Mind The Gap: Addressing the Paradigm Shift in Higher Education

E.L. Jennings
Nov 29, 2018 · 34 min read
Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

At the end of 2017 student loan¹ debt had reached 1.38 trillion dollars. Tuition was still steadily rising² and had been doing so much faster than the rate of incomes and inflation for the past thirty years³, becoming four times more expensive than it was thirty years ago. These statistics beg the question, what has changed over the past thirty years and where is the money going? As tuitions rise, small liberal arts colleges, arts institutes are closing and higher education is inexorably changing in a way that is nebulous yet swift. This article seeks to examine ways in which higher education has changed and hopes to posit some steps forward to bring us back from the brink.

The Corporatization of Higher Education

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

In 1971 the Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a which lay out the blueprint for a corporate takeover of education with the goal of promoting a free enterprise system and pushing back against a growing socialist movement.⁴ Powell urged business leaders to cut tax-based funding to public education, which he believed promoted anti-capitalist views. He also recommended that business leaders seize control of administrative boards to ensure a say in the academic functions and planning process. In 2018, the results of this decades-long corporatization are stark, and they are becoming untenable. Over one million⁵ contingent faculty work for below-poverty wages; many are saddled with exorbitant student loans, and most lack job security and healthcare. At the same time, administrators have never been so numerous or well paid. While faculty wages have overall trended down due to a massive increase in dependence on adjuncts, tuition has ballooned, outpacing even the medical industry in yearly inflation.

Projecting current trends into the future, there are a few clear possibilities, none of which are beneficial to a democratic pluralistic nation. Most worrying is the threat to democracy itself, which is entirely reliant upon an informed electorate capable of making complex decisions about who can best represent their needs both now and in the future. The expressed unease over a “crisis of democracy,” by which Powell meant that the political system had become too democratic. The Powell Memorandum is explicit in its disdain for a highly inclusive democratic system, and in the belief that education should be defunded in order to prevent radical democracy.

Contingency and Administrative Bloat

The landscape of the higher-education workforce has substantially changed in the latter quarter of the 20th century. Contingent faculty, which includes adjuncts, part-time faculty, lecturers, instructors, those teaching as graduate assistants and visiting faculty, make up a majority of the postsecondary teaching workforce. Most non-tenure-track faculty serve in insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom.⁶ Reports vary on the exact portion of the teaching workforce that is made up of contingent faculty, but a consistent trend across all studies on the subject demonstrates a clear shift in higher education since the 1970’s from a majority tenure and tenure-track faculty to a majority part-time, contingent workforce. A 2009 report from the showed the portion of full-time faculty members at four-year public schools at 64 percent. Private four-year schools averaged a 49 percent full-time faculty labor force, while community colleges only maintained 30/70 percent split between full-time and contingent faculty.⁷ By 2015, the AAUP reported that non-tenure-track positions already accounted for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,⁸ a 300% increase since 1975.⁹ The average annual income of an adjunct instructor today is between twenty and twenty-five thousand dollars.¹⁰ While the salaries of tenured faculty are certainly more formidable, they are likely not responsible for a massive increase in tuition in the 21st century. According the the , faculty salaries were “essentially flat” from 2000 to 2012.¹¹

Administrative positions in colleges and universities have grown in the time since Powell’s memorandum, at a staggering rate that tracks inversely with the dwindling number of tenure-track positions.¹² Between 1976 and 2011, hiring trends in American higher-education are as follows¹³:

Full-Time Tenured and Tenure-Track Faculty Increase — 23%

Graduate Student Employees Increase — 123%

Full-Time Executives Increase 141%

Full-Time Non-Tenure Track Faculty Increase — 259%

Part-Time Faculty Increase — 286%

Full-Time Non-Faculty Professional Staff Increase — 369%

Appropriately coined “administrative bloat,” this trend in academic hiring should be viewed in direct correlation with the rise of contingent labor dependence in higher education. Since the late 80’s, university and college administrations have swelled to include offices of communication and marketing, diversity, disability, sustainability, security, environmental health, recruiting, technology, and fundraising. Institutions have added a multitude of new majors, graduate and athletics programs, satellite campuses, and conference centers¹⁴.

