, and you tell ME if what I’m describing isn’t exactly what is at the root of all the problems of our country’s system of higher education. (Because what I’m saying has more recently been applied to K-12 public education as well.)

First, you defund public higher education.

Anna Victoria, writing in Pluck Magazine, discusses this issue in a review of Christopher Newfield’s book, Unmaking the Public University: “In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.” How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. “Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than 1/3 of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities? U.C. Berkeley English professor, Christopher Newfield, in his new book Unmaking the Public University posits that conservative elites have worked to de-fund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. His theory is one that blames explicit cultural concern, not financial woes, for the current decreases in funding. He cites the fact that California public universities were forced to reject 300,000 applicants because of lack of funding. Newfield explains that much of the motive behind conservative advocacy for de-funding of public education is racial, pro-corporate, and anti-protest in nature.

Again, from Victoria: “(The) ultimate objective, as outlined in the (Lewis Powell) memo, was to purge respectable institutions such as the media, arts, sciences, as well as college campus themselves of left-wing thoughts. At the time, college campuses were seen as “springboards for dissent,” as Newfield terms it, and were therefore viewed as publicly funded sources of opposition to the interests of the establishment. While it is impossible to know the extent to which this memo influenced the conservative political strategy over the coming decades, it is extraordinary to see how far the principles outlined in his memo have been adopted.”

Under the guise of many “conflicts”, such as budget struggles, or quotas, de-funding was consistently the result. This funding argument also was used to re-shape the kind of course offerings and curriculum focus found on campuses. Victoria writes, “Attacks on humanities curriculums, political correctness, and affirmative action shifted the conversation on public universities to the right, creating a climate of skepticism around state funded schools. State budget debates became platforms for conservatives to argue why certain disciplines such as sociology, history, anthropology, minority studies, language, and gender studies should be de-funded…” on one hand, through the argument that they were not offering students the “practical” skills needed for the job market — which was a powerful way to increase emphasis on what now is seen as vocational focus rather than actual higher education, and to de-value those very courses that trained and expanded the mind, developed a more complete human being, a more actively intelligent person and involved citizen. Another argument used to attack the humanities was “…their so-called promotion of anti-establishment sentiment. Gradually, these arguments translated into real- and often deep- cuts into the budgets of state university systems,” especially in those most undesirable areas that the establishment found to run counter to their ability to control the population’s thoughts and behavior. The idea of “manufactured consent” should be talked about here – because if you remove the classes and the disciplines that are the strongest in their ability to develop higher level intellectual rigor, the result is a more easily manipulated citizenry, less capable of deep interrogation and investigation of the establishment “message”.

Second, you deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)

V.P. Joe Biden, a few months back, said that the reason tuitions are out of control is because of the high price of college faculty. He has NO IDEA what he is talking about. At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever – which means that they have no idea how much work they will have in any given semester, and that they are often completely unemployed over summer months when work is nearly impossible to find (and many of the unemployed adjuncts do not qualify for unemployment payments).  So, one million American university professors are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work. Keep in mind, too, that many of the more recent Ph.Ds have entered this field often with the burden of six figure student loan debt on their backs.

There was recently an article talking about the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with poverty and “job insecurity” — precarious employment, or “under-employment”.  The article says that, in just the few short years since our 2008 economic collapse, the medical problems of this group have increased exponentially.  This has been the horrible state of insecurity that America’s college professors have experienced now for thirty years. It can destroy you — breaking down your physical and emotional health. As an example:  the average yearly starting salary of a university professor at Temple University in 1975 was just under $10,000 a year, with full benefits – health, retirement, and educational benefits (their family’s could attend college for free.) And guess what? Average pay for Temple’s faculty is STILL about the same — because adjuncts now make up the majority of faculty, and earn between $8,000 to $14,000 a year (depending on how many courses they are assigned each semester – there is NO guarantee of continued employment) — but unlike the full-time professors of 1975, these adjunct jobs come with NO benefits, no health care, no retirement, no educational benefits, no offices. How many other professions report salaries that have remained at 1975 levels?

This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat – that growing number of American workers whose employment is consistently precarious. All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity.  Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes.  While we’re at it, let’s add suicide to that list of killers — and readers of this blog will remember that I have written at length about adjunct faculty suicide in the past.

Step #3: You move in a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university.

This new class takes control of much of the university’s functioning, including funding allocation, curriculum design, course offerings. If you are old enough to remember when medicine was forever changed by the appearance of the ‘HMO’ model of managed medicine, you will have an idea of what has happened to academia. If you are not old enough – let me tell you that Once Upon a Time, doctors ran hospitals, doctors made decisions on what treatment their patients needed. In the 1970s, during the infamous Nixon Administration, HMOs were an idea sold to the American public, said to help reign in medical costs. But once Nixon secured passage of the HMO Act in 1973, the organizations went quickly from operating on a non-profit organization model, focused on high quality health care for controlled costs, to being for-profit organizations, with lots of corporate money funding them – and suddenly the idea of high-quality health care was sacrificed in favor of profits – which meant taking in higher and higher premiums and offering less and less service, more denied claims, more limitations placed on doctors, who became a “managed profession”. You see the state of healthcare in this country, and how disastrous it is. Well, during this same time, there was a similar kind of development — something akin to the HMO — let’s call it an “EMO”, Educational Management Organization, began to take hold in American academia. From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country. And just as disastrous as the HMO was to the practice of medicine in America, so is the EMO model disastrous to the practice of academia in America, and to the quality of our students’ education. Benjamin Ginsburg writes about this in great detail in his book The Fall of the Faculty.  

