Monday, February 17, 2014

Columbia University and the Continued Rise of Adjuncthood: Does Mentoring Even Matter Anymore?

Now that I am back from my blogging hiatus, one of my goals going forward is to work harder to raise awareness of "academic justice" issues - i.e., how faculty, adjunct instructors, and grad students are treated by their institutions and by higher education more generally.

(Hint: the treatment is oftentimes not very good.)

As I mentioned years ago on this blog, during graduate school I had no idea about how widespread the labor problems in academia actually were. In my program, the cheap teaching labor came from graduate students; therefore, the "fulltime adjunct" problem was not as obvious to me as it was to folks in other disciplines. In addition, my graduate program was highly ranked and seemed to be able to hire an endless stream of new tenure-track faculty, year after year. Meanwhile, I watched graduates of my program go on to solid tenure-track positions or good postdocs every single year. From my perspective, then, things in academia appeared solid and stable.

It wasn't until I left academia in 2011 and started reading about the wider academic job market and the working conditions in colleges and universities other than my own that I realized that things were not as rosy as I had assumed. To my surprise, I discovered the existence of full-time adjuncts. To my greater surprise, I discovered the graduating Ph.D. students who just sort of "disappeared," never to be tracked by their graduate institutions unless they got a tenure-track job. To my even greater surprise, I discovered the existence of faculty (both tenured and non-tenure-track) who were laid off from their institutions without notice and often without cause.

In the past few years as I've continued to read these stories and as my blog gained an audience, I've found that negative stories about academic labor just keep on coming. So even as my personal story about academia has come to an end, I want to use this blog to keep the conversation going about academia's working conditions.

So here we go...a few stories about academic labor justice to start off your week. One relates to general patterns of faculty and staff hiring, and the other to a series of worrisome faculty layoffs that are currently occurring at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

First, a recent study by the American Institutes for Research has found that the problematic patterns many have observed in university hiring have continued, even as tuitions have continued to increase. The AIR study found that while universities have been drastically increasing tuition in recent years, they are continuing to decrease the portion of classes that are taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty. Instead, these increased tuition dollars are going toward the hiring of additional administrators and non-teaching staff members.

If you have a son or daughter in college, then? Or if you are currently a college student? Those increases in tuition dollars that you (or your student loans) are paying are going toward new administrators, not new teachers or mentors.

In my opinion? This is an immensely troubling pattern.

Now, I want to be clear that I am not attacking university staffers as a whole, nor am I suggesting that college administrators writ large are a bad use of university funds. Certainly, anyone who has been in a graduate program knows that a good departmental secretary, for example, is worth their weight in gold. And there are plenty of administrative offices and programs that do a lot of good for students and that greatly improve the teaching and research environment of a school.

However, I think that we all also know that many university administrations have a lot of bloat. So for every Assistant Director of Research who helps students complete their dissertation projects and find funding, there are probably two Vice Provosts of Attending Fancy Banquets and Coming Up With New Mission Statements who don't seem to have much of an impact on student life whatsoever.

It seems very clear to me, then, that there is a clear shift underway in higher education. This shift is moving universities away from the goal of applying money toward services that help students learn and toward putting money into things that simply keep the university in existence. So instead of hiring new faculty who are told to focus on teaching and mentoring, we see universities focusing on fundraising. We see universities pouring money into new buildings that look good on recruitment brochures. And we see universities telling their full-time faculty to focus on getting grants so that the university only has to pay a small portion of their salaries out of their own coffers.

So what will happen, then, is that full-time faculty will devote their time to writing grant proposals and doing research to keep those grants coming, while the actual teaching and mentoring is handled by grad students or cheap adjuncts with no benefits.

Now, some may be reading this and thinking "...well, who cares? We all know that most professors enjoy doing research, and there are always people out there who are willing to take those adjunct positions and teach for low pay and no benefits. So what's the problem?"

The major problem, as I see it, is that students are losing out.

Undergraduates who take classes taught by underpaid, overworked adjuncts miss out. They aren't being taught by professors who are on campus sitting in their offices, ready to take meetings and to advise or mentor students - they're being taught by contract teachers who speed between campuses, leaving immediately after class to get to the next campus and the next group of students they barely know and don't have the time or institutional support to mentor.

Graduate students, meanwhile, are losing the exact type of mentoring and instruction that they need in order to become the skilled scholars and/or professionals that they entered graduate school to become. 

Unfortunately, we are watching this latter scenario play out in real time at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Several months ago, a friend of mine and several colleagues (all graduate students at the school) became aware of an anonymous tumblr they had seen, which seemed to suggest that some of their respected faculty members were being quietly laid off by Columbia after decades of loyal and successful employment at the university.

