Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The migrant-worker model for university employment

Well, this is worrisome. Not for us in Canada, not yet -- it's a report issued by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, addressing the issue of high university tuitions and asking why this is so. I found this on Michael Berube's blog, and his commentary on it is funnier and more incisive than whatever I'm about to write. Which doesn't mean I'm not going to write it, just that you should go read his first, and then come back.

To sum the report up: tuition has shot up by leaps and bounds because of (1) tenure, (2) inefficiency. Tenure actually falls under the larger inefficiency rubric, but it is emblematic of the universities' stubborn adherence to outmoded systems of adminitration, as is the practice of having faculty (“neither trained in nor committed to management”) in all the key administrative positions -- Deans, Presidents, Department Chairs, etc.

Tenure, so the report states, is particularly pernicious, not just because it creates a situation in which tenured professors are unassailable and unfireable, but because it is anathema to good business practice. How to correct this? Unsurprisingly, the report suggests relying increasingly upon limited-term contract hires and part-time instructors, which will be significantly less expensive for universities than full-time, tenure-track positions.

So let's think about this for a moment: what would a university without tenure look like?

This is what I tend to think of as the migrant-worker model. Imagine hundreds of PhDs and ABDs lining the roadside every morning while a truck with a university president in the flatbed with a megaphone cries out the daily needs and capriciously selects hungry part-time profs to fill teaching positions for the day.

OK, I exaggerate, but it is a model that slowly encroaches on all universities -- increasingly, courses are taught by part-time people who get paid by the course and contractual faculty with a one to three year contract.

Well, you ask: what is the problem with that? Shouldn't universities be subject to the same market forces as anyone else?

My answer -- which is only partially derived from the fact that I'm four or five years away from tenure myself -- is No! in thunder.

Yes, I have a stake in the game now myself and obviously want to maintain the benefits that accompany full-time tenured employment. But there is a misconception in the popular imagination that imagines professors cease working after that magic moment ... that they earn their salaries for teaching six to nine hours a week and doing nothing more, all the while reaping the benefits of sabbaticals and grants. (At least once a year, someone -- usually Margaret Wente -- writes an op-ed column on this very subject, invariably suggesting that professors be "forced" to work forty hours a week ... which inevitably leads professors to comment dryly that they would love to be forced to work forty hours a week -- it would cut their work-weeks by twenty hours or more).

To begin with: to use my own case as an example, I went through thirteen years of school before arriving at the point I now find myself. Five years on a BA, one on an MA, seven on a PhD. In the eight years since graduating the BA, I have seen countless friends and acquaintances get hired in solid and occasionally lucrative jobs; pay off their student loans; buy homes; etc etc. I don't begrudge them that by any stretch -- I made my choice, and lived as a student for eight years longer than was strictly necessary, all the while racking up more loans and wasting money on rent because at no point did I have the capital to buy a house. Again, not bitter about that. My point is, it's not as if I emerge from the other end of that to take on a six-figure salary. I have (almost) no complaints about my salary, but it is hardly lucrative. Even after tenure, I'm still going to be falling far short of friends and acquaintances' incomes who have been establishing themselves in their respective professions for the past eight years.

So: having been in school for thirteen years, with significant debt and no assets, it strikes me that the material trade-off is rather a disappointment. But I didn't get into this for the money -- and anyone who does is really too stupid to live. I got into this profession because I am deeply invested, philosophically and spiritually, in education, reading & writing, and the value of the intellectual in society. If I'd been interested in a high salary I'd have done law school right out of my BA.

Of course, here's the sticking-point: I'm not so altruistic to have gone through all that if there had been no prospect whatsoever of full-time employment. If the academic landscape were entirely populated with contractual jobs and part-time work, why would I put myself through all that?

Which brings me to argument #1 against the migrant-worker academy: within a generation, your ready supply of PhDs would dry up, for the precise reason I articulated above.

