Adjunct, a novel by Geoff Cebula, is a love letter to academia, a self-help book, a learned disquisition on an obscure genre of Italian film, and a surprisingly affecting satire-cum-horror-comedy. In other words, exactly the kind of strange, unlucrative, interdisciplinary work that university presses, if they take any risks at all, should exist to print. Given the parlous state of academic publishing—with Stanford University Press nearly shutting down and all but a few presses ordered to turn profits or else—it should perhaps come as no surprise that one of the best recent books on the contemporary university was instead self-published on Amazon. Cebula, a scholar of Slavic literature who finished his Ph.D. in 2016 and then taught in a variety of contingent positions, learned his lesson. Adjunct became the leading entry in the rapidly expanding genre of academic “quit-lit,” the lovelorn farewell letters from those who’ve broken up with the university for good. Rather than continue to try for a tenure-track teaching gig, Cebula’s moved on and is now studying law.
The novel’s heroine, Elena Malatesta, is an instructor of Italian at Bellwether College, an academically nondescript institution located somewhere in the northeast. Her teaching load—the number of officially designated “credit hours” per semester—has been reduced to just barely over half-time, allowing the college to offer minimum benefits even though her work seems to take up all of her day. Recently, the college has been advised to make still deeper cuts to the language departments, which are said to not only distract students but to actively harm them by inducing an interest in anything other than lucre. Elena responds with a mixture of paranoia and dark comedy: after the cuts there will be only so many jobs in languages left—maybe the Hindi teacher, anxious about her own position, is conspiring to bump her off? Then Elena had better launch a preemptive strike: this could be a “kill or be killed” situation.
Like a good slasher flick, Adjunct proceeds through misdirection and red herrings, pointing to one potential perp after another—does the department chair have a knife?—to keep the reader as anxious as Elena, while her colleagues, first to her delight and then alarm, begin disappearing. Conveniently, Elena’s own research centers on Italian giallo films, which combine elements of suspense and horror and are one of the cinematic sources for American classics like Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996). As she flees into the safe confines of her office hours—the attackers’ only fear seems to be endangering the college’s primary profit source, the students—she thinks of the films she has assigned to her class and the ways they mirror her own predicament. A giallo, Elena thinks, depicts a world where the “circumstances determining who would live or die were completely ridiculous,” a life of “pervasive contingency”—“contingent” being the most common term for part-time and contract-based academic labor. This is why horror, for Cebula, becomes the natural genre through which to depict the life of the contemporary adjunct, which is to say, the majority of academic workers today.
One suspects that Cebula’s inspiration for this lark came directly from genuine academic horror stories. Among the best known involves an adjunct at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who taught French for twenty-five years, her salary never rising above $20,000, before dying nearly homeless in 2013 at the age of eighty-three, her classes cut, with no retirement benefits or health insurance. At San José State University in Silicon Valley, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, one English teacher lives out of her car, grading papers after dark by headlamp and keeping things neat so as to “avoid suspicion.” Another adjunct in an unidentified “large US city,” reports The Guardian, turned to sex work rather than lose her apartment.
Though these stories are extreme, they are illustrative of the current academic workplace. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 25 percent of part-time faculty nationally rely on public assistance programs. In 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff at US institutions of higher education were tenured or on the tenure track; today, after decades of institutional expansion amid stagnant or dwindling budgets, the figure is 33 percent. More than one million workers now serve as nonpermanent faculty in the US, constituting 50 percent of the instructional workforce at public Ph.D.-granting institutions, 56 percent at public masters degree–granting institutions, 62 percent at public bachelors degree–granting institutions, 83 percent at public community colleges, and 93 percent at for-profit institutions.
To account for these developments, some may look to the increasing age of retirement of tenure-track faculty, which now stands at well over seventy. But, anecdotally at least, the reason many tenured faculty wait so long to retire may be the knowledge that they will not be replaced—when a Victorian poetry professor calls it quits, so, at many institutions, does her entire subfield. Who wants to know they will be the last person to teach a seminar on Tennyson? Others will blame the explosion of nonacademic staff: between 1975 and 2005, the number of full-time faculty in US higher education increased by 51 percent, while the number of administrators increased by 85 percent and the number of nonmanagerial professional staff increased by 240 percent. Such criticism can easily become unfair, as when teachers resent other workers who have taken over some of their old tasks—in fact sparing them chores like advising or curricula development—or when they act as though the university could do without programs that have made possible greater openness (such as Title IX officers and support for first-generation students).
