Will the Professor be De-professionalized?

Will the Professor be De-professionalized?
Part I of II

by Chris Dorn
April 9th, 2015

It is a commonplace now that the proportion of contingent or “adjunct” faculty to full-time tenured and tenure track faculty teaching in American colleges and universities has increased dramatically in recent decades. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1970 only 22.2% of faculty at all higher education institutions was part-time employees, not including graduate assistants. In 2009, 49.3% of faculty was part-time employees. In more recent years movements to unionize have emerged in response to the real abuses to which this trend has given rise. But there is still work to be done. Contingent faculty continue in alarming numbers to teach classes part-time or on limited-term contracts, without permanent appointments, adequate compensation or appropriate professional support. Higher education researchers deplore this casualization of academic labor, which they argue persuasively results in an unstable workforce, impaired academic freedom, and diminished educational quality, among other things.

My contention here is that this trend, if not checked or reversed, will deprive the academic profession of its very status as a profession. By profession I understand a set of institutional arrangements whereby members of a profession rather than managers or consumers have the privilege of organizing and controlling their own work. In the case of the academic profession, its members have this privilege in the form of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance. This privilege, however, extends only to members who have attained the rank of tenure. Contingent faculty are for the most part excluded. By hiring “off track,” then, colleges and universities effectively reduce the academic profession’s control over its own work. Again, if this is not checked and ultimately reversed, we will witness the de-professionalization of the academic profession.

How can the academic profession reclaim the ground it has lost in these past few decades? How can it resist the further advance of de-professionalization, and carve out a domain for itself in which it can reassert control over its own work? In this two-part essay I want to address these questions, which I suggest are fundamentally ethical. In the first part I consider briefly and then criticize the “professional ethics” that Neil W. Hamilton in his article “A Crisis of Ethic Proportion,” proposes in response to the casualization of academic labor (Inside Higher Education (June 12, 2009)). In the second part I develop my own ethics, which will appear as a more adequate framework within which to see and respond to the erosion of the academic profession.

Hamilton wants to reclaim for professors their role as trustees of socially important knowledge that contributes to the public good. But this means that the academic profession is obliged to make a convincing case to the public (and the governing boards representing the public) that its members are exercising this role in good faith, and are therefore justified in maintaining their privileged position. If it fails to meet this obligation, the predictable result during a time of rapid change in the marketplace is that society and employers will renegotiate the terms under which it performs it work according to a managerial or consumer logic typical for other occupations. This is precisely what has happened to the academic profession. Hamilton observes that this renegotiation is most evident in the increasing use of contingent faculty, in which managers rather than professors control academic work.

If transfer of control was the direct outcome of the profession’s failure to mount a strong public defense of its privileged position at a critical time, what recourse does it have now? Hamilton believes it is premature for the profession to resign itself to the trend toward casualization. But it cannot hope to reverse this trend until it recommits itself to the task of making this defense and diligently fulfilling the duties entrusted to it by the public. Hamilton suggests that the first step is to ensure that the profession’s members receive thorough instruction in professional ethics. If they succeed in understanding and internalizing standards of professional competence and ethical conduct, they will be prepared to make a credible case that the privileges they enjoy—academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance—best serve higher education’s mission.

Hamilton’s criticism of the academic profession merits close consideration. With few outstanding exceptions, professors have been missing in action as the academic workforce has undergone this restructuring around them. There are several possible reasons for this absence. One may be simple ignorance. Over a decade ago Gary Rhoades observed that most are “oblivious” to the “scope and significance” of what has been happening (Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor). My experience in higher education institutions taught me that this has not changed appreciably. Another reason may be that many have concluded such changes are inevitable, that they have no real alternative than that of acquiescing to the decisions of administrators concerning faculty budget allowances. “After all, they control the money!” as one exasperated professor at the university where I did my graduate studies cried.

I came to the realization then that professors like her may be implicitly aware that they are structurally in a vulnerable position with respect to their employers. Most professors specialize in disciplines that have no functional value in the broader economy and therefore must depend for their living on teaching in academic institutions. For this teaching these institutions recruit students, as well as provide physical plant, support personnel, and administrative staff. And in recent decades they have diverted a rapidly increasing share of their revenue into these operating costs while disinvesting in their instructional workforce. Computer labs, digitized libraries, licensing fees, software and software upgrades, not to mention the growing corps of infotech specialists who support this technology have contributed enormously to this shift. Parenthetically, this ongoing revolution in information technology is feared as a threat to the occupation of university professor for another reason. Traditional faculty roles are in danger of obsolescence through the mechanization and advances in technique afforded by this technology, which makes professors vulnerable to displacement by practitioners with lesser or different training. Still another reason may be that some faculty see “adjunctification” as a necessary evil for the sustaining of their own privileges. Funding for their salaries and benefits, sabbaticals, merit increases, reduced teaching loads, and other advantages depend on a cadre of under-compensated and overworked contingent faculty. The resulting bifurcation into two classes of academic laborers easily contributes to the breakdown of a felt sense of academic community that is part of the professoriate’s heritage, but sadly some may have decided that it is the necessary price to pay for the protection of their interests.

That actively resisting the adjunctification of academic labor is actually in the interest of full-time professors is a point on which I want to elaborate later. But now I return to Hamilton’s criticism to examine a premise that I think is problematic. Hamilton assumes a concept of professionalism to which our present political and economic climate is hardly hospitable. Note that the academic profession has been under attack in recent decades for what its critics have perceived to be its leftist tendencies and for neglecting its teaching duties in favor of estoreric scholarship. The general public has little patience for the defense of a research agenda oriented around an abstract value like the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. This patience is worn even thinner in a period of economic crisis where people are anxious about learning immediately applicable skills that qualify them for gainful employment in a job market that remains tough. Stephen Brint’s claim that we are living in an “age of experts” is apropos here. According to Brint, the ideal of the “social trustee professional”—which Hamilton’s argument assumes—is being displaced by the “expert professional,” a process that has accelerated since the 1960s (In An Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life). The social trustee professional subordinates her specialized knowledge and skills to the aim of sustaining social ideals. The expert professional, on the other hand, sees herself under no such obligation; her primary concern is with making money. In this regard, the latter speaks in a language that the public at large readily understands and accepts. “The master narrative—the way we think of our world—has abandoned the social for the economic,” observed the late historian Tony Judt (Ill Fares the Land). In this context, professors—even trained historians—would be hard pressed to mount a convincing public defense of their professional prerogatives when they cannot justify them with an appeal to the money their work makes. The problem then is that the defense Hamilton urges professors to make presupposes a model of professionalism that no longer has traction in the public he imagines.

The futility of staking a claim for itself on values on which there is no longer social consensus, however, does not excuse the academic profession from developing an ethics. But the focus of this program will be learning how to formulate new ethical questions, which will emerge from critical reflection on the changed relationships in which professors now stand with those with whom they work. I refer here especially to administrators, graduate students, and contingent faculty. But the list can be extended to include undergraduates, their parents, alumni, and state and federal legislators. What kind of ethics then is needed to guide this critical reflection? This is the question to which I devote the second part of this essay.

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