• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Time to Retire, "It's Supply and Demand."

What happens if all faculty jobs were subject to the "law" of supply and demand?

October 13, 2016



One of my favorite – and by favorite, I mean most irritating – responses people weighing in on the treatment of contingent academic labor offer is some version of “There’s nothing we can do, it’s supply and demand.”

“Supply and demand” is cited not just as an economic principle, but something much more intractable and impossible to resist like gravity, or Kim Kardashian.

The argument is that the supply of “good” jobs is not sufficient, therefore, contingent faculty either must be satisfied with their usually meager pay, or do the only thing in their power … quit.

To embrace this stance is to believe that “good” jobs are somehow immutable, a constant in the higher ed universe. But how many of us have seen a tenured faculty member leave and their slot be replaced with a non-tenurable position, or several adjunct positions, or even eliminated altogether?

Additionally, issues of human labor do not exist outside of concerns of ethics or morality. We have many mechanisms that interfere with or interrupt the “law” of supply and demand – child labor laws, overtime regulations and a minimum wage just to name a few.

Or, I don’t know, tenure, for another.

When tenured faculty cite the iron law of “supply and demand” while holding positions that are largely exempt from such “laws,” perhaps they could consider the issue more deeply.

Tenured faculty, particularly at public institutions, may not be as highly paid as other professions requiring advanced degrees, but they also do not risk (for the most part) having their jobs eliminated in times of low demand. They have a security, both in salary and position that effectively situates them outside of supply and demand as it applies to labor.

This is true not just at the position level, but in terms of student demand for courses. In fact, many English departments especially allow more highly paid tenured faculty to teach relatively low demand courses, often beneath capacity, while contingent faculty handle the fully subscribed lower division courses.

The numbers of English majors are falling steadily, reducing the demand for those upper division courses, and yet, tenured faculty are insulated from these forces.

While we know that tenure doesn’t mean a job for life, it is difficult to remove a tenured faculty member, even those who have dipped in terms of effectiveness or productivity. The laws of supply and demand, if they were allowed to function for all faculty positions, would either require a much greater rate of production by individual faculty, or a much more frequent replacement of laborers.

How many have noticed that dozens of job applicants, thanks to an arms race for credentials, have CV’s superior to some long tenured faculty? Why don’t we hire them en masse, and get rid of the old guard?

There are good reasons for not doing this, we believe. To subject tenured faculty to the full weight of supply and demand would bring chaos. Departments require continuity and institutional memory. How can you be an English department without a Shakespeare course, even if only a dozen students enroll?

Opening tenured jobs to supply and demand could damage the ability of faculty to educate. Imagine if those low enrollments meant your job could disappear, or if the position was fully subject to the free market and a younger, hungrier, cheaper competitor was ready to come in and do the job for a lesser wage?

How could faculty invest in protecting and investing in institutional health under those circumstances? How could faculty work cooperatively knowing that they’re actually in competition with each other?

In times of budgetary belt tightening, what would stop administrations from dumping all tenured positions for contingent ones, or requiring tenured faculty to take lower salaries, or staff more classes?[1]

To protect the integrity of the institution, tenured faculty must be exempted from the “law” of supply and demand. This makes me wonder why so many departments tolerate a state where a majority of their courses are taught by instructors without the benefit these things. We just agreed we need stability and security to protect institutional integrity. If it is necessary, why do we deny it for so many? If it is not necessary, why give it at all?

It can't be both at the same time.

As much as some would like to think that contingent faculty and tenured faculty are somehow different, one class deserving exemption from the laws of supply and demand and the other not, let’s at least admit to ourselves that these divides are largely arbitrary, the whims of chance often separating those who secure tenure-track jobs from those who do not.

But tenured faculty also have to do research and advising and committee work, some will say. That’s different from instructor positions who only teach for their full-time positions, or adjunct positions who only teach one class.

However, is tenure itself necessary to do those things? And even if we accept that it is, how many institutions pay their contingent faculty a per course wage for teaching that is equivalent to the salary the tenured faculty member receives for the identical work?

Well, some may say, even if this is all true, the fact is, there just isn’t enough money. We wish it were different, but we can’t afford more tenure track positions.

By that logic, because of the law of supply and demand, we can’t afford any tenured positions as long as there’s someone out there willing to do the job for less. We can go ahead and reduce the cost of every faculty position.

I don’t mean this as an attack on tenure or the tenured. I like both tenure and the tenured and believe we’d be better off with more of each.

But the “university of the future” which does away with pesky things like labor protections is coming, and those of us who believe that room to breathe and reasonable security is necessary to provide a meaningful educational experience for students need to head into that future with eyes open.

Convenient deflections and oversimplifications of our labor structure like “it’s supply and demand” are a denial of deeper realities, and it’s time to dispense with them.


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[1] Of course, this is happening at some institutions that have are feeling the most severe economic pinch.


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