The Professor and the Adjunct
John Sexton entered Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school, in January, 1956, as a curious and passionate student in search of guidance. He quickly became enchanted with a charismatic young teacher named Charlie Winans, who dotted his freewheeling lectures with fleeting bits of advice on everything from the ideal wife to finding one’s true purpose. Winans encouraged a free and occasionally combative flow of ideas; Sexton, who had been fascinated, as a child, with the soapbox orators who dominated Manhattan’s Union Square, threw himself into competitive debating. He convinced the principal at a Catholic girls’ school to allow him to organize and coach a debate team there, a commitment that eventually took priority over his schoolwork. But Sexton had helpful, interventionist mentors, first at Brooklyn Prep and later at Fordham University. He went to graduate school, to study religion, and then to Harvard Law School, where he blossomed as a scholar. In 1981, he joined the faculty of the New York University School of Law; he was appointed dean seven years later. In 2001, he became the president of N.Y.U., a position he held until 2016. During his tenure, applications for admission doubled, and the school’s endowment increased; it is currently more than four billion dollars. The faculty expanded, and N.Y.U. opened satellite campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.
In “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age,” Sexton offers his “accidentally serpentine path” as evidence of the transformative effects of higher education. The book warmly and humbly renders the turning points of his life as a way of contextualizing Sexton’s fears about our present. Higher education is “under siege” by the forces of anti-intellectualism, he maintains, pointing to a Pew Research Center poll that suggested that a majority of Republicans now believe that higher education has a negative impact on America. Sexton is worried about our “balkanized society, with understanding in short supply,” and he hopes that places like N.Y.U. can still spark “serious conversation,” serving, in a culture increasingly attuned to the clipped rhythms of digital life, as a space of deliberative freedom. “Indeed,” he writes, “I believe universities can play a unique role in rebuilding the kind of discourse on which participatory democracy depends.”
This vision partly depends on taking the longest possible view of things—a perspective that has always been part of the appeal of academia, where research and teaching rarely abide by any traditional metrics of productivity. Sexton touts the virtue of such a long-term perspective in a section of the book about a perhaps over-discussed university issue: politically controversial campus speakers. Invitations to such figures, which are sometimes extended by conservative groups with the overt aim of drawing ideological opponents into overreaction, have turned into games of brinksmanship at schools across the country. Sexton believes that universities have an obligation to welcome the airing of any and all ideas, even those that seem odious. He recalls tense conversations he had with high-level N.Y.U. donors who were incensed by guest speakers whose politics they disapproved of and who threatened to take their money somewhere else. It would be easier to relent to such pressures, but there is great importance, Sexton writes, in “honoring the presumption of inclusion.”
It’s an odd place to take such a stand, because it’s purely symbolic—taking the high road works only when your skeptics and opponents aren’t simply trolling your commitment to “inclusion.” Throughout “Standing for Reason,” Sexton writes of the “moral authority” necessary for a university president. For him, that means being principled yet open-minded, never imposing his own political viewpoints on the campus at large. He offers intimate glimpses into his own intellectual formation, from his exacting education as a teen-ager to the probing conversations he had with his late wife, that suggest this is more than just high-level posturing; there is at least a narrative arc. Still, there is a Pollyannaish quality to the idea that his unusual path testifies to a system that works rather than to a set of advantages magnified, in an earlier era, by talent and good fortune. Critics of Sexton’s administration at N.Y.U. argued that the changes he enacted required a great deal of moral compromise, pointing, for instance, to the school’s forays to the Emirates and China—places not generally known for a free exchange of ideas. Sexton maintains that college is still the key to greater opportunities in life, though he’s not terribly specific about who will get those opportunities. (“Reasonable people would say it is in our national interest that half the members of President Xi’s cabinet have children being educated here,” he writes.) The campus of the future, he believes, will be an “idea capital.”
On some Friday nights, Sexton writes, he takes a red-eye flight from New York to Abu Dhabi. When he touches down, it is Saturday night local time. He has dinner with some friends and then gets some sleep. Sunday is spent teaching two seminars, one to students at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi campus, the other to a seminar of top students from the country’s federal universities. Sunday evening is spent meeting with colleagues and students, before he takes another flight, at 2:30 A.M., back to New York. He lands in New York at 8 A.M. and is back in his N.Y.U. office a couple of hours later. “Such will be the life of some professors in this new century,” he writes, “a life unimaginable less than a generation ago.”
