Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation: keynote speech at UNC-Chapel Hill March 20

Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation

“Bousquet is about to emerge as the Al Gore of higher education.”
Thomas Hart Benton, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“How the University Works does for academe what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for breakfast sausage.”
Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education

The world of higher education – portrayed as an ivory tower far from the harsh realities of the marketplace – is more like Wal-Mart or a large healthcare company, author Marc Bousquet argues.

While it may appear to the public that this corporate model is an efficient use of taxpayers’ money, the reality is that it cheapens the quality of higher education, lengthens students’ time to graduate and extracts a high toll on a new cadre of low-paid overworked teachers.

Bousquet will give the annual keynote address, “Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation” for the North Carolina AAUP at 7 p.m., Friday, March 20 at UNC-Chapel Hill’s FedEx Global Education Center. The talk is open to the public, with a reception afterward.

The market-driven university system that has emerged in the past 30 years extracts more, pays less, and is creating new populations of undergraduates, graduate students and contingent faculty who lead tenuous lives with no job security, low pay, and little chance of advancement. Even those tenured professors who remain in coveted positions with job security are finding themselves acting as bosses of both contingent faculty and student workers, rather than as educators.

The current economic crisis is quickly exacerbating this already unsustainable system.

Non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for 68 percent of all faculty appointments in American higher education. This group of workers earns less than $16,000 annually, often have no benefits, and teach as many as eight classes per year.

“Cheap teaching is not a victimless crime,” Bousquet, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, notes. Studies are increasingly showing that working conditions for adjunct faculty, from lack of office space to high teaching loads, affects everything from the quality of the classroom experience to mentoring, and even how long it takes for students to graduate.

Bousquet notes that most middle class families wouldn’t go to an accountant or lawyer who didn’t have their own office, but think of nothing of sending their children to learn to write from someone in that state.

The pursuit of knowledge has become something more akin to a frantic chase, where people with Ph.D.s are meeting with their students in coffee shops or online because they have no office, or – even worse for both them and their students – not meeting them at all. Contingent faculty are dashing from community college pillars to distant ed posts they cobble together a living that falls far below what many would consider a liveable wage.

Bousquet, who blogs for The Chronicle of Higher Education, is author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008). He is at work on a project on the topic of undergraduate labor, as well as a book about participatory culture in the United States, and was the founding editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor.

Website: http://www.nc-aaup.org
Email: ncaaup@rtpnet.org

Cat Warren, Immediate Past President, NC-AAUP
Assoc. Prof., North Carolina State University


Ah yes. The Fedex Global Education Center

Thanks for posting this Cat. Much to think about at a time when the grim reapers are looking to axe even more intellect from the halls of academe.


One of the main reasons we chose Guilford College for my son

despite it's expense, is that every single class is taught by a full professor, with a doctorate. There are no teaching assistants, no grad students trying to make ends meet, etc.

Class sizes are small - no more than 18 in any class.

Yes - this is very expensive. Scholarships, grants, and loans only made up about half of the cost of the school - but it's worth the extra 14 to 16 grand for as long as we can afford it.

Guilford is also one of the most politically liberal schools on the east coast, and they are tolerant of just about anything - except violence.