I’d like to mention here, too, that universities often defend their use of adjuncts – which are now 75% of all professors in the country — claiming that they have no choice but to hire adjuncts, as a “cost saving measure” in an increasingly defunded university. What they don’t say, and without demand of transparency will NEVER say, is that they have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of “consultants”, PR and marketing firms, law firms. We have to add here, too, that president salaries went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars – salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.

Step Four: You move in corporate culture and corporate money

To further control and dominate how the university is ‘used” -a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative – university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”.  Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

Anna Victoria writes, on Corporate Culture: “Many universities have relied on private sector methods of revenue generation such as the formation of private corporations, patents, increased marketing strategies, corporate partnerships, campus rentals, and for-profit e-learning enterprises. To cut costs, public universities have employed non-state employee service contractors and have streamlined their financial operations.”

So what is the problem with corporate money, you might ask? A lot. When corporate money floods the universities, corporate values replace academic values. As we said before, humanities get defunded and the business school gets tons of money. Serious issues of ethics begin to develop when corporate money begins to make donations and form partnerships with science departments – where that money buys influence regarding not only the kinds of research being done but the outcomes of that research. Corporations donate to departments, and get the use of university researchers in the bargain — AND the ability to deduct the money as donation while using the labor, controlling and owning the research. Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become. Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. And yet, in both the case of the HMO and the EMO, we have been taken over by an alien for-profit culture, our sovereignty over our own profession, our own institutions, stripped from us.

A corporate model, where profit depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage work force and 2) charging continually higher pricers for their “services” is what now controls our colleges . Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.

Step Five – Destroy the Students

While claiming to offer them hope of a better life, our corporatized universities are ruining the lives of our students.   This is accomplished through a two-prong tactic: you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The Second Prong:  You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th Century many universities in the U.S. were free – including the CA state system – you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid to late 1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. 2000%! This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.

Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities.  This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for Financial Aid. They tell me that they are trained to say NOT “This is what you need to borrow,” but to say “This is what you can get,” and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders — and I’m sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.

The propaganda machine here has been powerful.  Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is “worth it” — and learn too late that it will indenture them.  Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors.  This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.

So, there you have it.

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge:  They have won.

BUT these are victors who will never declare victory — because the carefully-maintained capitalist illusion of the “university education” still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. No, no. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the ONLY way to gain a successful, middle class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt in the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

So now what?

This ruination has taken about a generation. Will we be able to undo this damage? Can we force refunding of our public educational system? Can we professionalize faculty, drive out the administrative glut and corporate hijackers? Can we provide free or low-cost tuition and high-quality education to our students in a way that does NOT focus only on job training, but on high-level personal and intellectual development? I believe we can. But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes — although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

I am eager to hear from those of you who have been involved in this battle, or are about to enter it.  We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle.  I’m open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.

Posted in The Breakdown of the American University System | Tagged , , , , , , , | 754 Comments

What We Must Demand of Our Colleges

To those readers who have followed The Homeless Adjunct for a while, this entry might seem to be a little off-side of our regular discussions, which focused largely on the issues of faculty exploitation.  The next few entries are going to expand that focus a little, in order to discuss issues from a different perspective.  This discussion is aimed at another exploited population within higher education:  students.  I’ve made suggestion below about the ten things students and their parents should demand of colleges before they even consider attendance.  I welcome suggestions from others – faculty, parents, students – in the hope that we might begin to build a checklist with which to arm those considering attendance at an institution of higher learning.  I especially welcome feedback on suggestion #8 — that universities reimburse students for their failure to provide fully-compensated faculty, full faculty access, available core course sections, errors in advising.

Our society has become convinced that the only way to a secure, middle class life is through a college program which confers a degree in a “marketable” set of skills. From the time our children are quite young, they are told by parents and teachers, by counselors and advisors, that they must prepare for college. Even elementary school children are told how important it is to work hard, get good grades, learn as much as possible in order to do well in middle and high school, in order to “get into a good college”. There is a discussion which will be tabled for another day – examining whether this constant message and deeply ingrained belief in college as the one sure route to a successful life is, in fact, true. For now, the discussion will focus on just what a “good” college is, and how to assure yourself that your child will be attending one. We know that a very important, exciting, and frightening, time in a teenager’s life is that time when he or she begins to search for colleges.

Discussions of “college rankings” are everywhere. Books are sold yearly, offering information about the colleges and universities of our country and other countries, in order to help the students and families make reasoned decisions. What is the tuition? The average SAT or ACT scores? Do they have fraternities and sororities? How are they ranked regionally?….nationally? Some very important and significant information is not contained in those books, and certainly won’t be found on the websites of the schools themselves. This missing information is directly related to much of the current conversation about the state of America’s colleges, the learning outcomes of our students, the crippling debt caused by explosive tuitions. It is what the universities have managed, for nearly a generation, to conceal from the general public.

So, here is a list of questions that should be answered by your own research before making a final decision about your own, or your child’s, college choices. You can try asking the universities you are considering; but I suspect that you won’t get a straight answer. These questions constellate around issues like faculty hiring — over-use of underpaid part-time faculty and teaching assistants, a glut of administrative jobs and a dearth of classroom support — corporate involvement in educational institutions, and most especially just how much of the tuition money being spent goes directly into classroom and educational costs. Over the last thirty years, unbeknownst to most people outside academia, there has been an enormous shift in the way universities hire the professionals who teach our students.