Argument #2? Even if there were people still keen to do PhDs, there would be no graduate programs left, for the simple reason that graduate programs by design and definition need tenured faculty to exist. How do you advise a grad student when you're on a two-year contract? How do you attract grad students to begin with without a solid and well-established roster of active and engaged professors?

Argument #3: even if we accept the demise of grad programs as they exist and radically ratchet back the standards for the hiring and accrediting of professors, undergraduate programs themselves would suffer. Why? Because of a lack of depth. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the socially inept, head-up-his-own-ass prof who is a brilliant researcher but a crappy teacher; and not a school year goes by where I don't hear someone lament the absence of some sort of set of standards in the classroom to be applied to professors (and I don't doubt that occasionally I am the object of such anger). A fair point, but in my experience that pedagocially inept professor is the exception to the rule ... more often than not, professors are quite engaged in the classroom, they want to share their ideas and research and passions with the students, and they have an investment in teaching. The point here is that I am at my best in the classroom teaching that which I know best -- I can offer my students a more nuanced, informative experience of the material when it somehow radiates from my own research and investigations. And that is something that will only get better.

Research, in other words, isn't simply about grants and excuses to travel or take sabbaticals -- it informs not just one's own teaching, but the character of a department. When teaching part-time, professors must take on a significantly higher teaching load to make ends meet; when on contract, they are similarly loaded down with an excess of courses to the extent that the job becomes a mechanical exercise in preparation and grading, with no time or energy left over for reflection and inquiry ... to say nothing of the fact that a significant number of the courses one teaches are, at best, tangential to one's own research areas (my first part-time teaching assignment? Shakespeare ... not that I don't love that topic, but as a twentieth-century Americanist, I'm not exactly the most qualified. Couple that with the fact that it was my first real teaching attempt, and I'm often tempted to send all the students in that class notes of apology).

The desire to apply business models to education, which is what essentially informs this report, is exceptionally dangerous and damaging -- just look at the education system in Ontario after ten years of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution, which treated grade schools and high schools with this very sort of business model. "Efficiency" was the watchword there too, and Ontario schools won't recover for years. The point of education is that it is singularly inefficient. Why? Because it is something whose "product" is not goods and services, but people and minds. Indeed, the "product" of the modern univeristy as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt was citizens -- or more specifically, an intelligent, educated, informed and engaged citizenry. Not, you will note, "taxpayers." Citizens. We don't hear that word much anymore, do we?

OK, I've ranted long enough. I just hope our dear prime minister doesn't read that report and start getting any ideas.


Lesley said...

You may not like what I have to say about it, but I hate tenure, and I think it needs to be overhauled. When I was at UWO I had several profs who had tenure and were retiring. They had had tenure for several years while a couple of my other profs did not have it, and probably would not have it for a while. The problem was, the tenured profs were horrible teachers. One was a bigot and the other basically read from the text book as a lecture tool. I had several other profs who were poor at actually teaching and I blame my failures in class on them (my personal favourite was the Philosophy professor who was unclear in his lectures because of his overuse of the word um and his inability to keep his throat clear for more than three words). The kicker for me was that if I went to the sacred place where all the student evaluations were held and actually looked them up BEFORE I took the class, I would have seen that these professors were not ones I wanted to waste my precious tuition money on regardless of what courses I needed to graduate. Added to that, one of my fantastic professors who didn't get tenure and was relegated to night courses suggested I look up old issues of the Western News to see just how much of a bigot my one professor was.

Before I go off and rant on that let me get to my point, tenure is a ridiculous idea unless it is something that can be revoked for poor performance. It should be like a vote process. There should be some form of a review. If the professor gets so many poor reviews and is investigated, then tenure could be taken away. I know there is the argument about he said/she said but then that's where the review comes in from a neutral source to disprove a disgruntled student comment from a legitimate complaint.

There are way too many good teachers who are disregarded because of tenure issues and way (WAY) too many teachers who are protected by tenure.

