Each Against All: Neoliberalism and Higher Education, Part 3

For Part One, click HERE.
For Part Two, click HERE.

In the first two parts of this series, I looked at both the larger philosophical climate and specific historical context for neoliberalism, its emergence, and its growing domination of our political-economic-cultural landscape. Having established that neoliberalism, in the words of Henry Giroux, sustains “a form of economic Darwinism” in and for institutions of higher education, it’s time to examine what that means for our own practice. How has neoliberalism shaped higher education, and what do the answers to that question mean for our work with and among students?

Let’s start with one of the most obvious examples: how many of us nearly roll our eyes right out of our heads when we hear some variation of the “customer service” argument proffered by an administrator, or consultant, or politician? Students are customers, we’re told. Degrees are a product. Colleges and universities are consumer experiences. “Are they getting what they paid for?” runs the common refrain. How much is that degree worth? What kind of job can you get with a degree in X? (As a historian, this is one that I hear all the time). Top-down, institutionally-mandated assessment processes focus on “outcomes” that are tangible “deliverables.” Job placement rates-the ubiquitous “gainful employment” metric-are taken as proof of performance, and of institutional quality. And student evaluations of learning are often handled as market-satisfaction surveys. Did you enjoy your visit to History 102?

Those of us who are actually doing the work of teaching and learning with students, however, know this an inherently flawed paradigm. We aren’t a factory making widgets, we tell the folks preaching customer service to us, we’re teaching students how to learn, how to think. And these are never finished products. Measuring them involves more than just test scores or placement rates. To use the parlance of assessment (an important area in which many of us need to be more conversant), these types of easily-quantifiable metrics are nothing more than indirect measures (and not very good ones, at that) of student learning. Indeed, some of the most valuable student learning experiences are those which come out of having one’s core perspectives questioned and challenged, or out of failure. Neither of those is satisfying, yet both are necessary. 

So why are we so focused on defining quantifiable outcomes to “measure” learning? Why is the language of customer service such a pervasive phenomenon? I would argue that neoliberalism’s market imperatives have demanded this type of reporting from institutions of higher learning to justify their existence. An ideology that measures utility in terms of profit and loss, that uses cost-benefit analyses to judge the worth of an enterprise, has no patience for—or understanding of—the types of outcomes we value in the work of higher education. Those outcomes are in some important ways unquantifiable (though not unmeasurable; there is a difference), and many of them are still very much in process even as our students finish their programs and take their degrees. We plant the seeds of engaged citizenship, of lifelong learning, of empathy and understanding for others, and they take a while to bear fruit. Seed-planting does not lend itself to snapshot-type metrics. But we are told to produce them anyway. That’s neoliberalism at work: the results of any worthwhile endeavor must be (a) quantifiable (hello, job placement rates and test scores!); and (b) tied to costs and efficiency (which explains, among other things, increasing class sizes). The basic unit of measurement is the individual, frozen at a specific moment in time. This is a set of criteria fatal to any social enterprise which demonstrates its benefits mostly over the long term, such as higher education.[1]

That’s one example of how what we’re up against. Here’s another: almost 75% of all instructional appointments in U.S. higher education are of contingent faculty; that is, non-tenure-track appointments. For a lucky few, there are multi-year contracts, but for the overwhelming majority, appointments are for one academic term only and do not offer enough teaching load or remuneration to come remotely close to a living wage. These part-time faculty represent over half of the faculty appointments in two- and four-year colleges in the United States, and their numbers have increased every year for decades. For a thirty-five year period, from 1975/76-2011, part-time faculty as a percentage of employees in U.S. colleges and universities increased 286%. The only group that saw a larger increase was full-time non-faculty professionals (most, but not all, positions that are defined as “administrative”). The proportion of  full-time, non-tenure track faculty (the other portion of the “contingent” cohort) increased by 259% in this same period.[2]

By way of comparison, in this same 35-year period, full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty saw their share of the employment pie grow only by an anemic twenty-three percent. The marked preference for hiring in higher education over the last forty years has been full-time security for administrators and other non-teaching positions, and contingent and/or part-time precarity for instructors. Every administrator and glossy admissions pamphlet in the country tells us that students are at the heart of what we do, but that blithely-repeated mantra is given the lie by these decisions about personnel and resource allocation. As former Vice President Joe Biden famously remarked: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” [3] What are the values that have led to the overwhelming adjunctification of the faculty in higher education?

