Academic Labor and Passivity

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?

15 thoughts on “Academic Labor and Passivity

  1. “So what’s overriding that preference?”

    the good old stockholm syndrome?
    and yes, not being leftists. is academia leftish? since when?

  2. Speaking from the perspective of a post-grad: It seems like there’s a certain culture of trial-by-fire in academia. As in – you work hard now under less than favourable conditions as proof of your capacity.

    I have however heard that post-docs in the US are worked harder than those here in Australia. Which is to suggest: I don’t know how universal the conclusions reached by the article actually are.

  3. Speaking as a graduate student earning his PhD in the humanities, I have to question one of McArdle’s assumptions: namely, that there’s anything especially “left-wing” about the academy. Certainly individual professors, especially in the humanities, tend to hold liberal or generally left-ish views. And perhaps it’s true that more “extreme” left views, also, (read various versions of Marxism and a more diffuse anti-capitalism) are more prevalent in academia. But this is a far cry from a genuinely left wing academy. Indeed, what’s so striking about American academia is the level of privatization among its most prestigious institutions, and the degree to which the organizational structure of those institutions reflect, more and more, a corporate, for-profit model despite the political opinions of many faculty. Thus McArdle’s theory–that academia is a left-wing kind of place because of its abusive labor market–seems wrong to me on at least two counts. First, the assumption that institutions of higher education are “left-wing” or more “left-wing” to begin with, and second, the distinction between the academic job market and what McArdle refers to rather cryptically as the “private” job market. It is, in fact, precisely because the academic job market and the “private” job-market are, in most instances, the same thing that academic jobs are so rife with exploitation. Therefore, McArdle’s surprise at finding some much exploitation in a place so brimming with left-leaning characters is false from the start. It’s the institutional structure itself that’s responsible for the exploitation, and the operations of that structure are indifferent to the political, economic, and moral sentiments of its members.

    • Ben,

      Those are excellent observations. Yeah, the assumption that apriori faculty are “left-leaning” seems like a bit of an overstatement, at best. I also think that McArdle’s reasoning is a bit backwards and counterintuitive given what you suggest above, at least on one account. Her suggestion that the material conditions of (adjunct) labor have caused the professoriate to run towards the left strikes me as dead wrong. It seems to me it’s probably the other way around, e.g. faculty complicity with the structure/hierarchy of insitutions and more broadly “inegalitarian values,” has actually helped to create a climate that allows for more and more non-FT , non-TT positions. However, what I think McArdle gets right is the passivity of tenured faculty when it comes to standing up for the discipline/profession etc. So, in one sense I think, perhaps, the professoriate are simply too taken with the ideology of “the Market.” Moreoever–going along with whiny passivity–there also seems to be some sort of deep-seeded fetishization of meritocracy that just can’t be shaken once and for all. All the while the institutions faculty lay claim to are churning out and legitimizing economic inequalities.

    • I agree, Ben. As a graduate student in philosophy, I am often surprised at the overriding assumption in America that the universities operate on the fringe of the far left. The American university system is certainly a byproduct of the market society and, unfortunately, it seems to have a pretty dismal record of labor abuses.

  4. I think academics still believe that if they write a stern letter to some administration official (take current Middlesex situation), it will really help the situation – I’m kind of annoyed with these self-righteous posts on “Here’s my letter to the administration of Middlesex” – I know it’s a good gesture and people mean well, but do they really think these letters are being read? They are mostly important in terms of raising awareness – why not write them to newspapers or general public? There’s certainly not going to be any large protest movement, no one’s going to quit their cushy jobs in expression of support or solidarity. This is why these admin types do these sorts of things – we’ll yell for a bit and then just go back to normal. Hopefully Middlesex’s program survives, but there are plenty of smaller ones that won’t, because no one’s going to do anything about it…

    Academics are mostly self-professedly leftist – they’re not really leftist at all, in my opinion.

    • It’s hard for me not to think of Steve Coogan’s “I’m Alan Partridge” (from a New Yorker profile a couple of years ago) here:

      Recently, Coogan pitched the idea of a movie in which Partridge is held hostage at the BBC after a terrorist takeover and tries to work out a peace settlement. “Your position is you want to destroy the West,” Coogan said, launching into Patridge’s imaginary negotiation. “The West’s position is, broadly speaking, they don’t want to be destroyed. Is there a midway between those two positions that could satisfy us both? Rather than suicide bombings, you achieve so much more with a sternly worded letter.”