In the 1970s, more than 70% of all college professors were hired as full-time, tenure-track faculty. As you might expect, they were given private offices in which to do their work and meet with their students and colleagues. They had office staff to assist them in their daily activities. Reimbursement for their professional development costs, like that of their medical and legal counterparts, was considered part of the compensation provided by their university. Part of their responsibilities included researching and writing in their field, publishing, offering lectures, engaging in academic conversation internationally in order to move the knowledge in their area of expertise forward for the next generation. They were also engaged in what is known as “governance”, which means the administrative work required to run a department, a program, a university. This included committee meetings, faculty meetings – a variety of responsibilities that faculty shouldered in the management and maintenance of the university community, in order to shape and support the mission of the school. And what was the mission of the school? It was to provide a community for the scholars, and a system of education for the students; it was to maintain the highest possible educational standards and scholarly output, for the benefit of students, university, community and society.

Fast forward to 2012. More than 70% of all college professors are now hired “part-time” — many for only one semester at a time — for wages so low that it is necessary for our college professors across the nation to take on several jobs in order to cobble together a meagre living. University professors now, contrary to the “lazy tenured professor” illusion perpetrated by so many in the media, in industry, and in the country in general, earn an average of $30K gross salary by simultaneously working several jobs, without benefits, without healthcare, and without any form of job security. Of the 1.5 million university professors working in America, a full one million of them work in these precarious jobs. They are given no private offices in which to work, or meet their students. When they are offered offices at all, they are “group” offices, crammed with half a dozen other part-time faculty — spaces where no one leaves their belongings, no one can concentrate to do any work, and certainly no one can have a private meeting with a student. Office staff is nearly non-existent, and those who remain are not there to support the needs of the part-time faculty. There is no one to offer office support, to answer a telephone when a student calls, to accept papers or messages from students.

Because America’s part-time professors are working several low-wage, precarious jobs, their ability to research and publish in the field they dedicated an average of ten years worth of graduate work to is close to non-existent. They receive no financial support for the professional development necessary to stay abreast of new developments in their field. They are not designing courses in their areas of specialty which can be offered to students. These part-time professors are also excluded from the governance of the universities in which they devote their teaching time. Replacing them are the ballooning number of administrators who now constitute a majority class, holding the preponderance of power. These administrators are now the ones deciding on curriculum changes, on allocation of funds, on which college programs receive support and which ones do not. These non-educators are often directly involved in issues related to the educational content of the school’s programs, even though most of them have never set foot in a classroom as a teacher. These administrators are hiring PR people, lawyers, outside consultants – an army of very expensive “professionals” to help them “manage” the university. And to see just how much this system of administrators and expensive outside “experts” has failed, we need only look at the last ten years of statistics about the skills of our students, the drop-out rate, the ranking of American programs and students against universities and students internationally.

Why should any of this matter to parents and students when they are choosing a school? Because the ludicrous administrative-run programs of our universities have all but driven us over a cliff academically. Because professors who can’t practice their profession fully cannot continue to develop to their own fullest potential, and certainly can’t provide their students with an ever-changing and growing body of their own work. Because the horrible working conditions of 70% of America’s poverty-stricken faculty become the horrible learning conditions of America’s college students. Because the debt incurred by so many of our students is not being used to benefit their own instructional excellence, but to pay for the administrators, consultants, PR firms, lawyers — not to mention sports coaches and teams! — who are the only ones benefitting from this new, awful system.

Over the last several years, I have had friends taking their children on college visits. So, I’ve sent them with ONE question to have answered on those tours: “How many full-time faculty will be teaching my undergraduate?” These friends visited colleges all over the country, yet they all came back with the same answer: “All our faculty are professors.” My friends, none of whom work in academia, were satisfied by that answer, thinking that it actually said something. What none of them realized was that this response does NOT answer the question that they asked. How strange do you find it, that on every campus, in answer to that very specific question, the same answer was given? It was clearly a rehearsed dodge with the intent of not answering a very important question. What should that tell us? It tells us that the colleges don’t want parents to know the fact that most of the faculty who will be teaching their children are low-wage part-time contract hires without offices, without benefits, without the ability to meet and conference, to mentor, their students. Colleges don’t want parents to know that the majority of the faculty teaching undergraduate classes are working under academic sweatshop conditions.

It also tells me that arming parents with ONE question is not enough. Parents and students need a list of questions, and an explanation as to why each of the questions is important. These questions must be part of your own research because they are, if not more, as important than the pieces of information you receive from the published college guides.

So, let’s start with that first question again.

1. What percentage of the faculty teaching your undergraduate classes is full-time? What percentage is adjunct? Why is this important? For several reasons. To repeat what I said above, unlike full-time faculty, who receive a respectable professional wage, staff support, professional development support, and an office, part-time faculty are paid, on average, 30% of what full-time faculty are paid, for teaching the same class. They receive no staff or professional development support. They are not given offices — or at best, are given offices shared by a rotating number of other part-timers — an “office” which more closely resembles a public restroom or janitor’s closet than an actual office space.

So what? Well, to begin with, because of the precarious state of their worklife and the extremely low wages, which rarely exceed $15,000/year gross at any one school (since there are limits to the course assignments they can receive) with no healthcare or any other benefits, part-time faculty have no choice but to work several jobs. Other professors combine their teaching work with service or retail work, often earning more money waiting tables than they make teaching their university classes. Sometimes the jobs are other teaching jobs at a variety of universities, which require them to spend most of their time traveling from campus to campus rather than being available between classes for their students. Of course, the fact that they have no offices in which to conduct private meetings with their students is an additional issue. Students have a right to private consultation with their professors, to mentoring and time for conversation and guidance.

