Corporatizing Higher Education

THE PROCESS OF CHANGING U.S higher education institutions along a corporate model has been going on for several decades. It consists of changes, some open, some obscured, on various fronts: the erosion of tenure by attrition; the simultaneous increase in the use of contingent faculty; the rise in tuition; the dramatic decrease in federal and state aid to universities and state colleges and the outsourcing of campus bookstores, food services, and custodial work. Each of these aspects of the process has separate effects on students, faculty, and the content of education, but also profoundly affects the general functioning and future of higher education.

The slow erosion of tenure by attrition first of all affects future faculty by lowering the number of available tenure-leading positions for historians. It also sharply increases the tendency toward a “star system” in hiring for such jobs. Research universities and private institutions, always intent on improving their ranking and national stature, tend to select prospective “stars” in their job searches. Once hired, a small number of them will advance rapidly and with increasing remuneration. Various colleges and universities will compete for them, and they will be able to individually negotiate outstanding salaries and conditions. The actuality is even worse—part-time faculty get paid as low as $1500 per semester course, without health and retirement benefits, and frequently they work without permanent offices. They are hired semester to semester and have no job guarantee. The proportion of historians employed part-time in four-year institutions rose from 6% of all historians in 1979 to 25% in 2003. The same year, in two-year colleges, 70% of the faculty were part-time labor. In these colleges, the vast majority of classes were taught by part-time, severely underpaid faculty. Contingent faculty cannot help students with advising, career planning, or attention to individual learning problems. Contingent faculty generally have larger work loads than regular faculty; they teach larger classes, most often lecture classes. Even those highly qualified and motivated as teachers cannot, under such working conditions, do as good a job as can faculty secure in decently paid employment. If this alarming trend of a two-tier labor market continues, the impact will be directly felt by future generations of historians in fewer available jobs providing a living wage and tenure and in increased pressure and competition.

The impact on governance in academic institutions will be more serious. It is tenured professors who take most responsibility for committee work and participation in the governance of the institutions. The fewer of them there are, the less power and influence they can exert. We might also consider that the main reason for tenure is to allow for academic freedom and for freedom of expression within the faculty. The fewer the tenured professors and the larger the contingent labor pool, the less impact faculty can have on administration policies. Contingent faculty working part-time under substandard working conditions and hired semester by semester cannot make their impact felt on the governance of the institution. This last factor alone should be a reason for tenured faculty now to try to affect and slow down, if not reverse, this dangerous trend.

It is important to keep in mind that two-year colleges are the route of access for poor and working class students to achieve higher education degrees and with them upward mobility. This is felt most heavily by two-year colleges and state universities and gives rise directly to tuition increases and to increasing efforts to secure private gifts and grants. It needs to be said that this chart vastly understates the actual cost of tuition and fees. It says four-year private institutions’ highest fees are $25,000. Well, we all know that these days, fees and actual cost at private institution range from $30,000 to $50,000 a year. What this means, is that the changes that have occurred have fallen most heavily on lower income students, who include minorities and the poor. The second effect has been to increase the power of administration over the power of faculty in the governance of institutions. It also has had the long range effect of degrading the value of a Ph.D. in history.

The “star system” for history professors has a direct parallel in a “star system” for students. In a corporate world, the brand “market value” of the name of the institution matters more than anything else. To achieve higher ranking and competitive status, institutions seek to attract only “the best” students. This is reflected in constant escalation of the value placed on GPAs, grades, and test results in the selection of students and in the awarding of student aid.

Another ironic effect of the “star system” is that it puts a premium on institutions’ tuition. According to a recent report in the New York Times, colleges and universities that raise their tuition achieve higher ranking and are favored by applicants. This may be one factor explaining the astronomical rises in tuition. It is a proven fact that students from wealthier homes, who can afford tutors, special SAT preparation classes, and/or attendance at select private high schools do better in college admissions than those coming from economically deprived circumstances. Thus, the corporatization of institutions has reinforced an already existing disparity in access to higher education between the wealthy, the middle class, and the less privileged. If this is combined with the long tradition of exclusion and discrimination against members of minority groups, we can observe that access to higher education has been made more difficult for most people below the upper-middle class.

After World War II, millions of American veterans had access to higher education through the GI Bill of Rights. This proved to be a tremendous boost for faculty jobs and, for several decades, democratized American higher education. The current trends are reversing this process by widening the income gap among educated people and by making access to the benefits of higher education less available to the underprivileged. The effect has been to increase the power of administrators over faculty and, following the corporate model, to increase the benefits for the few on top while depending on a two-tier labor market that perpetuates a pool of underpaid, underprivileged, temporary labor. In the past decade, students and some faculty have worked actively to improve the working conditions of outsourced “slave labor” in other countries due to globalization. We have achieved considerable, although certainly as yet insufficient, success on that front. But here is an issue right under our noses, in our own country, in our institutions. The underlying patterns are the same, with the difference that here, the victimized labor group consists of M.A.s and Ph.D.s, highly trained intellectuals who are inadequately rewarded for their knowledge and skills.

Not surprisingly, the large majority of this labor pool is female. AHA President Linda Kerber, in an excellent article in the journal Perspectives (April 2006) has discussed the complex reasons why many women chose part-time employment in order to take care of children, while others are forced into it by job offers to their husbands that do not offer spousal hires. Kerber discusses the negative consequences of this situation on the academic future of women and suggests that it constitutes a hidden form of discrimination. The consequences are quantifiable: women who have children within five years of receiving the Ph.D. are 27% less likely than their male counterparts to achieve tenure.

What can be done about all of this?

Contingent faculty themselves have taken serious steps toward improving their condition through organizing unions or negotiating in groups. They were successful in California and in New Jersey, where due to their collective action, they won improved pay and working conditions. In Georgia, adjuncts’ organization won not only pay increases, but the conversion of 100 positions from part-time to full-time, with full health and pension benefits. In CUNY and in Boston’s Northeastern University, organizations of contingent faculty won representation of part-timers in the faculty unions; they continue working in alliance with students to improve labor conditions. In other places, tenured faculty have exerted pressure on their departments toward these aims.

Persons interested in working on this issue might want to support the work of the joint OAH /AHA committee, formed in 2000, that has moved the issue of the two-tier labor market from a marginal concern of the professional organizations into a core issue. The committee has worked on various ways to improve the situation, setting up model contracts and defining best public policies. It has formed coalitions with AAUP and other faculty groups and recommended that accreditation agencies and journals and magazines publishing college evaluation lists take the part-time issue into account. The committee has recommended that facts about contingent faculty be published and shared with incoming students by all academic institutions. Ultimately, the persons most affected are the consumers, that is students and their parents, who pay ever increasing tuitions for a lower quality of education. I personally believe that academic institutions that do not share the truth of their labor practices with the consumers are committing a form of consumer fraud. A few lawsuits along those lines might have a very salutary effect.

The corporatizing of American higher education has to become the subject of public discourse. It has to be exposed, challenged, and opposed. We need to make our voices heard not only inside the academy but, as citizens, in the public arena. Labor practices that affect the content and quality of education in state-sponsored colleges and universities should be made subject to state legislation to reverse the current trends. Public hearings need to be called for, and the long-range consequences of institutional practices that disadvantage women and minorities need to be aired and exposed for what they are: threats to democracy and to the American dream of equality.

BY: Gerda Lerner