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The Academic Graveyard Shift: Facere Magis Cum Minus (Do More With Less)

Published:  March 22, 2013

“Do more with less.” Many universities could emblazon their crests with this motto to reflect their 21st century operational—if not inspirational—ethos. With not one but two recessions to begin the new millennium, the economic environment has not exactly been conducive to rapid expansion. Yet, that is exactly what has taken place for colleges and universities across the United States. Between 2000 and 2010 degree production increased across most institutional types; likewise, spending increased even as subsidies from state and local governments decreased (students footed the bill). During roughly the same time period, the number of postsecondary instructional staff grew over 30% (by about 380,000 instructors). The lion’s share of these new instructor positions have taken the form of part-time and graduate appointments, which command far less compensation for their work than full-time faculty and are virtually all ineligible for tenure. This development of an underclass of university faculty is quickly approaching a boiling point, and the implications for effective faculty governance are troubling.

Even in a prestigious state flagship university, like the University of Maryland, College Park, non-tenure track faculty (NTT), including full-timers, outnumber their tenured and tenure track (TT) counterparts nearly two to one. A special task force, charged with investigating problems with policies governing this group and recommending fixes, recently estimated NTT and TT faculty account for roughly equal undergraduate teaching production. Each delivers about 40 percent of undergraduate student credits, the remainder being delivered by graduate students and a small number of administrators who teach on the side (also not on the tenure track). Additionally, NTT faculty were credited in the report with bringing in nearly $100,000,000 of research revenue to the campus every year for the past three years—more than one quarter of the total. Despite the huge role they play in teaching and research activities, these individuals are all but excluded from faculty governance processes at Maryland, as elsewhere.

The experience of New York University, whose College of Arts and Science faculty (the TT minority) voted no confidence in University President, John Sexton recently, may provide a cautionary tale to Maryland and others employing a large underclass of faculty. At a critical juncture in determining the vision of the university for decades to come, TT and NTT factions are scrapping over scarce political capital. A tenured faculty senator at NYU was quoted as saying, “This mushy liberal stuff that we are all in this together, nicey-nice, just isn’t true.” In the area of shared governance—the check and balance system that universities traditionally rely upon to avoid some of the consequences of ill-fated administrative risk-taking—TT faculty have little to gain and much to lose by embracing NTT colleagues as equals. Many believe, with sound logic, that NTT faculty participation poses an obstacle to effective faculty governance; they might even associate the growing scarcity of political capital available to the faculty as a whole with the growth of NTT labor.

“Adjunct” faculty have become the core, not an add-on, to the work of the university. And yet they still embody an endeavor to do more with less. They cost less, they have more narrowly defined job responsibilities, and, critically, they enjoy a good deal less job security. This last piece is especially problematic when we consider asking them to exert dutiful checks and balances on administrative leadership. At NYU, and elsewhere, TT faculty are worried that in order to protect their jobs NTT faculty may be reticent to criticize leadership. Indeed, the growing majority of faculty in the U.S. are now so easily discarded and replaced that students, alumni, donors, and taxpayers would be asking them to jeopardize their livelihoods by speaking their minds on critical university issues, even internally. This is an alarming development.

Universities around the country (again, TT faculty included) must soon reconcile their positions that NTT labor is good enough to fuel undergraduate enrollment growth but not good enough for meaningful inclusion in governance processes. Unless schools like Maryland are able to respond in truly visionary ways to self-assessments of the kind they recently completed, and administrators are already downplaying expectations, more turmoil lies ahead for American higher education.


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