Think of it this way: You need an attorney. You make an appointment at a law firm with a good reputation. Your attorney meets you in the lobby, with a rolling suitcase; s/he explains that, since s/he doesn’t have an office space, you’ll need to meet there in the waiting room. Unzipping the rolling suitcase, your attorney explains that, without an office, s/he has no place to store forms and files. During the conversation, your attorney realizes the time and makes an embarrassed excuse, “I have to leave; I have another part-time job at Starbucks.” Say that, despite this, you hire this person, only to learn that every fifteen weeks, the firm requires that each part-time attorney reapplies for their same job, and there is no guarantee that your attorney will be back again. “But there are plenty of other part-time attorneys,” you are told, “who will handle your case just as well.” Do you think there is any possibility that an attorney with so little support from its firm, no matter how excellent or smart they are, can represent you fully? Do you think that any professor, with so little support from its university, can educate and support your child fully? That is why you should care.

Of course, it should also be pointed out that parents who would never allow their kids to wear clothes made in sweatshops overseas, have been sending their children to universities where exploitation and misery are the reality of most faculty.

2. A related question: what percentage of my child’s classes will be taught by Teaching Assistants? Remember the days when the title “teaching assistant” was given to someone who assisted a professor in teaching his or her class? Well, forget it. In today’s university, a “teaching assistant” assists no one. Instead, they are given full responsibility to teach a class. These are graduate students, perhaps only in their first semester of graduate school, being put into classes with undergraduates, and expected to teach — while also carrying their own full-time load of graduate classes. Bottom line: these TAs have to prioritize, and what is their priority? Their own classes and their own grades, of course. No matter how much they care about their students, or want to teach well, the stress of trying to juggle it all is impossible to disregard. These are young, inexperienced and overextended people put into the entry level classes where your students will be exposed, for the beginning of their college career, to enormous amounts of work and challenge. These are the classes where students need even more support, more guidance, more expertise — and they are getting less. That is why you should care.

3. Are undergraduate students guaranteed full access to their professors on campus? What is “full access” you might ask. Well, “full access” means that a professor is available on campus during times other than class times. It means that your student can arrive in a department and expect to see faculty in their offices, doing their own research, their own class preparation, meeting with students. It means that those professors might be offering seminars or departmental talks which they can attend. Full access does NOT mean email exchanges, or telephone calls. Full access means face to face conference and mentoring time. Personal support. It means the possibility to develop strong, personal and professional relationships with professors who will continue their mentoring and support long after the semester is over. If, instead, your student is forced to depend on email exchanges, text messages, brief telephone calls, what is the quality of the exchange or the support that can be expected? If your student finds a favorite professor or two and wants to continue pursuing study with such a professor, will they be able to? Or is that professor limited to one or two courses, taught again and again because of this new assembly line kind of education?

4. Are undergraduate students guaranteed private meetings in their professor’s private offices? Why are such meeting spaces important? Privacy, for one thing. How many students want to have a conference with a professor, discussing their difficulties with an assignment, or their less-than-stellar work on a particular paper, in front of a half dozen other people? Doesn’t your student deserve the respect of private consultations? Would you want to have a medical or legal consultation in a public space? Isn’t the quality of conversation that takes place greatly impaired without the possibility of some privacy and dignity? I have seen professors meeting their students in hallways, in outdoor spaces on campus, sitting on windowsills, for heaven’s sake. One professor I know opens his car trunk, and sits inside with students, going over papers. Heaven help him on especially rainy or windy days.

5. Are undergraduate students guaranteed advising from their departmental faculty? Will they have advisors who they can know and trust, and work with throughout their college career? Most parents remember meeting with advisors from their department — English professors if they were English majors, History professors if they majored in History, etc. There has been shift away from that, to an “advising department” where full-time advisors work in a kind of “pool”, and meet with students in what more closely resembles an assembly line. It doesn’t matter what your major is, what your concentration is, what your specific needs or interests are. You are merely one in a long line of students being pushed through the “advising process”. So? Isn’t it more streamlined? Isn’t it possible to train these advisors really well so that this is the only job they do, and they do it with expertise? No. As a professor myself, I have heard hundreds of horror stories my students tell, where they have been given the wrong advice, registered for and took unnecessary classes. They have lost time and money; they are never financially refunded. Faculty advisors, on the other hand, know their departments, know their programs, know their colleagues. As they work with an undergraduate student, they also get to know that student. Their advice and guidance would go beyond what courses to take in any given semester. It would include advice on how to shape the study, how to look for inter-disciplinary enrichment of their study. It would include advice on conferences, or other activities taking place at their university or others in the area which could enhance their understanding of the field in which they were studying. This kind of division of work depends on a factory model. It is sometimes called “unbundling” — meaning that all the skills and jobs that had been done by one professional have now been parceled out, unbundled as it were, into separate jobs handled in a more rote fashion. This is the fast food model, a factory model, where people are trained to do a limited amount of things, over and over and over again. It makes everyone more easily controllable, and much more easily replaceable. “Efficiency” and “cost effectiveness” are argued. But how efficient and cost effective is it for the student who has to take six years to earn a four year degree? Just who is saving the money? Not our students.

6. What is the number of “general education” or “core” classes required of my student’s major, or of the general university degree? Are these administrator-designed, common syllabi courses with common reading lists? Or are these individually designed courses by professors? How many courses are being offered to undergraduates that are designed by faculty in areas of their own specialty? Ask to see a few semesters of course selection guides, and you will see how “canned” the courses might be. Why should you care? Because this isn’t McDonald’s, is it? Why should every student be forced to take a large number of administrator-designed cookie-cutter courses with common book lists, taught by faculty with little to no say in the actual course content or reading material? Why shouldn’t your student be given a smorgasbord of class offerings each and every semester, designed by professors fully engaged in their own field of study, researching and writing and offering courses in their latest area of endeavor? Why shouldn’t there be that kind of lively scholarship and professionalism and academic growth at the college your student attends? It’s not like the tuition prices have gone down for this “one size fits all” education. Why should your student accept an off-the-rack education for couture prices?

