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The Academy’s Tragedy of the Commons

A broad array of problems trouble American universities. Students (and parents!) worry about the cost of degrees relative to job and income prospects after graduation. The resulting focus on vocational training leaves no time for exposure to anything but snippets of great ideas (let alone entire great books), even if the faculty want to teach ideas that formed this culture. The admissions process has become a grim war of all against all. Our children are taught to be posers, prizing the appearance of knowledge and virtue—for that all-important admissions file! Actual knowledge and virtue time and effort that cannot be wasted in the quest for elite schooling. 

Into this steps Herb Childress’s look at modern American universities through the lens of adjunct instructors. Yet his indictment of the American system of post-secondary education in The Adjunct Underclass ranges beyond the experience of those instructors. He raises issues related to the stratification of American universities (elite, liberal arts, religious, state flagship, regional, and community colleges). He presses the focus of the curricula in many colleges and universities on what amounts to little more than vocational education. He discusses the cost of increasing the proportion of administrators relative to faculty and students.

All these are important topics for the American university system. His book is a valuable read even for those less interested in the specific topic of adjunct teachers. I would particularly recommend the book to any student thinking of obtaining a Ph.D. to become a professor. It would introduce a splash of realism to students tempted by romantic visions of the “life of the mind.”

The rise of adjunct faculty in universities, however, is the signature concern of the book. Childress sweeps almost all non-tenure track faculty into this category. He contrasts the relative stability and privilege of tenured and tenure-track faculty with the instability and absence of support for almost all non-tenure track faculty. The contingency and lack of support for adjunct faculty, he argues, provides students with lower-quality instruction.

While well known in the academy, even if the scope and implications are not entirely appreciated yet, the evolution of segmented faculty labor markets at many universities is less known to the public at large. One labor market is composed of tenured and tenure-track faculty. The other is composed of instructors who teach classes on an as-needed, as-contracted basis. While there are longer-term although non-tenured faculty as well, the poles are defined by the two extremes: on one side, tenured faculty lines, and on the other, semester-by-semester, per-class contract hires. 

Departmental needs, and so demand for adjuncts and their contractual terms, can change rapidly. Adjuncts might be paid as little as $3,000 to $4,000 per class.

Ironically, Childress is not as clear-eyed when discussing adjuncts as he is when discussing other concerns with modern American universities. 

Childress is upfront about why this is. It’s because it’s personal. Childress got a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He aspired to become a (tenured) university professor. His aspiration did not work out. Instead he and his wife strove endlessly for a secure place in academia, never to find it. Childress is candid that he feels a sense of personal failure as a result. But he also hints he, and others, were led astray. While I cannot speak to Childress’s personal experiences, I do want to press his generalizations at a couple of points. 

In particular, Childress seems so intent on holding others to account for the rise of adjuncts that he ignores the agency of the adjuncts themselves. Without minimizing other factors giving rise to the adjunct system, are we to ignore the choices adjuncts make?

The central issue in Childress’s analysis is this: Why do universities continue to produce a supply of Ph.D.s that far outstrips demand? This is not a problem just for lower-ranked departments. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in its August 21 edition that Columbia University’s English Department did not place a single Ph.D. into a tenure-track job this year. At the same time, 19 students had accepted admission into the department’s doctoral program.

The answer has many facets. Childress is pretty good about discussing many of them—too many to discuss in a short review. I pick up just two, one where Childress gets it wrong (along with others who argue the same thing) and another that Childress ignores. Where Childress gets it wrong is his claim that universities run doctoral programs with more students than the university knows will find academic jobs upon graduation for the same reason universities hire adjuncts: Graduate students provide a source of cheap teaching labor to departments. The factor that Childress ignores is the role that student choices play in the oversupply of Ph.D.s. I discuss each in turn.

According to Childress, graduate programs take advantage of students’ naivete. They admit them to their programs as a supply of cheap instructors for introductory sections. When students finish their doctoral programs, the university merely dumps them on a saturated job market.

It is true that misaligned incentives do contribute to the oversupply of Ph.D. to the academic market. But it works differently than Childress’s account. Indeed, Childress’s discussion of adjuncts itself provides the counterevidence against the claim that departments run graduate programs to provide low-paid instructors for their classes.