The clearest cause for the poor pay and job insecurity of today’s adjuncts is the decline in public support for higher education. Between 1990 and 2010, state investment per student dropped by 26 percent, even as costs per student increased. In most state budgets, “mandatory” spending for health care and K–12 schools steadily crowded out the single largest “discretionary” item, higher education. But if cuts in public support have been the clearest source of the crisis in academia, the reason the brunt of that crisis has fallen on adjuncts is a matter of quite specific power relations. Since the 1980s there has been a craze across the American workplace for cost-saving by “downsizing” management. But in private industry, there is strong evidence that initial cuts were rapidly followed by further hires, with the result that there were increases in both the relative number of managers and the pay they received, along with higher returns to shareholders—all paid for through reduced worker salaries and increased job insecurity.1
Although the evidence is less clear in the academy, an analogous process appears to have been at work. Just as business managers in private industry squeezed workers to satisfy ever more demanding shareholders, taking home a cut for themselves in the process, so university administrators have reduced teacher pay and increased job insecurity in an effort to make possible expansions in operations that typically resulted in yet more administrative and professional staff, and higher salaries for those who directed them. In this process, teachers, because of their commitment to their jobs and the relative nontransferability of their skills, were simply more exploitable than, say, financial compliance officers. Notably, between 1975 and 2005, the proportion of part-time administrators in higher education decreased from 4 percent to 3 percent, even as the proportion of part-time adjuncts exploded. As one college vice-president advised a group of adjuncts at a large community college in the 2000s (the specific details are left vague for fear of retaliation), “You should realize that you are not considered faculty, or even people. You are units of flexibility.”
This is a story common across the American economy since the 1980s, and one should remember that the squeeze is being felt not only in higher education. A number of studies advocate for a sense of solidarity between workers in the academy and in the larger economy. Joe Berry, in his landmark book on unionizing adjuncts, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower (2005), notes that the characteristics that might make academic workers appear out of place in traditional labor unions—their high levels of education and strong personal commitments to their jobs—can allow them, in a society where 65 percent of young adults have some college education, to serve as “prototypes for the new union members of the future.”
Raewyn Connell, an emerita professor of sociology at the University of Sydney and veteran union activist, makes a similar argument in The Good University. At most institutions, she writes, the academic staff and the operations staff share a love for their work, a dedication to the students, and a sense that their labor serves the common good—a firm ground, she hopes, upon which to build a full-scale industrial union, bringing together all the workers in the sector into one overarching organization.
Nonetheless, one of the reasons many adjuncts stay in poorly paid jobs is the dream of a position that would lead to tenure, and it is in the competition for such positions that the academic workplace may become distinctively terrible. “This is what faculty life looks like now,” Herb Childress writes in The Adjunct Underclass, “living in hope about the promises that are made to keep everyone quiet”—the whisper in an adjunct’s ear that “there may be a tenure-track line ahead.” The numbers, of course, belie such promises. To take the field of history, in 2017–2018 there were an average of 122 applications for each tenure-track position, with some openings receiving almost seven hundred applications. Instead of a market, the tenure-track labor system has come to resemble a lottery—“a supreme arbiter,” as Cebula writes in his slasher novel, “the magic of which [is] only confirmed by the seeming arbitrariness of its judgments.”
Behind these numbers lies a larger structural transformation. As recently as the 1990s, there were largely two separate strata at which tenure-track hiring tended to occur: a national-level market with Ph.D.s from the magic circle of highly advantaged “top programs” migrating to less highly ranked research universities (the University of Washington hiring from UC Berkeley, for example), and a number of regional markets fed by Ph.D.s from regional centers (Western Washington University hiring from the University of Washington). Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, in many humanities fields at least, these markets increasingly came to overlap; in the past decade, they have all but unified, with Ph.D.s from schools like Princeton and Berkeley now fighting over nearly every tenure-track job at four-year institutions across the country.