My attitude: if the student is paying as much money as students pay for tuition, they should know that their teachers are giving them the best education, and these old cronies who have taken the whole tenure thing for granted all these years are preventing the really good teachers who value teaching well from achieving anything.

(Clearly my education has served me well what with all the run on sentences and the lack of coherent arguments up there...)

tanker belle said...

I'm neither an academic nor a business type, but I'll comment anyway.

Universities are stuck with two extremes: the terribly insecure contract prof and the tenure prof.

Tenured profs, as stated by lesley, can get away with anything they want. This isn't unique to them, many who are "unassailable and unfireable" tend to slack off; those who work hard while tenured must be bitter when looking at their git co-workers.

Keeping people on contact if you don't have to (financially) is shit. Is there any in-between (my memories of MUN say "no"). Outside of academia people are hired in "permanent" positions, but they can be layed-off or fired if the situation warrants it. Why can't the academic world adapt to this middle-ground?

Chris in NF said...

First thing: professors are *constantly* under one form or review or another, both internal and external, especially in the early stages of their careers. Raises, promotion, status, and tenure itself are all subject to extremely rigorous evaluation processes. And teaching is in fact part of that -- not as significant a part as I think it should be, perhaps, but then there are reasons for that ... one reason being that full-time profs are responsible for many things besides teaching. Teaching technically comprises 40% of my job. Another 40% is research, and then the last 20% is administration -- sitting on committees, taking on roles as chairs, coordinators, deans and so on. The greater the administrative role, or the more significant the research project undertaken, the less that percentage is devoted to teaching (i.e. the fewer classes we have to teach).

Believe me, I cringe when I think of some professors I know up in front of a class; similarly, I've taken classes with some serious losers, people so socially inept or indifferent or arrogant that I would have cheerfully garroted them with my shoelaces. And I firmly believe that anyone who is in this profession should be deeply invested in teaching.

Some people aren't. Some people do in fact use tenure as an excuse to do nothing and be dismissive of students. But I maintain that these people are the exception to the rule ... and besides which, anyone who wants to actually put a little forethought into it can avoid them. Because you know what? University students are adults. It's not the professors' job to play guidance counsellor or truant officer, nor in the end are they obliged to make sure ever student in the class gets it. Unlike high school, you have a huge amount of control over what classes you take and who you take them with. As Lesley pointed out, there are resources for this sort of thing -- teaching evals are kept on record for just this reason. Your prof is inaudible? Drop the class. Transfer into another. Take it next year. No other choices, and it's mandatory? Suck it up. It's a learning experience -- think you'll never have to deal with socially inept / moronic / insufferable bosses in the working world?

Tenure exists as it does for the simple reason that academic freedom cannot be a matter of degrees. To say that "tenure is a ridiculous idea unless it is something that can be revoked for poor performance" misses the point of tenure. That's like saying that free speech is a ridiculous idea unless we're allowed to censor things. And like free speech, for every genuine instance of that right being exercised in a useful and intelligent manner, you get a dozen Howard Sterns, or Anne Coulters, or Larry Flynts. It's the unfortunate catch ... in some cases, it gets abused or used irresponsibly.

Anonymous said...

I'm following Chris into tenure-track this year, and I feel immensely fortunate. I am also aware of the challenges ahead.

New faculty have to work very hard to get tenure five years down the road. Thereafter, if they are worth their salt at all, they will need to keep proving to their peers, to their students and to THEMSELVES that they remain worthy of their tenured positions - otherwise the earning of tenure will become a very hollow victory indeed.

Lesley, you are making some very damning general comments based on unfortunate experiences with INDIVIDUALS.

"Added to that, one of my fantastic professors who didn't get tenure and was relegated to night courses suggested I look up old issues of the Western News to see just how much of a bigot my one professor was" - HOW, exactly, does this support your argument? And do you think it reflects particularly well on your "fantastic" prof?

