Rebalancing Power in the Gig Academy

By Roger G. Baldwin

The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Future US president James A. Gar­field once described the ideal college as “Mark Hopkins [the president of Garfield’s alma mater, Williams College] on one end of a log and a student on the other.” This view of higher education as a personalized and intimate experience contrasts sharply with the contemporary academic ecosystem the authors of The Gig Academy expose in their carefully researched book. In place of an idealized learning environ­ment of engaging class discussions, accessible professors, and frequent interaction with caring staff mem­bers, the authors see a distinctly different world dominated by neoliberal philosophy and academic capitalism. At institutions where neoliberalism is in force, traditional academic values are overpowered by an increased focus on cost cutting, a search for new sources of revenue, and an entrepreneurial spirit that questions traditional institutional norms and operating procedures. In this dramatically altered context, standard faculty roles (teach­ing, research, service) have been unbundled to save money, and many positions have been converted to fixed-term appointments to increase programmatic flexibility. Concurrently, many staff positions have been outsourced or reduced to part-time or temporary status. Instructors with contingent appoint­ments, as well as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, have been enlisted in record numbers to fill the void left by this evolution in academic staffing practices. This dramatic change in higher educa­tion’s standard operating practices has occurred not as part of a carefully conceived strategic trans­formation but almost imperceptibly as the result of thousands of small personnel decisions that, in retro­spect, led to wholesale change in the staffing of colleges and universities.

The authors of The Gig Academy argue forcefully that the learning context of many insti­tutions has suffered as a result of these changes, with adverse consequences for students and society at large. This book warns of a problem that has already beset higher education and will get worse if academic leaders and policy makers do not pay attention and take action. The authors meticu­lously document the extent of the staffing changes that have occurred throughout higher education in recent decades. Some readers may be stunned to learn, for example, that over 70 percent of the faculty in US colleges and universities hold temporary appointments off the tenure track. This statistic alone makes it clear that the academic world has shifted away from the tenure-track appointments and long-term employment security that not long ago defined the nature of an academic life and many of its priorities. The authors’ careful research and documentation lend credence to their claim that we are now living in a strange new world that President Garfield or even col­lege students of the late twentieth century might not recognize.

More concerning than a shift in the nature of higher educa­tion’s human resource practices is the unintentional harm that may result from the steady transition to neoliberal values and practices. Using compelling research findings and theory-based analysis, the authors conclude that the conditions needed to promote learning and students’ personal and professional develop­ment are less robust than they were in times when more opportunities were available for students to interact and build meaningful, caring rela­tionships with their instructors and support staff. Drawing upon social learning theory to analyze the current situation, the authors make clear that developments like an increased number of part-time instructors, less face-to-face interaction with teach­ers, more outsourced staff who lack a strong connection to the institu­tion where they work, and growing pressure for professors to bring in external funding may detract from the conditions necessary to promote student development during the col­lege years.

Fortunately, the authors are not satisfied with simply documenting the growing problem in staff­ing higher education institutions. Instead, they advocate for col­lective action to address these concerns. Their proactive approach contrasts favorably with much academic research that identifies educational problems but often falls short on proposed solutions. This is a book on a mission. The authors are determined to reverse the negative staffing trends that lead author Adrianna Kezar has been studying for many years, and they advance a vision of a workplace democracy where all workers have a voice and influence in the operation of their college or university. This vision would coun­teract the shift of decision-making authority into the hands of an ever-smaller number of individuals who are often far removed from the core functions of an institution of higher learning: teaching, research, and student support services.

The collective response that the authors advocate will encourage debate within the academic com­munity because it calls for more assertive actions such as the for­mation of unions. Whether or not readers are members or supporters of unions, the authors make a com­pelling case for the need to rebalance power in the academy to maintain a healthy work environment for faculty and staff and a nourishing learning environment for students.

The Gig Academy offers an ambitious reform agenda that looks at a complex problem holistically and outlines a large-scale remedy. The authors also propose some “harm reduction strategies in the interim” that deserve careful consideration by academic lead­ers. These include interesting ideas such as alternative hiring prac­tices, portable benefit systems, and reprofessionalization employment models to lessen the negative impact of capitalist practices in academia. These interim or alternative steps receive only brief discussion in the book and deserve fuller analysis in order to assess their potential for addressing the problems it so care­fully lays out.

The authors advance bold solutions to large and complex problems while giving less atten­tion to more modest steps that could alleviate, if not eliminate, the problems that have emerged from the widespread adoption of neoliberal policies and practices. This more “moderate” approach deserves thoughtful discussion, too, at least in other forums debating the future direction of higher edu­cation staffing.

Whether one agrees with The Gig Academy’s recommendations or not, the authors’ informative analysis grabs the reader by the lapels. Like climate-change stories on flooding in Venice or starv­ing polar bears in the Arctic, the book’s story line is hard to ignore or discount. The book insists that higher education’s growing prob­lems threaten the well-being of the academic enterprise and short­change the students whom colleges and universities exist to serve. Current higher education leaders, government policy makers, union officials, and prospective faculty and staff have much to learn from The Gig Academy. The book has a powerful message: It is time to act before we irreparably damage the educational system that has been the envy of the world.

Roger G. Baldwin is professor emeritus and the former Mildred B. Erickson Distin­guished Chair in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University. His scholarly interests include academic career development, evolving faculty appointment patterns, and curricular issues. He is coauthor (with Jay L. Chronister) of Teaching without Tenure: Policies and Practices for a New Era. His email address is [email protected].