Yet even with the movement of national markets into regional ones, there still are not enough positions for graduates from the most prestigious programs—let alone for all the other Ph.D.s produced each year. The American Historical Association has published the most complete statistics on career outcomes available in any humanities discipline, and its database, “Where Historians Work,” shows that in the field of modern American history, to take one example, only 56 percent of Ph.D.s at roughly the top ten programs from 2004–2008 attained tenure-track positions at four-year institutions—a figure that dropped to 48 percent for the 2009–2014 Ph.D. cohort, as the job market crashed after the recession and failed to recover. (Job listings across the humanities remained down 31 percent between 2007 and 2016.)2 There are, however, around 150 universities offering history Ph.D.s in the US, and at a sample of mid-level institutions the proportion of graduates who found such jobs declined from 35 percent to 26 percent. In other words, while the national and regional job markets have become more unified, the outcomes for graduates of the most privileged programs have nonetheless declined—even as these Ph.D.s appear to have further crowded out the graduates of less well-off institutions. Both the academically rich and the academically poor are getting poorer together, although some of those at the top are maintaining their positions, to a significant degree, at the expense of those at the bottom.
The prospect of a full-time position may be a standard way to pacify contingent employees across the contemporary workplace, but there are few other sectors in which the differences in pay, prestige, or job security are as large as between contingent and core staff in the academy. There is also no other field in which one trains, on average, for eight years—with around half of one’s peers failing to complete the degree—only to line up a poorly paid, insecure position, or else embark on a series of wide-ranging travels to take up short-term jobs (postdoc positions have nearly tripled in the humanities since 1996) in the hope that you may eventually get lucky and attain a permanent position. Pursuing a life in academia has become more like trying to become a professional athlete or a star musician than a doctor, a lawyer, or even a typical service sector worker. Little wonder that there are articles in mainstream publications like Slate with headlines such as “Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You into an Emotional Trainwreck, Not a Professor.”
Circumstances are not much better in many of the social sciences than in the humanities, and while career prospects outside of academia are more attractive for those in STEM fields, there have been severe drops in the proportion of STEM Ph.D.s securing postdocs and, for those who want to stay in the academy, tenure-track positions. This is one reason graduate student unions have recently found success at institutions like Brandeis, Columbia, Harvard, and Tufts. A decade ago, when unions tried to organize graduate-worker bargaining units that stretched across entire universities, STEM students saw their interests as fundamentally different from those of students in the social sciences and humanities. Now, prospective Ph.D.s across the university find themselves facing comparable—if by no means identical—prospects.
Public discussion of the academic labor crisis has remained limited over the past decade, although progressive candidates in the 2020 presidential election have made the economics of college education a major focus. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street defined student debt and medical bankruptcy as the chief afflictions of the “99 percent.” In 2015 Bernie Sanders, in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, included free public college along with Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage in his stump speeches. Sanders’s College for All Act now demands that institutions increase the proportion of tenure-track faculty to an astonishing 75 percent; Elizabeth Warren, similarly, has put forward proposals that would strengthen the workplace rights of insecure workers across the economy and make college tuition-free for all—a universal program that, unlike Medicare for All, she has not yet walked back. But it’s all too easy to imagine how this dream of increasing access to higher education could be built on the backs of adjuncts. In 2015 President Obama proposed making community college effectively free, based on the model of a highly touted program at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee, the institution where Obama announced the plan. A full 57 percent of its instructional staff are on part-time contracts.
Demands for free college have been driven in part by nostalgia for the social safety net of the midcentury United States. “In those days,” Sanders observes of his own youth, “public colleges and universities were virtually free,” which is why, he argues, the elimination of tuition should not be considered a radical idea. But the golden age of higher education, when increasing enrollments were matched by increasing public funds, salaries, and secure positions, was remarkably short, roughly 1950 to 1980, and coincided with the period economists call the Great Compression (for the reductions in economic inequality) and historians call the New Deal Order (for the normalization of union contracts and social benefits). College enrollment grew from 3.5 million in 1960 to 12 million in 1980, while community college enrollment boomed from 400,000 to 4 million.