If you were already thinking those values might have something to do with the neoliberal fetish for cost efficiencies and “free market” conditions, then you’re getting how the game is played. If learning outcomes are measured solely by metrics like course completion and persistence to degree, then the process amounts to no more than simply moving students through classes and programs. When full-time faculty retire, and those retirees (most likely tenured Full Professors) are usually at the upper end of the pay scale, they can either be replaced by one or two new full-time tenure track faculty, or for a similar or lesser cost, a veritable fleet of adjunct faculty paid by the individual class and whose part-time status means that the institution doesn’t have to allocate resources to things like benefits or insurance as it would in the case of full-timers. These adjunct faculty can teach sections of the courses which students are “moving through” on their way to degree completion. The steps in the process are accomplished for a fraction of the cost. And that is the story of how the percentage of part-time, adjunct faculty in higher education has increased by almost 300%. 

To be sure, many colleges and universities are operating under fiscal constraints that have only gotten more burdensome over the decades. Administrators have had to do more with less, and increased costs have been dealt with by either passing them along to students via higher tuition and fees or by eliminating the things that require too many resources. Small class sizes cost more because it takes a larger number of faculty to handle a large number of sections, so increase the number of students per section and eliminate labor costs. Filling faculty lines with full-time tenure-track hires costs more money that divvying them up amongst a dozen adjuncts. But just because these are the decisions that get made does not mean they are the right decisions, nor does it mean they represented the only viable options. Indeed, these shortsighted financial decisions have inaugurated a vicious cycle of poor pedagogy and decreased student learning that will devastate higher education in the long term—and indeed has already damaged individual institutions, some of them fatally.[4] Thanks to the research of groups like the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, for example, we know that students who take a larger percentage of classes taught by contingent faculty graduate at a lower rate. At two-year colleges, more classes taught by adjuncts correlates with a lower transfer rate to four-year institutions.[5] In other words, we know that a majority-contingent faculty leads to worse outcomes for students. Yet hiring and resource-allocation decisions continue to reinforce and even accelerate this trend.

I want to note, however, that these poorer outcomes are not the product of the contingent faculty members themselves, but rather the structures that prioritize efficiencies over pedagogy and student success. For an adjunct faculty member teaching five or six courses at three different institutions (not an uncommon occurrence), professional development is a luxury that a limited budget of time and resources often cannot afford (and many institutions’ professional development opportunities, sadly, are not aimed at contingent faculty). An instructor who would like to employ active learning strategies in their classroom—a set of methods proven to lead to better student learning—is stymied by the near-impossibility of doing so in a section of over 100 students in a traditional lecture-hall setup. And, quite frankly, if one is only being paid a couple thousand dollars per course (even if that course has several hundred students enrolled and is thus making an enormous amount of revenue for the institution even after subtracting instructional costs), there is little incentive to invest the time and extra effort involved in the type of dynamic instruction that engages students. How can we expect someone who is overworked, underpaid, likely without insurance, and who has received little if any indication that their institutions value their contributions, to provide consistently effective teaching?