Higher-education administrators have responded to criticism about administrative bloat and rising tuition prices by alleging there is need to raise administrative salaries in order to remain competitive for top talent. While the notion of competition for talent in higher education is not fundamentally unsound, the extent to which this competition has driven executive salaries disproportionately higher is grossly out of scale. According to a 2015 analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education, chief executives at 59 private colleges and 7 public universities each took home more than $1 million in total compensation.¹⁵ The largest compensation package in 2015 was , awarded to Nathan O. Hatch of Wake Forest University. The University of Louisville paid James R. Ramsey a package totaling in 2016.¹⁶ And high administrative salaries are by no means restricted to those in the institutions’ top-most offices. The 2017–2018 Administrators in Higher Education Survey reports that of 197 executive and senior-level administrative positions from 1,187 institutions, executive administration salaries are largely in the six digit range.¹⁷

Defenders of continual college & university administration & professional staff increases also point to increased federal regulation, athletics compliance, intervention in mental health issues, sexual-assault issues, disability issues and legal disputes.¹⁸ Carl Moses, Chair of the American Conference of Academic Deans, posits,

“Our population of learners is much more diverse on dimensions almost too numerous to list. The needs of those students are correspondingly more diverse, and a dean of students, a conduct officer, a housing coordinator, and a chaplain just are not enough anymore.”¹⁹

Indeed, many of these newer compliance and student-wellness expenses are in response to real needs on college campuses, and these expenses must be funded at a practical level. But over the last generation or so, many campuses have been stumbling over themselves to outdo each other in a whole other category of expenditures that by definition doesn’t meet the same baseline of necessity on campus: Luxury.

The Campus Amenities Arms Race

According to a study conducted by CNBC published in May 2018, the financial investment required for an individual to afford a postsecondary education will nearly double by 2036. The average cost of a four-year private university, currently $167,000, is expected to soar to a daunting $303,000 over the next 18 years, and a four-year education at a public university is expected to grow from $101,000 in 2018 to $187,000 in that same time (numbers adjusted for annual inflation).²⁰ Institutions are struggling to work with tighter and tighter budgets as endowments shrink²¹ and state funding dwindles²².

Many colleges and universities responded to a perceived demand from students and parents for more spectacular amenities and residence halls, pouring an inordinate amount of spending into campus luxuries with hopes of drawing in students and their tuition dollars. Some increase in spending for campus amenities may have been necessary just to keep up with enrollment growth (18 to 24-year-old enrollment expanded by 3.1 million from 2001 to 2011), but the degree to which spending on campus amenities has grown is exorbitant to say the least. Listed below are some of the most spectacular new recreation facilities listed in a 2014 Forbes article, ²³:

Reported cost: $7.26 million — A leisure pool, finished in 2009, features a lazy river, a water slide, tanning pool, water basketball and volleyball courts, as well as a poolside cafe.

$700 million worth of renovations since 2007 High Point University; includes a hot tub, a movie theater with complimentary popcorn, a free arcade, an ice cream truck, steak restaurant, upscale dorms, and puppy study breaks.

Cost: $98 million — Rec center completed in 2012, featuring a 55 foot climbing wall, a 25 person spa, two indoor tracks, and three exercise facilities.

Cost: A reported $63 million — Ice rink, bouldering area, climbing wall and leisure pool.

Cost: $41 million — Rec center featuring a 30 ft high, 27 ft wide rock wall with 8 rope stations, as well as a jogging track, multimedia cardio rooms and an outdoor pool.

Cost: $53 million — Rec center with a 52.5 foot climbing wall, competitive swimming pool, diving well, tracks, and zero-depth entry leisure pool with bubble benches and a lazy river.

Cost: $140 million — Rec center featuring the RPAC kids zone, a “Scarlet Skyway” connecting the rec center to the Department of Human sciences building, a Lactation Room, two cafes, and a short shop. The McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion has a competitive pool, diving well, dive spa, seating for 1,400 spectators, and a leisure pool with two dry saunas. There is also a whirlpool spa that seats 25.

