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Credentialism and Corruption: Vile College Administrators Edition

Credentialism and Corruption: Vile College Administrators EditionCredentialism and Corruption: Vile College Administrators Edition

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

There is no better proof of Kenneth Arrow’s thesis that college degrees signal salary expectations (“conveying information to the purchasers of labor”) — and not actual education[1] — then the way college and university administrators treat the great majority of people actually doing the educating: Like garbage. I discovered this in my first years up here, when I did some adjunct teaching at the university; I worked out my hourly rate, including not just classroom time, but prep, meetings, and grading, and it came to $8.00 an hour, before taxes; that is, when I caffeinated myself with a large latté for class, I used up a little over a quarter of what I made for that class. As a rational economic actor [snort], I would have been better off as a barista. “This is the value we place on educating our children,” I thought[2]. No health insurance, of course (until after, IIRC, three years).

Welcome to Neoliberal U!

Neoliberal U

The degradation of the university under neoliberalism has been obvious for decades to anyone except, well, the top 10% who have directly benefited from it[3]. MIT’s Noam Chomsky summarizes the process well, in terms that will be very familiar to readers:

When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities…

Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more….

That’s one aspect, but there are other aspects which are also quite familiar from private industry, namely a large increase in layers of administration and bureaucracy. If you have to control people, you have to have an administrative force that does it. So in US industry even more than elsewhere, there’s layer after layer of management—a kind of economic waste, but useful for control and domination. And the same is true in universities. In the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up. There’s a very good book on it by a well-known sociologist, Benjamin Ginsberg, called The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matterss (Oxford University Press, 2011), which describes in detail the business style of massive administration and levels of administration—and of course, very highly-paid administrators. This includes professional administrators like deans, for example, who used to be faculty members who took off for a couple of years to serve in an administrative capacity and then go back to the faculty; now they’re mostly professionals, who then have to hire sub-deans, and secretaries, and so on and so forth, a whole proliferation of structure that goes along with administrators. All of that is another aspect of the business model.

But using cheap labor—and vulnerable labor—is a business practice that goes as far back as you can trace private enterprise, and unions emerged in response. In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education.

(Thomas Frank would remind us that the “layer after layer of management” comprises members of the 10%: the credentialled[4] and well-paid professional class. I’m guessing that most of them, at least in the university setting, are liberal goodthinkers and Clinton supporters.) And the temps — the adjuncts and grad students — have been dubbed “the precariat,” because as contingent labor, their lives are precarious (and that’s not a bug. It’s a feature). Here are the numbers:

The fact is, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.

And here are numbers in the form of a chart (the University of California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education):


And here are the wages:

Based on a survey of nearly 20,000 non-tenure-track faculty, the report found that teaching was the primary occupation for a large majority of respondents, but two-thirds received an annual income of less than $45,000. Over half received less than $35,000.

(In other words, half the academic precariat, makes less than a high-end Walmart cashier or Pharmacy Technician, and a Walmart Sales Asssociate, at $25K, is in striking distance. And you don’t have to load yourself with a life-time of debt to work at Walmart!)

By contrast, if you’re an academic administrator, life is good. Chomsky identifies one key function of administration: Control of the labor force. A second is to optimize the curriculum for corporate purposes. A third is to think of departments as profit centers and triage those that don’t bring in the bucks. (The “innovation” [snort] program at Penn State I described yesterday, with its winners, losers, and mentors, has the ethos and structure of a football program. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.) And a fourth is to feather their own nests at the expense of the faculty who actually deliver real value to students. From a review of Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty:

In prose that is by turns piquant, sarcastic and largely dismissive of many administrators, Ginsberg marshals anecdotes from his 40 years of experience at Hopkins and Cornell University, as well as from accounts from other campuses. He juxtaposes these with historical analysis and data showing that the growth in the ranks of administrators (85 percent) and associated professional staff (240 percent) has far outstripped the increase in faculty (51 percent) between 1975 and 2005. “Generally speaking,” he writes, “a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed.’