7. Will undergraduate students be given ample access to the courses required for graduation within four years? This is a huge issue, and one about which universities must be required to provide assurance. As mentioned above, the average number of years a student studies before receiving a B.A. is now six years, not four. Why? It isn’t because your student is lazy or foolish or careless. It is because a) the advising is horrible (see above) and b) because the ever-growing number of “core courses” or “general education” courses required are nearly impossible to get. Again, why? Because schools are cutting and cutting and cutting the number of sections of these gen. ed. courses offered each semester. Students are unable to register for the courses they need, they are unable to take a leave of absence without their student loans kicking in, and they are told by those in the “advising pool” to take other courses “to raise their gpa” — and I know this because my students tell me that they are nudged into taking courses they don’t need, spending money and time they can’t afford, to merely tread water, hoping that they can get into the courses they really need the following semester. But here is the final kicker: they are never guaranteed preferential placement — so it is a miserable and stressful struggle each and every semester trying to get the required courses.

8. Will the university be willing to guarantee that my child’s classes will be taught by faculty who are compensated equally, provided with private offices and professional support, who will be available to mentor and guide my child outside of class as well as in? In the alternative, is the university willing to discount my child’s tuition each time they are taught by an under-compensated, unsupported part-time faculty member? If universities are now using over 70% part-time faculty, paying them barely 30% of the full-time pay for that class, offering those faculty members no benefits, healthcare or job security — why is it that tuition is exploding? Where is the money going? If your student is being taught by a faculty member receiving significantly less pay, who will be less available to your student – why should full tuition be charged? I suggest that we require that universities put in writing a guarantee of the quality of education, the years it will take, the work status of the professors in the classroom. I suggest, moreover, that these universities be required to agree, in writing, to the compensation or tuition reduction a student will get when the  conditions of his/her education are not sufficiently met.

9: Where does the tuition go? Will universities provide a full accounting of a) the number of administrative jobs and their salaries in comparison to the number of faculty jobs and their salaries, b) the presidential salary and full compensation, c) the salary of sports coaches and their support staff d) the cost of the new buildings and development projects on campus? What is the pay of a full-time professor, and the average pay of an adjunct professor? If the president of the university is making $2 million in salary, and a full compensation package of closer to $6 million, and that university is paying 70% of its faculty $2500 a course, or $10,000 a year, with no benefits – is that a school whose values are reflective of your own? Do you want to be supporting the CEO-like lifestyle of such a college president when the professors teaching your student are living on foodstamps and medicaid?

10. Finally, you might want to ask them about their corporate partnerships. These partnerships influence everything that happens on campus — which buildings are built, which programs receive the most funding. For instance, corporate contributions to the science and technology departments essentially give them control of those departments, so that the work done there, the research conducted, will be owned by the corporations. The faculty and students are controlled by the interests of the corporations. Objectivity? Hardly. Public good? Are you kidding? Ask on which corporate boards the president of the university sits, and how much is earned from those board positions.

Over the last thirty years, government has consistently defunded public education, making room for more and more corporate money. The more corporate money that has flooded our college campuses, the more “vocational training” has been touted as the value of a university education. The more corporate money, the more uneven the support for our college departments and programs has become. Liberal Arts and the Humanities are not easily “commodified”, and have been on the short end of budget decisions for over these last 30 years. Yet, all recent research shows that a liberal arts degree, especially in these precarious times, provides the greatest most broad-based education as well as the most flexible and wide-ranging set of reasoning, writing and communication skills possible…skills that are most valuable to our students as they face a horrible job market. So, even IF the value of a college education is primarily “vocational”, the latest statistics show us that the Liberal Arts and the Humanities should be more highly funded, and more highly valued.

With all the conversations taking place now in the halls of Congress, in the media, on talk shows and news programs, about the sorry state of our higher education in this country, there is a taboo in talking about the core problem — the corporatized take-over of the college’s mission of high-quality education. Until we force a return to that mission, reprofessionalize our faculty, and restore control of the university’s functioning to faculty governance, that mission will never be the central concern of the universities. Without that central concern guiding our principled decisions about the ways American higher education is run — and for whom — we will continue on this ruinous path. Without knowing the facts listed above, you and your children will be caught in the ruination, and will pay dearly for the experience.

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John Casey’s response to the recently-released Coalition on the Academic Workforce Report. To quote him, “So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.” The fact that we keep this information, essentially, in-house, is a problem that he speaks of. These details have to be put into the hands of legislators, parents, other “stakeholders” in society who realize the need for solid, well-paid and consistently supported faculty positions. John agrees with my less-than-enthusiastic assessment of the AAUP-endorsed four phase plan, and, like me, would love to see something much closer to a plan to pay and treat faculty as the professionals we are.

John A Casey Jr

In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday.  The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project.  Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available.  The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.

Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997.  What has changed is that each year…

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You Call This Progress?

I was appalled to read the Chronicle article about the AAUP “plan” to provide “Better Pay, Job Stability, and a Career Path for Contingent Faculty” — to present this plan as anything but the atrocity it is…well, I am shocked and infuriated.  

 Since I haven’t heard many speak out against this yet — and I have waited a few days and fumed silently — I will speak my own mind.  

 First, the most immediate cause of intense suffering among the one million adjunct professors in this country is extremely low pay.  To say that this plan offers better pay is simply not true. $550 to $700 a credit hour?  Are you kidding? And using a university in Tennessee as a model?  Whyever for?   There is no indication of what a full-time tenure-track faculty member is making in the state of Tennessee, or how these numbers square to that. No percentages, no comparisons.   It is ridiculous, and bordering on dangerously irresponsible,  to put forth such horrifying low wages as a national baseline pay rate.  Am I the only one who believes that universities across the country paying more than this will quickly adjust their rates downward?   