Cost: $53 million (in 2003) — A 1.3 million gallon pool, 24,000 sq. ft of weight equipment, a four lane indoor jogging track, 53-ft indoor climbing wall, and six aerobic rooms.

Egregious spending on campus amenities is in itself shocking. Coupled with rising student debt, this significant investment in luxury could certainly be considered fiscally negligent. A swift defense of amenities spending is that parents and students demand luxury facilities, and that student government associations are often quick to vote for spending which will be passed down to incoming students via student fees long after those SGA officers have graduated.²⁴ According to The Washington Post, Student fees have actually grown faster [since 2000] than tuition in percentage terms. Fees rose 95 percent at public four-year colleges, and 61 percent at private colleges.”²⁵ Recent trends indicate that students are beginning to opt for frugality over extravagance²⁶, but student fees for over-the-top amenities already completed can span decades into the future. As enrollment rates for post-secondary institutions continue to decline²⁷, colleges and university administrations will likely continue raising student fees faster and higher than anticipated to make up for the loss of human capital upon which most schools continue to rely.

Some of the most drastic economic trends of the amenities arms race have decreased in recent years, but according to the New York Times, “between 2001 and 2012, the amount of debt taken on by colleges rose 88 percent, to $307 billion.”²⁸ So, while the race to build bigger, fancier, more expensive buildings may have ended, the debt remains a significant problem for university budgets, and not an insignificant factor in the high cost of secondary education. Historically high tuition has been met with (in fact, dominantly fueled by²⁹) a decrease in state higher education funding in almost every state³⁰, which means many of our state schools are being primarily funded by the students. This has effectively created a debt peonage system³¹ wherein students are forced into absolutely any kind of work simply to pay their creditors.

Diversity

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

According to the , the percentage of minority students enrolled in postsecondary education is up, and is expected to continue to rise. Between 2010 and 2021, NCES expects a 4% increase for students who are white, a 25% increase for black students, 1% for Native American/Alaskan Native students, and 20% for students who are Asian/Pacific Islander. The most significant projected growth in the next 3 years is among Hispanic students, expected to increase by 42%. Despite the growing numbers of minority students, the percentage of professors of color doesn’t even come close to reflecting the demographic shift in the student population. In the national average for Black full-time faculty representation is 9.2%, Hispanic representation is 4.5%, Asian representation is 4.3%, Native American representation is 0.8%, and White faculty still make up 76.2% of the higher education teaching workforce.³³ Only instructors of Asian descent are represented by a higher percentage than the national average of students enrolled. Notably, women are still less likely than men to hold full-time faculty appointments, and suffer from an anticipated gender pay gap³⁴. To keep up with changing demographics in public and private colleges and universities, some institutions have implemented faculty diversity initiatives, but in spite of these efforts, progress is slow and many faculty members of color find themselves in the role of department diversity representative. Being the only professor of color in a department is a situation familiar to many individuals on campuses across the country. Too many disciplines only have a couple professors of color, or none at all. This is not sufficient for a student body that is increasingly diverse, that should have the opportunity to see their communities represented their professors.

According to “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography Of The 19th Century’s Most Photographed American”³⁵, Douglass had more portraits made of himself in the 1800’s than Abraham Lincoln, because Douglass understood the power of representation. He felt it necessary to meaningfully counter common visual narratives of African American males in the 19th century. Many faculty of color feel a similar responsibility, fully cognizant of being the only representation that students of color see of themselves in their department, in their institution, or indeed in higher education over all. But with busy class schedules, committee work, meeting requirements for tenure and obligations in their personal lives, most professors simply cannot make it to every function, luncheon, mixer or lecture that their institution hosts. Still, under this same burden of representation, many faculty of color feel the need to make an appearance more often than not. Showing students that they are represented in the upper echelon of academia can have a significant effect on student outcome. When addressing diversity initiatives and representation, it should also be noted that professors of color are especially impacted by the crisis of contingency. A 2016 study by the TIAA Institute³⁶ shows that while faculty in higher education have become increasingly diverse over the past 20 years, the shift toward dependence on contingent faculty over that same time period means that most gains for underrepresented minority groups have been in these lower-paid contingent positions.³⁷

