Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2008

Tenured Faculty or Endangered Species?

By Doug Lorimer

How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation

Marc Bousquet. New York: New York University Press, 2008; 304 pp; ISBN: 978-0814-799758, paper $23 us; ISBN: 978-0814-799741, cloth $70 us.
Those of us who work and study in a contemporary North American university or college are aware of the growing divergence between the idealized past of the academy and present-day realities of the working lives of students and faculty. In his study, How the University Works, Marc Bousquet forces us to lay aside our illusions and come face-to-face with the realities of the regressive changes that have occurred in post-secondary education over the last three decades.

He does so by assessing the university in both its internal workings and its external context. He explores the inside-out workings of post-secondary institutions by looking at the roles of administrators, faculty (both full- and part-time) and students. He also looks at universities and colleges within the context of their external environments such as recent transformations in the economy, management strategies, labour relations and the reorganization of productive work. The contemporary academy for Bousquet is not some familiar old jalopy in need of repair. It is a redesigned, sleek new vehicle and we need to understand how it works.

The designers of the new academy are a corps of professional managers. Their model of the university does not draw upon the traditions of the academy, but adopts the style of corporate management. This corporate style at best views the conventions of the academy as inefficient. At worst, it is actively hostile to academic freedom and collegial governance.

The redesigned academy, modeled on corporate practices such as total quality and just-in-time management, has become part of the low-wage nation. In fact, colleges and universities not only exploit the cheap labour of contingent faculty and students, but collaborate with the corporate sector in creating a pool of vulnerable victims for part-time, low-wage employment.

This transformation has occurred over the past three de­cades during which time the proportion of young people who attend colleges or universities has steadily increased. If the value of post-secondary education is measured in terms of the living standards of graduates, Bousquet’s analysis has a surprising outcome. Apart from a minority of graduates who enter the professional or managerial elite (not including faculty), real incomes for graduates have not increased over the last 30 years. Nonetheless, college and university education saves graduates from economic disaster. He estimates the stan­dard of living since 1970, for those who have no further edu­cation beyond high school has dropped by 40 per cent.

If post-secondary education retains a survival value, it has become, nonetheless, education on the cheap. The dino­saurs of the new ice age of the contemporary university are tenured and tenure-track faculty. Being selected as the brightest and the best, they have not been able to see beyond their imme­diate self-interest. Often identifying themselves as managers articulating the values of management culture, they have de­fended their privileged status, while remaining oblivious to the steady and now radical erosion in their numbers.

In the United States, tenured and tenure-track faculty now constitute at most 30 per cent of the university professoriate. Most undergraduates are taught by contingent faculty and graduate students. While student tuition has steadily increased, the cost of academic labour, in the shape of the contingent faculty and graduate students who replace tenure-track faculty, has steadily declined. Bousquet claims that in some states a contingent faculty member teaching the equivalent of a full-time course load earns as little as $16,000 a year.

The transformation of teaching within the corporate university leads Bousquet to reassess the role of graduate programs in general and of doctoral studies in particular. With a PhD in English and teaching communication studies, Bous­quet’s perspective grows out of the expansive use of contingent faculty and graduate students in required English courses and writing programs at American universities. The purpose of graduate education is not to equip students for nonexistent “real” jobs leading to professional academic careers, but first to supply a pool of graduate students, and secondly to supply a pool of contingent faculty to teach undergraduates.

Ironically, the contingent faculty, some of whom have doc­torates, often have less in the way of benefits and pay than graduate students. They receive less than a living wage, are often dependent on the earnings of a partner, or on family support for child care and other necessities, and carry a heavy debt from their undergraduate and graduate education. Many also face time limits on their employment.

After a specific number of years, their opportunities for contingent employment may be terminated. They will be replaced by a fresh generation of grad students turned on by a life of scholarship, but destined for the dismal cycle of poorly-com­pensated contingent labour and eventual unemployment.

Having set out this devastating analysis of how the university works, Bousquet addresses the equally daunting task of a prescription for what needs to be done. Here he puts his faith in labour organization and collective bargaining. In his view, established full-time faculty provide little in the way of leadership. Many tenured faculty identify with management, and those who are prepared to take action engage, in his view, in a strategy of survival. As the decline in members of the American Association of University Professors from 90,000 to 43,000 since 1973 indicates, this strategy is losing the battle against the corporate university.

Bousquet’s hope lies with the organization and political militancy of contingent faculty and graduate students. The corporate university is now so dependent on low-cost and contingent academic workers that withdrawal of labour through strikes holds out the promise of significant reform. Bousquet can point to some notable successes in California and New York. Nonetheless, there remains a strong sense that the political response through labour militancy does not meet the magnitude of the problem presented by the freshly-invented corporate university.

North of the 49th parallel we operate in a political culture less hostile to collective bargaining. Since the 1970s, most academic staff associations, under the national leadership of CAUT, have organized and engage in collective bargaining as sanctioned by provincial legislation. Under these conditions, we have engaged more effectively than our American colleagues in a strategy of survival. Contract academic staff, as contingent academic workers, have also organized. Like their full-time colleagues confronted by corporate academic managers’ demand for more work with inadequate pay, they have been prepared to use strike action.

As someone who has spent the last two decades on the front line at the bargaining table, I find Bousquet’s analysis on the transformation of the contemporary academy both revealing and frightening. His trust in labour militancy, none­theless, needs a fuller political analysis of the balance of power between corporate management and academic labour. Here an appeal to the traditions of the academy will be inadequate. To build an alliance of academic workers of all kinds in the corporate university, we may need to reinvent the academy.

Just as post-secondary education has been democratized by engaging a majority of young people drawn from more diverse backgrounds by class, gender and ethnicity, so we need to nurture within the community of academic staff a more democratic and inclusive culture. Here the principles of academic freedom and collegial governance are only a starting point. We need an academic culture suspicious of privilege and hostile to the exploitation of the labour of students and contingent academic staff. Only within an academy that fosters a spirit of fairness and mutual respect can we sustain the academic profession and its values of freedom of enquiry and independence of thought.

Anyone who has engaged in collective bargaining will recognize that our strength depends on building a broad coalition of support. Such coalitions are only as strong as their weakest and most vulnerable members. If this sounds like a tired-old truism, we only have to remember that the tenured professor is the endangered species in the contemporary academy. If you have doubts on this score, then Bousquet will serve as your guide on how our universities and colleges work within the economy and culture of the low-wage nation.

Doug Lorimer is a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and chair of CAUT’s Collective Bargaining and Economic Benefits Committee.