We've Reached the Execution Stage of the Profession's DemiseRoundup
tags: higher education, academic freedom, tenure, academic labor, adjunct professors
Jacques Berlinerblau (jberlinerblau.com) is a professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and an opinion columnist for MSNBC. He is the author of Campus Confidential: How College Works, Or Doesn’t, For Professors, Parents and Students. His most recent book, co-authored with Terrence L. Johnson, is Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue.
So honored to have accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in the history department of U.FU. #Blessed
Tweets such as the hypothetical one above leave me troubled. I’m troubled because 500 scholars probably applied for the position at U.FU. What is the destiny of the unblessed 499, other than to mentally counter-tweet with rude, unpublishable hashtags?
A thimbleful of scholars will someday snag a tenure-track job. A few dozen will join the ranks of the non-tenure-line full-time faculty (or NTLFT), laboring from contract to contract, earning a sparse salary and receiving limited benefits. Hundreds will be thrust into the churning, draining gyre that is the adjunct pool. Absurdly low wages and zero job security — that is their lot. As for the remainder, they will eventually realize they were on the “Alt-Ac” track all along, even though they never wanted to be.
Tenure-line, NTLFT, adjuncts: These are the three estates of modern academe. They have been skillfully positioned by their overlords to check, balance, and often immiserate one another. Though as we shall see, external pressures alone don’t explain why we are divided and conquered.
As we enter the Execution Phase (2020-50) of the American professoriate’s reconfiguration, I hazard a few predictions. First, the mightiest of the three estates will be brought to its knees. By the year 2050, tenure will be either the purview of a few scholars at elite schools, or it won’t exist at all.
Second, academic freedom will be as good as gone. We’ll labor as we did prior to the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The scholar who runs afoul of a trustee, congressperson, tech mogul, or influencer will — poof! — disappear into the night. Last, the divisions and mistrust between the professorial ranks will hasten the developments just described, as well as other malign outcomes.
Only a miracle of guild solidarity can forestall our dystopian future — a future which, for contingent faculty, is actually the present.
Before the Execution Phase, there was the Preparation Phase (1990-2020). Its soundscape was sirens and shrieking warnings about our vocation’s imminent collapse. Higher-ups instructed us to ignore the smoke and odd noises. Everyone was enjoined to calmly return to their offices and publish — so as not to perish.
Those decades had it all: the occasional SLACicide, or death of a small liberal-arts college; plunging humanities enrollments; state legislatures strafing higher-education budgets; entrenched racialized and gendered gaps in employment; bidding wars over celebrity faculty. A catastrophic two-tiered structure loomed: A small number of tenured professors were being paid more to teach undergraduates less and less, while a large number of non-tenured professors were being paid less to teach undergraduates more and more.
By the turn of the millennium, clear-eyed observers, many of whom understood economics and statistical modeling, started identifying independent variables. Their findings pointed to a slow, steady decline in costly tenure-line positions, coupled with the increased exploitation of cheap part-time labor.