The Tenure Track

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

Tenure currently has an increasingly precarious future as academia relies ever more on contingent faculty³⁸ and the number of tenure track positions proportionally declines. Gaining tenure is a difficult and often bureaucratic process that is generally assumed to provide a living wage for teaching a reasonable course load, with allotted time for scholarly work and the academic freedom to conduct research without fear of reprisal. Misconceptions about the amount of time professors actually work, and the idea that they are a coddled class of intellectual elites with time to spare — is common but grossly inaccurate. Research, service, committees, student meetings and administrative responsibilities are just some of the duties faculty are responsible for in addition to their teaching load. A typical full-time professor’s schedule can easily extend into a 70 hour work week or beyond.³⁹ Upon issuing massive budget cuts across the University of Wisconsin system, governor Scott Walker argued that better “worker efficiency” could pick up the slack, suggesting that faculty members should teach an extra course per semester and “do more work” to offset the cuts. In response to Governor Walker, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca M. Blank remarked⁴⁰, “It’s our job to better communicate to those outside the university what we do at UW-Madison and how we do it.” Associate professor of education Nicholas Hillman took on this communication effort by tweeting an analogy he figured every Wisconsin resident could appreciate:

“‘The [Green Bay] Packers don’t just work 3 hours on Sundays.’ I’ve found this a helpful frame for discussing what faculty do in & outside the classroom.”⁴¹

Across the country, the tremendous time commitment involved in being full-time faculty is frequently overlooked. This becomes problematic when coupled with the rise of contingent faculty members. As previously mentioned, part time faculty or contingent faculty members have become the status quo. When the current culture of hiring processes regarding post secondary educators is examined, it is clear the dynamics of how we employ faculty have shifted.

Again, we arrive at the crisis of contingency. It is intelligible that institutions respond to financial strain by relying on a survival strategy that diminishes faculty salaries, but ultimately this mindset and emphasis on quarterly thinking will cause more problems than it solves. Contingency is not a solution. If this business model becomes the new norm, we risk creating an academic environment that does not support research or scholarly pursuits, and limits the availability of faculty members to engage students.

In , political scientist (Johns Hopkins University) details the rise of the administration and its impact on American higher-education:

“Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing not only new knowledge, but new visions of society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than […] a knowledge factory, offering more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors. There is nothing wrong with vocational education, but it’s a shame when that is all a university offers.”⁴²

The trend toward vocation without scholarship and education without enforced critical thinking may well lead to the kind of disparity in education that we see in income inequality. We are either very close to effectuating (or indeed, we may have already begun) a new era in higher education, in which Ronald Reagan’s assertions of education as an intellectual luxury have actually come to fruition, and traditional liberal arts education as we know it is reserved exclusively for the economically elite while the rest of the population is relegated to a vocational experience. If left unchecked, the shift away from publicly funded higher education will profoundly alter American society, creating an even more rigid class system, undermining lauded American egalitarian values, and ushering in a new gilded age.⁴³

School Closure and The Fine Art Context

Attempting to adapt to highly competitive contemporary economic demands, some arts organizations have started utilizing vo-tech oriented slogans. Memphis College of Art adopted the marketing campaign phrase “” and The National Endowment of the Arts took a similar approach for their grants program, which they call “Art Works.” The framing is savvy, but the clever double-entendre carries the connotation that art might soon need to function only as a commodity, which is a dangerous misconception. These slogans have not been uniformly successful.