I quote from Minelle Mahtani's article "Academic Pressures Mount on Generation Next" on page 10 of Academic Matters, Spring 2006: "This [academic service etc] really accelerates the stress level," another tenure-track professor confides. "I spend a lot of time performing to these increasing expectations. Trying to publish everything I write. Going crazy on the conference circuit. Making sure I get high teaching scores. I never feel like I can quite keep up and I'm working at least 70 hours a week."

I think most tenured and tenure-track faculty feel incredibly lucky to have the security they have in this day and age. Most do not abuse it or take it for granted. As Chris points out, there are bad apples - he has already explained the value of tenure better than I ever could, so I won't rehash any of that. I'll just say that in my own opinion, a lot of what is said in posts like these and elsewhere is facile and extremely cynical.

Lesley said...

Yes, maybe I was making a generalization, and yes, in the real world, the idea that the bad ones tend to rise to the top is true.

In my experience (and from several people I have spoken to about their University experiences at several schools throughout Ontario) I have found that many of the long standing "well-respected" profs are the ones who have been shielded by tenure while the great profs that work hard to make sure their students get it were left to struggle to hold on to their positions at the university.

You're also right that I did have options. And I did take many of those options. There were four classes I had to drop because of my difficulties in the class and the desire to ensure that I ended my career with a good average. Including the one course where I worked with the professor to prevent having to drop it. He worked so hard to help me understand the information so that I could stay in his class. I was willing to take a failure in order to spend an hour every other day in his class.

That's not to say that I had three years (and two summers) of teachers that were total screw ups. Overall, I had more good teachers than bad. Sadly, many of those goods ones were either special guest teachers (I know there's a name for that) or ones who were spending their sabbatical teaching at another school. Which to me, is incredible since they were also conducting research and working on other projects in addition to planning and teaching such high level courses.

To me (and again, this is my opinion), teachers should inspire you to look for more, make you want to learn, and help you see things differently--in effect TEACH. Sure that's a BIG generalization and not all do that, but I didn't want to spend several hours a week in a class with a prof who is just trying to sell their new book and only give out A's and B's to those who spend their afternoons sucking up to them. And YES, this does happen.

I wish the both of you luck in your tenure track, if only because it sounds like that would mean two more "good" teachers into the system. I also hope that you continue to work with your students in the manner you have. From what Chris has said on this blog, the work he puts into his classes and the work that the students are exposed to/complete is work that would make anyone enjoy their university experience.

I don't know what the solution is, nor do I want to sit and try to understand something that I'm sure many schools struggle with. This is just my opinion on what I think is wrong with the system. If I had the opportunity to go back and do it all again, I would probably have gone to another school, sought out the professors in the classes I needed who challenged me in my education instead of the ones who made me wish I hadn't wasted more than $20,000 on education.

queen B said...

I am not one of those friends and acquaintances who got hired in a solid and lucrative lucrative job. After taxes, I pretty much live at the poverty line. I did manage to pay off my student loans, tho' I continue to waste money on rent. I didn't choose to get into publishing for the money; I'm invested in education, reading and writing, too. But chances are, after you become tenured, I'll still be making less money than you.

But here's one of my beefs with professors--while almost all want to get published, and perhaps need to get published--there are many who haven't a clue about the book business. They've no idea of the cost or effort involved with putting out a book, and keeping it in print, and they don't realize how difficult it is for publishers to stay afloat.

Every day, I get demands (not requests) or form letters for desk copies of many of the titles we publish. Often, it's not just for one copy, but for three or four, because the TAs need copies, too. In a lot of cases, Profs demand desk copies of the same title every year. And of course, extras for the TAs. Again.

Prior to the 1990s, books were sold to college and university bookstores at what was called a short discount (20% or 22%). This short discount took into account the free desk copies and, if necessary, other materials that might need to be generated by the publisher.

In the 1990s, college and university bookstores demanded a larger discount (40%) to match that offered the normal retailers of books. This discount ate into the very small profit that made it possible to send out desk copies.

