‘Adjunct’ Faculty in the Neoliberal University

by | 22 May 2013


Chris from Remaking the University writes to introduce a post by Ivan Evans, professor of sociology at UC San Diego. Tarak Barkawi’s opinion piece, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia,” produced a long discussion on several lists because of its claim that faculty have played a central role in shifting their universities towards revenue metrics and managerial assessments of intellectual value. His example is the arrival of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK, which has molted into the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Though pushed by the Thatcher government, the RAE was accepted and applied by the UK professoriat. Its successor, the five-yearly REF, Prof. Barkawi writes, “completely dominates UK academic life. It determines hiring patterns, career progression, and status and duties within departments. It organises the research projects of individual scholars so as to meet arbitrary deadlines. It has created space for a whole class of paid consultants who rank scholarship and assist in putting together REF returns. UK academics regularly talk about each other’s work in terms of whether this or that book or article is ‘three star’ or ‘four star’.”

Prof. Barkawi argues that UK universities are now run by managers who see their jobs not as furnishing resources needed for academic work, but as the continuous monitoring and non-expert assessment of research and teaching that winds up justifying resource restriction and permanent reorganization. Shifting audit to management, he argues, undermines “the entire point of university research,” which “is conversation and contestation over what is true and right. In the natural sciences, as in the social sciences and humanities, one person’s truth is another person’s tosh, and valid knowledge emerges from the clash of many different perspectives.” This complex, internally regulated, expertize-driven debate is being in large part replaced by audit mechanisms. “Meanwhile,” Prof. Barkawi concludes, “all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers.”

Prof. Evans extends this remark about adjucts below.


I strongly agree with Tarkawi’s conclusion that faculty are far more complicit in the sacking of public higher education than we are prepared to acknowledge. One of the best indexes of this is the arrogance that ladder-rank faculty display towards adjunct/part-time faculty/”lecturers” in our own departments. As with the caste system, there are so many categories for them, all of which serve the purpose of the Brahmins in the Academic Senate.

We—and here I am tempted to specifically include you [on the list] alongside myself in this condemnation, but won’t because there’s always a small chance that some of you/us are exempt from these generalizations—in fact appear to take some pride in treating adjuncts as an inferior caste. It is the norm for adjuncts to be excluded from faculty meetings and to be deprived of any say in the management of departments. Instead of resisting the “adjunctification” of the professoriat by incorporating these colleagues—because they are colleagues—into the university and our respective departments, we tolerate them as useful proof of our Brahmin status. They are our untouchables.

And we treat them accordingly.

I have recently asked my colleagues at UCSD questions such as: How many adjunct/contingent/non-tenure track faculty are there in your department? Can you name them? Have you met any adjuncts for coffee or lunch on campus? Are they invited to the homes of ladder rank faculty? Do they have office space? Do they have any voting rights in your department? Should they? Do you know how they are evaluated? Should they be rewarded for publishing? Should ladder-rank faculty with poor teaching evaluations be assigned to courses ahead of adjunct colleague with excellent teaching evaluations? Should campus charters be changed to extend representation to adjuncts in the Senate?

The results of the informal survey have been so depressing that I would like to survey faculty at UCSD to draw attention to the cooperation that ladder-rank faculty give to the corporatizaton of their home institutions. We should be forging firm bonds with the fastest-growing category in our midst instead of setting ourselves apart from and above them. We are all aware that our fate is tied to the fate of adjuncts and that our separate futures would be far more pleasant if we stand firm with them now. But I think we know that we will not. Better to burnish our progressive self-image by baying at the moon (on this and other list servs) even as we help campus administrators slip the dagger between our collective ribs.

Truth is that ladder-rank faculty are growing old and we are not prepared to pick this important fight with our administrations or UCOP. We are edging towards retirement, counting our beans in our pension funds, and just holding on until we escape amidst encircling doom. Safe in retirement, many of us will tut-tut and speak of the halcyon days when ladder rank faculty were little gods with real rights.

I am much more apprised of the unflattering assessment that adjuncts/non-tenure track/contingent faculty have of ladder-rank faculty because several of them sit on the Steering Committee of the CA-AAUP. I have become acutely aware of, and grown very ashamed of, the way ladder-ranks treat the nameless Other. As Stuart Hall summarized an analogous arrogance back in the ’80s, it’s “The West versus the rest”.

Consider this: One adjunct on the Steering Committee teaches 6–9 courses per quarter at a bewildering array of campuses in the Bay Area. I do not have a good enough grasp of the geography of that region to understand exactly why:

  • she hits the road at 5:30 am to make her first class;
  • teachers non-stop from 8am – 5 pm (including travel time as she whizzes at breakneck speed from one campus to another)
  • takes her first and only break from 5–7pm
  • teaches again from 7–9pm
  • holds her office hour from 9–10pm (yes, that’s PM)
  • checks in at a $49 /night motel on Highway 101 (in a town called Gilroy); and
  • repeats this schedule three times per week.

On a “good day”, she remains in the Berkeley area where she resides and teaches at 2–3 colleges. No contract, no benefits, no representation in the Senate. At the beginning of the Winter quarter, she was informed that one course had just been re-assigned to another adjunct “who needs the course more.” Just like that, income that she is so vitally dependent on, and in fact cannot survive without, was taken away—by email, without prior notification and for a reason that is as inscrutable as it is uncontestable.

Re-read this list again to grasp the full dimensions of what I can only call its horror. It is unspeakably appalling. And I am ashamed that our preponderant collective interest in matters such as SB 520, MOOCs, etc. is: “what’s in it for the ladder ranks?” “How dare they strip away our rights”, etc

This is the price others pay to keep us ladder ranks in clover. The results of my still informal survey at UCSD leave no doubt that ladder ranks would club adjuncts into oblivion rather than be amalgamated with them. The arrogance, and fear of being lumped together with the Untouchable Other remains and perhaps increases even as the once-venerable ladder rank category shrinks with each passing year.

In fact, it is best to not mention a category of fellow workers and colleagues—humans and good people all—who now account for 76% of the academic workforce.

Absent a UC faculty union with real teeth, I cannot see faculty mounting anything close to meaningful opposition to the gutting of UC. What would make a difference is an alliance of faculty, regardless of rank, at all three levels of the Master Plan. (Yes, there are other two other levels). But that will not happen, mostly because UC faculty are aghast at the idea of rubbing shoulders with the Untouchables both amongst them and those who labor in recondite places without darkening the views from Sather Gate or scenic La Jolla.

I now feel that we shall deserve what we get.

Reposted from here.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this.
    An Untouchable.


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