In response to students wary of an unstable labor market, some large schools have decreased their offerings in humanities and fine arts in exchange for an increase in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Arts and humanities are not exclusively on the chopping block during the process of academic streamlining. Goucher College (Baltimore) has cut math and physics majors, in addition to elementary and special education as part of an “academic revitalization.”⁴⁴ The University of North Carolina system has cut education programs, including math education⁴⁵, special education, and art education. Eastern Kentucky University has eliminated economics, school psychology and associates degrees in nursing in order to compensate for a $25 million dollar shortfall.⁴⁶ Institutions currently reducing programs are notably cutting education, art, art history, languages, soft sciences, literature, and cultural studies, which is leading to cuts of staff jobs and faculty positions in these respective fields. Eastern Kentucky University has cut one-hundred and fifty-three jobs, including two sports teams.⁴⁶ Western Kentucky University cut one-hundred and forty positions⁴⁷, The University of Montana has cut fifty-eight faculty positions⁴⁸, Pacific Lutheran University has lost thirty-one faculty positions,⁴⁹ and Marylhurst University (a small liberal arts college in Portland, OR) will close completely at the end of 2018.⁵⁰

Notably, the institutions mentioned in the are cutting programs that do not lead directly or necessarily to easily commodifiable positions post-graduation. While promoting and emphasis STEM education in 2014, President Obama memorably stated, “I promise you folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He added that there was nothing wrong with art-history, but the message was apparent: Arts and humanities education is a luxury most Americans can no longer afford in a competitive global economy.⁵¹ In regard to UNC system cuts and consolidation of fifty-six programs, UNC board member Steven Long claimed, “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”⁴⁵

Smaller schools are facing declines in incoming tuition due to lower enrollment and current trends forecast an increase in school closures. One of the most recent closures in regard to the arts is the aforementioned Memphis College of Art (MCA). MCA has recently stopped admitting new students, but are continuing with their curriculum until graduating their last class of students in May 2020.⁵² The reason for MCA’s closure is the same for many that fall into a similar classification: it is a smaller college whose endowment alone is not strong enough to sustain itself through declining enrollment. The trend toward school closings has even extended to the for-profit sector. Eighteen locations of The Art Institute across the nation are scheduled to close by the end of the year. Dream Center Education Holdings, which purchased thirty-one of the Art Institutes at the start of 2017⁵³, announced they will no longer be accepting students and will be closing several institutions in metropolitan areas across the country. The closure of MCA and for-profit AI correlate with the state of small liberal arts colleges across the country, which seemingly exist in perpetual fear of closure or merger with larger institutions⁵⁴, further threatening a traditional education in liberal arts and humanities for anyone but the economically elite. It is worth noting that this would be a return to the state of higher education prior to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill.

What is at Stake?

Projected forward, these trends suggest a dangerous future. The K-12 system offers informative examples of the pitfalls of corporatizing education. From extreme budget-cutting that leaves schools in substandard conditions, to high stakes computer-assisted education, most educators would argue the last two decades of education reform have damaged the schools it was intended to help. While leaky classrooms, lead pipes, and roach infestations pose real health dangers, there are even greater risks associated with the shifts discussed here. The shift to corporatization of higher education endangers one of the very pillars of democratic society itself: by relinquishing the institutional role of fostering a thoughtful and informed citizenry, colleges and universities effectively replace aspirational endeavor with the short-sighted production of narrowly trained system managers.

The shift on a grand scale away from holistic education toward mere job training (for most students) will greatly limit students’ ability to form connections between disciplines, to synthesize knowledge, to attain meta-analytical understanding. By narrowing the focus of higher education, many universities are already generating graduates who lack the vocabulary to comprehend, let alone combat, the weakening and splintering that’s currently taking a toll on our socio-economic structure. This is by no means to malign trade-based education. Vocational training is a much-needed part of education in the United States, however it is not a cure-all that some recent advocates had hoped for, in halting woes of poverty in an era of wage stagnation and economic disparity. While vocational education plays a valuable role in the scope of American higher-education, we are fundamentally at risk when that mode of education becomes the only option for those other than the economically (and soon to be intellectually) elite. If this current inevitability comes to fruition, we may see an intellectual disparity that nurtures an uninformed and hobbled democracy.⁵⁵

