How the University (Doesn't) Work (esp. for women): Labor Relations in Higher Ed

BlogHer Original Post

There's been quite a buzz lately in the academic blogosphere about Marc Bousquet's book and blog How the University Works. The book and blog are about how poorly most of the people who teach our country's best and brightest are treated and paid. The experiences of women are particularly bad.

The most recent post on the blog explains:

It used to be that feminists adhered to a “pipeline” theory of progress in gender equity in higher ed–the more women with PhDs, the more tenure-stream women, the more women in leadership.

It hasn’t turned out that way. The majority of women teaching in academe get paid worse than men working as bartenders and waitstaff.

Higher ed employment has become a pyramid scheme, explains Michelle Masse in part 1 of our interview, with mostly-male sectors at the top and mostly-female sectors at the bottom. The relationship between “feminization” of the humanities and “masculinization” of administration means we’re all in the harem of the dean.

The tenurable/ nontenurable binary gets gendered in this way: so do disciplines and other forms of job description, usually in close connection with the distribution of power and material rewards. Engineering, law and business faculties—as well as administrators and coaches—are in this way “masculinized” in relation to the feminized humanities.The notion of “comparable worth” needs to be revived.

There are plenty of folks earning generous six-figure salaries on campus—by virtue of being administrators, or belonging to disciplines composed primarily of tenurable men—in connection with decisions made by primarily male trustees and administrators about the distribution of resources. Trustees and administrators then label these collective decisions regarding the interests they represent as “market-driven” after the fact.

According to Historiann, Marc Bousquet has been working since his graduate-student days in the early 1990s

to bring attention to the degradation of American higher education caused by the declining numbers of regular (tenured or tenure-track) faculty and its increasing reliance on ill-paid, easily exploitable graduate student and adjunct instructors.

In one video interview , Bousquet refers to "the predatory nature of university employment." Predatory indeed: we're talking about Ph.D.s with no security of employment making less than $30,000 a year and teaching 8 courses comprising hundreds of students. Crazy.

Lumpenprofessoriat empathizes with one tenure-track faculty member who admits to having "survivor issues" because he succeeded while others remained on the low-paid, underappreciated adjunct track.

Professor Zero encourages us to read the entire How the University Works site. She also says:

People cannot support their families. But remember: capitalism and general exploitation really are good and rational. If you have suffered and not benefited from them it is only because you are not virtuous enough, and have not absorbed the correct spiritual principles.


I gave up many expectations, including the idea of supporting a family, so I am less strapped now than some of the people in the stories told at How the University Works. Careers and jobs in that context could never be “just something one does to support the family” because (1) one had no right to a family if one had a career or job, and (2) a career or job one might get would not support a family, anyway.

Maria Angel has been examining this issue in the legal profession--both in the academy and in law firms. For her insights, see her article (downloadable here as a PDF) and post, "Women Lawyers of All Colors Steered to Contingent Positions in Law Schools and Law Firms."

In a comment on the blog Perverse Egalitarianism, larvalsubjects writes,

There’s academic “quicksand”. This, I think, is particularly egregious. Chances are, most are not going to get a position (or a desirable position) right when they go on the market. Faced with the brute material question of how to support themselves, they are forced to either teach a heavy load of adjunct courses for a pittance and without healthcare, or take a highly undesirable position at a community college, etc., where they have a heavy teaching load and a number of administrative duties. The reasoning of the candidate is that they’ll do this to make ends meet until they finally do get a position. What they fail to realize is that they’ve already fallen into the quicksand. First, they begin to get the ’stench’ of adjunct work, temporary assignments, or community college on them that looks to job committees like failure (the myth of merit rearing it’s head again: “they couldn’t make it so they had to adjunct!”) Rather than adjuncting being seen as a positive insofar as it confers teaching experience, it is instead seen as a negative implying a failure to effectively navigate the system. Second, and more importantly, the job seekers are mired in quicksand as their heavy workload prevents them from doing the research and publishing required to land a tenure track position. As a result, they end up either leaving academia together and beginning their lives much later than all their peers, or, if they’re very fortunate they land a fulltime community college position (where they’re universally disrespected by people both outside academia and by people at four year schools and research programs).

(Larvalsubjects also points us to a brand new article (PDF) by Sally Haslanger of MIT on the experiences of women in philosophy departments. Go check it out.)

Meanwhile, Adjunct Whore gives us reason for hope. She's received a job--at the same institution where her partner works. In an industry where so many couples work in different parts of the country, such a position is a real coup:

i write of this unthinkable narrative because i have never experienced anything like this in ten years of academia, nor have i ever heard of anything like this from anyone i know in academia, and well, i'm stupefied by the warmth and political savvy of so many people here. what really stumps me in particular is not only that progressive policies were put in place in an impossibly competitive discipline, not only that it is a tenure-track job, but that it is a GREAT fucking job. my future colleagues are amazingly prolific and brilliant, civilly responsible, award winning teachers, and just lovely people (those i know). i can hardly believe that this is happening.

i feel guilt for my fortune. but i also feel wonderful, excited, and the need to share it, because perhaps with more transparency across so many levels of academia, such forward thinking policies could be instituted across more universities/colleges.

as i was told the dean here has said: "smart people are most often partnered with other smart people." i'm convinced.

ok, so i'm out, my dirty secret has been told, don't hate me because i'm beautiful, as the breck ads used to tell us, because maybe-oh-maybe the fact that the unthinkable is happening, suggests a shift in thinking. i know that the policy will be watched carefully to see how it is implemented--i will work hard to make it seem like a no-brainer.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks has mostly stepped off the adjunct hamster wheel. In a staff position at a university, she helps faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.