Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2008

The Last Professors

Filed under: Academia,Education,workers — louisproyect @ 1:07 am

In the June 18, 2008 edition of “Inside Higher Education”, there was an interview with Frank Donoghue, the author of the newly published “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities” that caught my eye, especially with what he had to say about adjunct professors in the humanities field.

Q: Many advocates for adjuncts say that tenure-track (and especially tenured) professors did nothing or far too little as academe was restructured. Is this true? Why do you think this happened?

A: Certainly most tenure-track professors were oblivious as the teaching workforce was restructured, and very few predicted how dire a problem it would become. Had we identified the casualization of the teaching workforce as a problem when it began to take hold in the 1980s, we might have been able to correct it. Paul Lauter referred to the misuse of adjuncts as a “scandal” in 1991 in Canons and Contexts, and he may have been the first to use language that strong. That we could have done much about it over the past twenty years presupposes that professors set hiring policies. At most institutions, professors have a lot of input in the hiring of other professors, but not in the hiring of adjuncts, either the people themselves or the terms of their contracts. Decisions about adjunct labor have, by and large, never been made by faculty, but have instead been part of larger administrative policies.

Since a number of young adjunct professors in New York I am friendly with have told me some real atrocity tales about finding a tenure-track position, I decided to read Donoghue’s book. In a way, it might as well be titled “Peak Education” since it describes a downward trajectory ending in disaster in the same fashion as “peak oil” theories, except in academia the prospects seem far more grounded in objective reality.

The Donoghue interview has sparked more than the usual number of comments, including from long-suffering adjuncts. One writes:

I completed my Ph.D.in philosophy as a nontraditional student in the last few years. I spent a long time in graduate school (6 for PHD) because I had to string 4 adjunct positions together to earn the whopping sum of $28,000/year. This extravagant sum was necessary just to keep the roof over our heads and heat the house.

I remember distinctly telling the undergrad professors who so irresponsibly advised me to soldier on the to Ph.D. that they would be the last generation to live with tenure and middle-class lives. They denied this fact and pointed out that there were no adjuncts in their tiny department. After naively following their advice off a cliff, tenure track jobs are as rare a winning powerball tickets and only graduates from the top 10-20 ranked programs are considered worthy of even the smallest crumbs. Thus, I still work two jobs, one as an adjunct, and teach 18 classes per year with no summers off. Worse yet, I am told because I work at these non-research schools, my fate is sealed and I will never ascend to the privileged class as I am labeled a “lecturer,” not something I chose but rather was forced into to survive. The end has already arrived. I teach in a less than prestigious institution with Ph.Ds from Columbia and Pitt. We are not non-scholars.

In order to write for publications that hold articles for a year or more, I will take off the summer, sacrifice 25% of my not-so-large annual income and lose all economic stability. The path to knowledge and prosperity in the humanities is dead. Now the question is how to leave the profession? Entirely. Google the Philosophy Job Market blog and see the future if you are an idealistic humanities major.

The growth of adjunct positions in academia, an elevated form of contingent labor not that different than from any other part-time job lacking benefits such as health insurance and pensions, has had the effect of casting 70 percent of all college professors into economic misery, as well as a loss of status. 30 years ago they constituted only 43 percent of all professors. At this rate, tenured positions will disappear a lot quicker than oil.

Adjuncts typically–including my young friends–lack both an office and a computer. Each semester they have to anxiously await word to see if they will receive some crumbs from the table. Unlike professors on the tenure track, they are not guaranteed that they will be asked to give classes.

Although the adjuncts I know are relatively young (in their mid-30s), some have been at it for a very long time. There’s an article in the June 17th “Inside Higher Education” titled “Waiting 20 Years for the Tenure Track” by an English instructor named Phil Ray Jack that puts flesh on the broad historical analysis in Donoghue’s book. Jack writes:

Gradually, I began to see myself as a “professional part-time instructor.” At one time, I had business cards printed that showed a pawn in one corner and said, “Freelance Faculty – Have Degree, Will Travel.” I know it sounds a little corny, but calling myself a part-timer when I actually taught almost twice as many classes as most full-time professors didn’t seem accurate. Calling myself “a contingent faculty member” was more accurate, but I didn’t like admitting that I could lose my job at the whim of an administrator. Adjunct sounds a little better, and that’s the term I currently use, but at the time I was still trying to hold on to a romantic view of what I was doing.

During my 20-year stint as a part-timer, I built a repertoire of horror stories like thousands of other part-timers. One college announced that I would no longer be needed there because my students complained about my forcing them to read pornography in the class. The books they referred to were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. When I pointed out that these books were on reading lists for classes taught by others, I was told, “Yes, but they have tenure so I can’t do anything about it.”

The dean pointed out that I wasn’t being fired, I would simply not be offered classes.

