Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice. These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge. Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas. Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.
This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning. Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored? Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced? What values are attached to those ideas and speakers? How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?
Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise. While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda. I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases, and some do argue that collusion has occurred. Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken. Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding. These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.
This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty. This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status. The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university. A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,” a marked increase from 55% in 1975.
Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty. (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.) The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.
Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction. That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers. According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.” But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice. Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes. Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.
Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life. Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.
The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation. Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole. Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees. The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over. Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power. These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.
These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas. (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.
Luckily, not everyone has been silenced. The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories. Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor. A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor, and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.
These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded. Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers. Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice. Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society. Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there. Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.
For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.
Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University. He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014). You can visit his website for more information about his work.
 See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.
 See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.
 See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.
 American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.
 American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.
 “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.
 American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.
 Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.
 Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.