First a distinction: While related, doctoral students and adjuncts are not the same set of individuals. Doctoral students take classes in their early years and write their dissertation in their later years. If funded by the department—and most doctoral students are funded in most programs—students typically receive a tuition waiver and a modest stipend to serve as a teaching and/or research assistant. Depending on the university, the cost of health insurance and other fees may (or may not) be part of the package.

Adjuncts, on the other hand, normally are instructors who have already earned their Ph.D.s or are ABD (“all but dissertation”). At Ph.D.-granting institutions, departments might hire their own Ph.D.s as adjuncts. But not always. At colleges and universities that do not confer Ph.D.s, all adjuncts necessarily earned their Ph.D. at a different institution.

With this distinction in mind, here is the reason we know departments do not typically run doctoral programs as a source of cheap labor: Departments do not need graduate students to teach classes given the availability of low-paid adjuncts to do the same work. Adjuncts generally are cheaper than doctoral students. There is no reason for the hassle and cost of starting and maintaining a doctoral program if all a department wants is low-cost teachers.

Rather, the misalignment of incentives between demand and supply of Ph.D.s occurs because departments want to be Ph.D.-granting institutions. Departments want doctoral programs because these programs bring additional intellectual vitality to departments and additional prestige. Most faculty want to teach doctoral seminars and to mentor doctoral students. 

These department-specific reasons departments want Ph.D. programs do not necessarily align with market needs. Doctoral training in the U.S. is an example of the well-known tragedy of the commons. Each department’s decision to run a doctoral program and to add, say, five additional Ph.D.s per year to the field will hardly affect that already glutted market. No department has the incentive unilaterally to decrease its production of Ph.D.s.

A second reason for overproduction, however, are choices made by would-be doctoral students. Childress largely gives students a pass as a cause of their own troubles.

Recall that the time it takes to complete a Ph.D. usually extends anywhere from four to seven years. Even stipulating that students know nothing about demand for Ph.D.s in their area when they start the Ph.D. program, they nonetheless have years in the program obtaining their Ph.D. to find out.

While departments with poor placement records do not trumpet their poor placement results, students within those programs have years to observe and learn whether their fellow doctoral students get jobs and what type of jobs those are. Students share classes and offices; they talk to each other, and to others in their fields.

Unless a student chooses to remain willfully ignorant, an ordinarily observant student will have some idea after a year or two in a doctoral program what job prospects graduates from that program usually have. And, indeed, there is some evidence that students respond: Ph.D. programs typically have far higher dropout rates, even in the best programs, than doctoral programs in, say, medicine or law. While a big part of this is students being unable or unwilling to face the creative challenge of finishing a dissertation, part of it is that students recognize they face dicey job prospects even if they finish their dissertation.

While doctoral programs and doctoral advisors should be upfront with doctoral students regarding their ultimate job prospects early in a program—this is an ethical requirement—doctoral students are not forced by departments to remain ignorant of those prospects when the department does not share that information. Students have easy access to vital information from the beginning of their days as graduate students.

Finally, Childress presents stories as evidence of the problem that should instead be regarded as evidence of the solution. Childress for example tells the experience of an art historian. The “wheels came off” her career because she did not obtain a faculty position in art history. The upshot? “So now I give private seminars at people’s homes, and I get paid five times as much as I did by the university.” If oversupply of labor in a market suppresses wages in that market, then moving to a higher paying market is the solution.

Similarly, Childress notes that “the undergraduate students” whom adjuncts instruct “will themselves do far better [than the adjuncts], averaging roughly $50,000 per year straight from school.” That’s supposed to scandalize the reader. What it is, however, is arbitrage opportunity. No one forces the adjunct to remain in low-paying adjunct positions rather than taking the same $50,000 a year job—or even better-paying ones that trade on the specialized skills that most graduate students develop as part of their training.

Childress implicitly frames the problem of adjuncts as a problem of markets and neoliberalism. He seems to suggest that every Ph.D. has a right to a tenure-track faculty job. Yet even non-market economies must ration access to jobs. Even socialist economies need only so many art history professors. It is unclear that ex ante rationing would be any more fair or humane in its treatment of would-be doctoral students than the market system in the U.S. 

At least here it’s the student who makes the decision rather than an anonymous central planner.

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