THE ADJUNCT UNDERCLASS: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students and Their Mission
by Herb Childress
University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Hardcover: 208 pages
Reviewed by Dr Augusto Zimmermann
Herb Childress currently works as a partner at an ethnography-based consulting firm in the United States. Until 2013, he was dean of research and assessment at the Boston Architectural College, and before that, he was an associate director of the University Writing Program at Duke University.
It is common to describe universities as bastions of knowledge, academic freedom, and intellectual rigour. But in today’s America, argues Dr Childress in his latest book, the image and reputation of university education has been seriously diminished.
In The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, Dr Childress describes the discouraging reality of an academic environment based on poor salary, no benefits, silencing of dissenting voices, and the constant worry of dedicated academics that the next semester might not be even as financially viable as the present one.
America’s colleges and universities were originally the centres of higher learning not only through teaching and research, but also through academic rigour and the freedom that naturally comes from a stable faculty position. Over the past few decades, however, the job of university professor has been dramatically transformed for the worse.
In 1975, 70 per cent of all the academic staff held tenured positions in these American colleges and universities. Today, however, some surveys suggest that as many as 70 per cent of the American professors are working course-to-course, with few benefits, little to no security, and extremely low pay.
The underlying idea of academic tenure is expressed in the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
It reads as follows: “Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning … Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities; and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”
Dr Childress draws on his own experience to provide an insider’s account of how America’s colleges and universities have “betrayed” their faculty, their students, and their mission. How can Americans say they value tertiary education when their professors are treated like desperate labourers who might work for a salary that, once preparation and grading are factored in, barely reaches the national minimum wage?, asks the author rhetorically.
Ultimately, he claims, Americans have contemptuously discarded their tertiary educators in the same way they have also discarded cab drivers: “by levelling the profession and allowing anyone to participate, as long as they had minimum credentials and didn’t need much money”.
Surely when no stability is afforded to academic staff there is a widespread perception that lecturers “aren’t really needed, that they could be replaced with [impermanent] workers or online modules at little cost in effectiveness. The very notion of what it means to be a college professor is thrown open to question.”
Consider the book’s preface, entitled “This is how you kill a profession”. There Dr Childress explains that everything started by making a low-cost administrative decision that academic staff do not deserve job security, do not deserve health insurance, and do not deserve to make more than convenience store workers. In other words, it is a decision whereby tertiary education “has become primarily a pickup job, like driving for Uber or running chores for TaskRabbit”.
To demonstrate this important point, a series of interviews was carried out with casual staff at reputable research universities. These impermanent staff spoke to Dr Childress about being constantly silenced and humiliated not only by higher-ranking academic staff but also by non-academic administrators.
One such staff member vividly reported: “I’ve worked with dumb people or clueless people before, but here, we get this verbal harassment, get talked down to – always a condescending tone … When I make recommendations about … things that I think would be really helpful for students, my boss is happy to remind me that she could make my position part-time and I’d lose my benefits. They joke about how a postdoc is a form of institutionalised slavery; that kind of perceived humour is normal.”
There are many ways to describe the vast army of temporary, cheap academic labourers within higher education: adjunct faculty, part-time lecturer, visiting scholar, postdoctoral fellow, and so on. The polite language makes it harder to see that most academics are actually “working course-by-course or year-by-year, with no guarantee of permanence, often for embarrassingly small stipends, and often for no benefits”. According to Dr Childress, “this is simply the provision of a product at lower cost”.
Casual academics are not offered permanence on the basis of their excellent work. These non-tenured positions do not normally morph into tenure-track positions. To the contrary, “a casual teaching position is simply an offer to do specific work for a specific time for a specific dollar amount, with no guarantee of further relations”.
Thus a contingent education worker not only has an unstable job where tenure is not guaranteed, but is also reducing his or her chances of a stable job by being seen as “just a teacher” and thus a diminished scholar.
