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The Education Factory

By looking at the labor history of academia, you can see the roots of a crisis in higher education that has been decades in the making.

The question of faculty casualization, in short, is the question of how American colleges and universities transformed into profit-hungry corporations masquerading as educational nonprofits. Part of the answer, as the historian Elizabeth Tandy Shermer argues in her contribution to the collection, is that this transformation really represents a reversion to the historical norm after a brief and decidedly incomplete mid-20th-century interruption. When postsecondary schools were built, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they relied on land and wealth extracted through slavery and Indigenous genocide; Gilded Age robber barons transformed universities into R&D labs and workforce training centers. Faculty labor organizing, inspired by New Deal–era union activism, ultimately forced schools to improve job security and working conditions, including by implementing the modern tenure system––but the “golden age” was always an uneasy compromise.

The collapse of this compromise occurred gradually and at first imperceptibly. There was no epochal shift in administrative consciousness, just a series of smaller dislocations that changed the calculus about the rationality of the tenure settlement. Changes in the funding landscape did play a role here, as a variety of contributors show. Reductions in government expenditures prompted by stagflation in the 1970s fostered a cost-cutting sensibility across higher education. An increasingly “nontraditional” student body, enrolled part-time or as their personal finances would permit, created unpredictable fluctuations in tuition revenues that also prompted austerity. The expansion of the student loan industry allowed schools to jack up tuition prices, but the consequence was a competition to prove to prospective customers that the “student experience” was worth their investment––hence the drive to maximize profits that could be diverted to fund state-of-the-art dorms, gyms, stadiums, and other campus amenities.

The essays in Contingent Faculty and the Remaking of Higher Education also underscore the fact that the more diverse scholars who entered the professoriate in increasing numbers in the late 20th century were, politically speaking, easier to exploit than their predominantly rich-white-man predecessors. Women and people of color were often the first faculty members to find their positions casualized, and they remain disproportionately represented in the adjunct ranks today.

Not only did adjunctification allow schools to cut costs at the expense of their most disempowered teachers, but it also helped higher education weather the campus radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s, as the scholars and labor activists Joe Berry and Helena Worthen illustrate. Precarious workers are easier to discipline and to discharge. When student demands prompted schools to create new programs in ethnic studies, gender studies, and labor studies, administrations decided to staff these institutions––magnets for subversive types––overwhelmingly with contingent faculty.