Adam Smith or Machiavelli? You Be the Judge…

A correspondent responds to the latest evidence of the rapid decline of tenure.  It’s hardcore, but I’m reminded that the difference between paranoia and prophecy is at times nothing more than hindsight:

Long, long ago, there was a clear relationship between tenure and academic freedom. Colleges and universities worried about the implications of allowing teachers to have “guaranteed” employment. What might happen if some errant Marxists or feminists or existentialists or Darwinians somehow snuck into academe? What could be done if they insinuated themselves into invulnerable positions and, immune from dismissal, began for upsetting the placid groves of academe by touting some subversive theory that would encourage riot and rebellion?[… .]

As long as there was a perceived danger that critical educators might lead students astray, complicate their lives with contrarian ideas, undermine elite ideology by paying attention to questions of environmental sustainability, social justice and personal development, and generally make nuisances of themselves by questioning the mantras of their organizational superiors, administrators were eager to undermine tenure in the universities and the next best thing to it – permanent contracts with seniority provisions – in Ontario colleges.

At exactly the same time, the financial appeal of contract teachers, whether in the form of callow teaching assistants in universities or part-time and sessional instructors in the colleges, was increasingly apparent to the bean-counters in both domains. Tenured teachers had annoying habits such as wanting to read (or even write) books, take sabbaticals and learn more than they minimally needed to know to attend to their classroom duties. Some even aspired to be “public intellectuals” on company time.

Then, somewhere around 1980, the authorities had an epiphany. By closing off university tenure and full-time college jobs, the ideological domination of neoliberalism, vocationalism and corporatism could be assured and money could be saved at the very same time!

Total political and economic control! What could be better?

Ideological control? That’s easy. Part-timers’ jobs depend, semester-after-semester, upon making no waves, causing no troubles and following the outcomes-based learning objectives with meticulous care. So, no sensible contract employees are apt to upset their organizational superiors by doing something as controversial as encouraging students to “think”!

Fiscal control? That’s even easier. Part-time faculty are cheap hourly workers. They are “flexible” (i.e., they can be hired on spec, fired without cause and they are generally indifferent to questions of assignments. They need the job. So, if the boss wants someone to teach anthropology, no problem. Zoology? Also no problem. Expediency trumps expertise every time. And, best of all, they do not drain budgets with pesky demands like vacation pay and other benefits. The moment the semester ends, they are back on Unemployment Insurance, waiting for the next gig.  […]

We now live in K-Mart Kollege, just another brand in a Wal-Mart World. Here, education is commodified, quantified, pre-digested, pre-packaged and delivered to “customers” in hermetically-sealed plastic containers, all according to the logic of the marketplace. It all amounts to a hideous betrayal of education, our students and ultimately our society. We should be ashamed. We should be outraged. And we should be especially ashamed that we are not outraged

Personally, while there’s clearly a relationship between tenure and political power within academia, I’m not yet convinced that tenure (or, in the case of Ontario’s colleges, full-time employment) is being gutted primarily for the sake of consolidating administrators’ power.  (After all, in Ontario at least, college professors have never had academic freedom to lose.)

More likely, the simple reason for the decline of full-time jobs was — as it so often is in education — saving money, with the consequent rise of a small army of eager (desperate, compliant) adjunct faculty being a welcome side-effect.

The impact of this business model on education (be it college or university) is known to all profs.  On the other hand, last year’s events indicate that it’s probably evident to few of our students, who have for the most part grown up in educational systems that were marked by large classes, overworked teachers, and standardized education leading up to standardized testing.

Lastly, it might be unreasonable to expect senior adminstrators to be aware of or concerned about the impact of the business model on education, since they are hired and fired exclusively based on the degree to which they view education — like one would view any commodity — in terms of quantifiable inputs and outputs.

So, to those who perpetuate this business model on the basis of fiscal considerations, one might ask the only question that they might consider relevant:

How much richer are schools — now that they have adopted the business model currently defended and perpetuated by adminstrators — compared to when the vast majority of faculty had job security?



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