It is nothing new to say that higher education in California is in crisis. The problems include too many colleges in light of technological changes that reduce the need for ‘local’ establishments; and many departments with tangential functions or poorly defined and executed missions. An aging population of professors, hired thirty-plus years before, who are afraid to retire in the current economic uncertainty, but who have little connection with incoming freshmen born in 1990 or later. This same population is not necessarily comfortable with the latest technology, or its social ramifications of distributed hierarchies, and networks with open access to knowledge and power and the concomitant sharing of previously privileged information.
A danger point will come within the next 5 years. In 2010, the number of incoming freshmen is predicted to drop precipitously, and remain low. The baby boomer echo kids will be already passing through (remember that the youngest baby boomer was born in, say, December of 1964. On average, they were married and producing kids by 1990. Let’s give a normal five year graduation rate for their kids, and they are out the door by 2013).
Much of the focus in the past decade and a half has been on infrastructure, constructing lavish new buildings to entice students away from competitors. Better dorms, better cafeterias, better student unions and state of the art fitness centers. When the bond issue for more spending on more infrastructure came up again this past November, I voted against it. Why? Because there has been little impetus to redress inequality in hiring practices.
For example, report after report (see the Chronicle of Higher Education for a sample) has pointed out that women, and particularly mothers, have been discriminated against when it comes to making hiring decisions. Women (and mothers) disproportionately make up the ranks of adjuncts. The same situation prevailed in symphony orchestras, until blind auditions evened the ratio of men to women (read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for a full description of this issue). People like to hire people just like themselves. That is what faculty hiring committees mean when they talk about ‘fit’ – the great intangible quality candidates must display in order to reach the Promised Land of Tenure. Taking control of hiring decisions away from untrained faculty members invested in maintaining the status quo would aid in restoring equity and diversity to the process.
Most people outside of the system have no idea that most of the workload is carried by part-time, temporary workers with no benefits called adjunct lecturers. Students complain, ‘My other professor does such and such, why don’t you?” To which the reply must be, your other professor has access to resources, support, infrastructure and time release that I can only dream of! I even had one student who did not seem to understand that their might be differences in the quality of services provided (not the education) between USC and an Inland Empire Community College where she was taking a summer course.
The people who do know about the predominant adjuncts are under the somewhat mistaken idea that use of our labor means that their children are being poorly instructed. In fact, many adjuncts have the same (or even better) qualifications as the full-timers. They simply lost out in the great job lottery that is the tenure-track, where easily 150-200 applicants are willing to prostrate themselves for any available position opening (“Barrow, Alaska? Sure!”) Many adjuncts have doctorates, and like myself, teach the same courses with the same objectives and the same expectations at the state universities as they do at community colleges. In fact, some of my best professors were adjuncts. One of my anthropology professors not only taught, worked at a museum, but was a forensic anthropologist, identifying the unknown dead in Northern California, Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho. Some of us even go on to win that lottery. I have a friend whose favorite professor was an adjunct at De Anza Community College who went on to get a job at Stanford.
People who were hired at the peak buildup of American Higher Education, roughly 1970, are already nearly forty years into careers they probably began in their early to mid-thirties. Regardless of physical ability to continue, many are beginning to take retirement (FERPing as it is called in the California State University system) and with them will go the faculty lines. As a professor reduces their workload to half-time, an adjunct will be hired to pick up the other half; if two professors FERP at the same time, two adjuncts get half-time work. When the time comes, five years later, for both to fully retire, guess what? Only one position will be filled, and neither adjunct will have a chance in hell of competing for the job they have so reliably filled semester after semester, for a third of the pay. Why buy the cow when you can get the cream for free, indeed?
This process will only accelerate as the Baby Boomer generation retires over the next 18 years. People in the generations beneath them who have been squashed out of the academy will not have waited around to pick up the slack. We see this cycle time and again, most often in K-12 education, where a crunch is followed by a crisis and so it goes. Clearly, this is a system hobbling along, mostly due to a mystification process that encourages people to enroll in overstuffed graduate programs by dangling intangible rewards of prestige, autonomy, creativity, and respect in their everyday work world, and then subtly withdraws these rewards, placing the blame upon the individual, asking the individual to accept responsibilities for the failure of the system. Such a process must, inevitably, collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.