Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan,they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

Related reading (including two just in from Lee Skallerup, and a foursome from Melonie Fullick)

Kate Bowles is an Australian historian. This was originally posted on Kate’s blog which you can find here. You can find Kate on Twitter here.


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