      • It’s funny because it’s true – the first thing everyone did was write a sternly worded letter to Middlesex and then maybe an idea of boycotting came up – Is that all we have? Are those the only real instruments of fighting against arbitrary decisions to eliminate whole program? Don’t get me wrong, a sternly worded letter is a powerful tool, but only if it comes from someone “they” respect (are afraid of), I’m sure a bunch of academics (who, as you note, do very little about the growing exploitation of their own kind) are not going to be much of a threat in this case. I think occupations and rallies will probably do the trick, because “they” hate disturbances of peace and general unruliness of the masses.

  5. I don’t see how any group’s political opinions or beliefs would shape the structure of a labor market, let alone the academic labor market. It’s not like academics “shop around” as a collective in order to decide where best to sell their labor based on some sort of free market consumer logic (it’s frankly not surprising that McArdle would frame the argument this way either, given her extremely neoliberal ideological bent).

    Furthermore, although this is more of a discussion of strictly academic labor markets, I think it’s worth adding that it’s rather odd that professors and grad students are the only ones who are negatively affected by university employment policies, and this kind of ideological narrow-mindedness, perhaps even class-bias, speaks well to what Mikhail is saying (the tendency for academics to be “self-professedly leftist” or rhetorically leftist, rather than actually leftist). At least here at Michigan, UofM is one of the biggest violators of wage labor laws when it comes to their hiring policies of non-academic, working class employees (the people who deal with waste management, plant operations, food services, and basically everything that makes the university itself function). At UofM what they’d do is have people sign two year contracts, after employees are supposed to get a pay raise based on state laws, so after two years the university would mass-fire all the staff, then rehire them as temp workers in order to deprive them of job security and keep wages suppressed. And of course no one notices or cares–“It’s just the way it goes”–until they get furloughs!

    So, again, I think it’s worth reiterating: the university is an exploitative, market-based institution, and the people whom they exploit are certainly not limited to academics.

    • Yeah, I remember there was a small protest at my school over some issues with the unionization of the cafeteria workers – nothing came out of it and a bunch of angry workers were complaining that liberal profs and students were interfering with what they thought was none of their business. (You’re right, we generally think of university as consisting of profs and students when in fact with admins and service personnel, they are probably in the minority in some places. Is there any statistics?) So you have both overeager idealistic academics and narrow minded and therefore easily exploited “thankful we get paid anything” and “unions will only take our money” workers – gloom and doom all around.

      • I don’t know Mikhail. . . The “narrow minded and therefore easily exploited “thankful we get paid anything”” mindset sounds like it increasingly describes faculty.

        I am not in the least being facetious when I say that it certainly describes me. (recent news at my institution- ; also tenured faculty can be fired without declaration of exigency, scroll down-

        I’ve almost certainly read too much Schopenhauer at this point for my own good, but I kind of think that the bad guys have won? Of course, the wonderfully subtle headache inducing and all around poisonous bouquet of petroleum and dispersant wafting north towards me may have something to do with this as well.

        Maybe on some other planet sentient life is having a better go of it than we are here on Earth. That would be nice.

        In the meanwhile, we can fill up the inboxes of those dudes at Middlesex. What kind of name is that for a university anyhow? That’s what I want to know.

  6. *Correction: Should be, “I think it’s worth adding that professors and grad students are not the only ones who are negatively affected by university employment policies”

  7. I presume that the for-profit universities don’t offer tenure. They can hire maybe 3 FTEs for every tenured professor, and instead of passing the savings on to the students through lower tuition they pocket the profits. One could argue that the tenured professors are pocketing at least some of the profits earned from work done by adjuncts and grad students.

    At universities one earns tenure mostly through research and publication. What about at liberal arts colleges or other departments that don’t have a grad school program — on what basis is tenure awarded? I’m guessing that there are no tenured positions at community colleges — is that so?

    Is tenure the problem, do you think? Or is it the pay discrepancy between tenured and non-tenured faculty?

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