 I’m barely surviving in Philadelphia, working at three colleges per semester, where my pay averages just over $1000 a credit hour.  What happens when universities across the country see such meagre figures and decide that they can drop their pay rate and still be in line with the AAUP recommendations?    While it might be possible to live a subsistance lifestyle on the horrifyingly low numbers suggested by this plan in a place like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it would never be possible in Philadelphia, or D.C. or New York.  Why on earth would the AAUP even name such low figures, when any research would show  — see Josh Boldt’s crowdsourced information — that numbers are already higher than that  – although certainly nowhere near high enough –  in other areas of the country?  Why on earth would the AAUP not use the MLA’s recent suggested figures, which go much farther toward setting the bar at a livable and respectable wage for professors nationwide?  There is no talk here of pay parity is this so-called plan.  Why not?  This is a union, for heaven’s sake.  This is supposed to be an organization standing strong for the professionalism and the working and earning conditions of the country’s faculty.  

 Then a “promotion” to teaching FIVE courses per semester for $32,000?  $16,000 a semester for five courses is little over $3000 a course, which brings us right back to what adjuncts in Philadelphia are already earning, on which they are struggling to survive.  And FIVE courses?  Keep in mind that these are still going to be the most undesirable courses, the low-level, heavy writing, endless paper-grading and student-conferencing courses.  Is there any consideration given to the quality of work possible when teaching FIVE such courses, especially for pay so low that the need to find additional work elsewhere would still exist?  Again, why is the MLA recommendation not being acknowledged as a better plan?  This AAUP plan may as well say, “After several years, they’ll stop beating you, but you still won’t get much food.”  

 There is no talk about benefits, or healthcare.  No talk about professional development support.  No talk about sabbatical leave for research and writing and publishing.  And most important, there is no talk about immediate changes to the power structure of university governance.  Why not?  

 Who has the AAUP consulted in putting together this atrocity?  Other adjunct activist organizations?  Other unions?  Have they made any attempt whatever to be part of a coalition of national activists involved in the work to reclaim high-quality academic professional status for the country’s university professors and scholars?  

 Or are they simply pimping out the most vulnerable professionals in this broken system?

 This looks much more like a sell-out to the corporatized administrative powers that have overrun our universities and pushed them into near-ruin.  This corporatized system now keeps over 75% of America’s university faculty in powerless, low-wage, precarious positions, dependent on a managerial power class that has colonized academia.  What has the AAUP done to try and effectively stop the ever-increasing number of low-wage part-time faculty hires over the last thirty years?  I invite answers.  For now, I will  just say that after thirty years of….well, let’s just call it little or nothing…..we get THIS plan?  

 Am I the only one who thinks this looks more like a plan that administration would dream up in order to keep its control of the impoverished, powerless majority faculty?   It certainly does not look like something an organization claiming to work for the betterment and stability of our profession would suggest.  

 I wonder:  would those in the AAUP making these suggestions want to live and work under the conditions they propose?  It is highly doubtful.   It shows just how out of touch the AAUP is in regard to the struggle and the real solutions of our country’s professoriate.  

 I speak for myself alone, and may well be a voice in the wilderness here, but I strongly urge part-time faculty, and the full-time faculty involved in this struggle, along with other unions, other professional membership and faculty activist organizations, to raise their voices all across the country against this ridiculous and insulting “plan”.   

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Managerial Madness: Why Higher Education Has Lost Its Way

While Chris LaBree and I were on the first leg of our Homeless Adjunct road tour, the updated list of university president salaries was released from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here we were, traveling the area often called “The Rust Belt”, where the dedicated and determined educators we met were representative of the nation’s majority of college faculty. By that, I mean that they were all part-time, low-wage, struggling people; every one of them had several jobs in order to make ends meet. They were working retail at a mall, or traveling to fairs and conferences to sell art and jewelry, or working office jobs. Some of them were juggling teaching jobs at several universities, and still hoping to pick up more work. All of them worried about keeping a roof over their head. These were the people in the classrooms, devoted to their students, teaching because they saw it as a calling, as a crucial act necessary in protecting the best of our society’s values. Thanks to Josh Boldt’s crowd-sourced information about adjunct salaries and working conditions (, to information compiled by The New Faculty Majority, and the Modern Language Association’s adjunct faculty report (, it is clear that America’s university professors are suffering precarious employment situations, living along the edge of poverty, all the while struggling to continue teaching our country’s college students. A look at that public college president report ( showed another collection of information that we all know – or should know: that the salaries of the university presidents have sky-rocketed beyond comprehension, even at the public schools. A look at an earlier report, on the salaries of private university presidents is even more astonishing ( Yet, the reported salaries, the highest being $1.9 million for E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State (in 2011), and $4.9 million for Constantine Papadakis of Drexel University (in 2009), tell only part of the story. These university presidents often receive homes, cars, drivers, discretionary funds, delayed compensation, memberships to exclusive country clubs and other social clubs which greatly increase their actual compensation. For instance, at one of the public universities for which I teach, the president lives in a high rise condominium on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia — the most expensive area of real estate in downtown Philadelphia. The property, even in these depressed times, is worth around $4 million. There are discretionary funds available to this president which are over half a million dollars a year. There is delayed compensation equal to the reported yearly salary, put in escrow until resignation or retirement. There is a car and a driver. With all of this bounty added to the reported salary of any university president, actual compensation is easily three times the salary figure. Then, too, there are the corporate boards on which many university presidents now sit, earning them hundreds of thousands more, at least.