As academia trudges slowly forward under the yoke of administrative bloat, unchecked campus spending, habitual dependence on contingent faculty and an increased workload for those on the tenure track, one consequence that is often under-acknowledged is the subsequent loss of scholarship, and the resulting effect on our culture and the socio-political environment. If most faculty spend their time and resources just struggling to make ends meet while traveling between institutions, when and how are they to do scholarly work? If tenure-track faculty are increasingly asked to teach more courses, pushing their work week well past 40 hours (in some cases just to generate revenue for their departments), how are they going to introduce new research into the academic vernacular? What are the consequences of the loss of academic freedom the tenure model protects? If our expert voices are lost, who is left speaking?⁵⁶ More importantly, how does this thinning and stretching of faculty time impact students, and what kind of critical thinkers can they become if they’re forced to just take any job just to try to keep up with crippling student loans? If all our faculty and generations of students are now relegated to truncated scholarship and a subsequent loss of academic integrity, what is the consequence for our society?

Understanding Contingency as a Labor Rights Issue

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

The denotation of “contingent”⁵⁷ suggests that contingent faculty are dependent for their professional existence on something that is uncertain and conditional, subject to chance. Similarly, the term “adjunct” literally means, “something added to another thing but not essential to it.”⁵⁸ Understand that, as a solid majority of the higher education teaching workforce, contingent faculty are unquestionably essential to the survival of the academy. Colleges and universities cannot continue to tout higher education as a safeguard against growing income inequality while condemning to financial destitution the majority of the highly educated workforce they depend on for their very operation.

Many contingent faculty face numerous breaches of fair labor practice, and most lack access to institutionally-provided health care. They contend with grossly inadequate compensation — ⁵⁹. In a 2012 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The PhD Now Comes With Food Stamps,” the number of people with master’s degrees and doctorates who have had to apply for food stamps, unemployment or other assistance more than tripled between 2007 and 2010. Contingency is a colossal factor in the growing need for this taxpayer subsidy to academia, which Matthew Williams, co-founder of the non-tenure-track advocacy group New Faculty Majority aptly refers to as “the dirty little secret in higher-education.”⁶⁰

Most obvious and frightening about this data, it is a signifier that obtaining credentialing through higher ed is no longer an assurance of economic security, inside academia or out. For many contingent faculty, the struggle to earn a living wage is compounded by the struggle to pay off student loan debt. They often work excess of 40 hours a week while commuting between several institutions, none of which is allowed to hire them for more than an average of two classes, lest they be forced to provide benefits. Indeed, the vast majority of contingent faculty perform this multi-institutional juggling act without the advantage of health or retirement benefits. Unfortunately, contingent faculty are often denied recognition by tenured faculty and administration, even at their own institutions. Most lack scholarly support, and feel an inability to address these issues without fear of reprisal. They struggle to master the balancing act of trying to fully engage with teaching, scholarship, and trying to be available to their students, all while commuting, chasing other sources of income, keeping an eye out for full-time positions and applying for them.

Inappropriately, contingent faculty grapple with the misconception that their circumstance is somehow a personal or professional shortcoming, rather than an indicator of the changes in the higher-ed job market. This is further exacerbated by the industry’s lack of transparency in acknowledging this paradigmatic shift.

Contingent faculty in the fine arts also have to somehow manage the high cost of continuing to exhibit their work on a part-time income, given the necessity of regularly exhibiting in order to to remain viable in the higher education market. They also face a stigma and a perceived lack of academic legitimacy after being contingent faculty for a long period of time. Meanwhile, due to an industry-wide lack of transparency, and obfuscation about faculty hiring practices, most of their students are entirely unaware of the contingency crisis, and understandably lack even a basic understanding of the stratification in academic faculty.

Call to Action: Turning Point

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

Many of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s goals for education defunding are nearly complete. Top public universities now receive little to no funding from the state government, instead depending on student fees, large grants, and corporate sponsorships in order to balance their budgets. But Powell’s primary goal, to promote the concept of the free market and reduce the popularity of socialism in the minds of youth is proving itself to be wildly unsuccessful. Instead, free market principles are looked on with growing suspicion to a young generation growing up in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. In fact, according to recent gallup polls, people under 30 now view socialism more favorably than capitalism by 6–10 points.⁶¹,⁶² While there is some irony in the fact that older generations who benefited most from the university system resist the concept of universal higher education for the youth, many young people have begun to demand justice in education funding, creating a countercurrent focused on a return to normalcy in a system which once offered affordable education to all citizens. Any change to the current unsustainable funding structure will require cooperation between students, contingent faculty, and full-time professors with a shared goal of improving conditions for all. Those of us dedicated to continuing the centuries-old traditions of art education and academic inquiry now find ourselves in a frighteningly precarious position. However, there are both historical and recent actions that can serve as a guide for those with a stake in the health of higher education.

