In this article over at The Atlantic, “Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?” the author, Megan McArdle, makes a series of rather interesting observations (triggered by this piece in Inside Higher Ed):
Academia has bifurcated into two classes: tenured professors who are decently paid, have lifetime job security, and get to work on whatever strikes their fancy; and adjuncts who are paid at the poverty level and may labor for years in the desperate and often futile hope of landing a tenure track position. And, of course, graduate students, the number of whom may paradoxically increase as the number of tenure track jobs decreases–because someone has to teach all those intro classes.
I have long theorized that at least some of the leftward drift in academia can be explained by the fact that it has one of the most abusive labor markets in the world. I theorize this because in interacting with many professors, I am bewildered by their beliefs about labor markets more generally; many seem to think of private labor markets as an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses. Yet this does not describe the low wage jobs in which I’ve worked–there were of course individuals who had to hold onto that particular job for idiosyncratic reasons, but as a class, low wage workers do not face the kind of monolithic employer power that a surprising number of academics seem to believe is common.
It is common, of course–in academia. Until they have tenure, faculty are virtual prisoners of their institution. Those on the tenure track work alongside a vast class of have-nots who are some of the worst-paid high school graduates in the country. So it’s not surprising to me that this is how academics come to view labor markets–nor that they naturally assume that it must be even worse on the outside. And that’s before we start talking about the marriages strained, the personal lives stunted, because those lucky enough to get a tenure-track job have to move to a random location, often one not particularly suited to their spouses’ work ambitions or their own personal preferences . . . a location which, barring another job offer, they will have to spend the rest of their life in.
The last paragraph of the article poses an excellent question/challenge:
What puzzles me is how this job market persists, and is even worsening, in one of the most left-wing institutions in the country. I implore my conservative commenters not to jump straight into the generalizations about how this always happens in socialist countries; I’m genuinely curious. Almost every academic I know is committed to a pretty strongly left-wing vision of labor market institutions. Even if it’s not their very first concern, one would assume that the collective preference should result in something much more egalitarian. So what’s overriding that preference?
This is an interesting question. The short answer might be that most academics are simply not “leftists.” Thoughts?