The looming crisis in Higher Education



The “real problem” behind the exploitation of adjunct faculty is quite obvious: universities have continued to produce a reasonable number of Ph.D.’s but no longer are willing to hire a reasonable number of them into full-time, never mind tenure-track, positions.

This situation will change when enrollment in graduate programs starts to contract, and even to crater, because students confront the reality that they have significantly less than a fifty percent chance of finding full-time employment after completing their doctorates—when they confront the reality that the majority of them are spending up to a decade or more in graduate school, and in the process accumulating far more debt on average than undergraduates accumulate, all in order to earn a wage comparable to what they could earn as an “associate” at WalMart.

Because the current pool of adjunct faculty has been built up over several decades but is continually eroded by the grim realities of such employment, any sudden decline in graduate enrollments will have a very significant and immediate impact.

Then our universities will have a dual crisis of major proportions on their hands: a sharp decline in the graduate enrollments that sustain the research monies that have become an increasingly significant source of institutional revenue and institutional prestige (directly affecting rankings, enrollments, and tuition revenue) and a great shortage of instructors to teach the “core” courses or even the majority of their courses.

And it will be largely a crisis of our institutions’ own making.

All of the institutional rationalizations about the unsustainability of hiring more full-time faculty, and in particular tenure-track faculty, are revealed as a sham as soon as one starts to look at all closely at the statistics and sees that there is a great deal of hiring occurring on the administrative side. Not even the Great Recession did much to slow that hiring.

To be very clear, none of the savings achieved by providing instruction on the cheap have been passed on to students. The monies have, instead, been re-allocated to the construction of massive institutional bureaucracies.

And anyone who claims that this is a bogus assertion is simply refusing to look at the very obvious and manifold evidence of it. It is a “secret” that is very literally maintained in plain sight.

And it is a direct result of corporatization–of the creation of a “professional” and largely itinerant administrative class. However well-meaning individual administrators may be, when a large percentage of administrators are looking continually toward their next positions, they are simply not looking at the long-term ramifications of their decisions on the institutions that are serially providing them with highly compensated personal careers.

So, when this crisis in instructional staffing does occur, we can expect most administrators to respond by (1) trying to find a massively imposed digital substitute for face-to-face instruction in the “core” courses (I believe that conglomerates such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are already anticipating such a “need”), and (2) creating positions for low-wage research assistants to sustain research programs.

One should not expect that there will be any broad reappraisal of the efficacy of so much administrative hiring. Why? Because there has not been any such broad reappraisal up to this point, even though such hiring already represents an outrageous re-allocation of institutional resources.

The only way that our administrative class will be prevented from completing the destruction of our profession is for all of us now to emphasize relentlessly and very publicly the waste of resources that our institutions’ administrative bureaucracies represent, the ways in which those costs are being passed directly on to students, and the ways in which the undermining of our profession is making the degrees that students earn significantly less valuable: that is, they are and will continue to be learning less, and their employers are going to be the first to recognize that fact.

Without some sort of public outcry that we instigate, nothing is going to change. Most administrators are doing quite well under the current system, and most will see no urgency to “upset” the status quo.

Postscript: My widely read post on the changing employment patterns in higher ed, which reports statistics that John Curtis compiled for the four decades from 1970 to 2010 [], was discussed on a number of other blogs.

I was most surprised that several bloggers worried that simply reporting those statistics and briefly commenting on their implications was creating an unnecessary and unconstructive tension between faculty and administrators. The discussions on those blogs were framed in a way that suggested that I was implicitly encouraging, if not openly advocating, personal attacks against all administrators, including some apparently much beloved deans. (“Much-beloved” does not, however, seem to extend to anyone above the rank of dean, especially not to vice-presidents and provosts, even if they have “assistant” or “associate” in their titles.)

I am certain that many administrators will view any criticism of our entrenched bureaucracies as a threat to their livelihoods and that they will try to frame the criticism as unprofessional, personalized attacks.

But the alternative is to allow what has been occurring to go unchallenged—and that is clearly not a constructive approach to a process that is so clearly and pointedly destructive of our profession.

Indeed, if we fail to fight to preserve our profession, I am sure that we will be admonished that if we thought it was so worth preserving, we should have fought for it more passionately.