My own experience informs that question. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was an adjunct faculty member in precisely this type of situation. I taught three sections of a survey course at one university on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with an average class size around 40 students, and then drove 90 miles each way to another university the other three days of the week to teach two sections of the survey course, one of which had 490 students enrolled. I barely had time to prepare lectures, let alone seek out development opportunities to improve my teaching. Between class prep and grading—and driving over 500 miles a week—there was little time to devote to students outside of class, much less hold office hours. The students in my classes got the best I had to give, but I still have regrets about that not being nearly enough. My experience is only one out of literally tens of thousands; there are dedicated and energetic adjunct faculty whose dedication and energy are fighting a constant and doomed battle against overwork and the financial stress that derives from criminally-low pay. Given the structural obstacles in place, the fact that effective teaching and learning occurs in colleges and universities where adjunct faculty represent the majority of instructors is testament to their profound commitment to students and their learning. Would that those who make the fiscal decisions at these institutions mirror that commitment. Instead, the continuing trend is towards a larger contingent majority, and to reinforcing the structures that militate against the type of outcomes colleges and universities profess to value.

This radically-changed employment landscape took shape against the backdrop of a larger neoliberal assault on public-services and social programs funding that commenced in the Reagan years and accelerated to nightmarish levels in our own time. Since 1980, state funding for public higher education has decreased at such a precipitous rate that many of these institutions are “public” in name only, as public funding represents an ever-shrinking minority of their total resources. It is a horrifying trend, and I do not use that word lightly. According to a 2012 American Council on Education study, if the current rates of public divestment from higher education continue unabated, public funding for higher education will reach zero by 2050.[6] Moreover, bear in mind that in many states (Louisiana, Illinois, and Alaska are the most notable examples), the pace and scope of defunding has actually accelerated since 2012. Unless things change, the entire system of higher education in the United States will have been privatized—which is, of course, a cherished neoliberal goal. 

Show me your budget, and I’ll show you your values.

These are just two of the ways in which neoliberalism—a creed that exalts the individual at the expense of the community and which privileges narrow “efficiency” over meaningful investment—has been corroding the foundations of higher education for the last several decades. The things that have irked us educators, such as administrative bloat, customer-service rhetoric, increasing class sizes, top-down assessment protocols, a shrinking job market, and many more, are not isolated occurrences. They are part of a larger whole, pieces of a larger ideological and political program that has bent the ends of governance to itself. In the name of “free markets” and “individualism” we have been told to stand by as much of what we hold sacred within higher education is sacrificed on the altar of efficiencies. Our colleagues and our students alike are in an increasingly precarious position. The foundational goals of our collective enterprise—teaching and learning—is in profound danger.

But the first step toward a cure is diagnosing the disease. We live and work in a socio-political context the likes of which St. Basil condemned centuries ago, where the few seek to lock the many out of the resources and benefits of what used to be defined as the common weal. The ruthless drive to privatize, to starve, to strangle what is good and necessary in higher education continues apace. It has never been more difficult to teach in higher education that it is right now. But we know why. We know what the sources of our problems are. Yet, as bell hooks reminds us, “when we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus on resolution, we take away hope. In this way, critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism,” and merely something we mumble to ourselves as we sink deeper into the quicksand.[7] Once we’ve diagnosed the disease, it is imperative that we formulate a treatment plan. 

And, really, who better to do so? As the practitioners of teaching and learning, we are uniquely well-positioned to fight this fight, to restore higher education to what it ought to be: a genuine public good rather than the lowest-common-denominator model towards which it is being driven. We are the ones who know our students best; we work with and among them every day. We are the ones who research and effectively communicate solutions for difficult and complex problems. We are dedicated to the proposition that at its best, higher education works for all of us, not just some of us. We know what works in the classroom, and we are the ones on those front lines.

There is an enormous, though latent, strength within our community. So even when times seem dark, there is much about which we may be hopeful. If we weren’t hopeful, I submit, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now. There are some who have retreated into either remote professional niches, divorced from the currents swirling around us, and there are others who have embraced a detached cynicism to anesthetize themselves when the next shoe drops. Those are both understandable impulses, places to which many of us have temporarily retreated on occasion. But almost all of us are still putting in the work to do teaching and learning well, however that looks in our fields and our classes and with our students. Why would we do that if we didn’t believe there was a sustainable future for this endeavor? Why do we put up with the things that irk, annoy, and even enrage us if we didn’t think there were achievable solutions for them? Why do we still care so damn much about our students and their learning? I would submit to you that it’s because we hope—constantly, irrepressibly, and maybe even in spite of the evidence before us. Paulo Freire characterized “the struggle for hope” as “the denunciation, in no uncertain terms of all abuses…As we denounce them, we awaken in others and ourselves the need, and also the taste, for hope.”[8] We name, but then we set about solving, the problem.