In “The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission,” Herb Childress describes a very different kind of commute. He writes about one of his friends, a sixty-year-old scholar who juggles teaching positions in Boston and New York. She grades papers on her four-hour bus rides between the two cities and, when she gets to New York, crashes on her elderly mother’s couch. Calculating her pay against the time she spends not only teaching but holding meetings, preparing lessons, giving feedback to students, and answering e-mails, Childress estimates that this friend earns roughly nine dollars per hour. There are others, Childress notes, who have it worse. He recounts the story of an adjunct who lived out of her car while teaching four classes per semester, often grading papers by the light of a headlamp in the parking lot of a Home Depot. After a while, the adjunct learned in which neighborhoods she needed to park in order to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep. He also recalls the tragic, widely reported story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct language instructor at Duquesne University who, despite twenty-five years of service, could not afford health care or even electricity. She died in her home, in 2013, at the age of eighty-three, having never earned more than twenty thousand dollars a year.
In “Standing for Reason,” Sexton remembers Charlie Winans telling his students, “Consider teaching, boys. It is the noblest and most fulfilling of all vocations.” But, by and large, at the more prestigious universities, teaching is the least valued part of an academic’s life. More measurable indicators, like grants and publications, do much more to advance one’s career. The task of teaching—of unpacking complex ideas in the classroom, grading papers, helping students shape their arguments and smooth out the kinks in their sentences or equations—increasingly falls to the adjuncts whom Childress writes about. In the nineteen-seventies, about a quarter of college faculty were on limited-term, adjunct contracts; the majority of professors were tenured or on the tenure-track. Today, it’s estimated that nearly three-quarters of college faculty are adjuncts. Reading “The Adjunct Underclass,” whatever sympathy one might have had for Sexton’s jet-setting workaholism quickly evaporates. There’s a privilege in the weariness that comes with having too many opportunities.
Childress completed his dissertation in 1996, and he describes the praise that he received for his work. But he was unable to find a full-time academic job, and he took short-term teaching gigs wherever he could find them. He also sold furniture, volunteered, and worked for nonprofits. He now runs an ethnographic research firm and writes about higher education. Childress brings acid humor and earnest conviction to the latter pursuit, as well as the insights and the fury of someone who once cherished the idea of a life spent on campus. He has an eye for the finer distinctions within academia. Small liberal-arts colleges—like the one where I teach—are “uniquely specialized ecosystems, with wildlife as specifically evolved as that of Madagascar,” he explains. He is witheringly accurate when describing the atmosphere of faculty-wide meetings:
Scholars have made their entire careers out of finding problems within
what is perceived to be settled knowledge. They carve out that tiny
bubble at the edge of what we know, and they focus all of their ample
energies and intelligence on precisely defining, or redefining that
small issue. Gather a hundred of these people together, and give them
a policy to review. You think that’s going to go well?
Childress knows the outward academic scene; he also knows who is backstage, making sure that appearances are kept. “A quick visit to any college will feel like a historical reenactment, the past lovingly restored and maintained for daily use,” he writes. But the famous professors, the “public face of the project,” are propped up through “the labor of the unseen.” Students—the “protected consumer”—rarely delineate between those who will still be there years after they’re gone and those with short-time gigs and no job security. Even when students do become aware of the discrepancy between these separate classes, and try to do something about it, their activism tends to run, inevitably, in four-year cycles.
“The Adjunct Underclass” belongs to what has, at this point, become a recognizable genre, popularly known as “quit lit.” (That name doesn’t capture the degree to which people feel that they are actually forced out of the profession.) Childress has a way of reinvigorating familiar tropes. He likens the adjunct professoriate to local auto mechanics crushed by national franchises, cab drivers forced to hustle against apps, journalists turned “content providers” trying to stay afloat in hyper-partisan times. He describes adjuncts as “shock absorbers” and compares their situation to the “invisibility of garment workers in Bangladesh.” They are like migrant laborers, who “watch the weather, hoping that the next growing season looks promising, and wondering whether it’s time to move along themselves.”
