(Crossposted at Cocktail Party Physics)
If you’ve been in academia at any time in the last 30 years, you know that the composition of science education is changing. In the Humanities, the last 30 years have seen a nearly complete reversal of the proportion of tenured faculty to contingent faculty (meaning part-time adjuncts, grad students, postdocs, and full-time adjuncts on 1-3 year renewable contracts) until tenured and tenure-track faculty are now only about 25% of those employed by public and private universities (PDF). As tenured professors retire, they are being replaced not by more tenure-track hires, but by several expendable (and cheap) part-time contingent faculty. In STEM disciplines, things are a little different (in 2008, approximately 39% of STEM PhDs in the academy were postdocs or contingent faculty)*, and getting worse, but many new PhDs find themselves on a near-perpetual postdoc carousel, with little hope of a permanent position, making as little as $39,000/year. Meanwhile, academic administration positions, costs, and salaries have grown at twice the rate comparable numbers for faculty have.
Regardless of whether you have any sympathy for poor PhDs who’ve spent at least 10 years of their lives training for jobs that are now rapidly becoming extinct, you should care about what it means for scientific literacy. The slogan one hears around disaffected adjuncts these days is “Our working conditions become student learning conditions.” And there’s a great deal of truth to that slogan. When professors are hired at the last possible moment, often less than a week before classes start (sometimes the same day), there is no time for anything but the most formulaic preparation, sometimes just barely ahead of one’s students. Many contingent faculty are only allowed to teach part-time (because benefits! Heavens!) and thus must teach at several different colleges to make ends meet, which means a lot of time on the road—time that could be better spent grading, setting up labs, meeting with students, or prepping for class. If you’re a contingent faculty member, you have little time for forming mentoring relationships with your students, and that means you can’t really help them along in their careers, either. You also have little to no academic freedom or job security, and this can present problems if you teach, say, evolutionary biology in the South.
But mostly what this means is that, no matter how fine a teacher, no matter how innovative a researcher, no matter how eloquent a communicator you are, students aren’t getting the full benefit of your abilities, and careers are being stillborn. In both STEM and the Humanities, we’re losing a whole generation of researchers and scholars. What to do?
Change is brewing, in the form of unionization and direct actions from adjuncts themselves. Adjuncts have formed their own advocate organizations such as New Faculty Majority, the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education (CACHE), and the international Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL, which is meeting in August in New York). Meanwhile, SEIU, the UAW, and the United Steelworkers among other unions, have organized thousands of adjuncts at dozens of colleges and universities around the country just in the last year. And adjuncts are taking individual action themselves.
Which brings me to the petition currently making the rounds on Change.org. Written by a small group of activists that includes adjuncts, tenured professors, and former adjuncts now working in industry or “post-ac” jobs, the petition is addressed to the new director of the US Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division, David Weil, asking him to open an investigation into the hiring, employment, and other labor practices of public and private higher educational institutions. What we hope to accomplish is both the laying bare of the pernicious practices that treat our most highly educated workers as interchangeable cogs, and the first steps in reforming the university for faculty and students.
If you care about education, if you have kids in college, or will, if you are an adjunct or a postdoc, or just a concerned citizen, please sign this petition. It’s important that the labor practices of colleges and universities get a close scrutinizing from the Labor Department, since they so closely parallel the union-busting, wage-thieving practices of the worst industries in the country (think Walmart and fast food). Whether you believe there is a “STEM crisis” or not, higher education can’t afford to continue abusing its scholars and researchers—nor can the country.
*National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2012. Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 2008. Detailed Statistical Tables NSF 13-302. Arlington, VA.