Ginsberg lays at administrators’ feet a host of perceived [by which we mean “real”] ills: the increased curricular focus on vocational education instead of one grounded in the liberal arts; an emphasis on learning outside the classroom in lieu of core academic disciplines; the transformation of research from an instrument of social good and contributor to human knowledge to an institutional revenue stream; and the limiting of tenure and academic freedom.

The larger result, he argues, is that universities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them. “Armies of staffers pose a threat by their very existence,” he wrote. “They may seem harmless enough at their tiresome meetings but if they fall into the wrong hands, deanlets can become instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction.”

Is all this corrupt? I think it is. The administrative parasites who have injected their neoliberal venom into the host body of higher education, paralyzing and then controlling it, are converting a public institution to serve private purposes[5s]. The administrative layers of our colleges and universities should be gutted, and the resulting revenues devoted to the original, ancient, public functions of the university: Teaching and research. (Frankly, I don’t know why our own Governor LePage doesn’t do exactly that in the great state of Maine: We have a bloated “University of Maine System,” and nobody’s ever been able to figure out what it does, and we’ve got deans and deanlets up the wazoo. Fire them, give half the money to the students in the form of a break on tuition or debt relief, and give the other half to the faculty, (a) giving youth a reason to vote Republican and (b) nuking the Democrat administrators on the public teat. Democrats yammer a lot about LePage, but for all that, he’s never assaulted their institutional base.)

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With this background, let’s look at the adademic precariat, which comes in two forms: adjuncts, and teaching assistants, who just won a victory at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Teaching Assistants

Here’s the NLRB decision:

Washington, D.C. — The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014. The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483) saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia. In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the Act to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage. The majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act.

So now, teaching assistants in private universities have the minimum baseline of being able to organize[6] (that those in public universities have always had). Now comes the hard part: Negotiating, and dealing with continued union busting by the administration. Here’s the immediate reaction from the Columbia; they’re not giving an inch. They’re even denying that the NLRB has “the authority to define the term ’employee’,” as they trot out the shopworn messaging about “scholarly training”:

Corey Robin (Facebook, sorry) reacts:

It is great that the Obama White House appointed people to the NLRB who made this pro-grad student decision today. Like Bill Clinton did more than a decade ago (a decision that Bush’s NLRB overturned). On the other hand, the reason we need the NLRB to make these decisions is the vicious union-busters at private universities who won’t allow grad workers to organize—many of whom (the union-busters, that is) have deep and very close ties to Obama and Hillary Clinton. For example, Jacob Lew, who was Obama’s Chief of Staff and is now his Treasury Secretary, was John Sexton’s point person at NYU in busting the union in the late aughts [here]. Likewise, Cheryl Mills who went onto be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when Clinton was Secretary of State [here]. At Yale in the early 1980s, the Yale trustees who forced a bitter, months-long strike of clerical workers, many of them women, and service and maintenance workers, included longtime Democrat and feminist Eleanor Holmes Norton [here]. As important as the NLRB ruling today is, anyone who knows anything about union-busting, especially at elite universities, knows that the ruling is not nearly enough, that trustees at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, and elsewhere—many of whom, I’m sure, have ties to high-ranking people in the Democratic Party, including Obama and the Clintons—are going to need external pressure, not just from workers and progressive activists but also from these elite officials. So, yes, welcome the NLRB ruling and all that produced it, but let’s remember that the reason we needed these Obama/Clinton NLRB rulings at the level of the state has everything to do with how the Obama/Clinton forces operate in the private sector.

(And who could forget that Bill and Hillary (née Rodham) Clinton crossed a picket line at Yale and did scab labor on their first date?) Here’s material on union busting at Harvard, Duke, Northeastern. The adminstrators are not going to stop union busting. After all, they’re paid to do it, they’re ideologically committed to it, and their financial security depends on it. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end….”

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Now let’s move on to the other portion of the university precariat: Adjuncts. We’ve seen the numbers, and how and why adjuncts have come to dominate the university teaching workforce at Neoliberal U; here are some of their stories. How I Woke Up and Realized I Was Adjunct: An Adjunct Narrative from the Age of Neoliberalism:

I am, by neoliberal, administrative definition, non-essential. How did I get here, to this dark and hopeless dead end, to the outer deck of this sinking ship?