As it turned out, this is exactly what was happening. As my friend wrote on her Facebook page:
I have some sad news I want to share, which is that several faculty members in my department were laid off silently a couple months ago. They have worked for the department for 25-30 years--over half the department's entire existence!--and do an enormous amount of teaching and mentorship of both masters and doctoral students in our program.

Furthermore, we didn't learn about this situation from our administration. We only learned about it through a tumblr some of our faculty started, using pseudonyms to protect themselves. The full title of the tumblr is: "Un-Occupy Mailman: Reflections, Regrets and Resistance: An open invitation for faculty to break the shameful silence of offstage layoffs." It makes for some very moving and upsetting reading.

Many of us students see this situation as wholly unacceptable. As far as we're concerned, these professors should have tenure. In fact, the American Association of University Professors recognizes the concept of "de facto" tenure for faculty who have served at a school full time for more than seven years
My friend went on to note that since Columbia is currently constructing brand-new buildings with state-of-the-art technology and beautiful event spaces, it doesn't seem that the university is hurting desperately for the money that laying off faculty will provide. Instead, it appears that the money that could be spent on the education and mentoring of its students is instead being spent on campus upgrades and new facilities--things that may look great on recruitment catalogs, but that don't do much to facilitate the actual learning that is supposed to be the focus of a cutting edge research institution like Columbia.

In the weeks after the discovery of the layoffs, the graduate students in the Mailman School began meeting with administrators, trying to get answers about what had happened and about what those actions would mean for the progress of their dissertations, their coursework, and their careers. This culminated with the graduate students attending a school assembly in protest of the layoffs, which attracted the attention of the larger university community, and now Inside Higher Education as well.

In the linked article, several of the laid-off faculty are named. And lest you think that they are fly-by-night adjuncts who teach a class or two and do no research or service, you would be wrong. These are renowned faculty who have demonstrated their expertise in their fields and who have become valued, full-time mentors and teachers to the students in their school over the past several decades. (Students at the Mailman School also suspect that there have been additional layoffs, though Professors Vance and Hopper are the only two who have publicly identified themselves as of today.)

And yet, when they couldn't bring in enough grant money to fund their salaries, they were abruptly let go, quietly and without notice to the students who would be left in the lurch by their departure.

Now of course, I did not sit in on administrative meetings at the Mailman School of Public Health in order to hear what financial struggles the university was going through, or what reasoning went behind the decision to lay off these faculty members (or any others who have not been publicly named). I certainly cannot say for sure whether this decision really was the only possible option available to a struggling school of public health, but I will say that I do find that possibility somewhat hard to believe.

But no matter what the actual decision-making process looked like, what I do know is that this type of action on the part of a top public health program at an Ivy League university does not seem to speak very well of how highly they value their faculty, their students, or the quality of the future public health professionals who will come out of their program.

And as an example of the type of labor decisions being made by universities across the country (as illustrated by the study that found ballooning administrations and dwindling faculty hires), these actions by Columbia do not suggest that today's universities value anything other than the bottom line on their financial balance sheets. That might be well and good for a Fortune 500 business or for-profit corporation, but in my opinion? It is not an admirable way of doing business by a college or university that purports to be about providing students with a high-quality education.  

(Ed. Note: And look - the NY Times agrees with me!)


For those who are interested, my friend was also kind enough to pass along the following summary statement of the position of the graduate students who are courageously and nobly protesting this decision:
What are we against? The ascendant model of how scholarship is financed and rewarded at the Mailman School and other schools of public health. We resist:
(1) its design, because it privileges NIH priorities and grantsmanship, without equally supporting superior mentorship, teaching, and independent scholarship.
(2) the procedures it motivates at Mailman, including “offstage layoffs”, non-participation, and silence.
For both of the above reasons, the ascendant model represents a retreat from the founding premise of SMS to apply innovative social science theory and methodology to health and medical issues, as well as prepare future generations of scholars for this task through excellent mentorship and teaching.
We cannot stand by as SMS faculty are laid off, faculty who have been teaching at this school for 20 or 30 years, faculty who are critical for our dissertation committees and the successful launch of our careers, faculty who are globally renowned for their scholarship.
If the actions at Columbia anger you as much as they do me, I urge you to share this story - and the news article and the tumblr shared above - far and wide. And if you are a faculty member who is interested in writing a letter to the administration at Columbia, or if you are someone else who believes they can help out with the efforts of the grad students, please contact me at

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