Higher education in the fields our organization represents has reached a crisis that has been building for a long time—a crisis not yet fully understood either by the public at large, whose intellectual destiny is closely bound up with the future of our colleges and universities, or by the professoriat, whose careers are intimately linked with the fate of those institutions. To be sure, there has been considerable media attention to several striking developments on campuses around the country. On the one hand, the cost of providing higher education has been going up at a rate notably greater than that of inflation, while funding for institutions has failed to keep pace. On the other hand, despite the manifest need for postsecondary teachers to serve a growing student population, there are far more candidates for professorial jobs in higher education than there are tenure-track positions to be filled. Thus as financial support for colleges and universities lags behind escalating costs, campus administrations increasingly turn to staffs of ill-paid, overworked part- or full-time adjunct lecturers and graduate students to meet instructional needs, and critics of the state of American higher education complain that even though fees have risen dramatically, undergraduates are not being taught by tenured or tenure-track professors.1
In response to these developments, lawmakers call for greater productivity on campus, and advisers trained in business management counsel various forms of "downsizing." In numerous instances, indeed, formal commissions, college presidents, boards of trustees, and the media have pressed for a new efficiency in higher education based on corporate models in which students are defined as "clients" or even "products" and academic institutions are regarded as sites of production. But of course the object of business corporations is to make a profit, while the object of institutions of higher education is to acquire and disseminate knowledge as well as, most important, to develop in students sophisticated intellectual strategies they will use for the rest of their lives, in and out of the workplace. Nor are students clients or products: they are people who need and want to learn from the professionals best qualified to instruct them in fields whose mastery requires extensive training and complex skills. Both the problem of insufficient funds for colleges and universities and the solutions that demand less spending suggest, therefore, that we face a rigorous test of our society's commitment to the democratic ideal of full and equal access to quality education.
This report attempts to make the effects of these fiscal constraints better understood in the hope of thereby finding optimal solutions to the critical difficulties now faced in a range of academic institutions across the United States.2 Although on this committee we too are concerned with questions of efficiency and economy, we reject as misguided and indeed dangerous to ideals of educational excellence the current proposals to resolve staffing problems through the adoption of corporate models. How, for example, might one reconcile administrative efforts at economizing by hiring part-time and adjunct instructors with parental complaints that students are not being taught by qualified full-time professors? How assure excellence in education while simultaneously devaluing the professoriat through the elimination of tenure? Our committee proceeded on the assumption that any adequate resolution of recent problems in the academy must have as its ultimate aim the highest-quality instruction for the greatest number and diversity of students. We also assumed that teaching in higher education requires extensive training in particular disciplines—training that is difficult, time-consuming, and costly—and, therefore, that those who teach in higher education require and deserve appropriate compensation for their professional labor. If such compensation is denied, it is impossible to imagine that the most-qualified candidates will end up doing the work that needs to be done in college and university classrooms.
At the outset, our committee determined that the critical conditions in the academy, as dramatized in the media and experienced by many recent PhDs, reflect long-term developments that have shaped the complex system of higher education in the United States since World War II, a system to which the patterns of academic employment that we study here are inextricably linked. In our view, no effort to resolve current problems can succeed without a concomitant effort to understand how the entire system of teacher training and placement works within higher education, and we thus took as our first responsibility a nuanced analysis of that system's history as well as its present structure and function. After completing such an analysis, we moved toward a set of recommendations designed to address the complicated issues that have produced the current situation. Our recommendations have three major objectives: to adjust the job system so as to balance the number of jobs available with the number of qualified PhDs; to ensure that all faculty members, adjunct and otherwise, are recognized and compensated as trained professionals; and, as a consequence of these two measures, to improve the quality of postsecondary education at every level but particularly in lower-division courses, which are increasingly taught by overworked, undervalued adjunct faculty members and graduate students.
While those who advocate downsizing and streamlining the university along corporate lines acquiesce in or even promote the replacement of tenure-track faculty members with less expensive part-timers and adjuncts, our report insists that excellence in education for present and future students depends on an increase in full-time tenure-track faculty positions. The disturbingly heavy reliance on part-timers in American higher education today contributes directly and indirectly to the failures of our academic system. As this report notes, adjuncts normally do not have the time or institutional support to teach in the committed and expert way expected of regular faculty members. In addition, the disproportionate staffing of lower-division courses with adjuncts tends to increase the disparity in valuation between lower-division teaching and upper-division or graduate teaching. Yet so long as the growth of the full-time professoriat at colleges and universities fails to keep pace with the growth of the student population—so long, that is, as public funding of higher education continues to diminish and tenure-track positions dwindle—the temptation to assign major pedagogical tasks to part-time and adjunct faculty members will remain strong. For in fact, although few commentators on our disciplines appear to have noted this point, at most institutions there are no longer enough full-time faculty members in English and foreign language departments to teach even the freshman and sophomore classes, let alone also the more advanced courses needed as offerings for majors and often as distribution requirements for nonmajors.
Although our report urges increases in faculty size, we make no claim that graduate programs are guiltless in this situation—far from it. Our analysis of the systems of employment and training suggests that important revisions are necessary, particularly a new emphasis in graduate training on teaching. At the same time, recognizing that any resolutions to the current difficulties must be long-term, our report insists on the importance of widespread departmental self-study. It is imperative that graduate programs make adjustments appropriate to the realities of the job market and to the needs of the undergraduates whom those in the programs will teach. It is imperative too that these programs find ways to convince all students of the value of teaching in lower-division courses. Self-study will likely lead many doctorate-granting departments to admit fewer graduate students, while a number of others will find that they are training their students for the wrong sort of work. In almost every instance, however, we believe that an increased focus on problems of pedagogy will help create a new esteem for the tasks most PhDs will perform throughout most of their careers.
Our report offers no panacea. We point toward ideal changes in the structure of higher education but attempt to keep our recommendations practical. We recognize that even the slightest of these recommendations—for example, that graduate students teach no more than one course each term—may meet with resistance because of immediate economic constraints. But we are committed to the view that revising doctoral training so that its size and shape are more finely tuned to the academic workplace will dramatically improve the entire system of higher education. We are committed, in addition, to the view that quality work in academia requires professional and humane compensation. Finally, we are committed to the view that the best assurance of excellence in education for the greatest number and diversity of students is the improvement of the training and working conditions of those who teach on all campuses, from elite research universities to local community colleges. The current crisis in academia, which threatens the democratic ideal of full and equal access to higher education for all qualified students, cannot be resolved without a nuanced understanding of the way the system functions, the ways it has failed, and the ways it can be adjusted. We offer this report in the hope that our findings may contribute significantly to such an understanding.