Donoghue’s first chapter, which can be read in the inaugural issue of “American Academic,” the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, debunks a notion that is widespread on the academic left, namely that the corporate assault on the humanities is a recent phenomenon. Since American society has gone through a number of wrenching changes since the early 1970s associated with “neo-liberalism”, there is a tendency to see the university as having some kind of higher and protected status in a golden age. As it turns out, the American capitalist class (my formulation, not Donoghue’s, although anybody reading his book would understand that this was the enemy he was identifying) has hated the idea of a liberal, humanities-oriented education since the Gilded Age.

Frank Donoghue

Consider what Andrew Carnegie, who Donoghue refers to as “the meagerly educated self-made multimillionaire” had to say to an 1891 commencement address at the Pierce College of Business and Shorthand of Philadelphia:

In the storms of life are they [traditional graduates] to be strengthened and sustained and held to their post and to the performance of duty by drawing upon Hebrew or Greek barbarians as models. . .? Is Shakespeare or Homer to be the reservoir from which they draw? . . . I rejoice, therefore, to know that your time has not been wasted upon dead languages, but has been fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting. . . and that you are fully equipped to sail upon the element upon which you must live your lives and earn your living.

Andrew Carnegie: favored short-hand, not scholarship

While this sentiment has always existed among the American plutocracy, it has only been within the past 30 years or so that it has had the means to ensure that young people are steered into what amounts to “shorthand” and “typewriting”. Economic hardship has forced more and more students to chose college majors that will lead to a job and the university system will do everything it can to accommodate such an emerging market since more often than not the President of the university is well-connected to the corporate world.

This is particularly true of the state universities and the community colleges where the student body tends to be more economically insecure. Why waste time studying 17th century poetry when a computer science or accounting major can put a roof over your head and food in your belly?

Even as tenured jobs are disappearing, those who currently enjoy tenure appear fully absorbed in their own privileged state and incapable of addressing the larger problems of their profession, even if they are left trade unionists like Stanley Aronowitz who is a star in the City University Graduate Center. Donoghue quotes Aronowitz’s article “The Last Good Job in America” that appeared in the summer 1997 issue of “Social Text”:

I read a fair amount of detective and science fiction, but sometimes I write and teach what begins as entertainment. The same goes for reading philosophy and social and cultural theory. I really enjoy a lot of it and experience it as recreation but often integrate what I have learned into my teaching and writing repertoire. . . . And even though I must appear for some four hours a week in a seminar or two, I don’t experience this as institutional robbery of my own time.

Of course, Aronowitz makes sure to make the point that his easy life should be the norm for all workers, something that I am sure that he really believes in as a long-time socialist. Unfortunately, despite his best intentions and all the good work of the union that represents the city’s professors, there is little likelihood that an adjunct will ever have it this easy. Indeed, from what I have seen of the City University system, a tenure-track position is about as easy to gain entry to as Kafka’s Castle and even more foreboding. I have seen nepotism at work in at least two campuses, where powerful, politically-connected administrators override the wishes of a department’s recommendation for a new hire and pick their own candidate as a payoff. In other words, hiring is done in the same way as in mafia-controlled construction unions.

This is not just true of the City University. It is also true of Columbia University, my own employer. Around 10 years ago I was friendly with a sociology professor named John Hartman who, unlike my young friends, had a tenure-track position. In the very year that he was going to get his tenure, Charles Tilley, the renowned academician, took over the department, refused to renew Hartman’s contract and those of his associates, and replaced them with his own favorites. Hartman told me that it was like something out of “The Godfather”. This experience was enough to make him give up on teaching altogether. He took a job as a statistician with an insurance company in Western Pennsylvania and left academia behind. Unlike John Hartman, who had marketable skills in statistics and computer networking, most adjuncts know nothing except the humanities discipline of their PhD and are forced like Phil Ray Jack to roam from campus to campus like the Flying Dutchman.

When I hear stories like this from my adjunct friends or from professors who got screwed like John Hartman, my blood boils. I try to imagine what is like to spend 5 or more years completing a dissertation in lonely, stressful, mind-numbing circumstances just in order to be able to teach in a field that you are dedicated to. In most professional training, such as law or medicine, there is an expectation that after such a sacrifice there is a well-paying job and the respect of your community awaiting you like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In my unrepentant Marxist fashion, I imagine all those angry adjuncts and all the other professors who have seen the handwriting on the wall fighting militantly to defend their profession, including its lowliest members. A general strike would teach the masters of academia, with their relentless drive to cut costs in the name of “tight budgets” (in other words, the same excuse as auto manufactures, hospitals et al), to back off and respect working people.

