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:
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,