Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Productivity and the professoriate 

Invisible Adjunct replies to my post on tenure with a couple of questions. Let me try to cover them as best I can.

1. IA thinks that tenured faculty would want to stop the "adjunctification" of the professoriate to protect their own profession. As evidence she cites the growing differential between private and academic salaries as showing stagnation in faculty salaries. But changes in wages reflect changes in relative productivity. Labor productivity for highly skilled workers in the private sector may have been greatly enhanced by IT over the last decade. I don't know of anything in the field of academic research or teaching that makes professors more productive. (I'll chime in some day on the value of "smart classrooms" -- I've become a skeptic.) The existence of a growing differential doesn't tell you if it's the numerator growing faster or the denominator shrinking or growing slower. Which is it? I'm not a labor economist, so I'll defer the answer to that to someone who knows the literature better.

2. IA thinks I've ignored the possibility that the equilibrium number of tenure-track professors in some field might be zero. Well, yes, it might be if tenure-track faculty would choose to jump to the adjunct track rather than pay high enough "premiums" -- in the form of lower wages -- to accept a tenure-track slot. Either that or there must be a way to convince students (and not just administration) that there's additional value in a course taught by a full-time tenureable or tenured professor than an adjunct.

3. Do I "assume a good deal more power and agency on the part of faculty than is probably the case"? I'd say no for SCSU -- we're a unionized campus with a union that sees its role as at least adversarial to the administration, if not in fact confrontational. And when I have taught at smaller privates (I think they see themselves as 'elite', too, but your mileage may vary) adjuncts were very rare; there was an expectation that when parents paid $30,000 a year they got full-time faculty who made student appointments at times of the students' choosing. Perhaps what this says -- oh dear, this will cause me more grief from IA! -- is that at larger public institutions the quality of the tenured faculty isn't sufficiently different from the pool of adjuncts. Given that the adjunct pool is largely filled with fresh doctoral degrees, younger professors that connect with students (and have fresher notes), I don't know why that should come as a big shock.

There's a recent paper by Lazear and Oyer (.pdf) which discusses "port of entry" jobs. The adjunct market may in fact be a port of entry. In this view, rather than viewing adjuncts and t-trackers as being substitutes, the relationship is more hierarchical -- the adjunct pool contains those trying to get into tenure tracks, and those in them either move up to tenure or are thrown back into the adjunct pool. In academia, where as I mentioned earlier governance is done democratically through one's peers, using adjuncts to decide who will be "good voters" or "responsible citizens" in governance may have distinct advantages.