Betsy DeVos Should Know There Is No One 'College Faculty'

02/27/2017 07:32 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2017

It’s enlightening to watch what issues surface when the subject of the faculty arises. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose experience in higher education is minimal, offered her first substantive comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week when she called out faculty for silencing free speech: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Let’s be clear. There is a case to be made that college campus communities need to be more open to viewpoint diversity, especially with speakers and groups with whom many might disagree. College communities must be careful to permit those qualified to address them and be willing to understand and respect different opinions. A wide variety of opinions are likely found on almost every college campus among students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Campus dialogue should present a full spectrum of their different opinions.

But are culture war politics really the best opening topic through which a new Education Secretary can begin a constructive conversation about higher education, given the deep, dividing, and disruptive issues facing college campuses today?

Don’t Paint All Faculty with Broad Brush

Some within higher education might argue that the most troubling aspect of Secretary DeVos’s comments was not her point about free speech but rather the broad grouping of all academic staff into a single “faculty” category. It is especially dangerous to include adjunct faculty in any assumptions about faculty.

Adjunct faculty face looming employment issues, challenges that highlight the deep and significant financial plight faced by most colleges and universities. Follow the money – or the lack of it.

It would be wiser and more productive for the Education Secretary to open a dialogue about higher education with her in the role of critical thought partner with a seat at the head of the table.

Adjunct Conditions of Employment Highlight Larger Financial Issues

In fact, the great crisis emerging on many college campuses is not what the adjunct faculty teaches but the conditions of their employment and what impact their employment has on quality teaching.

Kevin Birmingham, a Harvard writing instructor, laid this point bare in his speech accepting the Truman Capote Literary Award last fall. Reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, his remarks, “The Great Shame of Our Profession” offer a sober assessment of the state of adjunct faculty, especially as their costs are weighed against other rising expenses borne by a campus.

Mr. Birmingham notes the growth and dispersion of adjunct faculty: “From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled,” with many teaching classes at multiple institutions. Indeed, a 2014 Congressional study that found that “89 percent of adjuncts work at one or more institution; 13 percent work at four or more.”

As Birmingham noted, the Congressional study and others highlight the low wages and low-income status of many adjunct faculty:

  • Adjuncts’ median pay per course is $2700.

  • Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line.

  • Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

His analysis is sharply critical of why institutions flood their disciplines with unemployable PhD’s and how the tenure process is structured, offering a pessimistic outlook on the state of his profession.

Adjunct Faculty Pay is One of Many Chess Pieces in Budget Game

Mr. Birmingham’s argument illuminates the plight of adjunct faculty, but it also demonstrates how universities make ends meet. The cost of labor is the largest single expense driver in most college budgets. If a college operates under an older, creaking financial model – and most do ― its operating budget effectively illustrates how administrators move the chess pieces across the board.

The cold fact is that colleges and universities are subject to ever increasing fixed costs in areas like technology and declining revenues because of debt load, growing financial aid discounts, flat auxiliary revenues, and weak fundraising, forcing them into eternal comprehensive campaigns. It is hardly surprising that administrators, including deans, look to adjunct faculty to cut costs. It’s a toxic financial mess.

Yet Mr. Birmingham’s argument exposes the problem. Graduate revenue pays the bills and permits universities to cut costs through effective use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty often staff new programs initiatives, including online education that further increase profits.

Moving the budgetary chess pieces around permits educators to avoid internal political risk, compensate tenured or tenure-track faculty, and kick the can down the road for the foreseeable future.

The problem is that there is a natural shelf life to this approach, one that is now reaching its expiration date. It’s not a political question like free speech, tenure, or academic freedom. It’s about how we can end the practice of using adjuncts to support the educational status quo, including cutting labor costs through the use of adjuncts to support tenured faculty and full-time administrative staff.

Politicians who pay attention to polling assume that student debt and high tuition sticker prices are the cost drivers upon which they should focus. There may be others, beginning with a need to modernize operating models and how we finance them.

The federal government can play an important and helpful role in thinking about how to finance higher education by looking at what is driving costs. But its first actions as a thought partner shouldn’t be narrowly ideological by design.

This article was first published on the blog of The Edvance Foundation.

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