It took more than fifteen years, but I finally woke up and realized that I’m trying to win the lottery. I have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of getting a tenured position. I have been adjunctified. I am adjunct. Disposable.

The ideology of the market that seeks to commodify all and everything defines me as non-essential and makes me a precarious worker. Some tell me that I chose my fate and that if I don’t like my wages I should find another job.

But I see that what I do is important for the maintenance of civilization. If higher education continues to devolve into corporate job training, our democracy will disappear, eventually. Without the ability to think and communicate clearly, without the humanistic values that enter into society through a liberal arts higher education, without the deep understanding of science available in college, in thirty years (or so) when the climate destabilization beast really gets angry, Hell will break loose. Ah! The rough beast slouching towards the Ivory Tower! The widening gyre! The sinking ship!

I am defined as non-essential, I am serially unemployed, financially challenged, but I know that I’m needed because I have been called back and given a “tentative agreement” over thirty times. I know I make a difference because students tell me. The value of my contribution is not contingent or non-essential but my status and pay is. The adjunct me is different from what should have been the full-time me only in that he gets less than half the pay. At the very least, I deserve to be paid as well as if I were full-time.

From Visiting to Adjunct:

But my experience as a [visiting professor] at four different institutions over the last 15 years has made clear that the ideals that I’ve been sacrificing myself for – freedom of inquiry, the exploration of human potential, providing opportunity to others – exist far more in theory than in reality in our system of higher education.

These ideals as to the purpose and potential of education are mainly in my head. I have been working for a fantasy.

It has been easy to maintain this fantasy when so many others I am working alongside harbor it as well, making their own sacrifices in the name of the ideals we claim as most precious.

But this is a delusion. The institutional framework of higher education has little care for the things I find most meaningful, that are most important. I can pursue them in my classroom, and as adjunct, this is all that matters.

I longed for the chance to try to bring reality closer to that ideal as a full-fledged member of the team, but this is apparently not my destiny. I suppose time will tell if I dodged a bullet in not getting what I figured for my dream job.

The start of the semester usually brings that combination of excitement and trepidation so many instructors know well, the sense that something big and involving is starting, a mountain to be climbed.

That feeling is gone. Teaching will be a relatively small portion of my workload. It will have to be since I have to try to make up for the lost income. My life suddenly has more possibilities in front of it, more room to explore, to say yes to new things.

I didn’t want any of that, though. I wanted to teach, to mentor, to learn.

Maybe I need to change the title of the blog to “Just Adjuncting.” It doesn’t have the same ring, though, and as of yet, I don’t know what “Just Adjuncting” means.

Ultimately, of course, “just adjuncting” must have a corrosive effect on the student-teacher relationship. McSweeney’s:

Classic College Movies Updated for the Adjunct Era.

Good Will Hunting

MIT Professor Gerald Lambeau is impressed by the intellect of Will Hunting, a janitor who solved an extremely difficult math problem, but Will needs help processing his complex emotions and anger. Lambeau turns to his estranged former college roommate, Dr. Sean Maguire, for help. Sadly, Maguire, an adjunct professor who must shuttle between three campuses in two states and teach 7 classes a semester to stay off the dole, can’t find a minute to call Lambeau back. Will ends up in jail by the age of 23, Lambeau never goes out on a limb for another student, and Maguire is fired for being late to class because of a car pile-up on I-90.

(The neoliberal response to stories like these is that “PhD’s are oversupplied” Or, in expanded form: “There are just too darn many smart hardworking people studying the subjects they love!” I would question matters on the demand side. Is our society so sclerotic that it can’t find work for these people?)