The great majority of these students attended public institutions, or private institutions using federal grants, and thanks to steady increases in public funding the cost of college attendance remained stable relative to family income. Looking back on this inspirational if deeply imperfect era (one need only consider the position of African-Americans and women), it is easy to conclude that the only salvation for higher education as a whole, and adjuncts in particular, will be an improved version of the egalitarian model that briefly flowered thanks to the New Deal—not piecemeal, as with student debt relief or free college proposals, but wholesale.
Among the most promising starting points for such a transformation are Joe Berry’s and Raewyn Connell’s observations about the overlap between the struggles of academe and those of the larger service sector economy. The rise of unions for instructional staff in higher education has been limited by the Supreme Court’s NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979) and NLRB v. Yeshiva (1980) decisions, which held that teachers at religious institutions and tenure-track faculty at private institutions did not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. It is for this reason that in 2012, 25 percent of teachers at public four-year colleges, where state law determines bargaining rights, were unionized, while only 7 percent of teachers at private institutions had joined unions.
But starting in 2013 the Service Employees International Union began a campaign focused on private institutions, which to date has organized 54,000 faculty and graduate students at more than sixty campuses. The United Auto Workers (under their “Uniting Academic Workers” campaign) and the American Federation of Teachers have been organizing faculty and graduate students as well, and the lessons from a few of these campaigns have been collected in Professors in the Gig Economy. These organizing drives were aided by decisions from the Obama-era NLRB, which held that instructors in nonreligious departments at religious institutions and non-tenure-track faculty generally (as well as graduate students) fell under its jurisdiction. So far, union victories for adjuncts have included salary increases as high as 90 percent, greater job stability, paid parental leave, sick leave, dependent health care benefits, retirement benefits, caps on course sizes, fairer teaching evaluation processes, and substantial professional development funds.
Such wins have redounded to the benefit of not only the workers involved: recent studies suggest that one of the main reasons for declines in student outcomes has been the rise of part-time teachers. As one rallying cry has it, “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.” With K–12 unions leading a widely publicized teachers’ movement in recent years—there were more workers on strike or locked out across the American economy in 2018 than in any year since 1986—it is not hard to imagine that strikes by adjuncts, who are if anything more exploited, could be the next decisive moment in the rise of a newly militant labor movement across the entire service sector.
But union organizing on its own can go only so far. A union drive can redress some of the balance of power between managers and workers in higher education, but the dramatic cuts in public financial support remain. Solving the adjunct crisis will require the reform of higher education in toto, and this will be impossible until political leaders are brought to recognize the sector’s ambiguous function in the contemporary American political economy. Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, the rollback of mass incarceration, the repeal of Citizens United, the expansion of voting rights—these proposals are all unambiguously egalitarian. But while higher education is frequently presented as a path to the middle class, the system as a whole—with its fine gradations between institutions that are, in the words of one standard application guidebook, “most competitive,” “highly competitive,” “very competitive,” “competitive,” “less competitive,” and the vast domain of the “noncompetitive”—now does far more to reflect the American class system than it does to equalize it.
One sign that the connection between higher education and egalitarianism has come under strain is the growing number of exposés of the “myth of meritocracy.” But while public attention may focus on the illegal fraud uncovered in the 2019 college admissions sting, and pundits point to the legal fraud that is the long-standing admissions advantage for alumni’s children, the real scandal—in which such preferences constitute little more than a rounding error—is that a majority of Ivy League colleges regularly admit more students from the top one percent of families than they do from the entire bottom 60 percent. A still deeper analysis, offered in exhaustive form in Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap, suggests that inequalities in higher education, and education more generally, do not just reflect broader changes in economic inequality but actively work to make those inequalities more extreme. It is no accident, on this view, that the wage premium for college graduates, after declining in the 1970s, began its steep and continuing ascent around 1980, when income inequality more generally began its long march upward. Between 1980 and 2005, the wage premium for recent college graduates relative to high school graduates more than doubled, and as of 2018 the average college graduate received wages 80 percent higher than those of the average high school graduate.
