The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments by Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments is a welcome addition to debates about how best to address the most significant threat to the profession: the casualization of the faculty. In a nutshell, the authors contend that the proliferation of non-tenure-track positions and the poor working conditions for faculty members in those positions have led to an overall devaluing of tenure. Academic freedom and shared governance are threatened, placing the quality of teaching and research at risk. The authors propose rebuilding tenure-track ranks in a way that recognizes the importance of teaching and demands the credentials they believe are required for professional status.
One of the book’s most significant contributions is its debunking of the “crisis in the humanities.” In chapter 1, Bérubé demonstrates that the number of humanities majors is not collapsing when one looks two decades further back than the doomsayers usually do, and he makes a compelling case that humanities scholarship isn’t suffering, either. Ruth’s account of her intellectual and practical journey to activism in chapter 2 is also incisive and helpful. In particular, we’re grateful that she chronicles both the courage it takes to commit to equity in the profession and her willingness to learn from less successful efforts; we hope others will follow her lead.
We, as activists for contingent faculty equity, also appreciate how clearly Bérubé and Ruth make the point that labor conditions in the academy are not tied structurally to the health of certain academic disciplines (the humanities) as much as they are to economic and political forces that transcend disciplines. Yet while their analysis is useful, we are troubled by several interwoven assumptions, which are most clearly visible in their proposal to establish teaching-intensive tenure-track positions that would be filled through competitive searches and would require terminal degrees. Those assumptions have to do with the value of credentials, on a concrete level, and with professionalism construed more broadly.
First, the assumption that terminal degrees are necessary for tenure and for high-quality teaching and research is untested. Worse, it harms current contingent faculty without terminal degrees. Furthermore, the assumption that the profession truly benefits from competition is unexamined.
Bérubé and Ruth’s contention that professionalism demands terminal degrees extends from Marc Bousquet’s argument that “the academic job market does not overproduce PhDs; it underhires PhDs. Any meaningful reform of the academic job system must address this.” But the point about underhiring PhDs doesn’t necessarily entail that faculty without terminal degrees should be eligible only for the problematic contingent positions that already exist. In addition, the assertion that terminal degrees improve teaching is unfounded. Community colleges provide the obvious counterevidence; for decades, according to Arthur Cohen, Florence Brawer, and Carrie Kisker’s The American Community College (just one among many sources that track the issue), most community college faculty didn’t have terminal degrees, and the quality of their teaching wasn’t questioned. Even the mixed research findings that connect contingency with teaching quality don’t distinguish among degree statuses.
In chapter 4, Bérubé and Ruth propose that current contingent terminal degree-holders can apply for the new tenure-line positions; if they are good enough, they’ll compete for better jobs. The main problem with this position is that it assumes a level playing field. We know that documenting the stigmatization of contingent faculty is difficult, but we constantly hear about departments that denigrate their adjuncts and about adjuncts who decide not to enter applicant pools because they expect to be denied appointment. Gender bias and age discrimination are specific risks. Women are overrepresented in contingent positions. According to the Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD Completion Project, women generally take longer than men to finish their dissertations and graduate. Clearly, requiring terminal degrees could cost many women (disproportionately those with family responsibilities) an opportunity for secure, tenure-track employment. Age is also a significant factor in the mistreatment of adjunct faculty, with older adjuncts least likely to be considered for full-time positions and most likely to be pushed out of departments (see, for example, “No Country for Old Adjuncts” and “The Age(Ism) of Diversity,” both articles from Inside Higher Ed). It is admirable to support new and recent PhD recipients, but not at the expense of women and older faculty members, with or without terminal degrees.
We understand Bérubé and Ruth’s call for competitive searches as a necessary feature of professionalism, but such searches would actually undermine professionalism if the inequities described above are not corrected first. As Neil Hamilton and Jerry Gaff have argued in “The Future of the Professoriate,” a paper published in 2009 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, academic professionalism must be constituted from within, and must proactively justify the implicit social contract that legitimizes all professions within a democracy. Similarly, as James F. Keenan has argued in University Ethics, professionalism elevates public good over selfinterest and calls for the formation and exercise of an ethical professional identity that can only reject exploitative treatment of colleagues. The current crisis partly results from our collective failure to socialize faculty members (both on and off the tenure track) into this history and ethos.