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Given terrible wages and degrading working conditions, it’s not surprising that so many adjuncts are organizing, and successfully. From the Boston Globe:

Adjunct professors unionize, revealing deeper malaise in higher ed

Yet more than 40 percent of the teachers at US colleges and universities are adjuncts — part-time faculty members who are paid by the course. Like TaskRabbits and Uber drivers, these instructors are in the vanguard of an unpredictable freelance economy. …

Recently, adjunct faculty members at Duke University voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union, following a trend that’s gained particular force in Greater Boston, the nation’s higher education capital. Adjuncts at Tufts, Lesley, Northeastern, Boston University, and other schools have voted to unionize. Some contracts are in force; others are in various stages of negotiation. Longtime Lesley adjunct Celia Morris, the president of the SEIU’s higher education unit for the Boston area, expects to have 3,500 members soon.

As unionization efforts multiply, university administrators are apprehensive, and understandably so. While unionization drives began with adjuncts, organizers have extended the campaign to groups, such as nontenured but salaried full-time instructors at BU, whose concerns are less sharply defined.

There’s a lesson here for universities: They’ve backed into a business model that relies on a steady supply of underemployed instructors. And if the angst of adjuncts alone doesn’t persuade schools of the need for change, maybe the growing presence of union organizers will.

Will the universities learn that lesson? Possibly. But it’s the adjuncts who are going to have to help the administrators attain enlightment: with the Zen Slap of organizing. (As of this writing, I can’t find figures on how many adjuncts are organized; what’s certain is that efforts by SEIU and others are really bubbling.)


Here’s one more story about wages and working conditions for the academic precariat, from Academia is Killing My Friends:

I’ve got a history MA, and I was asked to come back and adjunct even while I was still a teaching grad assistant. It’s been years, now, and I love it. I love teaching. I love lecturing. … But I can’t do it any more.

I can’t keep making $10,000 a year teaching part-time, and I can’t afford the gas and parking to teach at more than one school (they’re too spread out, around here). I can’t keep dragging down my wife by working so hard to get paid so little, and I can’t keep doing what I love, and what I’m good at, because it just doesn’t pay the bills.

Going after a PhD feels like throwing good money after bad, but I know without a PhD I’ll never make full-time.

So here I am. The fall semester will be it for me, in academia. As I sit here and read another semester’s worth of fantastic student course evaluations, it guts me, because I know this is almost it. It’s almost over. The career that I threw so many years and so many thousands of dollars into is almost over, and I hate that.

I love the job, but I can’t stand the career.

What strikes me over and over with these stories is the immense waste of human potential. We’re looking at people who have tried to do everything right. They got the degree, and they loaded themselves with debt. And those who love what they do — who genuinely serve the public purpose of the university — have little reason, as “rational decision makers,” to keep doing it.

So I would ask the college administrators: How can you live with yourselves? How can you work in a system that produces such outcomes? You call yourselves educators. Are you aware of how you’re really educating people? Sign the contract. Give the teaching assistants and the adjuncts a fair wage for doing the important work they love.


[1] This summary is tendentious and unfair to Arrow, who doesn’t believe education is “100% signaling.” That doesn’t mean, however, that our neoliberal-dominated society hasn’t adopted, unconsciously or not, the vulgar version of his theory.

[2] This should in no way be taken as a denigration of the University of Maine as a teaching insitution; it has many dedicated and excellent teachers, despite the miserable and insulting wages and working conditions.

[3] And one important role that old codgers like me can play is to serve as living witnesses that things don’t have to be as they are. The California Master Plan for Higher Education succeeded in the achieving this goal: “[A]nyone from anywhere in California could, if they worked hard enough, get a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the country (and, therefore, in the world), almost free of charge.” Free stuff. Oh noez!!!!!!!

[4] “Yes, I have a double doctorate in Union Busting and Identity Politics Doublethink.”

[5] I know institutions like Harvard are nominally private. Education is, nonetheless, a public good.

[6] The NLRB throwing shade on this point:

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This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics, Social values, Student loans, The destruction of the middle class on by Lambert Strether.

About Lambert Strether

Lambert Strether has been blogging, managing online communities, and doing system administration 24/7 since 2003, in Drupal and WordPress. Besides political economy and the political scene, he blogs about rhetoric, software engineering, permaculture, history, literature, local politics, international travel, food, and fixing stuff around the house. The nom de plume “Lambert Strether” comes from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” You can follow him on Twitter at @lambertstrether.

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