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‘The Gig Academy’

You’ve heard of the gig economy, but what about the Gig Academy? Labor scholar Adrianna Kezar says it has to be resisted in her new book.

October 10, 2019
 

Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of its Pullias Center for Higher Education, has devoted much of her professional career to fighting the adjunctification of academe. And while adjuncts themselves make a strong case against it, Kezar has bolstered their cause with her own research and activism. Their cause is her cause.

Yet Kezar wouldn’t like the terms “theirs” versus “hers.” That’s because her work has shown again and again that adjuncts’ poor working conditions end up hurting everyone, including tenured professors -- and students most of all. Professors whose basic professional needs aren’t met can’t meet their students’ needs as well, Kezar has demonstrated through her work at Pullias’s Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. She’s also spread the word during countless speaking engagements and collaborations with professional organizations and institutions that want -- or need -- to do better.

Some have done better. Kezar said recently that she sees real change happening in how some institutions think about faculty work. Still, Kezar, who recently became the sole director of the Pullias Center, sees a real threat to the academic enterprise as a whole: its giggification. She and her graduate assistant co-authors Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott describe the dangers of taking a gig economy-style approach to higher education in The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University, out this month from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kezar and her colleagues describe the gig academy in a way that at first sounds like Uber, not academe: “A cheap and deprofessionalized workforce, fissured workers through outsourcing, automation and uses of technology to reduce labor costs, offloading reproduction costs onto employees, an ethic of micro-entrepreneurship, and managerial control over labor supply and demand.”

But as Kezar continues to describe how academic labor has shifted over the past two decades from approximately 70 percent of professors being tenured or tenure track to 70 percent non-tenure track today, the metaphor becomes apt. Adjunct or part-time faculty salaries, in particular, are low, and many adjuncts have the job security of fast-food workers.

But Gig Academy's analysis isn't limited to the faculty. It notes that academic and support staff members, librarians, curators, archivists, and postdoctoral fellows have all suffered steep cuts to their ranks in recent years, as well. Many office and administrative staff are now part-time. Many earn subpoverty wages. Even core functions such as information technology and admissions are being targeted for outsourcing. And the redistributed workload onto all these remaining workers is demoralizing at best. Graduate student labor is a key part of the gig academy, too, often at the expense of these students’ mental health.

Kezar and her colleagues do note one major difference between the gig economy and the gig academy: the rise of the human “buffer” between administrators and workers. Whereas Uber and its ilk have technology mediate between workers and managers, the academy hasn’t quite caught up. And so professional or midlevel administrative positions increased by 2.5 to 5 percent per year between 2000 and 2012, the book notes -- part of why instructional cost cutting has not been reflected in overall costs. These professionals can of course be more easily “controlled” by higher-level administrators than can faculty members, the book says, but to what end?

“In the past, positive work environments were strengths of colleges and universities,” reads Gig Academy. But as various “surveys are now finding, higher education is now scoring worst compared to all sectors of organizations and businesses.” Turnover is high and the “structures and mechanisms that channel human relationships in the Gig Academy exacerbate the stress experienced by academic workers, contribute to distrust between colleagues, reform formerly collaborative supervisor-employee relationships into antagonistic ones, and push academic workers to spend a far greater proportion of their time and energy strategizing to survive within an increasingly exploitative employment setting.”

Without long-term and stable faculty and staff to interact with students, “there is no viable community for students beyond their peers,” the book also says. “Administrators have adopted logics that have dismantled the academic community that is central to a quality learning environment.” And while these administrators were not necessarily trying “to erode community, they have done so through their choices, fueled by the logics of the Gig Academy.”

It sounds bleak -- but not quite destined to continue: pessimism is not Kezar’s style, or where her research points. The book notes that unionization has improved working conditions for various workers, including part-time faculty members. Yet it advocates additional collective action in the broadest terms, saying that for “too long in higher education, different worker groups have conceived of themselves as separated by distinct, even competing interests and priorities.”

Instead, it would be “particularly effective to push for goals that span multiple types of contingent work, such as statewide living wage floors,” the book says. “United in solidarity, professional staff, classified staff, faculty, graduate students and postdocs could work across groups to develop institutional plans where all employees feel adequately supported in maintaining a quality educational environment that is conducive to student success.”

Reworking the gig academy also has implications for diversity and equity, since women and people of color are overrepresented in contingent positions and those most vulnerable to outsourcing, Kezar and her colleagues say. Those goals must be embraced “fully and unapologetically.” Technology, meanwhile, must be evaluated carefully based on its educational value, and integrated “democratically,” with an eye toward the role of community in learning. Workers who are part-time but asked to work more than that must refuse to be misclassified. And higher education advocates must connect the gig academy to larger political issues in their activism, such as taxes and debt.

Gig Academy proposes additional interim strategies, such as making contingency unattractive to administrators by pushing for higher wages for adjuncts. Campus leaders and employees may also consider cost-sharing arrangements across institutions, to provide full-time employment and benefits to faculty and staff members.

“As we discuss ways of organizing toward a redistribution of power and authority in the academy that centers educational missions and goals, we encourage administrative leaders who see their work as serving noble aims not to dismiss us out of hand,” reads Gig Academy. “We strive to disabuse the notion that such noble aims can ever be fulfilled within a set of organizational relations built on exploitation, refuting the characterization of this as the only realistic choice available to postindustrial society.”

The book doesn’t go into much detail as to possible future faculty models. (Kezar wrote another book about that a few years ago, and the Delphi Project website has lots of material.) But it notes that medical schools have had success experimenting with full-time faculty jobs that allow for customization of roles and inclusion in shared governance.

Kezar said last week that colleges and universities have changed “dramatically, with a significant growth in institutions focused on teaching, and the faculty role needs to evolve,” too. Looking to the future, within some institutions, some faculty members will conduct traditional research, she said, “but we need to dramatically expand our notions of scholarship to be aligned with the multiple types of institutions that exist and their varying missions.”

At the same time, Kezar added, “we need to guard against a hierarchy that will destroy the community of faculty.”

There is more consensus than one might think on the future of the faculty, Kezar continued, but we “really need the leadership to make it happen.” What does that look like? Foundations, national higher education groups and various student success initiatives “prioritizing and not ignoring the faculty.”

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