The enormous gap between the CEO-like salaries of higher education executives and the faculty who are actually doing the teaching has followed the route of corporate salaries and earning gaps across the country. The issue is compounded by the explosive growth of administrative jobs in academia, as so well presented by Dr. Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins in his book, The Fall of the Faculty. For him, the most serious outcome of this executive bloat is the shift of university resources and focus away from the quality of education and scholarly research, in favor of financially supporting the army of administrators who, he claims, do little to advance the purported mission of the university. Instead, he claims, these “deanlets” cause great harm, often becoming “instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction.”( )

It has taken nearly 30 years for people outside of academia to see just how terrible things in higher education are. But, as is often the case, the public is lead by a misinformed or underinformed media, to blame both the collapse of our colleges quality and the uncontrolled tuition growth on the professors. Even Vice President Joe Biden laid the blame for explosive tuition rates, incorrectly and unfairly, at the feet of supposedly overpaid faculty. The narrative often includes an attack on “the lazy tenured professor”. The truth is that tenured professors, and those on the tenure track not yet fully tenured, make up barely 30% of the university professors in America now. The majority, 70%, of all those who teach in college classrooms are now hired as “adjuncts”, “contingents”, “part-time” faculty, earning, on average less than $30,000 a year — often, as I noted before, by cobbling a living together by working several jobs, some academic, some non-academic. These professionals have no healthcare, no benefits; they struggle with precarious short-term contract jobs, little to no professional support, and are even denied appropriate office space in which to meet their students. Having little to no voice in today’s university, the professors often find themselves powerless to block the administrative imperialism to which Dr. Ginsberg refers.

So I repeat: The faculty is not the problem.

The problem, as I have said before, is the corporatization of academia, the shift in the focus and values of a system which still pretends to be about high-quality education. Goals of enrollment and retention have less to do with educating the students than they do with increasing incoming tuition. One proof of this can be seen by the fact that, across the country, undergraduate degrees now take an average of six years to earn. From my own experience, the students who drop out often do so because they are working too many hours outside of their college responsibilities and simply can’t juggle it anymore. Or, they have exhausted their ability to borrow and still haven’t finished the degree — why? Far too frequently, it is because the core courses required by the university have been impossible to actually enroll in — the numbers of available core courses keep shrinking, and need outstrips availability. My own students have often told me that advisors tell them that, if they can’t get the courses they need, they should enroll in classes that will “raise their cumulative average”…often being pressured not to take a leave of absence because it will cause their student loans to come due. So, students end up taking courses they don’t need, spending money they don’t have, in order to tread water in a system the threatens to drown them. The fact that their advisors seem to be following a common script should tell us that this instruction is coming from above.

So ask yourself: Who now makes the decisions to set core course requirements? Who makes the decisions about how many of those sections to cut each semester? Who makes decisions about the way the advising and the tuition and the lending are handled? Not the faculty. Those decisions are made by this glut of administrators who now control the universities. Other questions should be asked as well. Questions like: just what are the relationships between lending institutions and the universities? Why is advising on most campuses so unbelievably poor? Why is there so little support in place to assist students to graduate on time? Who is this “six year B.A.” benefitting?

Faculty has lost its role in university governance. I’ve made the comparison before that what has happened to our universities is like what has happened to our medical system. The HMO and the EMO are nearly identical in the way a managerial class moved in and took over, turning systems that existed for the public good into systems that exist primarily for profit. What’s wrong with profit, you might ask. Nothing, as long as it isn’t profit extracted from the exploited labor of other classes of workers in the system, as long as it isn’t profit extracted from the under-served and over-extended patients or students, for the benefit of too few at the cost of too many. Then, profit becomes theft.

Our government’s attempt to rein in the out-of-control medical system in this country has been a messy one. Too much influence is still wielded by those within the system – the insurance and pharmaceutical companies – and their interests are not in harmony with the needs of the population in general. The danger of too much influence by the interested, moneyed parties should always be avoided if real change is going to take place.

Now that the government is beginning to pay attention to issues like out of control tuition, under-served students and extremely poor educational outcomes, the similarities to the problems created in our medical system have to be clear. One of the most important parts of the healthcare law, to my mind, is the requirement that at least 80% of the money paid in premiums for healthcare must be used in actual treatment of the individual, NOT on executive salaries or advertising. Why not make that same demand of universities?

If we are going to begin talking about legislation in order to regain and reclaim our system of higher education, shouldn’t we be talking about issuing the same kind of requirement in higher education? Wouldn’t a law that says at least 80% of all money paid in tuition must be used to support actual classroom costs and learning support – meaning support of the faculty and their teaching skills, their own professional development, support for tutoring and mentoring and advising – be where to start?

As Ben Ginsburg says, this administrative class has sucked all the benefits out of the existence of colleges — at the cost of the students and the faculty. Wouldn’t this requirement be step one in returning the balance of power and governance to those who entered academia in order to be scholars and educators rather than to those who entered as managers and executives to “oversee” those who do the real work of education? Wouldn’t it be step one in returning better supports, higher quality education and more extensive mentoring and long-term relationships to our students? Removing the bloated administrative class, reducing university president salaries and compensation — it sounds like a start, doesn’t it? Even when professional salaries and benefits are returned to the faculty, I would be willing to bet that tuitions would drop across the country.

As this election season begins to heat up, let’s hope that some of the more ridiculous conversations can be replaced by those issues which actually will help the majority of the country’s citizens. If that happens, education should, surely, be a central issue. But, only if we know what the real problems are and how to address them will we ever be able to recreate high-quality higher education in this country. It is our job, as citizens, to make legislators and candidates aware of the big picture, and to demand that the real problems be addressed, so that real solutions can be achieved.

