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Adjunctification Blues

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

Last month, my graduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins University issued an ominous proclamation. Students and faculty alike cowered in terror, shielding themselves from the dark words that strike fear into the very souls of the wretches upon whose ears they fall: "The university is sponsoring a strategic initiative."

Usually that's code for "an administrator with a very nice car felt the need to demonstrate his or her relevance." It typically means that big changes are coming, you won't like them, and you'll have something new about which to passive-aggressively complain.

"Hey, you know the type of employment that gives adults with advanced degrees no job security? Let's do a bunch of that!"

In this case the changes bordered on revolutionary, at least in the world of academia. Among them were the following:

1. Hopkins will raise graduate stipends to a mind-boggling $30,000 per year.

It's important to point out that I'm not using "mind-boggling" sarcastically. For grad students, that's like cracking the 4-minute mile.

When I was on the board of the graduate student government, we spent countless hours wondering how to convince the administration that we needed money. We once tried an ill-conceived ruse in which a few of us casually mentioned to a dean that many grad students qualified for welfare and food stamps; we asked if there was anything he could do about that. "Sure," he said, and he promised to add links to the graduate school homepage that would help us apply for welfare and food stamps.

When I first read about the ripened stipend, I thought our years of whining to the administration had paid off. Thirty thousand dollars! And not just for affluent science graduate students—for our wretched, unemployable brothers and sisters in the humanities and social sciences, too! (Stay strong, Slavic literature department!) Truly we had moved mountains.

But wait—whence would this money come? Bake sales? Ponzi schemes? Raise undergraduate tuition from "absurd" to "effing absurd"?

Credit: Hal Mayforth

2. To fund this extravagant plan, Hopkins will reduce the number of graduate students admitted by 25%.

I think a lot of universities are like this: They're wealthy when it's convenient to be wealthy, and they're poor when it's convenient to be poor. Pay a half billion dollars for a new administration building? Sure! Our endowment? Bigger than the gross domestic product of Honduras! Give the university president a gold-plated golden piece of gold? You know he's earned it. Just look at that adorable president face.

But: Raise graduate stipends to near-livable levels? Sorry, the university is an impoverished Dickensian orphan.

The money, Hopkins says, has to come from somewhere. In this case, it comes at the expense of a quarter of your potential friends. Now you'll never meet them, because they'll end up at a completely financially solid school.

Some have applauded the move as a realistic response to the glut of eager Ph.D. recipients who foolishly believe that Ph.D. recipients have abundant job opportunities. It's a symbolic way of saying, "We know 25% of you are just going to drain society's resources."

Others, however, aren't so thrilled. Fewer graduate students means smaller departments, which means smaller graduating cohorts, fewer enriching scholarly conversations, less mental muscle, and, most importantly, smaller poker games.

And, said the graduate students, we'd have to pick up the slack of the absent 25% and teach more, which means 25% more time in the classroom with snotty snots who only care about a cappella and lacrosse.

Not to worry, countered the university. We have an answer for that, too. We could hire undergraduate teaching assistants, which is an awesome idea because undergraduates are known for being competent, trustworthy, and sober. Or…

3. Without graduate students to teach for a pittance, where will we ever find willing instructors who also don't understand what money is? Oh, right, adjuncts.

Yes, adjunct professors, those minimum-wage "freeway fliers" who rank so low on the academic totem pole that they aren't even necessarily allowed to use the photocopier, will replace the distinguished whitebeards whose scholarship, experience, and lechery form the backbone of the university.

I'm no stranger to adjuncting. While in graduate school, I adjuncted in five different departments (which may partially explain why it took me 7 years to graduate). The difference between adjunct professors and full professors is that while they both make six figures, for adjuncts two of those figures are after the decimal point.

The buzzword "adjunct" creates some hysteria ("How will little Johnny ever learn if he's taught by someone not even smart enough to pursue tenure?"), but so far the university's plan is actually good. There will be slightly fewer, decently richer graduate students, and there will be slightly more work available for the chronically underemployed.

Then, heralding a rich tradition of overstepping, the university overstepped:

4. Gosh, adjuncts sure are neat. Makes you wonder why Hopkins ever hired full professors in the first place! Hey, as long as we're replacing graduate students with adjuncts, let's replace full professors with adjuncts.

Hopkins calls this "leaning junior," the process of replacing senior faculty with nervous new assistant professors and, yes, clown cars full of adjuncts. According to an op-ed in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, under the new plan, the percentage of full-time tenured faculty in each department would fall from about 80% to 50%. (No, Hopkins does not plan to downsize currently employed tenured professors; they're relying instead on a slow but reliable process known to cull aging professors: inevitable die-off.)

Bringing in new tenure-track professors is smart. Added positions are what early-career academics have been coveting for years. (Of course, if there are too many tenure-track slots available, you'll need to add more graduate students, and the cycle of university-sponsored strategic initiatives eats its tail.)

But what about the other newbies, those who are not on the tenure track? Adjuncts seem like a tantalizingly simple solution: They work cheap, have no ambition of tenure, and won't beg for amenities like healthcare or decency.

It's what those who frequent education blogs call "adjunctification," the creeping feudalism that will someday replace all levels of professor with the least-hassle version: an adjunct instructor with no departmental clout whose office is a 1997 Hyundai Elantra.

On its surface, "adjunctification" simply sounds like "jobs for adjuncts" or "a made-up word on education blogs." But the word implies a customer service model of higher education, in which labor is cheap and tenuous and power trickles up to administrators. In this model, undergraduates are customers first, consumers second, clients third, infants with wealthy parents who must be placated fourth—and, perhaps fifth, if there's time, students. It means more classes taught by adjuncts, who are not necessarily inferior teachers but whose presence seems to disappoint departments and students nonetheless.

Worst of all, it promotes a tacit endorsement of the worst aspects of adjuncting—a way for the university to say, "Hey, you know the type of employment that gives adults with advanced degrees no job security? Let's do a bunch of that!"

Hopkins has taken a number of bold steps, and for the increased stipend alone I could fall to my knees and kiss the steps of Gilman Hall. (Mmm, they taste like the shoe soles of Dead Sea Scrolls authenticator and Hopkins alumni William Foxwell Albright.) But whether this initiative is good or bad will depend on how Hopkins treats the new group of adjuncts. (Few realize that the plural noun for a group of adjuncts is "grievance.") Will these be decent jobs, with benefits like on-campus parking and academic autonomy—or will the adjuncts, like so many others in their position, scrape by on a couple thousand dollars per course while their hands are swatted away from the department coffee maker? When the newest grievance of adjuncts finds itself on campus, let's hope that Hopkins' strategic initiative includes a strategic way to treat them at least as well as the graduate students they're replacing.

If not, let's hope they can all find a certain link on the graduate school homepage.