Today, on a book that sells for $19.95, the publisher makes very little profit. Costs of paper, printing, and binding are higher; the royalty rate paid to the author is higher, and the average discount at wich we sell the book is higher. But if we raise the price of the book any more, no one will buy it.

Where are publishers to get the margin to make possible the number of free copies that are routinely requested?

I've got several friends who are professors, and I've met tons of profs at the Learneds over the past few years, and I'm astounded and frustrated by the sense of entitlement that they have towards receiving free books. Why aren't departments paying for desk copies for the TAs? Many publishers would be happy to sell additional desk copies at a 40% discount. We could use the money to publish more books or support materials to existing tiles. Hell, I could get a well-deserved raise. But if the very people and institutions who supposedly respect reading, writing and education aren't willing to pay for it, I'm never going to have anything close the job security that tenure provides.

Chris in NF said...


I'm not sure that your beef with professors' sense of entitlement with free books has so much to do with complacent academics as the big guns of academic publishing like WW Norton, Broadview, Longman, Houghton Mifflin et al. I think I average unsolicited free books about twice a month -- and honestly, the only reason I know anything about publishing is the same reason anyone not active in publishing would, i.e. I know people in the business. I can only imagine how aggravating it is to have some musty canadianist demanding a dozen copies of some obscure chapbook that your publishing house never recouped its losses on ... but then, he's probably been courted by publishers all his career, and doesn't differentiate between the big guys and the little.

And I never meant to suggest that *all* non-academic jobs are lucrative. But then, I suspect you weren't motivated by a large salary either when you went into publishing ...

Anonymous said...

There may be a bit of a misconception here (2nd para of your last post) about the nature of university positions, Lesley. You seem to think that good profs without tenure or not
on tenure track are being passed over or undervalued, when this is rarely the case. This is the other part of what I'm suggesting is a simplistic view of the system.

A professor who is hired by a university on a contract basis is very unlikely to end up on tenure-track at that same university. For that to happen, a position would have to have been posted in his or her very specialization. Since only a handful of such positions open up in the country in any given year, this is a highly unlikely scenario. That is the only way in which contract profs can become tenure-track at the same uni - they have to enter the pool, be assessed and, if they get past that, shortlisted and interviewed like everyone else. Your great profs, if they were on contract, were likely waiting for these opportunities at other institutions. Otherwise, they were perhaps not far into their tenure-track or, worst case scenario, had failed to get tenure because they had not satisfied all the criteria (teaching, publishing, service, getting grants etc - the stuff Chris mentions). These criteria are fairly straightforward and profs know what they're up against. On occasion a prof might put all of his or her eggs in one basket and neglect important aspects (maybe a book project fails to take off before tenure time and the prof has published nothing else, or nothing in worthwhile journals, in the meantime). The task is well defined in advance and reasons for failure quite obvious in the event (I don't like talking about this - 5 years is not far away really!). On the odd occasion where reasons for rejection have not been as clear, tenure candidates have made stinks about it etc but that hardly ever happens.

In short, there are loads of fab but tenureless teachers out there, but that does not necessarily mean that they will remain tenureless if it's tenure they want. I wonder if you've followed up on some of the good profs you mention - a lot may actually be tenured somewhere now.

I quite agree about the supreme and central importance of good teaching in all of this. It's a must, and I think most profs hired to teaching/research positions would feel like failures if they made a mess of this most vital part of their roles.

queen B said...


I do have a beef when a prof asks me for a free copy of a book I sent them 9 months before. It makes me wonder how she or he could lose a book that they (supposedly) teach consistently. And I do have a beef when I see books that are marked, "desk copy not for resale" in the on-campus (!!!) used bookstores.

