David, three cheers for recognizing that the market is working, even when anti-market forces such as tenure appear to defeat it. I agree that the “creative energy of thousands of hopeful academics who are willing to do more for less” may well right the academic ship.
Adjuncts’ wages are low because tenure protection has enabled tenured faculty to keep their wages high, even while their teaching productivity goes down. The high costs they impose on universities have forced administrators — eager to teach a lot of students — to find lower-cost workers. And since the tenured faculty have been productive in one way — producing Ph.D.s — there are lots of non-tenured teachers to choose from.
Ultimately, tenure will largely disappear; the number of tenure-track faculty is already shrinking, just as the number of unionized workers gradually shrank throughout this country in the post-war period. Those who protect their jobs at higher-than-market wages will ultimately become a mere remnant.
We are beginning to see the advent of teaching specialists like Dirk Mateer at Penn State and Michael Rizzo at the University of Rochester, both economists. These outstanding lecturers have renewable contracts, not tenure, but they are well-paid because they are so effective at teaching (and they bring more students into the discipline). In fact, it’s a win-win situation because the tenured faculty get to reduce their teaching loads even further.
The people who don’t “get” this are the representatives of the tenured faculty, the AAUP, who think that unionizing non-tenured workers will magically cough up money for everybody. Jay Schalin discusses their misguided thinking in an essay about Marc Bousquet’s book How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation on the Pope Center website.