Bérubé and Ruth’s conception of professionalism is largely consistent with our concern for the profession writ large, with the role of the profession in a democracy, and with real-life injustices that contingent faculty suffer. The devil is in the details, however. Their insistence on terminal degrees for tenure-eligible positions—despite the fact that the majority of contingent faculty don’t have such degrees and without substantial evidence that they’re helpful, much less indispensable, for teaching-intensive positions—leads to the book’s deepest disappointment: the authors acknowledge the injustice their proposal would do to long-serving adjuncts but offer no solutions except to allow them to keep working in contingent positions. In so doing, their proposal bypasses a cardinal principle of professionalism—an ethic of service and of accountability—and thereby undermines efforts to resocialize the members of the profession into a more collectively oriented mindset that prioritizes the social contract and the public good.
For the path to reform to adhere more closely to an ethically grounded professionalism to which all faculty can subscribe, what seems more urgent to us is an exploration of the effects of innovative strategies like the Vancouver model, which largely abolishes at-will employment; the 2012 Colorado statute providing for long-term contracts that only financial exigency can void; and collective bargaining contracts that have incorporated academic freedom, due process, and other protections for contingent faculty. More research is needed as well into the relationship between terminal-degree status and teaching effectiveness, so that decisions about necessary credentials for college teaching will be less speculative. Policy-oriented solutions that guarantee contingent faculty access to material resources that they have earned after years of service in exploitative working conditions, such as support for terminal-degree completion, access to basic legal entitlements like unemployment insurance and health and retirement benefits, and the establishment of dignified retirement buyouts for older adjuncts who wish to retire but cannot, must also be studied.
Bérubé and Ruth also overlook how labor and employment law defines contingent faculty in the profession. Omitting these considerations is consistent with the tendency among academics to ignore or suppress the reality of our work as labor. It may explain why the authors apologize for—but do not feel obligated to redress—the material and humanitarian injustice to long-serving contingent faculty that their proposal creates. In short, failure to attend to legal issues around contingent academic employment is a symptom of the inattention to professional ethics described by Hamilton and Gaff and by Keenan. In slight defense of faculty, it is also true that universities have enacted oppressive employment policies with impunity for so long that they have enculturated faculty into believing there is no need to reject activities or proposals that constitute ethical, if not legal, violations of contingent faculty rights.
Engagement with, and reform of, definitions and regulations governing contingent faculty work would help reestablish an ethically grounded professionalism. For example, it’s necessary to point out that faculty on part-time contracts are currently legally classified in a way that denies them the rights and protections of both salaried and hourly workers, allowing them to be subject to de facto wage theft and regularly denied unemployment insurance. By challenging existing definitions of the profession as they are expressed in the Fair Labor Standards Act (as New Faculty Majority and other groups are doing by directly engaging with federal agencies and lawmakers), faculty would be able to invoke and strengthen the authors’ arguments for the humanities, higher education, and academic freedom. Unfortunately, Bérubé and Ruth discourage such engagement by contending that understanding the profession of college education as labor reflects “a curious strain of anti-elitism on the left” that “badly misunderstands the nature of academic freedom and the nature of college teaching.”
In the end, despite concerns about the details of their proposal and their assumptions about the profession and what should be included in an understanding of professionalism, we appreciate Bérubé and Ruth’s vigorous and ongoing defense of the work we all do. We must recognize that Bérubé and Ruth are among the most prominent of those tenured faculty who have joined the effort to abolish the abusive practices of contingent academic employment and, even more important, have used their tenured status to support contingent faculty engaged in the struggle. We also commend their book for helping shift the debate away from the question of whether contingent employment is abusive and toward the question of how to correct the abuse—an important development that Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge emerges from the work of activists over many decades and especially in the last several years. In that spirit, we look forward to continued dialogue and work toward equity and equality across the profession.
Maria Maisto is cofounder, president, and executive director of New Faculty Majority (NFM) and the NFM Foundation and sometimes an adjunct at Cuyahoga Community College. Her e-mail address is maria.maisto @newfacultymajority.info. Seth Kahn is a professor of English at West Chester University and a member of the NFM Foundation board. His e-mail address is email@example.com.