Teaching is a radical act of hope. Teaching asserts hope where hope doesn’t seem viable, and where it swims against the prevailing currents. It is an everyday assertion of higher education’s worth in the face of a governing mentality that refuses to acknowledge its value. It is a simple proclamation that we will not be moved. Simple, however, doesn’t always mean easy. The work is hard, but both despite and because of that, it’s eminently worth doing. Hope without action is merely fantasy. Work in the service of hope is critically urgent. Let’s get to it.

  1. [1] This emphasis on individuality, quantification, and cost-efficiency is a hallmark of the “New Public Management” school of thought under which the Reagan and Thatcher administrations sought to conduct governmental operations, including and especially those pertaining to the educational systems of their respective nations. For an accessible discussion of the NPM paradigm and its limitations for public-sector governance, see Tony Cutler, “A Necessary Complexity: History and Public-Management Reform,” History and Policy Policy Papers, 17 December 2007, available at http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/a-necessary-complexity-history-and-public-management-reform.
  2. [2] These percentages are drawn from a compilation of several higher education statistical analyses and job reports done by Precaricorps, a foundation dedicated to advocacy and assistance for contingent faculty. See the graph at https://precaricorps.org/about/why-we-need-a-foundation/.
  3. [3] “Biden’s Remarks on McCain’s Policies,” New York Times, September 15, 2008. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/us/politics/15text-biden.html.
  4. [4] On this vicious cycle and its implications, see especially Christopher Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We can Fix Them. Critical University Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).
  5. [5] University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education, The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/research/projects/delphi/.
  6. [6] Yes, you read that correctly. ZERO. Thomas G. Mortenson, “State Funding; A Race to the Bottom.” The American Council on Education. Winter 2012. Accessed at http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/state-funding-a-race-to-the-bottom.aspx. See also Newfield, The Great Mistake.
  7. [7] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003), xiv.
  8. [8] Freire quotes in hooks, Teaching to Transgress, xiv.

One Reply to “Each Against All: Neoliberalism and Higher Education, Part 3”

  1. Good analysis. As an aside, I don’t see much, if any reference to how we first got “adjunct faculty.” Being a bit older, I think I saw how this snuck up on us: In the days of yore (say the 60s going into the 70s) an Adjunct Faculty member was a distinguished thing-referring to a person of special qualification who worked at another place and came in to bestow her or his specialized gifts on the department & its students. e.g. In library school I studied Science Librarianship with the chief librarian of Bell Labs and Business Librarianship with the Head of Economics & Social Science libraries at the New York Public Library Research libraries. (How cool is that? the real big guys in the really cool jobs!–and they new more about how these areas really worked than the information scientists & humanities specialists on the faculty) Since they were fully employed and their employers funded both their benefits and their professional development, getting an honorarium that wasn’t that big seemed ok–the adjunct stipend really was more honorarium than anything else. And the networking opportunities with the university faculty counted for something, I guess.

    I haven’t studied the history closely, but it does seem to fit with my memory that, as the fashion of neoliberalism grew in the academy (tracking, I suppose pretty closely with the Reagan Revolution), it occurred to cagey administrators that, rather than have a few highly specialized courses taught by distinguished visitors, they could cover their costs for lots of basic instruction by calling the teachers they hired “adjuncts” and paying them an honorarium rather than a wage or salary.

    If the pre-existing “adjunct” model hadn’t been around, it would have been much more difficult to convince anybody, least of all the state Wages and Hours regulators that this model would pass muster as fair compensation or working conditions.

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