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The Grim Threat to British Universities

Between 1993 and 2003 the proportion of all new full-time faculty appointments employed on short-term contracts and without prospect of tenure increased from 50 percent to 58.6 percent of those hired. This “restructuring” has been going on since the mid-1970s and shows no sign of slowing down: between 1976 and 2005 the full-time contingent academic workforce grew by 223 percent, the part-time contingent workforce grew by 214 percent, while the tenured and tenure-track workforce grew by just 17 percent.

The growth of the contingent academic workforce brings the labor economics of the call center and the Wal-Mart store to higher education. With these contingent academics, few of whom have firm contracts, managers now have at their disposal a flexible, low-cost workforce that can be hired and fired at will, that can be made to work longer or shorter hours as the market dictates, and that is in a poor position to demand higher pay.

With its “profit and loss” statement for every academic on its payroll, Texas A&M has provided detailed statistical evidence (inadvertently, one suspects) showing why this expansion of the contingent academic workforce appeals so strongly to university administrators. In 2008–2009 in the Communications Department of Texas A&M’s Commerce, Texas, campus, Stephanie Juarez, untenured, was said to be four times more “profitable” for the university than her tenure-tracked colleague Tony Demars. This was not just because Juarez brought in more “student credit hours” than Demars, $113,960 versus $98,838, but also because, untenured, her cost to the university in salary and benefits was just over half that of the tenure-tracked Demars, $43,447 versus $82,969, yielding a “profit” for Texas A&M of $86,411.17

In the concluding chapter of The American Faculty, Schuster and Finkelstein list the costs and benefits of “faculty restructuring” and seem to be looking ahead to what is essentially a post-tenure academic world dominated by the contingent academic workforce.18 Their concept of the academic future includes greater professional stratification for academics, reflecting distinctions between tenured and nontenured faculty. It also includes replacement of academic disciplines by “client services” as the organizing principle for “instructional delivery” (i.e., teaching); the corporatizating of academic life, with the faculty serving as managed professionals and with less emphasis on academic values; a “renegotiation” of the social contract between the faculty and the institution, with declining mutual loyalty and increased administrative oversight of academic affairs; promotion of academic star systems undergirded by a vast new academic proletariat; and diminished protection of academic freedom with fewer positions protected by tenure.

Might the scale of the global financial crisis, driven by the targeting mania of the Balanced Scorecard and by automated management systems, shake the confidence of those who think that these very same methods should be applied throughout to the academy? With the recession eating away at the budgets of universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the times are not propitious for those hoping to liberate scholarship and teaching from harmful managerial schemes. Such liberation would also require a stronger and better-organized resistance on the part of the academy itself than we have seen so far.

—December 16, 2010

  1. 17

    For Juarez and Demar’s “profit and loss account,” see Texas A&M’s “Academic Financial Compilation Data, FY 2009,” p. 177, and see footnote 16 for access to the document. 

  2. 18

    Schuster and Finkelstein, The American Family, pp. 340–341. For detailed descriptions of what it’s like to be a member of the contingent academic workforce, see John W. Curtis and Monica F. Jacobe, AAUP Contingent Faculty Index 2006, available at www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2006/ND/AW/ContIndex.htm. See also Michael Dubson, Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay (Camel’s Back Books, 2001). 

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