These somewhat hyperbolic analogies understate the oddness of academic life. When journalists and other writers point out the gross inequities on display in the treatment of adjuncts at many American universities, one popular response is to say that nobody is forced to pursue a graduate degree—and, in fact, those who go to graduate school typically have advantages that, say, garment workers in Bangladesh do not have. (The entire quit-lit genre has been described as a form of “humblebragging.”) People usually try to become professors because they are passionately curious about a particular subject, and the academic system encourages them to believe that this is all that matters. Prospective graduate students are rarely told by department heads or other administrators that they are entering a system that relies on contingent labor to survive. “I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me,” Childress writes. The subsequent realization that academia preys on these dreams devastates him. A string of adjunct positions gets him no closer to joining the tenure track; it is “morally indefensible,” he writes, to lure adjuncts to work by dangling a “vague hope” that they may one day be welcome as a permanent faculty member. For people stuck in this permanent holding pattern, that hope of being selected is the contemporary academic version of the larger American dream, and it feels, at this point, no less dubious.
A university is basically a very complicated nonprofit, and it is never completely removed from broader economic trends and imperatives; institutions the size of N.Y.U. rely on savvy investing to grow. The president of a university may offer moral guidance, but, nowadays their most valued skill is probably fund-raising. In the upper tiers of academia, an expansionist mantra has resulted in an arms race, with universities fund-raising around state-of-the-art recreational facilities or dining experiences, world-famous faculty, and worldwide brand recognition.
John Sexton’s tenure as the president of N.Y.U. coincided with a period when the value of the school’s considerable real-estate holdings throughout lower Manhattan boomed, post-recession dip notwithstanding. The velocity of N.Y.U.’s expansion during these years introduced new controversies. There was widespread concern about the labor conditions behind the construction of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi and N.Y.U. Shanghai. The repositioning of the school as a “global university” frustrated a portion of the faculty and staff, who accused Sexton of exercising “executive power” rather than respecting the shared governance system that allows faculty input in administrative affairs. N.Y.U. has also experienced its own share of adjunct-labor organizing. In 2013, Sexton endured a series of no-confidence votes; the Board of Trustees allowed him to stay in his position until his term was up, in 2016. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at N.Y.U.)
Pivoting to a global application pool may help schools like N.Y.U. weather any decline in the American population; after decades of steady growth, projections show the number of high-school graduates stagnating. If you look beyond the wealthiest colleges and universities, you’ll find stories of rural campuses making drastic cuts to stay afloat and large-scale, seemingly last-ditch initiatives to move education online. Some schools are beginning to focus more narrowly on producing employable students, offering skills-centered badges and certificates rather than degrees.
Sexton’s book reads as a series of TED talks, addressed to people who are interested in thinking about college in lofty, abstract terms—a matter of civilization rather than the immediate needs of citizens. This, too, is a familiar genre, one that seems to appeal to people whose sense of university life is rooted most of all in their own memories of it. The paradox of college’s promise as a broad, democratizing force has always been that the value of any given degree partly relies on an illusion of scarcity, the sense that some have jumped through more selective hoops than others. As the recent college-admissions scandal helped to illustrate, many of the country’s most renowned schools survive largely by credentialing the children of the already rich.
Near the end of “The Adjunct Underclass,” Childress offers a series of recommendations for addressing the adjunct crisis, most of them involving a more thoughtful or deliberative approach to employment practice. Reading these suggestions, I began to feel acutely aware of how difficult it can be to make the grievances of adjuncts compelling to those who only think about college as a chapter from their past or as a place that is removed from the pressures of real life. It’s hard to militate on behalf of workers who, according to the market-driven logic of the present, chose to do something they love and to devote themselves to something as ephemeral as teaching.
In the last few pages of Childress’s book, the manifesto melts away, and we’re afforded a momentary glimpse of a deeply moving memoir. Childress describes his personal disappointment with a piercing honesty. “I’ve tried very hard in working on this project to focus outward, to talk about what’s happening around me, to find facts and make connections,” he writes. “But the grief of not finding a home in higher ed—of having done everything as well as I was capable of doing, and having it not pan out . . . of being told over and over how well I was doing and how much my contribution mattered, even as the prize was withheld—consumed more than a decade.” Academics often traffic in a tone of clear-eyed detachment, rising above the emotional fray. But there is nothing more universal than the moment when Childress realizes that his was never a problem of drive or focus; the horizon was illusory by design, moving according to someone else’s whims, continually drifting out of reach.