Adjunct Professors and the Modern Guild

An article on the plight of adjunct professors in higher education, “Labor of Love or Cheap Labor? The Plight of Adjunct Professors,” was brought to my attention by its author, Celine James. Ms. James kindly asked me for my thoughts about her article. I thought Pileus readers might be interested in what I sent her. Here it is in full:

Dear Celine,

I have had a chance to read your article. I empathize with the plight of adjunct instructors that you describe. It is, or can be, a terribly difficult life. I am afraid, however, that I cannot endorse the solution you suggest, namely unionization.

Higher education is operated like a medieval guild, with special protections for the lucky few who make it in and special benefits to them that come at the expense of all those who were not lucky enough to get in. The problem is the rigidity in the labor market that this creates: once a person is in, he or she cannot be fired, regardless of performance, for life.That is a great deal for those who get in, and it explains why so many try so desperately hard to get in, but it is a model for maintaining an unjust, and slowly dying, status quo rather than responding to changing economic realities we actually face.

The solution would be not to extend the guild system to a slightly larger cohort, but, rather, to abandon it altogether. In other words, we should abolish the tenure system. In a world with thousands of institutions of higher education, along with now an almost unlimited upper bound of educational opportunities online, there can be no justification for the economically stifling and restricting system of guild benefits for a privileged elite.

In earlier times, the guild system was so detrimental to those not lucky enough to enter one that it often prevented people from finding gainful employment of any kind. That led to obvious and predictable disastrous results for the unlucky, even while it enriched and protected the lucky. Exactly that same dynamic is being played out now with the lucky few members of the restrictive guild (i.e., tenure-stream professors) and the unlucky many who are locked out (i.e., the adjuncts).

The one saving grace for today’s unlucky adjuncts is that we now live in an economy that is, compared with earlier eras, extraordinarily dynamic, diverse, and productive. So they have other options if they don’t land a winning lottery ticket admitting them into the guild. But until the core of the problem—restrictive guild membership rules—is recognized and addressed, the other suggestions you make in your article will, unfortunately, have only marginal effect at best. And recommending unionizing would merely contribute to the problem—especially when we are probably on the cusp of a bursting educational bubble.

With best wishes,


14 thoughts on “Adjunct Professors and the Modern Guild

  1. So they spent a decade living off government largesse, and desire nothing more than government as a paycheck, even going so far as to receive public assistance rather than find a better job. How about this: instead of unionizing, going back to school for another eighteen months or so and getting a welding certificate. Starting pay $22-$25 an hour, with all the overtime you want. There’s no shame in having a PhD and getting your hands dirty on your way to becoming a provider of public assistance to others.

  2. Jim, I disagree that tenure is only about entrenching elites. It’s also about academic freedom and academic self-governance. If I am worried about offending the provost, I may be chilled from pursuing a line of argument. The analogy with bosses doesn’t apply here: the institution is in the business of producing teaching and research — i.e., truth-seeking. I can’t do that robustly if I’m worried about offending someone who happens to have managerial authority over me (but who is not in a better position to discover truths). It harms the institution to inhibit free inquiry. So tenure is still necessary.

    1. Aeon, I’m afraid I have to disagree. The reason you can’t “robustly” pursue lines of argument now is because of the hostile environment created by the existing guild restrictions. What we would see if the tenure system were abolished is what we see when restrictions are lifted in other areas of human life: diversity, innovation, robust dynamism. You might have to worry about offending your current provost, but there would be plenty of other provosts vying for your services. Your provost would soon learn to adapt.

      One further thought: Your argument had more validity before the internet. But with countless ways to make your views public now, all without having to ask anyone’s permission, the claim that abolishing tenure would “inhibit free inquiry” no longer holds water.

      1. Aeon, Sadly I must say you are wrong. No one at University gets fired for political dissent. What they do is get tenure and then mostly stop working, stop research and start pushing their political views in the classroom. Go into a science or engineering depart late afternoon and few of the tenured will be there. In the humanities, if you see a tenured professor outside of 10-2 it’s because he has a class. Tenure is nothing more than an excuse for a lifestyle most of us will never see.

    2. So Aeon, you don’t think there’s any reason professors with tenure should ever be fired? Once you get tenure you are set for life…And you don’t think THAT harms the institution?

      More importantly, the schools aren’t there to serve the professors, they are there to serve the students. Having 80 year old tenured professors who can barely tell you what year it is DOES NOT SERVE THE STUDENTS.

  3. First of all, I myself am not chiiled- being tenured, I can’t be fired just for offending someone. (I can still be fired for, say, not teaching the classes I’m contratced to teach.) But I don’t see how you expect dynamism and diversity to flourish if everyone is worried about a party line. Libertarians and conservatives have the most to fear, BTW, should tenure be lost – lefties won’t be chilled at all, since their views are politically correct. So without tenure, the academy would be even more rigidly orthodox about leftism. Second of all, it’s not just publishing. The institution’s mission includes teaching, and I can’t teach properly if I’m worried about causing offense. Ask FIRE about this: chilling of the classroom is just as real as chilling in research. Your argument that there are plenty of other provosts misses the point of orthodoxy – if I’m offending PC sensibilities at one place, I;m sure to be offensive most other places also. The only way to get the dynmaism and diversity you seek is if my performance evaluations are separated from PC judgements about diverse views. I’m not opposed to some kind of post-tenure review for the deadwood issue, but I just don’t see how we’d avoid the chilling effect without tenure.

