Thank you, George, for directing us to Maurice Black and Erin O’Connor review. As I read the somewhat surprising news that no one really seems to know how many adjuncts there are and no one really understands how they are (systematically) hired and fired, I couldn’t help but think that we’re seeing the beginnings of a functioning free market in labor in higher education. While the market is still dramatically distorted by tenure, the very desirability of academic jobs creates the virtual equivalent of a black market in lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, and aides. Budget pressures are eased by the crush of willing applicants, and thorny tenure decisions can be postponed, perhaps indefinitely, by hiring a series of part-time professors eager for even an outside shot at a true, enduring academic career.
While there are no doubt many bad adjuncts, and there are no doubt many instances of unfairness toward and even exploitation of part-time academics, this merely places the university workplace on a more equal footing with virtually any other career. Are these disadvantages worse, on balance, that the disadvantages of the present, tenure-bound system? After all, we know what tenure has given us: a semi-permanent class of academic elites who think alike, cost a lot, and educate poorly.
At the end of the day, lasting academic reform may not come from top-down legislative or legal initiatives, but from the relentless logic and creative energy of thousands of hopeful academics who are willing to do more for less. After a while (and especially during a recession), the costly ideological monoculture spawned by tenure and other hidebound academic traditions simply stops making sense.