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Blight and the Story of Blight

We finished the third day of our Homeless Adjunct Road Trip, and are, as I type this, in a cabin in Maumee State Park, outside of Toledo, OH. We left Pittsburgh early Monday afternoon, after spending two days there, meeting with some wonderful, interesting people and shooting documentary footage: faculty and union organizers of the Steelworkers/ Duquesne effort; two students — one a grad students and the other who refuses to become a grad student — both of whom feel that their future success has been hobbled by the crushing debt of getting an education in this country; a passionate educator whose dedication to teaching, in the face of her own financial struggles, stems from her fascination with the proven intellectual and emotional development that takes place when the writing skills of her students are strengthened. Finally, we talked to the head of a community college English department, who shared his own frustration with the ways in which he is required to staff with underpaid, undersupported adjunct faculty while seeing the retention and success of students drop each year.

Arriving in Toledo around 5 or 6 pm today, we were surprised at how small the city seemed — I suspect we haven’t seen the “whole” city. We were also a little disconcerted with how much blight and ruin we saw. It was very sad. It can’t be an easy city for its inhabitants, if so many of its streets are in decay. The whole place seemed devoid of life. To borrow a phrase from Jane Jacobs, it felt as though we were driving through one large “dead zone”. Being tired, and uncertain of ourselves, we simply left, and headed back out on the highway, looking for somewhere that felt more vibrant, more alive. “Let’s look for Lake Erie,” I suggested, knowing it was around somewhere. (I don’t pretend to be a geography expert.)

We found the nuclear power plant instead, the Davis-Besse facility. No, thanks. We drove for miles and saw no lake. Finally, we saw a sign for Maumee State Park, and turned down the road, to see what was there. Water, we hoped. Greenery. Life.

“Maumee” comes from the Ottawa name, Maamii, or the Miami Indians who, until the European invasion, were the inhabitants of the area. This was a place of great fertility, water travel, gathering activities. And so it is again — this park and the facilities are very new. Lots of greenery, people playing croquet, catch, riding bikes. And, there it was — Maumee Bay, a part of Lake Erie. I found that the beauty of this place was welcome after the almost physical pain of being in such a blighted area before. Since we had to stay somewhere, and since the hotels we saw in Toledo didn’t feel especially inviting, we priced it out here, surprised to find it reasonable — even more surprised to find that the cabins on the grounds were only a small amount more expensive that a room. Since Chris was hauling all her film equipment, and we both were hauling computers, needing work space, wanting to spread out and dive into the work, we opted for the cabin. Expectations were that it would be a tiny, one floor structure, two bedrooms, with a simple living space. Instead, we found a two story structure, two bedrooms on the first floor, where there was lots of living space including a vaulted ceiling, a fireplace, porches, and a stairway to the second floor loft area, where there were several more beds. We could have brought an entire film team into this space and had plenty of room.

Always looking for the symbolic in daily life, I asked myself: So what does this mean? How is it that our experience, driving through the section of Toledo that first greeted us was one of such contraction, discomfort and unease, and this experience was one of expansion, excitement, joy, comfort? Was it the poverty of what we saw? The blight? Was it the seeming privilege of Maumee Park? On the surface, maybe it was.

But that is surface only. It’s what the blight means that is so distressing. It is symbolic of the struggle of human beings, the paucity of opportunity, the deadness born of depression and despair. The Maumee area provided the opposite. Greenery and growth. Joyful gatherings of people. Play and laughter. A sense of upliftment.

The wreck of the city of Toledo begins to feel like a metaphor for the very thing we are in search of on this trip — we are diving into the wreck of higher education, and on this road tour, looking for the wreck itself requires that we find the many stories of the wreck first. Toledo serves as a kind of image for what can happen when the life is sucked out of something, when the vibrancy and verdancy is drained and the empty shell remains.

Toledo was a manufacturing town, a factory town that was, several times in the 20th century, blighted by the collapse of the factory model. One of the things written and said about the corporatized university is that it no longer operates as true academia. It has become an edu-factory. What we see, in the blight of Toledo feels uncomfortably predictive….a warning of what can come if the corporatized university continues to operate on this factory model, this assembly line mentality of “information delivery”, job-training. We are headed for wreckage. We may have already begun to see the earliest stages of it.

There are, I think, two ways in which ruin becomes the ground of new birth. The first way is through art. Tomorrow, we go in search of some artists of Toledo – young members of the Occupy movement who have just returned from the NATO demonstrations in Chicago, who are strong and powerful in their determination to breathe life into their own world, take charge of their own destinies, and by so doing, re-vitalize, replenish dead zones — in their city and in their lives — with their own miraculous energy and talent.

The second way to rebirth, I think, is through the experience of rediscovering source. I’d like to keep thinking about this – about what it means to return to the greenery as a healing space and how that is symbolic in a larger sense. Returning to “nature” means, I think, returning to the true nature of a thing, a place, an experience. Returning to the purest state — the source. Could we return to the more natural state of learning, leaving this more commodified, plunderer model behind, and manage to find what is true and pure and alive, what is eternal in learning? How do we even know what the more “natural state of learning” is? Stripping away the software learning programs, the statistics and learning outcomes, “value enhancement” theories, “teacher proofing” approaches, the pedagogical theorizing, the spread sheets and budgetary considerations, the high cost/debt model — how much can be stripped away in the search for the pure experience of learning itself?

I have absolutely no answers to these, or the hundreds of questions I haven’t even formed yet. But if I start with the feeling of extreme discomfort brought on by the blight we entered into, if I keep paying attention, questioning, exploring, maybe things will begin to come clearer.

Posted in Homeless Adjunct Road Trip, The Breakdown of the American University System | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments