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The Academic Graveyard Shift: A Thin-Crust Guy’s Faculty

Published:  February 20, 2013
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Photo licensed CC by John LeMasney

Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that employers with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance to those working more than 30 hours per week. To prevent having to give their employees proper benefits, Papa John’s Pizza voiced intent to cut the hours of employees to fall just below the 30 hour threshold.  Customers expressed reprehension at the prospect of the pizza giant further limiting the earnings of its lowest income employees in the name of corporate revenue. The public backlash was so powerful that Papa John’s founder and CEO, John Schnatter walked back his loophole planning, but it remains to be seen whether universities—American cultural bastions of fairness and opportunity—will fare differently. The government has hedged on behalf of adjuncts, but the question of whether and to what degree universities will ultimately be allowed to implement similar plans to fudge compliance with the ACA remains unresolved.

Hand-stretched instruction is the latest milestone for runaway growth in adjunct university labor. Recent stories reveal some university executives now seek to construct faculty workforces in such a way as to limit their financial liability regarding the ACA employer mandate. Inside Higher Ed has previously reported on Youngstown State’s intent to skirt the law, as has The Chronicle with regard to The Community College of Allegheny County. These examples suggest avoiding the mandate by limiting adjunct hours may be under wider consideration by university leaders. This development has profoundly negative implications for uninsured adjunct instructors, whose lots the ACA is intended to improve. It also provides a rare glimpse into the enigma of modern academic workforce development.

A compelling question, in addition to whether university executives can or should succeed in circumventing ACA regulations, is whether planning to do so sets a precedent for them to shape faculty workforces in other ways. While we often assume universities operate in accordance with the academy’s principles of measurement and analysis (i.e., rationality), there has been little evidence to show that centralized, forward-looking decision making processes have played a role in the growth of adjunct labor. A 2009 study found: “The growth in non-tenure track faculty at elite research universities is not always the result of conscious policy but instead often emerges as a by-product of other initiatives.” The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, just last summer, summed up the prevailing sense at its working meeting that: “The current approach resembles triage – in which institutions in crisis make decisions to respond to declining state funds and other difficult circumstances institutions encounter.”

If “triage” and “byproduct” are accurate descriptors of adjunct hiring processes, then such processes are drastically out of step with the ideals we often associate with our institutions of higher learning. University leaders should be more intentional about assembling workforces in support of their strategic plans, missions, and visions.

University executives’ attempts to deny faculty members the healthcare to which they are legally entitled also represents an opportunity for us to demand more from them in terms of workforce planning. I’m willing to bet that Papa John’s executives not only think about how to avoid new costs but also about the number and type of employees they need throughout the organization in order to achieve the goals of the firm. In short, they have a human resources plan that evidence suggests will support their strategic plan. We should demand at least as much from university leaders. Triage and byproduct ought to represent unacceptable methods of strategy implementation.

If rational thinkers were to plan faculty workforces, then would students tip instructors for course delivery in 30 minutes or less? Would Thursday night classes come with a free two-liter bottle of Pepsi? Would an underclass of instructional labor represent the clear and growing majority of American faculty? Stay tuned for more in the next installment of the Academic Graveyard Shift.

Updated February 22, 2013


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