Call to Action: Organization

The thriving American middle class was built in large measure through unions and collective bargaining. Union membership grew throughout the early and middle 20th Century, and the more unions grew, the more income inequality came down (measured in this chart from the Economic Policy Institute⁶³ as the share of income going to the top 10 percent).

As a result of concerted efforts to reduce labor rights in the past half century, union membership has dropped to the lowest levels in eight decades. As union membership declines, income inequality rises. Notably, the share of income going to the middle class declines with drops in union membership, which is currently the lowest it’s been since the 1930’s.⁶⁴

While higher education has been greatly impacted by the corporate defunding model, we can gain important insight from recent organizing actions taken by thousands of K-12 teachers. Last year, educators in five states participated in walkouts, strikes, and demonstrations demanding increases in education funding, and higher wages. These collective actions were in response to over a decade of education funding cuts combined with stagnant wages, two problems we see repeated consistently in higher education. After a decades-long trend of labor defeat, the 2017–2018 illegal wildcat strikes in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona were the most successful education labor actions in a generation.⁶⁵

The decline of union membership has haunted the public sector for two generations, leading many to believe the power of the worker is over. However, the actions of the past year serve as a strong model for higher education, proving the ability to organize even under anti-union “Right to Work” limitations. In Arizona, teachers led a week-long walkout, resulting in the state legislators agreeing to a 20% pay increase for teachers by 2020.⁶⁶ Teachers in West Virginia secured a 5% pay increase, and in Oklahoma the threat of a strike brought the Governor to pass a $6,000 pay increase per teacher before the strike even began.⁶⁷ These actions borrow largely from a strategy called “Organizing for the Public Good” which brings interested parties such as teachers, students, and parents together to advocate for education collectively. The key to political power is winning over the populace, which is key to clarifying that labor and organizing actions are in fact for the benefit of the entire community. And as any effective community organizer can attest, by directly connecting and communicating with neighbors about the matters at hand and the goals of the organizing action, they work to clarify and confirm that the voting populace already shares common goals with the teachers.

Higher education faculty, both on and off the tenure track, should heed the progress of K-12 educators and efforts by a growing number of contingent faculty groups to unionize their institutions under larger labor rights organizations ( , , , , etc). In 2015, the part-time faculty at Ithaca College voted to form a union, and they chose to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a union that is much better known for representing the workers the organization is named for, but which represents 120,000+ members in public and private higher education. In 2017, after threatening to strike, the Ithaca College Contingent Faculty Union negotiated a new contract for its members, bringing immediate raises and a number of other new benefits, such as an established path toward pay parity, including annual raises over the duration of the contract (totaling more than $1,000 per 3-credit course), a $1300 “kill fee” paid to contingent faculty for any courses that are canceled at the last minute, guaranteed interview and consideration for minimally qualified contingent faculty applying for any full-time faculty position, access to professional development funding, a grievance procedure & just cause provision (so no one can be fired without just cause), as well as an earlier fall semester pay day for part-time faculty.⁶⁸

When Rowan University’s part-time faculty organized in 1999, the adjunct rate was $350 per credit, or $1050 per course. The fall after they joined the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Rowan’s adjunct rate jumped by 50% to $525 per credit, or $1575 per course, and it has continued to climb gradually almost every year since. The full-time faculty benefited from this contract as well; “overflow” teaching rates for full time faculty at Rowan (for teaching additional courses beyond what their contracts require), are paid at the adjunct rate. According to one Rowan faculty member,

“It’s important to note however that this is not the result of local negotiations. The reason why we’re getting somewhere is almost surely that we’re dealing with 8 locals (at various state colleges) negotiating as a body with the state.”*

Rowan isn’t alone in utilizing this strategy of organizing with other local unions to negotiate as a larger collective body. In the Philadelphia area, the American Federation of Teachers has contingent faculty union chapters at colleges and universities from across the city-wide area, which all work together and collectively make up a large local union called United Academics of Philadelphia. State or region-wide organizing is an excellent strategy for contingent faculty, at a time when unions are under substantial attack, and with the center of academic power in higher education shifting increasingly to their administrations and out of the hands of faculty.

