In order to understand the status of the contingent worker in higher education, it’s important to understand what colleges sell. (Our discussion here will focus on the teaching of undergraduates; the work of graduate education and research raise their own questions of contingency, with their own paths forward.)
What exactly do colleges sell? They sell degrees. They sell BAs and BSs and BMs and BFAs and B.Archs and such. That’s what a student steps up to purchase. Not courses. Not experiences. Degrees. The analogue to this is when you step into a Subaru dealer (I’m writing this in Vermont, and so must be patriotic to the state car). What do you want? Do you want brakes? Do you want a transmission? Yes, but only insomuch as what you really want is a car, and the car is outfitted with all of those component parts. What you want is to be able to drive to work in comfort, to be able to carry skis or child seats or potting soil as you see fit, to impress the neighbors with your judgment and your automotive wokeness. The components are largely invisible in the shadow of the greater experience, which is to be the owner of a Subaru.
Subaru does not make brakes. Nor seat belts, nor air conditioners. Subaru does not make batteries nor spark plugs nor tires. Subaru does not make paint nor rear-view mirrors nor windshields. Subaru buys all of those, designed and built to its own specifications, from subcontractors located across several continents. Those subcontractors are chosen on three bases: a) ability to meet the spec, b) reliability of service, and c) low cost.
The batteries that go into a Subaru are more or less the same as those that go into a Honda, just as Calculus I is more or less the same no matter where you take it, because it has to be able to be press-fit into some other institution’s degree. Forty percent of undergrads transfer some time in their process, and all those components need to be fungible enough to fit another car.
A college’s degree, as a whole, is a carefully designed product that only a handful of people (the permanent faculty and the academic administration) get to shape. The permanent faculty get to do the assembly, and to applaud the finished products when they roll off the line. Nobody’s applauding for the tires. The components, by design, are interchangeable across make and model.
This helps to explain why labor practices borrowed from the era of massive, self-contained factories have had such meager results when applied to higher ed. Ford Motor Company once DID make all of those parts, in subsidiary units like Autolite and Motorcraft and Philco. The UAW was able to act as a single massive force in nearly equal opposition to the massive force of the corporation. But now, only a relatively small number of people work for the automotive corporation, with far more employed at hundreds of specialty shops, each with its own labor force and its own labor organization (or lack thereof). Likewise, only a fraction of the teaching force works for the academic corporations, with far more as independent contractors judged on a) meeting the spec, b) reliability of service, and c) low cost.
So perhaps the best protection for contingent faculty, instead of labor organizing, would be the creation of a large national corporation that provides the component parts for the degrees sold by lots of factories. An employer like Sodexo, for instance, that has employees with wages and benefits and everything, that has to offer workplace protections to those it hires, who then sells its services to colleges from Beijing to Baltimore.
So let’s imagine a professional-services corporation with a million or so employees and dozens of regional offices, each of which provides the higher-edinstitutions of that region with reliable (and fully employed) teachers for all of those lower-division courses. If Sacramento State needs teachers, they call ProfCo, and ProfCo enters into a year-long contract to provide exactly the services required, at sufficient mark-up to pay employees a respectable wage and benefits and give them an office and computing.
As long as we’re individual contractors, even if we have a union to negotiate on our behalf, we’re subject to being undercut by individuals from outside. What ProfCo could offer would be one-stop shopping and quality control, so that Central Michigan or Bridgewater State or West Texas A&M could make one phone call, write one contract, and have three hundred teachers on the ground in a month. And ProfCo’s leverage would be the ability to withdraw that contract, and its three hundred teachers, all at once, not as a political or labor struggle but simply as an inability to negotiate a mutually agreed business relationship.
This is the venture capital opportunity for contingent faculty. Especially in our COVID moment where education is increasingly divorced from physical location, this is the time when one or a few providers of educational components could have a gigantic influence, and care reliably for hundreds of thousands of well-protected employees.
We know what the alternative looks like. Another ineffectual statement of concern, another day on the sidewalk with bullhorns, another university that knows it’s creating a vast supply of new isolated adjuncts every day in all of its graduate programs. No, I think we lure schools in with convenience and quality, and then withdraw every single lower-division teacher on the same day if they don’t renew their contract. Imagine the scramble if, one afternoon, Sodexo said to some college, “Sorry, no food or laundry service any more. Bye.” That school wouldn’t be hiring individual food trucks to make up the difference, and students wouldn’t stand for it. Colleges would be drawn back to the negotiating table by the calamity.
Now may be the time for the Sodexo of college instruction. And if this sounds awful, come back tomorrow.