Nonetheless, to this day higher education retains its image as a social equalizer. One of the primary reasons may be the Democratic Party’s peculiar attraction to policies that can appear egalitarian but that predominately work to the benefit of the top percentiles. At midcentury, Thomas Frank argues in Listen, Liberal, higher education occupied a relatively small part of the political imagination of the Democratic Party; it was only in the 1980s and 1990s, as the party moved to the right, that it became a fixture in the speeches of Democratic candidates.
A central episode in this shift, carefully documented in Suzanne Mettler’s Degrees of Inequality, was Bill Clinton’s decision to promote a tax credit for higher education during the 1996 election. Signed into law in 1997, these credits were opposed by no less a figure than Clinton’s Wall Street–friendly treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, as a handout to the well-off. But for Clinton and his political advisers, the class-skewed nature of the program’s benefits was a feature, not a bug. In a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that serves as an emblem for the political economy of higher education throughout this period, Clinton accurately claimed the programs would be open to all, even as he knew that their structure channeled benefits to the well-off. There was never any doubt that the credits would be used mostly by families in upper income brackets, and their main effect, later studies demonstrated, was to lead colleges to increase tuition prices. By the 2000s, Clinton’s tax credits cost nearly as much to provide as the entire Pell Grant program for low-income students—a fact that did not prevent Obama from further expanding the credits in 2009.
Sanders and Warren, perhaps hoping to mitigate the association of higher education with the rich, limit the funds appropriated in their proposed plans to public institutions (as well as some historically black and minority-oriented private institutions). But it is not only Harvard, Stanford, and the other “Ivy Plus” institutions that have been at the center of the post-1980 Democratic embrace of inequality under the ostensibly egalitarian cover of higher education; it is also public institutions like the University of Michigan, where expenses for out-of-state students (49 percent of the entering class) run $64,000 a year, and where the median family income, whether for in-state or out-of-state students, is $154,000. It is these kinds of inequities that can make public investment in higher education appear, not entirely incorrectly, as a kind of kickback for the top percentiles.
One solution, proposed by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and recently promoted by Pete Buttigieg on the campaign trail, would limit benefits so that no aid flows to the children of the wealthy. Buttigieg has argued that proposals to entirely eliminate college tuition would result in “turning off half the country” in an election; political expedience aside, he has also argued that means-testing is the best “governing strategy.” But while this may represent an economically efficient approach, and would certainly be more egalitarian than the Clinton and Obama tax credits, the main lesson of public policy over the past sixty years is that means-tested benefits, in contrast with universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, become stigmatized and lose public support through their association with the poor. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained in one recent tweet, “Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY!… Everyone contributes and everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries because they are public goods.” If fixing the adjunct crisis is to become feasible—which is to say, if we are to envision a new era of more democratic higher education—a College for All policy must be made universally available, while addressing the part the university has played in producing and legitimating the rise of inequality.
Ironically enough, it is the Republicans who have pointed the way toward such a policy, by enacting a 1.4 percent tax in 2017 on the investment returns of institutions with small student bodies and large endowments. Introduced to pay for tax cuts for the rich, the origins of this program should not obscure its potential. The endowment tax is an institutional counterpart to the wealth tax proposed by Warren and Sanders. The law also offers a clear way to escape the tax, although one that would require well-endowed institutions to radically change their approach to education. If an institution does not want to see its endowment returns diminished, it can simply become less elite and admit more students.
Princeton, for instance, could escape the tax by becoming just a bit less elite than Berkeley (43,000 students) or UCLA (46,000 students)—both among the top-ranked universities in the world—and increasing its student body from eight thousand students to 52,000 students (Princeton’s endowment is $26 billion, and the law only applies to endowments over $500,000 per student). While some might feel that changes of this scale would alter the character of the institution, much the same was said when the old pastoral training grounds of the northeast first became modern research universities—and when those same institutions began to admit women and more people of color. One Princeton undergraduate in 1942 claimed that “the Negroes are not improved by their admission to a group with relatively high standards, but the group is corrupted to the lower level of the new members.” An alumnus in 1969 said, “Let’s be frank. Girls are being sent to Princeton less to educate them than to pacify, placate, and amuse the boys who are now there.” A more ambitious College for All bill might apply demands concerning student-to-endowment ratios to all federal funding, forcing colleges and universities, whether public or private, to stop hoarding resources if they want public support.