  4. The solution to the problem is to start a parallel education system that’s faster, cheaper, and better, and make the Liberal Arts colleges (and all of those tenured wacks) obsolete. Khan Academy’s approach to distance learning can provide some of the framework for this, but in reality to get skills you need for good, gainful employment you’re probably better off outside of The Academy unless you’re going into either STEM or professions such as Medicine or Law.

  5. With all due respect to Professor Skoble, I doubt anyone who fears a provost more than he loves truth is likely to seek truth in the first place.

  6. Alas Aeon, Universities used to be in the business of “truth-seeking” I think perhaps a better characterization is that they are in the business of obtaining grant money using the excuse of Truth-seeking. They have moved away from their traditional role to being advocates of whatever the current leftist/progressive nostrum is for solving trumped up supposed problems. Additionally, they are a jobs programs for administrators. Consider that UC Berkeley now has more administrators that professors.

  7. So adjuncts shouldn’t try to unionize because tenured professors already have something much worse than a union?

    I found this in an old Scribner’s Magazine (volume 29, 1901) article describing how the Scottish Universities differed. The universities seem to be going medieval and overlooking that teaching function again.

    “The medieval university differed in many respects with our idea of a modern university. It was primarily a guild of teachers and scholars, formed for common protection and mutual aid. It was a republic of letters, whose members were exempt from all services private and public, all personal taxes and contributions, and from all civil procedure in courts of law. The teaching function was secondary, and often entirely overlooked. The Scottish university from the beginning, however, emphasized the teaching function, and created an atmosphere academic rather than civil or political.”

  8. I would propose that colleges hire adjunct administrators and pay them about 1/10th of what administrators are paid. After all, the current crop of administrators are all alike — they put in place policies that drive tuition through the roof and educational standards through the floor, and then demand that they be handsomely rewarded. Any clown can do what they do and do it a much lower price.

  9. Someone qualified to be an adjunct professor in a valuable field will have better opportunities elsewhere.

    Someone whose education does not empower them to find gainful employment outside of academia has wasted their time in school.

  10. Kathryn and Ben perpetuate the canard that once you get tenure, you stop working. While there’s always “that guy” at every univ, for the most part that’s false. Look at the top journals, look at book catalogues – tenured profs are very productive. My own productivity didn’t decline a whit once I got tenure, and most people I know are just the same (including Jim, of course!). The idea that you get tenure and then never do any work again is no more grounded in reality than the alligators-in-the-sewer legend.
    Ben also says that the school is there to serve the student, not the professors. but that’s not entirely true. The university is supposed to be a community of scholars, and it _is_ part of its function to facilitate research. Of course teaching is also its function, but the idea that teaching can be divorced from research is false, and suggests a 2nd-grade-teacher paradigm. At the university level, part of what goes into teaching _is_ the research expertise of the professor.
    Marturion, you’re largely right, but that’s an argument _for_ tenure, not against it.
    FC, that’s mistaken – people go into this with a good deal of idealism, they want to seek truth. But when they’re told to “go along to get along” and be suck-ups, it can kill that spirit.

  11. I own an ed consulting company. One of the things I do is contract as an adjunct, mainly as an online, post-secondary instructor (work as an employee for these Medieval institutions?–you must be joking.). Two thoughts on this issue:

    Guilds, unions, what’s the diff?

    And this, which I think properly puts tenure into perspective:

    “The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore so it eats it. It’s rather like getting tenure.” -Daniel C. Dennett

    My proposition is this:

    If you want a free labor market in education, a) get the government out of the *business* of education and b) get capitalism (& one of its result, free markets across the board: capital, labor, production (curriculum) and distribution (instruction) ) into it.

    Because the business of education is to teach the student how to think

    “Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education.” –Richard Mitchell, Ph.D., “The Underground Grammarian”

    And you don’t teach reason while clinging to the irrationality of feudalism.

    “Guild socialism is the rule of, by, and for mediocrity. Its cause is a society’s intellectual collapse; its consequence is a quagmire of stagnation; its historical example is the guild system of the Middle Ages.” –Ayn Rand, “The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” _Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal_, 261

    Or by offering to replace it with the equally irrational Platonic Ideal of collectivism (unionism):

    “The best ordered state (& university, I would presume) will be one in which the largest number of persons … most nearly resembles a single person. The first and highest form of the State … is a condition in which the private and the individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasion, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost …” (Plato’s _Republic_ & _Laws_ c. 370 BCE)

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