Offensive Letter Justifies Oppressive System That Hurts Both Faculty and Students

August 29, 2014

Earlier this week, a letter to the editor abusing "whining adjunct" instructors appeared on The Chronicle’s website. It quickly got picked up on social media, generating a firestorm of condemnation by the majority of faculty members living on off-track appointments.

The letter, by Catherine Stukel, a full-time community-college teacher, called faculty complaints "garbage" and the product of undeserved feelings of "entitlement"; blamed faculty members for creating a student ethos of "pipe dreams and no work ethic"; and included remarkably insensitive comments ("put on your big-girl panties!") about Margaret Mary Vojtko, whose faculty appointment ended in an impoverished and lonely death that received broad and sympathetic coverage.

Stukel wondered whether Vojtko lacked "drive," "executive function," or "planning skills." She speculated that faculty members who don’t win full-time positions like her own were bad teachers, "annoying" and "not likable," or otherwise mediocre. So it’s hardly surprising that I can characterize many of the most angry responses to Stukel as variants on the theme "Who do we want teaching in our classrooms? Not this witless bully!"

In theory, there is no such thing as "an adjunct." There are only faculty members with adjunct appointments. The whole faculty of nearly all campuses is made up of persons with a broad mix of appointment types, ranging from full time and contingent to part time and tenured. Faculty members with nontenurable appointments can be full-time researchers or part-time administrators. Today faculty members with tenured or tenure-track appointments represent a modest minority of the whole.

By most estimates—depending on how graduate students and full-time staff members who teach are counted—the tenure track represents just 20 to 30 percent of all appointments, on a trend line headed steeply down. As recently as the early 1970s, around 80 percent of appointments were tenurable. This means that the proportion of tenured to contingent appointments has completely inverted in about 40 years.

This change in appointment types is not accidental or caused by outside forces. The adjunctification of faculty appointment has been an intentional shock treatment by campus administrations. Of course, there may be some claims regarding saving money; however, most critical observers note that "saving" on $70,000 faculty salaries generates a vast, expensive need for $80,000- to $120,000-per-year accountants, IT staff members, and HR specialists, plus a few $270,000 associate provosts. Not to mention the $500,000 bonus awarded to the president for meeting the board’s permatemping target and successfully hiding the consequences from students, parents, and the public. It should be obvious to most of us that any money left over from bloating the administration is generally directed to consultants, construction, and business partnerships.

Even more important than any doubtful savings on cheap professor salaries is how the adjunctification of appointments supports the administrative power grab. In the early 1970s, at the peak of the faculty-union movement, most observers saw campus power concentrated in the faculty. Today few debate that even the most privileged faculty members have lost influence over most campus decisions, and that "shared" governance arenas like faculty senates are generally a charade at best or, as one university-management theorist put it in 1972, a "garbage can" where disgruntled faculty members are dumped to blow off steam ineffectually.

The most pernicious way that adjunctification disempowers the faculty is by dividing us from each other. For instance, few systems of faculty governance have made sense of the proliferation of appointment types, with every campus cobbling together different, ever-changing rules of inclusion and exclusion applying differently to potentially dozens of categories for new hires.

More important than the governance boondoggle, however, is the division to which Stukel gives such offensive voice. While few of the shrinking minority with tenure would use Stukel’s abusive language, most do generally view their status as a merit badge: "I’m on the tenure track! I’m a winner, among the elite few!"

As a 2009 AAUP report for which I was the lead author points out, tenure was designed to unite the faculty, not divide it. Whether you had a research- or teaching-intensive appointment, the system of tenure was designed as a "big tent," broadly securing the rights of academic citizenship. Today, at elite institutions, it is part of the culture to erroneously imagine that tenure is or should be largely reserved for those in research-intensive appointments, while those in teaching-intensive positions don’t "deserve" it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Even today, while the majority of persons with teaching-intensive appointments have been cast out of the tenure stream, the majority of persons with tenure still have teaching-intensive jobs—like Stukel. Stukel’s sense of superiority to persons with doctorates and bad appointment types is, obviously, undeserved and offensive.

But her self-congratulation derives from the similarly undeserved—and offensive—sense of superiority that those with research-intensive appointments maintain over their colleagues who mostly teach. This is no mere status injury. By adopting the ahistorical view that teaching-intensive faculty members don’t need or deserve tenure, the most privileged among us—with the most influence and loudest bullhorns—are actively justifying an oppressive system that harms students as much as teachers. Except in very particular circumstances, the term "adjunct" or "contingent" names an undesirable appointment type. It doesn’t describe an undesirable person.

The best way to support faculty members with bad appointments is to join the struggle to re-create good ones. For many of us, this will require discarding a self-congratulatory mythology about the meaning of tenure.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University.