Should we fire all the adjuncts (and hire them back for real)?

I just came across a thought-provoking interview with Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP. The video is titled Twilight of Academic Freedom. It deals with the consequences of increasing numbers of “contingent faculty” in higher education — the adjuncts, visiting professors, instructors, and various other titles for instructional staff who do not have the protections of tenure.

Right now, many universities are looking for ways to save money, and one way to do that is to hire fewer tenure-related faculty and shift the teaching burden onto adjuncts who are hired for as little as the uni can get away with paying. (It’s worth noting that this trend started well before the current recession, though I wouldn’t doubt that it’s accelerated.) Nelson is concerned about universities that are moving toward having an increasing share of teaching done by such contingent faculty.

Adjunct positions have a useful place in universities when used for the right reasons. One such reason is to expose students to perspectives that come from outside of the academy. For example, my undergraduate Abnormal Psychology class was taught by an adjunct whose main job was as a clinical psychologist at a hospital. That gave her a wealth of stories and practical experience that she could bring to the classroom.

But using adjuncts as a cost-cutting measure is a different thing. Many adjuncts will tell you that the system exploits instructors who work at low wages as a way to remain in the game while they hunt for better-paying permanent jobs. Those jobs typically don’t exist in high enough numbers to hire everybody who’s circling in the adjunct holding pattern.

Nelson offers a different line of argument, one that stems from the core reason tenure exists in the first place: academic freedom. To quote from the interview, “Academic freedom and job security are inextricably linked.” Tenure ensures that a professor can choose what to teach based on professional judgment. Direct review of those decisions is made by professional peers, protecting individual faculty from legislators, donors, regents, and others who might wield their considerable influence to drum out professors who don’t fit some outside agenda.

Nelson is not just worried about individual adjuncts being vulnerable. Even more ominous are the systemic risks of a university shifting to an adjunct-heavy portfolio. Hiring the occasional adjunct at an institution with a solid core of tenure-protected faculty is not likely to be a problem, as long as tenured faculty care enough about academic freedom that they’ll raise a stink if an adjunct is being subject to inappropriate pressure. (It’s sort of intellectual herd immunity.) But without that core, when too many of your faculty could be threatened for teaching something that someone does not like, the institution loses an important protection. Just look at the battles over secondary school textbooks in biology and history for an example of the kind of political infighting that can result. Is that where higher education could end up — with a state board telling me what to teach and what textbooks to use? I hope not, but Nelson presents good reasons to worry.