But then I reflect on how difficult it is to organize people in my own trade, who are far lower on the professional food chain than adjunct professors with their PhD’s. An article in the June 5th Nation Magazine titled “Dilberts of the World, Unite” describes efforts to organize subcontractors at Microsoft into a trade union. These employees are contingent labor just like adjuncts, even if they make considerably more money. For them, the problem is whether their job will be around very much longer as Microsoft continues to ship jobs overseas. No matter how pissed off the part-timers are, there are some myths deeply ingrained in their consciousness that prevent many of them from thinking in terms of collective action:

The first and most powerful of these myths is the Marlboro Man Fable. Doug, a Microsoft employee and WashTech at-large member, who asks me to use a pseudonym to protect him from blacklisting, tells me that while tech workers certainly have complaints about wages and benefits, they do not see unions as being congruent with their deeply held beliefs in “rugged individualism”–the Marlboro Man spirit that says everyone is a lone cowboy who can tough it out on his or her own. “One of the successful things the high-tech industry has done is to have sold people on the idea that if you just struggle all by yourself, you can be Bill Gates, too,” he says over lunch at Microsoft’s cafeteria in Redmond. “That’s kind of what we sell in our whole country as the self-made man. There’s no such thing, really, but that’s what lots of folks believe.”

The gulf between the Marlboro Man Fable and reality is one of the most combustible ingredients in today’s uprising. People’s economic experiences–stagnant wages, rising healthcare costs, decreasing retirement benefits–indict the fable in a far deeper way than even the best uprising leader could. However, as Doug says, the awakening has been slow in a white-collar world that matured during the go-go 1990s. The Marlboro Man Fable poses the toughest challenge to WashTech because it drills directly into white-collar workers’ psychology–specifically, their belief “that interests of employers and employees are the same,” as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset found in his groundbreaking research on the subject.

While the college professor is not exactly a Marlboro Man, isn’t it fair to say that the competition of the dissertation process and the search for a tenure-track job brings out the intellectual’s deepest individualistic tendencies? Isn’t the ivory tower one of the most perfect expressions of meritocracy known to humanity?

As I reflect on the problems of academia and the part-timer’s at Microsoft, I cannot help but think of the problems of the left in general. In a period of deepening economic insecurity, almost everybody thinks about himself or herself rather than collective solidarity. While nobody wants a return to the terrible 1930s, with its economic misery and headlong plunge into fascism and war, there was something about its ability to get people to bond together against its common enemy that remains inspiring. As the social and economic crisis of the past 30 years deepens, let’s hope that we can recapture that spirit of our ancestors.


  1. “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” by Joe Berry is a good account of adjuncts and their union organizing, full of good strategies and tactics for organizing. I edited this book for Monthly Review Press. He has plenty to say about the tenured professors’ disdain toward and obliviousness to the situation of adjuncts. My first published article, co-authored with my late friend Bruce Williams, was called “Down from the Ivory Tower” (very early 1970s), and already then we were talking about some of the things the author of the book Louis talks about is saying now. Of course, Veblen was saying some of this in 1920. Colleges and universities are real cesspools of dishonesty and corruption. As a character of Finley Peter Dunne answers in reply to a question about whether the colleges do good, “Do you think tis the mill that makes the water run?”

    Michael Yates

    Comment by Michael Yates — June 19, 2008 @ 2:44 am

  2. College education inflation is at seven percent at year. The question is: where does the money go? It’s not for paying professors, that’s for sure.

    I wanted to get a Ph.D. in history, but shockingly low pay has deterred me. Now history is more a hobby than a career.

    Comment by Niraj — June 19, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  3. Great piece, Lou (and thanks for several great references, thanks also to Michael). My only comment is that most academics in the liberal arts, very much unlike most computer techs, often have not only a passing familiarity with but a rich grounding in various radical political traditions. Of course the presence of these ideas and the failures of the intellectual left since the 1960s have made the universities a place where theory is most nakedly divorced from practice, but the ideas are still there, for what they are worth, bubbling under the surface…

    Comment by Isaac — June 19, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  4. Right on target. In Puerto Rico we are dealing with a similar, perhaps worst, scenario not only because there is a similar, growing trend in the use of adjunct professors by the state university. There is also a significant gap in salaries compare to the US, a considerably higher workload -four courses per semester at the state university- and the almost total absence of tenure in private universities. I think the increasing use of adjunct professors is also the result of capitalism’s search for “flexibility” at the work place i. e. the extension and intensification of the labor process. As the article correctly points the picture becomes more complex as professors try to maintain their professional commitment while adapting to the increasingly restrictive economic policies of administrators (Easthope & Easthope: 2000) refuse to accept their pauperized working class status and struggle accordingly. It would be interesting to look at the growing use of contingent academic labor in the context of: the prospect of a knowledge based economy and society, the European Bologna project and the recent decision by the EU of extending the duration of the work week to 60 – 65 hours.