While significant improvements in wages and benefits have been made by contingent faculty who have organized (including a growing number of graduate teaching assistant unions), it’s important to note that this movement does little to restore tenure track positions or steer universities away from contingency.⁶⁹ If the tenure model is to be preserved, along with the academic freedom it provides scholars to perform research without fear of consequential reprimand, all faculty — both contingent and tenured — must work together to end the dominance of contingency in higher education. According to Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley, contributors to Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America,

“Since the founding of the nation, the purpose of higher education has been to develop skilled, thoughtful citizens capable of contributing in meaningful ways to society. This purpose will never be realized with a professoriate composed predominantly of instructors who work without the protection of real academic freedom, and have no role in shared governance, no job security, no benefits, low wages, and no real hope of ever finding a full-time position.”⁶⁹

Call To Action: Moving Forward

Graphic courtesy of Matthew Clowney.

In conjunction with addressing reliance on contingent faculty in higher education, academics should call for an rectification of salary disparities, between part-time faculty and full-time faculty, as well as between faculty and the administration; academics should call for a fix for the federal student loan debt crisis, and a substantial re-prioritization in both state and federal government to fiscally and ideologically support higher ed learning; academia must ensure that our professoriate and student body are duly diverse, and find manageable solutions for rising tuition and campus spending. Importantly but not exclusively, faculty senates and other shared governance structures should be used to give voice to some of these serious concerns, and faculty should openly share these issues with students so that they may have agency in the battle against these crises facing higher-education.

Central to solving higher-education’s multifarious issues must be a great retreat from the policy of contingency. In order to rally against the now intrinsic machination of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s legacy, the faculty must be a united front that does not waver from the cause due to exhaustion, poverty and defeat. It may be that the very strength of our democracy depends on our action. In the words of Frederick Douglass:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


About the Authors:

Coriana Close is an Associate Professor of Photography teaching undergraduate and graduate photography courses, as well as video for artists and photo history. Her personal practice includes still photography, appropriated layered video, and edible landscape design. Conceptually her work focuses on social justice, state-sanctioned violence, and the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

Her work has been noted in publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, UA News, Athens News, Chronicle Tribune and the Republican American. She has exhibited and lectured in universities and galleries across the United States.

Matthew Clowney is a fine art and commercial photographer, graphic designer, podcaster, and photography instructor living in Providence, RI. His photographic work includes a celebration of diversity and complexity in the American family, an investigation into the impact of manipulated imagery on personal memories, and a fantastical look at signs of sentient life on extraplanetary bodies. Clowney’s work is in permanent collections at the Philadelphia Museum of art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Woodmere Art Museum.

He is founder and co-chair of the Society for Photographic Education Contingent Faculty Caucus.

Michael Darough is an Assistant Professor of Photography teaching darkroom, digital and the history of photography. His work focuses on personal and cultural identity though the use of portraiture, tableau and documentary photography.

Darough’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

E.L. Jennings is currently a contingent faculty member at large, working with graduate and undergraduate students in both digital and darkroom photography. She is an image-maker utilizing both filmmaking and photography, and her work emphasizes and examines gender representation and the politics of viewing.

Jennings’ work has been exhibited internationally, with a recent feature in The Opera Magazine for Classic and Contemporary Nude Photography. She is the founder and co-chair of the Society of Photographic Education’s Contingent Faculty Caucus.


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  • Personal communication with Rowan University faculty

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The above essay has been brought to you by the , as an article published within , its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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Find out more about SPE , or learn about the many benefits of membership . Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2019 Annual Conference “,” to be held in Cleveland, Ohio.

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