How to Think Like an Administrator (Part 1 of 2)

I will preface this post by emphasizing that I don’t want to be trollish or to undervalue the hard work of activists. I know that adjuncts have many experienced negotiators and organizers on their side. And I am excited, even gleeful, at the possibility of making life difficult for those who have been screwing over adjuncts for decades.

But it occurred to me that in all the discussions floating around the Internet—about how tenure-track profs should talk to adjuncts (yes, grown men and women need lessons in civility) and whether it’s appropriate for adjuncts to refer to themselves as slaves (for God’s sake, it’s not)—I haven’t seen adjuncts and their supporters looking at the adjunct crisis from the position of an administrator.

Make no mistake: this is not an exercise in empathy but a negotiating tactic, a way to understand how your negotiating partner (or adversary) will react to your demands.

So first we have we have to ask ourselves: What are the demands? Meanwhile we must remember that administrators are essentially businesspeople—meaning, no matter what they tell you, their biggest concern is money.

Demand: TT positions for all. Not gonna happen. And not only because universities don’t want to quadruple their labor costs. They don’t have the money. (More on that in the next installment.) I’d only pose this to administrator as a shoot-the-moon opening demand.

While tenure may not disappear, it will get much rarer. If I were an administrator I would replace TT positions with contract positions whenever possible. In the long run it’s cheaper and if someone doesn’t publish enough or shows up drunk, you just don’t renew the contract.

Because TTs are not only expensive. They’re a pain in the ass. In my (very brief) time as a (very low-level) administrator, there was this one tenured guy who showed up to meetings with J. Crew catalogues. Once he brought his checkbook and paid bills. This was amusing to me, but if I were an administrator I’d do whatever I could do rid my staff of folks like that.

Demand: 2- or 3-year contract positions with salary and benefits. It’s likely that we will see contract positions grow but only as a means of replacing TTs. I were an administrator I wouldn’t even offer this unless there were a long university-wide strike and I couldn’t find scabs. Even then I’d offer as few as possible alongside a token raise to adjuncts.

Consider the costs. Contract profs will have to teach something like a 5/5 schedule, because administrators are going to squeeze as much out of them as possible. At a salary of $50,000 a year the total cost to the university (with taxes and benefits) will be something like $60,000 or even $70,000. The total cost of 10 adjunct sections is $30,000 to $40,000.

So if Douchebag University employs 100 adjuncts and shifted to contract positions it would be raising its yearly labor costs by millions of dollars. If you were an administrator, would you go for that?

And, by the way, in the extremely unlikely event that Douchebag U. decided to convert all its adjunct positions to relatively stable contract jobs, that would put dozens of adjuncts out of work entirely—you’d have 10 decent full-time positions as opposed to 50 or so crappy ones.

Demand: raises and benefits for adjuncts. Raises are likely. Benefits are possible but unlikely. At CUNY you can get health insurance if you teach 6 or more hours per term for two consecutive terms. But when I was teaching at a CUNY, in a remarkable coincidence, I lost a section the term I was eligible for health insurance. I don’t think that my boss did this on purpose. (Or did she?)

Again, I am not trying to undercut my colleagues with this thought experiment. I want to suggest that while we quibble about rhetoric, administrators are thinking about one thing only: how to spend as little money on labor as humanly possible. They may drive a Prius and use words like “cisgendered” and loathe the Koch brothers. But when it comes to labor costs, they have more in common with Wal-Mart: They don’t care about the workers, they care about the money. I’ve heard a lot of adjuncts discussing the crisis in terms of dignity and ethics. Wal-Mart doesn’t care about such things, and neither do most administrators and university presidents.

Next: Why there’s no money and how to get some anyway.

1 thought on “How to Think Like an Administrator (Part 1 of 2)

  1. I’m learning as #fancynewdean a larger problem I only imagined as a simple fix: most of the colleges I have worked for barely have a yearly strategic plan. Individual departments vary in their planning; and VPs and Dean are also erratic in their projections across one or two academic years. So, the dream of even a one year contract may in fact narrate a level of horrific disorganization and infinite bureaucracy that dampens any adjunct activist effort to lobby for greater equity.

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