Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cost of gas in academia

The rising gas prices are affecting all sorts of parts of the American Way besides our love affair with the road. The latest issue I've seen is with adjunct professors. (I've included the link, but it won't work for most of you.) Adjunct professors are the pieceworkers of academia, hired to teach and paid by the class. Unlike full-time faculty jobs, these positions do not include committee service, student advising, research or publishing. There are adjuncts who just teach one class a semester for whatever reason and are not pursuing a life in academia, and gas prices aren't affecting most of them so much.

The ones who are feeling it are full-time adjuncts. These tend to be people who want to be hired as full-time, probably tenure-track, faculty, but haven't found a job yet. This is partially due to a restructuring of academia in the last few decades that has reduced the percent of tenure-track faculty in favor of more "contingent" faculty, as they are also called. So these folks teach one class here, two there, a third here, and cobble together enough money to live on, albeit without health insurance. Another name for these folks is "freeway fliers" because they spend a lot of time driving between schools.

Can you see where this is going? The cost of gas is making this lifestyle less tenable. Yet cutting back on the farthest gigs probably reduces one's income to the point of starvation, causing one to look for a new job altogether. Schools could raise the rates they pay, but at some point most of the efficiencies of using contingent labor are gone. (The flexibility to hire and fire at will remains.) Schools may have no choice but to hire more tenure-track faculty members - or to say they can't afford tenure at all any more but continue to hire full-timers. The costs to institutions go beyond salary and benefits; they likely include finding offices to put the new faculty in, since adjuncts are unhoused. The costs to low-cost community colleges in particular could be tremendous.*

I suppose this is good news to observers (including me) who look askance at the "adjunctification" of the job market, but it puts schools and administrators in a very difficult position, changing their costs in a way they have little control over at a time when budgets are already tight.

It's also one of those gas-price issues that takes some time to deal with after the problem arises. Let's say a very proactive administrator decides today to start hiring more tenure-track faculty member. The institutional permissions to do so could take a year to get. Meanwhile, the institution is still using adjuncts. It's like deciding to move closer to your job - you have to sell your house and buy another and actually move, and what about your kids' schools? At this point, a lot of people are just waiting it out, hoping prices go back down.

* If you're not in academia, you may be asking, why not just hire an adjunct at current rates to teach a full load at one place? Because at a certain point he or she would have to be considered a full-time employee, with benefits. And industry norms frown on hiring full-timers without official job searches, for one thing, and there are actually tenure implications, for another.

1 comment:

jaya said...

These are some really interesting points. It seems to me that for adjuncts to continue to live on their current model, they would need to be in areas where colleges are concentrated, such as in major cities, where they could utilize mass transit or have a shorter commute all together (as opposed to driving several hours a day to get from school A to B to C).

I wonder if there will be a general shift in locations of educational institutions in our lifetime to put them closer together, which would have so many benefits - pooling of resources and tools, easier interactions among schools, etc.