The Hypocrisy of Tenured Radicals

Who is to blame for the sorry state of higher education? There is no shortage of answers to this question. But the Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade publication of professional academics, is probably not the place to look for them. So it was a little surprising when, a couple of weeks ago, the editors decided to reprint a speech called, “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the humanities survive on exploitation.”

Given by Harvard writing instructor Kevin Birmingham upon receipt of the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, the speech lays out the ways in which academia screws the people at the bottom of the ladder.  According to Birmingham:

Tenured faculty represent only seventeen percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled . . . A 2014 congressional report suggests that eighty-nine percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; thirteen percent work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. … An English-department adjunct at Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course.

Birmingham is right to note that adjuncts are great for universities’ budgets. They are not only cheap but they also provide flexibility in the curricula. You can add and drop classes and subjects quickly. And he is also right that it is not simply administrators who are culpable for this—though certainly they have chosen not to prioritize teaching at most universities. (Even at small liberal arts colleges publication is more likely to get you promoted than good teaching.)

It is the senior faculty themselves who benefit from having cheap labor who can take over the daily grind of grading papers and exams. They are in fact actively helping to create this lower class of academics. “The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new Ph.Ds. who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates,” Birmingham argues.

This is not the first time an academic has pointed out the hypocrisy of academic institutions filled with people who love to criticize every other industry for mistreating workers and making too much money off the backs of the poor. But every time senior faculty hear this cry, they get just a teensy bit defensive.

Which is why the Chronicle immediately published a response by Blaine Greteman, a tenured professor of English at the University of Iowa, with the unsurprising title, “Don’t Blame Tenured Academics for the Adjunct Crisis.”

Greteman argues that it is not senior faculty who are to blame for adjuncts’ abysmal situation, but America itself. “The plight of adjunct laborers in our system is a serious one,” he writes. “But if we are going to understand and address its systemic causes, it is essential that we understand it as one of the worst symptoms of a larger devaluation of labor, of academic access, and of intellectual work.” (There is no acknowledgement, of course, that by teaching a great deal of nonsense, academics have devalued intellectual work themselves).

In fact, Greteman believes he has found the real culprit: Republicans! “The share of workers receiving defined-benefit pensions [has] collapsed, dropping from sixty percent in 1980 to ten percent in 2006. During the same period, jobs offering health insurance and livable wages also declined precipitously. In my state, earlier this month, Republicans at the Capitol followed Scott Walker’s Wisconsin playbook to strip graduate students, teachers, and other public employees of the right to bargain for decent wages and benefits,” he argues.

That’s right; this academic is arguing that if only we had more unions and defined-benefit pension plans (and fewer Republicans), then we could ensure that adjuncts would be paid fairly. (He fails to mention that our universities would then end up looking like Detroit.)

Sadly, though, Greteman is right about one thing: No matter what academics argue about other industries, or criticize Republican politicians for doing, or claim would make the global economy more fair and resources more equitably distributed, there’s no way senior academics are going to give up what they have in order to help the little guy. In academia, at least, hypocrisy is the price professors are willing to pay for total job security. And equality is far more appealing in theory than in practice.


  • shiny

    Second guy’s obviously not a professor of econ.

    What changed between 1980 and now isn’t that the Republicans got meaner or more arch-capitalist; but that a lot of the jobs that offered those benefits moved to China or were automated out of existence. What replaced them had worse benefits because the labor force exploded in size due to immigration and more women joining the labor force FT, devaluing the worth of an individual employee and eliminating the need to offer those sorts of incentives.

    Same thing’s happening in his line of work. As the number of PhD’s explode well past the number of positions, each individual’s labor is not as valuable as it used to be because there’s another just like them waiting to take the gig.

  • Bruce Hayden

    The other reason that defined benefit pensions all but disappeared during this time was legislation that essentially required full funding of defined benefit pensions in the private sector. Which turned out to be a good thing when all those jobs went over seas, and the remaining companies couldn’t have afforded the level of pensions being promised. Which is why the only significant group that still get defined benefit pensions are state and local govt employees, whose pensions are exempt from this law.

  • geokstr

    “…Scott Walker’s Wisconsin playbook to strip graduate students, teachers, and other public employees of the right to bargain for decent wages…”
    False. They can still bargain for wages.

    What was really an amazing consequence of Act 10 was to expose huge union overcharges for health insurance. Before Act 10, all union contracts required the employer to purchase only the one health plan sponsored by the union. This provision was abrogated by Act 10 and governments were allowed to take bids from private insurers.

    The results were astonishing. Municipalities, school districts, et al, were able to get the same coverage for so much less that, despite sizable cuts in state aid, they were all able to balance their budgets. Only uber-leftists like Madison county, who rushed through new contracts before Act 10 was passed, were still left with budget deficits.

    Total savings statewide on health insurance were estimated at 100 million dollars, a union overcharge that had been going on for decades.

    The Democrats may have lost the recall against Walker because of it. Act 10 was the driver of the leftist outrage to begin with, but Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee’s mayor Tom Barrett, avoided making it a campaign issue since he himself had used the health insurance provision to plug an $18 million hole in Milwaukee’s budget.

    Instead of having union dues automatically withheld, the Act also made it the union’s responsibility to collect them. Freed from mandatory dues payments, union membership has plummeted. Apparently a whole lot of people objected to their money being used to fund Marxism.

    Good on them.

  • notthatGreg

    Maybe Prof. Greteman might want to consider how many non-faculty administrators are currently employed by U of Iowa and then wonder how many additional faculty could be paid using those administrators’ salary. Seems like Higher Education is devaluing “intellectual work” just fine on its own.

  • Chi Huavara

    Who is to blame for the sorry state of public education? Anyone who allows it to continue.

    The problems go back to the genesis of public education, to Gyorgy Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, which developed what became known as the Critical Theory indoctrination strategy, which all modern public curricula is based on.

    Boomer-era hippies were the first generation of Americans to be subjected to this indoctrination via public education in any large measure. They in turn became professors and continue to vomit their intellectual hangover onto success generations. In fact, when I returned to university as a much older man, what struck me most incredible was the uneducated nature of the professors themselves.

    For instance, let’s take the professors that protested in Wisconsin over Act 10. Many of the held aloft signs emotionally declaring that, “Hitler killed the unions too!” This of course only tells half of Hitler’s story with the unions. Yes, upon rising to power Hitler killed the Weimar Trade Unions; the private unions. But immediately thereafter he forced everyone onto the German Labor Front; public unions. And of course we all know who supports public unions; the very people who protested Act 10. So the fact that teachers and professors were propagating this incorrect myth demonstrates their worthlessness as educators.

    Ultimately what needs to happen is the ratification of a Constitutional Amendment that would establish a permanent separation of education and state, thereby effectively prohibiting public education from existing in perpetuity. This of course would nullify any need for the unnecessary Department of Education, which could then be easily abolished.


  • From the Chronicle of HE pieces to this one and the comments below, the entire discussion assumes the current model for HE. The real culprit in the crisis is a lack of imagination, blind adherence to tradition. It might be time to change the current institutional model.

    The problems of HE can be overcome if the cost of its provision is reduced. I have developed a model that does that, by as much as 75%; without turning to technology or philanthropy. Instead it strikes a new social contract by converting academics to professionals (like dentists, lawyers or doctors) and institutions (colleges and universities) to vendors that provide services to these independent academic professionals. In a sense, my model inverts the current one.

    Under such a professional model as many academics as needed can provide service and earn a proper living while tuition can be nominal or eliminated (since taxpayers could afford a HE system that cost as much as 75% less).

    Its time to start thinking outside the institutional box.