There are dozens of diagnoses for why the adjunct crisis is occurring. And they’re all correct, although they’re all also partial and incomplete. One of the benefits of seeing higher ed as an ecosystem in collapse is that it allows us to recognize the interplay of innumerable variables. As the famous guidance has it, introducing a new species or new nutrient into an ecosystem doesn’t make it the same ecosystem plus one thing—it creates, by definition, a new ecosystem, as all of the other inhabitants adjust to the change.
The starving of the adjuncts is the result of at least four major forces, each of those four already a summation of dozens of other impacts.
The first is the overproduction of workers with PhDs and terminal master’s degrees. We’re throwing six or eight or ten times as many candidates into the job pool as can be absorbed under current conditions. We do that because graduate programs bring prestige to their institutions, because graduate students do tons of research, and because graduate students make really inexpensive teachers. We’ve given the opportunity for significant intellectual growth to more than twice as many students as we did thirty years ago, a real social and personal benefit, while neglecting the fact that these newly sophisticated thinkers might not have a place to ultimately exercise that muscle.
The second is that colleges have found an endless number of other things to spend money on, all of them useful and important, but all of them changing the nutrient demands of the lake. Colleges buy technology, in vast quantity and wild variety. They support the wonderful fact of an increased diversity of students through programs and offices: for adult students and veteran students and single-parent students and students with learning disabilities and English-language learners and women’s centers. They chase the employment market with the launch of new programs and new degree levels… or no degrees at all, just badges and certificates. They market to a much broader audience than their humble geographic region, to students from other states and other nations, competing on the basis of amenities and buzz as much as they do on academic quality. They join a huge number of national organizations, related to disciplines and institution types and pedagogical practices, each of which requires membership fees and conference registration and travel. They fund offices of sponsored research, even though hardly any will pay their own way through the ultimate sponsorship harvest. They have more staff for financial aid, more staff to respond to legal mandates and federal programs and state/regional partnerships. Teaching is now only a tiny proportion of what colleges are required to offer.
The third is that the income side of the equation for colleges is uncertain. State governments are less generous with funding than they had once been; just this week, Alaska’s governor introduced a draft budget including a 40% reduction in funding for the University of Alaska system, and he’s hardly alone in the past decade. Just as profound, though, is the demographic collapse, the reduction in 1990s and 2000s and 2010s babies that become college students between 2010 and 2030. When we don’t know how much money we’ll have or how many students we’ll have, it doesn’t make sense to make permanent commitments to anything.
And the fourth is that higher ed just looks like the rest of the economy, with our emphasis on consumer satisfaction and convenience far outweighing our commitment to worker dignity. Gig workers abound. We increasingly accept and rely on paraprofessionals for most daily contact in law and medicine as well as college teaching. We outsource all of our non-core functions to invisible off-site workforces. We systematically devalue any profession once women begin to succeed at it.
Any time someone tells you that they know why the crisis of contingency exists, you can agree with them, because they’re almost certainly right. That is, they’ve almost certainly named one of the dozens of factors that enter into the remaking of the academic ecosystem. The problem is that we can’t fix it by working only on one variable at a time.