The Cause of the Adjunct Crisis: How a Research Focus is Destroying Higher Education

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A recent article in The Atlantic sheds light on the so-called “adjunct crisis” in today’s universities. Universities are relying more and more on adjunct professors, the part-time professors who comprise some 50% of the academic workforce

The article goes on to allege that the cause of the crisis is the “corporatization” of the university, the process of reorganizing the university to make it more financially viable. When applied to employment decisions, this system allegedly encourages colleges to seek adjuncts who are willing to work for low pay with few of the privileges reserved for traditional tenured professors. Among other aspects of the crisis, the article alleges that one of the worst side effects of the crisis is that adjunct professors, are not able to contribute to the “research output of American universities.”

On the contrary, the “adjunct crisis” has not grown out of the so-called corporatization of the university. Instead, the crisis is largely a product of the very assumption which both the author of the article and universities across the nation have swallowed: that research is valuable as an end in itself.

It is this assumption that has led to the widely established practice of granting tenure based largely on one’s ability to publish research in journals. As things stand, many faculty members are encouraged to conduct research rather than focus on teaching.

While research is celebrated and prioritized, teaching remains the source of economic value via tuition dollars, and in turn pays employee salaries. Because tenured faculty are expected to spend large amounts of their time researching, universities must find someone to staff classrooms. Adjuncts exist to fill this role. They do much of the productive work that subsidizes a class of researchers who are supposed to be discovering knowledge for its own sake.

In essence, the teaching work of adjuncts subsidizes the research work of tenured faculty, in a way that leads critics to characterize their relationship as parallel to that between the feudal serf and his lord. The assumption that research is inherently worth conducting has led to the creation of what left-leaning, pro-labor academics would otherwise describe as a Marxist dystopia where, as another article in The Atlantic notes, you have: “two classes: tenured professors who are decently paid . . . and adjuncts who are paid at the poverty level.”

This view that research is an end in itself is born of the Platonic notion that the highest and “purest” knowledge is not useful in the practical world, but valuable only as something to be contemplated. Plato considered knowledge of the physical world to be unworthy of contemplation and fit only for the lowest classes. For Plato, the highest purpose of the wise was to pursue this pure knowledge. In his view, the pursuit of such knowledge is so important that philosophers deserve to exist at the top of the social pyramid to be supported by the productive class of society, over whom they as philosopher kings would rule.

Today’s academy is structured along similar lines for the purpose of maintaining an aristocratic class of researchers. Despite budgetary pressures, tenured faculty cling tenaciously to their positions in the modern academy. While tenure lines are sometimes eliminated when tenured professors retire, tenured professors rarely find themselves out of a job. And in order to keep tenured professors employed, it is necessary to retain a bevy of adjunct-serfs to generate income by teaching classes.

If the research work of tenured faculty correlated directly to gains in knowledge which could be taught in the classroom, their “privilege” might be warranted. After all, professors should remain masters of the subjects they teach. But because research is thought to be an end in and of itself, it is usually not even practical for pedagogical purposes.

Research that does not facilitate undergraduate education can be of real value, but only when it is a means to an end rather than an end by itself. Research by a scientist might lead to a theoretical breakthrough that eventually permits the invention of a brighter method of lighting, a stronger alloy of steel or a cheaper source of electricity. Research by a literature professor might enable readers to appreciate a previously neglected work of literature and learn to see the world through a new pair of eyes, to become better judges of character, and to question their own behavior. In both cases, research produces knowledge which human beings can use to improve their lives.

But in today’s university, too much research does not seem to be very useful. While it can be difficult to decide if specific areas of research are justified, a recent article (reviewed here) showed that as much as 40% of published academic research is not cited—not even by other academics—demonstrating that in general, academic research is not fulfilling a critical function in today’s universities. The article also argues that today’s academics focus “on methodology, often to the exclusion of substance” and that increasingly specialized academics write only for people studying in their field—not for people outside their discipline.

At the same time, research reviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education has found that the amount of research produced annually continues to grow steadily. This should decisively close the door on claims that the adjunct crisis is producing a research shortage: if anything, there is an overabundance of research—much of which is of questionable merit.

Universities err when they value research over teaching. While tenured professors gain status and wealth, adjuncts find themselves underemployed and their students find themselves with teachers who have little incentive to dedicate themselves to teaching. Research can be valuable, but it should be understood as a part of the educational process. After all, the purpose of education is to enable students to succeed in the world beyond the university, both as workers and as happy, fulfilled human beings.

Research treated as an end in itself would be unsustainable in a university that was responsive to market forces, one where expenditure would be tied directly to the value received by students paying tuition.

If anything, teaching professors (including adjuncts) alike stand to gain from a structure that would allow the university to respond to the market and provide the service students demand, namely, education. Instead of a system built on the premise that knowledge is an end in itself, a proper system would be built on the premise that knowledge is a means to an end. This would mean that those who transmitted knowledge effectively or discovered new, pedagogically relevant knowledge would be rewarded based on the merit of their efforts and achievements.

Research irrelevant to the university’s educational goals might easily be carried out elsewhere. As many on the left have noted, at present, corporations sponsor research in the academy—research that is often irrelevant to the university’s goal of education. But if corporations are already paying for innovative research, what would stop them from funding it themselves if universities didn’t offer such an ancillary service?   After all, as NPR tacitly notes, a great deal of research used to be very effectively conducted by private corporations before the rise of the modern research university.

Universities need to seriously reconsider the tenure system as it presently exists. Perhaps tenure should be retained, but be given to effective teaching professors as well as academics who produced pedagogically relevant research. Or universities might decide to adopt a system in which professors sign long-term contracts, but are reviewed at the end of those contracts to determine if they have been of value to the institution. Another alternative might be to completely reconceive the division of labor in academia by having different professors fulfill different functions as graders, lecturers, administrators or writers.

In any case, instead of protesting for a living wage and other benefits, adjuncts need to be trying to reform the university system as a whole. But reforming the current system will require professors of all stripes to check their premises and ask hard questions about the purpose of the university in order to understand the real value they have to offer.

Creative commons-licensed image from Flickr user Scott Granneman

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