Dr Childress correctly reminds us that “it is morally indefensible to lure people to teach at an institution in the vague hope that they might someday become a permanent faculty member”. He also explains how, in their zeal to run universities “like businesses”, such institutions have “invested in the fluid, the entrepreneurial, the venture capital environment in which [they] throw a lot of projects at the wall to see what sticks”.
To prove this point, he quotes from a former president of Ohio State University, who a couple of years ago confessed that “there is a significant gap between the real costs of university research and the funding that is available to support university research”.
Ironically, Dr Childress observes that such research programs add to the impermanence of university workplaces. He uses fine irony to explain how a department might obtain, say, a three-year government grant, and then proceed almost immediately to add “soft-money employees” and a few postdoctoral researchers who can be shed without regrets when the funding dries up.
“The permanent faculty members get the glory (in promotion credit, and in publications and reputation); the others get to not be hungry for a while longer while they do their [temporary] jobs with one eye on the classified ads.”
This does not create an environment conducive to excellence in research and teaching, nor one in which academics can inspire their students to obtain excellence by patiently mentoring them. A contingent lecturer has no right to speak his or her mind because intellectual freedom – the basis of academic life – has no place in such a hopelessly unstable academic environment. Thus the author reveals a reality that is ultimately detrimental not only to the casual faculty but also to students, permanent faculty, the administrators, and the nation.
The author is correct to recall that the possibility of mentorship is lost when faculty life is reduced to mere instruction. If more than half of undergraduate courses are led by impermanent lecturers, then even students who may particularly appreciate a certain lecturer’s way of thinking may never have the opportunity to develop a more meaningful academic interaction with that lecturer. This student may not even be able to see that lecturer between classes, as he or she rushes off to another class session at another college or university.
According to Dr Childress, perhaps the great misunderstanding of university education is to assume that education is simply a sequence of classroom experiences. As wonderful as classes can be, this view leaves aside the necessarily personal nature of intellectual growth.
Even administrators are hindered when lecturers hold unstable academic positions and are reviewed solely on the basis of their “teaching effectiveness”. This places pressure on impermanent lecturers to be “nice” and “go easy” on plagiarism and other important matters concerning academic integrity.
Higher education in the U.S. is clearly broken. But these problems are also found in Australia’s higher-education system. As a legal academic who obtained a tenured position in my previous job at a major Australian university, I can confirm that some of the issues raised in this book are equally present here.
For example, some of our tenured professors are not necessarily the most capable, brilliant academics in the field. While some of the finest academic minds I have come across in my academic life have been working in unstable jobs and at the expense of their families and personal lives. They find it difficult to obtain a tenured position for no other reason than ideological biases and other issues not directly associated with academic competence and research activity.
I am now working as a full-time legal academic at Sheridan College, a Baptist tertiary education provider in Perth. At this newly established institution, where most of the academic staff hold permanent positions, no external education will be provided because distance education betrays the nature of tertiary education. Socially, an external student may feel isolated and miss out on the interactions to be enjoyed in a classroom environment. Teaching others, explaining concepts, answering questions and defending positions are all excellent ways of learning and thinking critically.
Good education is about more meaningful interactions between lecturers and students, and is also peer based as students use discussion and groups to work through material.
Rooted in facts and measured critical- empirical analysis, The Adjunct Underclass is undoubtedly an important book. Dr Childress must be congratulated on his boldness and courage to expose the perilous state of tertiary education in America. And I am afraid a similar assessment could easily be made concerning the unenviable state of Australia’s tertiary education.
Above all, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who sincerely believes in the real value of higher education and academic freedom, and who believes also that good tertiary education providers are vital to the cultivation of principles leading to a more prosperous and democratic society.
Dr Augusto Zimmermann LLB, LLM, PhD is Professor of Law at Sheridan College in Perth. Between 2007 and 2017, he held several positions at the School of Law at Murdoch University. He is also a recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research, Murdoch University (2012).
Available from the Footprint Books website.