Call to Arms for Academic Labor

Marc Bousquet pulls no punches in "How the University Works," his analysis about why so many Ph.D.'s may never see tenure or decent working conditions.
January 10, 2008

In the 1990s, Marc Bousquet was among the graduate students in English who led a rebellion against the powers-that-be in the Modern Language Association, demanding more attention to their bleak job prospects and attacking their sense that senior members of the profession were clueless about the lives of those working as their teaching assistants. Bousquet and others helped elect new leaders to the MLA's board, spent long hours with leading literary figures talking about the realities of grad student life, and are credited with nudging the association and many senior scholars into a greater awareness of what was going on. Indeed at this year's MLA convention, as is the norm of late, job market issues and the treatment of adjuncts were frequently discussed.

Not only has the MLA changed, but in some sense, so has Bousquet. He's an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University. He's got one of those tenured positions that, in his grad student days, he and his colleagues argued would be next to impossible to find. But while his economic status may be different, Bousquet is humble enough to say that he knows many in his cohort of grad students -- people of great talent -- who are still adjuncts, with minimal pay and benefits, or who left academe after they couldn't support themselves.

And while tenure may lessen the fervor of some critics, that hasn't been the case with Bousquet. He's just published How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press), in which he takes an uncompromising look at the way colleges employ those who teach -- and how many professors have done nothing as tenured positions have been replaced with adjunct slots.

In the book and in a blog by the same name, Bousquet mixes a history of the shifts in the academic job market over the last few decades, with in-depth looks at a few topics. One of them is a critique of "Prospects for Faculty in Arts and Sciences," a 1989 report that predicted major shortages of faculty -- especially in the humanities and social sciences -- starting in the late 1990s. The analysis of the report reflects a central conviction of Bousquet's book, which is that those who entered the job market in that era, only to find themselves without many opportunities, weren't naïve idealists who shouldn't have been surprised at the lack of opportunities for literature professors. Rather, he argues, many of them were led to believe by some of higher education's top leaders (the report was co-written by the then-head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and was endorsed by the likes of Derek Bok) that good jobs were to be plentiful.

Bousquet may not have a blurb from Derek Bok, but he does have a foreword from Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who calls Bousquet "the Virgil of postmodern academic labor, leading a professoriate in denial through the Dantesque wastes of a system whose sins daily grow numerous."

In the book, Bousqet doesn't just lament the situation facing those on the job market, but questions how the market is defined. Just looking at jobs being filled and new Ph.D.'s entering the market, he writes, ignores larger realities: the way graduate students perform work for years before they are counted as "in the market," and the differences in the qualities of the jobs being filled these days with those envisioned in the 1989 report. As a result, even generally optimistic reports about the job market miss the point, he argues.

Holding a doctoral degree in many ways represents a "disqualification" from academic work, Bousquet writes, because these degree holders' post-Ph.D. employment is working as an adjunct without the possibilities of working on research, having health insurance or enjoying job security -- which they may have (in varying degrees) as grad students.

He explains: "Degree holders frequently serve as university teachers for 8 or 10 years before earning their doctorate.... Many degree holders have served as adjunct lecturers at other campuses, sometimes teaching master's degree students and advising their theses en route to their own degrees. Some will have taught 30 to 40 sections.... During this time, they received frequent mentoring and regular evaluation.... A large fraction will have published essays and book reviews and authored their departmental Web pages. Yet at precisely the junction that this 'preparation' should end and regular employment begin -- the acquisition of the Ph.D. -- the system embarrasses itself and discloses a systematic truth that every recent degree holder knows and few administrators wish to acknowledge: in many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." (Italics are Bousquet's.)

Further Bousquet argues that all of the use of part-time academic labor (grad students, adjuncts and so forth) shows that there isn't a problem with overproduction of Ph.D.'s but with "underproducing jobs." He writes that colleges are making intentional choices about how many academics they produce and how few good jobs they will find.

Throughout the book, Bousquet notes that as this "casualization" took place, most tenure-track faculty members did little or nothing. But he reserves his anger primarily for administrators and others who, he argues, did nothing to help young academics or actively encouraged the changes he decries.

One of his chapters goes into depth about a program -- which has been the subject of some glowing articles elsewhere -- called Metropolitan College, in Louisville. In his forword, Nelson of the AAUP calls this chapter "the ninth circle of academic hell." The program provides those who agree to contracts with UPS to work the midnight-3 a.m. shift sorting packages with free college courses at the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College. Bousquet's chapter begins with a description of an English professor at Jefferson setting her alarm for 2 a.m. and driving to the Metropolitan campus for an advising session with students that begins at 3 a.m., right after work shifts end, in which she must try to communicate with student amid the sound of forklifts, machinery and airplanes taking off.