    Comment by Argeo T. Quinones Perez — June 20, 2008 @ 1:29 am

  5. Thanks for reading my book, and for your elaboration of the adjunct labor system. Joe Berry’s book is excellent because it’s essentially a how-to manual for doing something about the exploitation, which, I think will reach a tipping point before too long. Marc Bousquet’s new book, How the University Works, takes aim at the same issues, and his earlier writings influenced my thinking a great deal. And Micki McGee has a great essay about working as an adjunct in NYC (Social Text, 2000 or so).
    Keep up the great site!

    Comment by Frank Donoghue — June 20, 2008 @ 4:40 am

  6. […] there was an interview with Frank Donoghue, the author of the newly published ???The Last Professhttps://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/Consumer Reports Features Ratings of 56 Models of Point-and-Shoots and SLRs Kansas City […]

    Pingback by point of view — June 20, 2008 @ 6:36 am

  7. College faculty are a bunch of crybabies who have had a chance to organize and have not done it. They are a group, your tenured, your nontenured who want something for nothing with no consistent agenda who have refused union organization when offered since they are “professional” and don’t need no union. We have tried to organize you crybabies for 30 or more years and you didn’t need it–you said. That is all of you not the adjunct or the part timers only. You have little to whine about if any of you had cared in 1970 when the AFT and the NEA were both talking about this problme–not the phoney calls for collegiality by the likes of the AAUP. Cry on–Cry on.

    Comment by J. Kaye Faulkner — June 26, 2008 @ 12:33 am

  8. “Leftist academia” is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. The most fundamental idea in all of marxism is praxis. Praxis involves the combination of theory with practice. If there is no practice of the theory, ie if leftism, academic leftism, is understood only as explication and elaboration of theory without any attempt to practice, put into play, make the theory actual, there is nothing there. There’s no learning–even the explication and elaboration of the theory is in fact nothingness. The academic left MUST put its ideas into practice or it really has nothing at all, not even ideas. This may be a harsh truth– I don’t expect it to be greeted with warmth. Either the academic left wakes up to the problems of academic workers (and other workers,)and does something about them, or it loses all and any claim to being left. And what’ll happen then, by and by, is it will lose everything it has-prestige, comfort, insulation, etc.

    Comment by Yusef — June 26, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  9. […] couple of months ago I reviewed Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors“, a study of the disappearance of full-time tenure positions in higher education. This is a […]

    Pingback by How the University Works; Reclaiming the Ivory Tower « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 6, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  10. After 30 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, I have decided to end my unwitting support of a hoax. The primary propellant of our institutions of higher learning is GREED. A huge number of students gain entry to higher education because of the almighty dollar. Students believe they are entitled to good grades because they have paid for them in the form of tuition. Our education sector has sold its soul for the gold of mammon. What sector of society has not done the same?

    About 1 1/2 years ago, I decided to teach a couple courses as an adjunct at a nearby private university. Now, I have decided that I am not enough of a masochist to continue teaching as an adjunct. My pension is sufficient for my needs and I have great medical benefits. I can no longer torture myself by reading the writing of students that are barely literate. The humanities will lose their humanity as students remain willing participants in the greed machine called education.

    I think my time would be better spent working as a volunteer with the Literacy Volunteers of America.

    Comment by Mary Mills — January 2, 2009 @ 4:43 am

  11. […] is any recognition that tenure has pretty much disappeared anyhow. I reviewed three books—The Last Professors, How the University Works and Reclaiming the Ivory Tower—that told a sad story about the […]

    Pingback by Behind the attack on tenure « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 19, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

  12. […] The Last Professors – blogpost from a left-wing perspective about the end of the American usage of ‘professor’, as inspired by the book by Frank Donoghue. […]

    Pingback by Pete Hindle | Revenge of the (Academic MBA) Nerds — August 26, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  13. I’ll be thinking of you (RIP J. Kaye Faulkner), as I attend my first informational meeting this week on collective bargaining. – Adjunct lifer, OSU Ph.D

    Comment by saudade70 — June 6, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

  14. […] This is the fifth and final video I recorded at the Left Forum over the weekend of May 29 to 31. Titled “Organizing Grad Student, Contingent, and Tenure-Track Faculty: A Fight Against Corporatization for the Soul of Higher Education”, it touched on matters close to my heart as a 21 year employee of Columbia University, someone very concerned about the corporatization of Bard College and the New School where I studied in the early to mid-sixties, and very close to someone who is both an adjunct and a tenure-track professor. For my earlier thoughts on what’s going on in academia, I’d refer you to my review of Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” written in 2008. (https://louisproyect.org/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/) […]

    Pingback by Professors as contingent labor: a Left Forum 2015 workshop | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 19, 2015 @ 12:37 am

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