Unfortunately, if recent attempts at reform are any guide, a more likely outcome is not a diminishment of higher education’s role in producing inequality but the enshrinement of a way of thinking that will increase the forces that have brought on the adjunct crisis: “accountability.” For a fearful example of what this can look like, one need only consider the United Kingdom, which from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to David Cameron raised tuition, lowered the academic quality of its universities, and further ratcheted up the demands on teachers by quantifying every element of education in the most reductive ways possible, whether the total number of times other scholars cite an article or the measurable economic impact of research. In 2013 Obama promoted an approach to accountability that would have set the United States down a similar path, proposing to rank American colleges “on who’s offering the best value so that students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” with the chief metric being “how well do…graduates do in the workforce?”
Sanders and Warren have done much to put forward policies that insist on the wide-reaching public goods offered by higher education, proposing to cancel virtually all student debt along with eliminating tuition at public institutions. But while Sanders and Warren have described higher education as a “right” and “basic need,” both have otherwise struggled to find a language with which to defend these proposals. Even Sanders, in an otherwise forceful statement accompanying the latest version of his College for All Act, offered little more than the market-oriented argument that “when our young people are competing with workers from around the world, we have got to have the best educated workforce possible.” Warren, similarly, often resorts to financial rhetoric, saying, “We need to make an investment in our future, and the best way to do that is to make an investment in the public education of our children.”
The political theorist Wendy Brown, in Undoing the Demos, offers a model of the kind of rhetoric that would go much further to argue for higher education as a necessary public good. After World War II, she writes, “extending liberal arts education from the elite to the many was nothing short of a radical democratic event”; a new offer of college to all should not hinge on economic results but on the promise to bring about “an order in which the masses would be educated for freedom.” If these words anticipate the revolution in public language that we need in order to advance toward social democracy for both teachers and students, Christopher Newfield, in The Great Mistake, provides a helpfully detailed vision for how to get there. Market-oriented thinking has fatally undermined the grounds on which public investment in higher education can be defended, he argues. Champions of an egalitarian university—publicly minded unions, mobilized students, or enlightened administrators—must show through every reform how higher education already does or can be brought to serve the public good, by, for instance, shedding outside contracts with self-interested businesses, reducing tuition and debt to provide broad-based opportunity, or pushing back against racial and gender inequalities.
Sanders’s and Warren’s proposals point in this direction, and while the barriers to success in the event that either enters the White House will remain enormous—the US Senate not least among them—one has to hope that if their plans were to approach passage, the cancellation of student debt and the elimination of tuition at public institutions would be combined with an additional set of policies, and a new political language, that would not only reduce students’ financial exigencies but also bring equity to the academic workplace and radically lessen the way higher education drives inequality in the US. This can only be achieved by building movements, not simply making plans, and in this respect Sanders clearly has an advantage. If something like this vision succeeded, the university would become neither an engine of inequality nor a growth machine for human capital; it would represent a foundation for an economically and culturally progressive egalitarian democracy—achieved as much through the efforts of teachers, students, and staff as through the passage of any particular law or the election of any political leader. If the adjunct crisis can be not just mitigated but solved, this is how it will happen.
For the original version of this thesis, see David M. Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” (Free Press, 1996). For a careful empirical verification, see Adam Goldstein, “Revenge of the Managers: Labor Cost-Cutting and the Paradoxical Resurgence of Managerialism in the Shareholder Value Era, 1984 to 2001,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 77, No. 2 (April 1, 2012). ↩
A similar though less detailed study of Ph.D.s in literary disciplines is also available: Modern Language Association Office of Programs, “Where Are They Now? Occupations of 1996–2011 Ph.D. Recipients in 2013.” ↩