For Bousquet, this scene sets up a chapter devoted to students who take jobs that exhaust them for a chance at college tuition, professors who struggle to teach them, and the reasons why many colleges view such arrangements as "win-win," the opposite of the book's conclusion. He also recounts a series of questions about student success for which he couldn't get answers. Bousquet quotes figures showing that many students drop out of class -- so UPS ends up recruiting workers who sign contracts for a benefit that the company never pays. And he questions why the colleges involved would help.

George Poling, executive director of the program, said in an interview that he hadn't read Bousquet's book. He said that of about 10,000 workers who are in or have been in Metropolitan College, since 1998, there have been 1,800 degrees. (Some students may have received more than one degree.) While Bousquet's estimates are that fewer degrees have been earned, in either case, the figures back up his contention that most of those attracted to the program for the potential of earning a degree never do so. Poling said that the college has phased out the 3 a.m. counseling sessions, and that they were offered only for student convenience, much the way a 9 to 5 employee might want a program at 5. While it's true that the students in the program work hard, he said that they participate by choice and get a chance at college that might otherwise be unattainable.

"Students work while they are going to college -- whether that be at McDonald's or wherever," he said. "Why not work for a company that is going to provide the benefits and support?"

Another chapter deconstructs the 1989 report predicting faculty shortages. Its co-author was William G. Bowen, a labor economist by training who was then president of Mellon and a former president of Princeton University. Bousquet notes that Bowen's projections defined the then-current faculty in a way that excluded graduate students and adjuncts -- thus seriously undercounting the actual labor force. In addition, he notes that the report viewed the employment of Ph.D.'s outside of academe as a choice some were making (that colleges would presumably respond to by offering better wages) rather than the result of doctorate holders being unable to find jobs.

While Bowen's assumptions might have been valid at Princeton, Bousquet is critical of the idea that a major national report would assume that the economics of Princeton have anything to do with the economics of most colleges and universities. The chapter is full of phrases like "dogmatic imposition of market ideology" and questions about how a noted scholar could ignore "enormous evidence" counter to his claims -- and how the leaders of higher education couldn't notice. (In fact, and clearly with some pain, Bousquet credits Lynne Cheney as being one of the few observers to question the Bowen report.)

Via e-mail, Bowen said he had not seen the book and that he wasn't surprised by the criticism of his projections. "They certainly proved wide of the mark," he said. "The major reason for the big disconnect between our projections and the way the world turned out it is that we failed to anticipate the dramatic change (fall-off) in faculty-student ratios that occurred post-1989, especially in public universities, where of course most of the jobs are found. It is some comfort to recognize that we were far from alone in failing to anticipate the dramatic shift in these ratios that was in turn brought about by sharp reductions in funding, especially for state universities. We also failed to anticipate the huge increase that has occurred in the use of adjunct faculty. To the best of my knowledge, no one writing in the late 1980s anticipated either of these major developments."

In an interview at this year's MLA convention, Bousquet said he had a variety of goals in writing the book. In part, he wants people to take notice of what's going on. "Higher education seeks out and attracts some of the most selfless individuals on the planet and then engages in predatory activities in selecting people for positions," he said.

And part of the problem, he argued, is that too many people in higher education focus on reaching for the brass ring of tenure rather than thinking about what tenure has become. "Tenure is enormously defective," he said. “It is a not a good form of job security if you compare it to job security for kindergarten teachers or police officers. Most people [in other professions] get it more easily and hold on to it better than people in tenure systems."

Tenure also plays into what Bousquet argues is the "dog eat dog" world of academic life today. If you forget the Bowen report and assume it's your fault that you are among the "excess" of Ph.D.'s, you accept the current system and focus on fighting others for that elusive job, he said. "In the tenure system, people believe that their interests are pitted against one another for status, raises and so forth." Real tenure, he said, would also include meaningful governance by professors of their institutions, and decisions to move away from the adjunct system.

Asked what he would do if appointed a president or provost, Bousquet said he would seek to define educational excellence in part based on what percentage of classes are taught by full-time professors with job security. In the book, he writes that "cheap teaching is not a victimless crime," noting that most middle class families wouldn't go to an accountant or lawyer without a private office, but think of nothing of sending their children to learn to write from someone in that state. If the public notions of quality can be defined differently, and that's something Bousquet said presidents and provosts could do, demand for more full-time positions might grow.

But ask Bousquet how he thinks change will come about and he doesn't suggest he's about to end up as an administrator. He said that it will come when "contingent labor force change in the system." He predicted that in time, adjuncts will find ways to take over disciplinary and professional associations, and make them forces for change. Similarly, he is encouraged by the movement to organize more contingent faculty into unions (although he is aware that this strategy is possible only in some states). But one way or another, he said that the real leadership will come from those who lose the most.

And how does he feel about the fact that this leaves him, as a tenured professor, in a different role? Bousquet said there is considerable irony in his position. While he said he's aware that there "are certain people who I've alienated and certain career hits I've taken for agitating for change," he said that his reputation working on issues of academic labor has helped his career. "It's attracted attention."

"I feel fortunate," he said, of his position, "and I have survivor issues."


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