Educational publishing is different than trade publishing, so your comparison isn't quite apples vs. apples. But remember, many of those big guns to which you are referring are multinational companies, and a lot of them see the Canadian market as a dumping ground for some of their product. ("Oh, we printed 10,000 extra copies, ach, send 'em to Canada.") And the more profs take free books for free books' sake, and don't provide feedback as to in what areas certain books are lacking, these companies won't need an office in Canada. They'll just close up shop, head back across the border, and send us the McWhiteDudeAnthologies they think we want.

Lots of people have learned quite a lot of things about publishing recently...granted, some of it had to do with plagiarism, but commentary on how the business works has been part of media coverage. And every few years when there's a huge profile on a big name like Atwood, a chunk of the article always covers the business of publishing. I'd also like to believe that professors who publish learn something about the business along the way.

You can only image how disappointing it is for me to read your line about "obscure chapbooks". Geez. It's condescending, and you know that's not the business I'm in. There are more than a few household names published by and continuing to publish with literary (not everyone likes the term "small") presses, including the one I work for. Buy them. Try them. You'll like them.

Chris in NF said...


My apologies -- I certainly did not mean for that to sound as condescending as it did. I was trying for an extreme example to make a point and ended up ignoring the writers and texts of substance for which small presses are an invaluable resource. The hazards of glib rhetoric. Forgive me?

And yes, I do know the difference between educational and trade publishing, and how the big guns like to dump their excesses -- my original point being that many people probably do not, and do not necessarily differentiate between the resources of Bedford and those of Cormorant.

Unfortunately, professors who publish are unlikely to learn much about either sphere because academic publishing is another species entirely ... and even those who publish many books probably do not bother themselves with the mechanics of publishing -- they're just relieved to get that big fat "Books Published" line on their CV.

As for the specific annoyances cited at the outset of your comment ... well, I have no defense for the "not for resale" issue (though usually when I see those, they're the Norton-type books), but the prof who keeps asking for desk copies is obviously a moron, and a shameless one at that. But then, I've heard you sound off on the many idiots you have to deal with in the day-to-day travails of the publishing world, and not all of them are professors ...

Lesley said...

Not that I want to run the risk of putting my foot in my mouth yet again (although, it seems at home there) I should probably say that upon further review, I was being overly general in my feelings toward tenure. I think what bugs me the most is that there seem to be many tenured professors at the end of their career who take the tenure for granted and take up space that could be occupied by the profs that haven't forgotten what got them into teaching in the first place.

I'm going to assume that when you start on the track of getting your PhD it's not so that people are forced to call you Dr. at cocktail parties but rather to invest in something more in the education system. (Again, a generalization I suppose).

I had the opportunity to see one of my former professors who had been turned down for tenure at UWO a few months ago in a store. She had been one of my favourite professors for various reasons. As it turns out, she gave up trying to fight for tenure and went back to what she loved most--writing and working with the federal government. She had previously been employed with the U.N. and helped with the rapid reaction force. At the time I was in her class, it made me sad to think that I had to endure two tenured professors who were pathetic excuses for educators, while she was fighting to stay at the school with so much to offer the students.

My biggest beef with the system, as I saw it, was the how a tenured professor could have been left in a teaching position when so many people (and it was more than just my other professor, I discussed this with the dean and with two members of the guidance department) knew just how horrible he was. It was painfully obvious that it was easier to wait for them to retire, rather than try to get them out of their positions.

Then again, that goes back to the bigger question: how can you justify a system that protects the bad apples and neglects the good ones? But then, that happens everywhere, I see it in my position with the government. I guess it's just a matter of doing what you can and forgetting the rest.

angel said...

Great post… Great info on bounce rates… I’ll have to write an entry about the same topic some day soon… Bounce rates can tell you alot…
I tend to look at the bounce rate and then look at the keywords that brought people to the site. Does the page answer the keyword question? If No then there is some work to do on that or a new more focused post.

part time money making ideas

College Jobs said...

The University's online employment system helps you find the best fit for a career at the University. I hope that it eventually proves easier for you the reader to follow the postings and comments.