I am struck by the frequency with which I hear college and university administrators, when queried on the subject, justify the working conditions of low paid contingent faculty with economic arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo. It is as if we’ve turned back the clock fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, negating the progress that has been made on the human and civil rights fronts, effectively pulling the shade on the enlightenment that we all cherish and which was claimed at so high a price.
Before “unpacking” this, though, let me first state unequivocally that I don’t believe that the conditions under which adjuncts labor is equal to the conditions of slavery. But there are some similarities, particularly with respect to the arguments that have historically been used to justify that terrible institution. I similarly do not believe that adjunct working conditions are equal to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Yet, again, necessity and expediency raise their ugly heads.
As a former high school and college debate coach I never would have accepted as argument the logical fallacies so often propounded by university presidents and other college administrators in their rationalizations of contingent faculty working conditions. The fallacy of necessity is the one that I hear most frequently disguised as an argument in favor of the status quo.
According to the Wikipedia entry for “fallacy of necessity”:
a) Bachelors are necessarily unmarried.
b) John is a bachelor.
Therefore, c) John cannot marry.
The condition a) appears to be a tautology and therefore true. The condition b) is a statement of fact about John which makes him subject to a); that is, b) declares John a bachelor, and a) states that all bachelors are unmarried.
Because c) presumes b) will always be the case, it is a fallacy of necessity. John, of course, is always free to stop being a bachelor, simply by getting married; if he does so, b) is no longer true and thus not subject to the tautology a). In this case, c) has unwarranted necessity by assuming, incorrectly, that John cannot stop being a bachelor. Formally speaking, this type of argument equivocates between the de dicto necessity of a) and the de re necessity of c). The argument is only valid if both a) and c) are construed de re. This, however, would undermine the argument, as a) is only a tautology de dicto–indeed, interpreted de re, it is false.
The logic applied to contingent working conditions is as follows:
a) Reducing reliance on adjuncts is prohibitively costly.
b) Colleges and universities have inadequate resources and funding.
Therefore c) Colleges and universities must continue to rely on adjunct labor.
This fallacy was similarly applied as a justification for both slavery and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Economic expedience and preference were substituted for necessity. It was argued that slavery was a necessity required to ensure the economic viability of the nation, but we have since demonstrated absolutely that slavery was not, in fact, a precondition to economic viability. Similarly, though segregating and interning Japanese Americans may have been seen by some as economically expedient at the time, it had negative immediate and long-term costs that far exceeded any immediate short term economic benefit.
When university administrators and politicians invoke the fallacy of necessity, they are doing so in a context that ignores that implies that they (the administrators and politicians) have no control over the conditions that give rise to the exploding use of contingent faculty. On the contrary, politicians and university administrators alike have the ability to control how resources are utilized. They make choices that may ultimately constrain their ability to make other future choices, but that does not mean that the matter is outside of their control. If I use my entire paycheck to purchase a new computer, I cannot expect my bank to accept the argument that I don’t have enough money to pay my mortgage. When a university decides to spend millions of dollars to finance the cost of a few football stadium or build a recreation center with a lazy river and other spa-like amenities, it has prioritized one thing over another.
American colleges and universities are consistently deprioritizing instruction in order to promote the construction of new facilities, escalating administrative costs, and intercollegiate athletics programs. It is mystifying to me how, after so demoting the importance of instruction, college administrators can then scratch their heads in bewilderment over the abysmally poor student educational outcomes that obtain. It’s not possible to build five televisions with the parts of three any more than it is possible to obtain optimal outcomes in the classroom when the faculty charged with educating the least prepared students are afforded the fewest resources to accomplish the feat.
This bewilderment is better described as a state of denial. I submit that administrators are fully aware of the consequences of their actions, but they are unwilling to address the problem. Again, expediency raises its ugly head. It is more expedient to blame state legislatures (which are certainly not without blame) and to blame the economy than it is to admit that universities are administratively top-heavy, that intercollegiate football consumes far too many resources, or that the beautiful facilities described in the seductive architectural renderings may not be the best use of the public’s money.
What happens in the classroom matters. We accept this conclusion at every level of the American educational system, but we deny the same conclusion on the college campus. Denying faculty the resources necessary to do their jobs effectively is to deny students the education that they require and the public the value that they expect. This is happening not just because there are insufficient resources being brought to bear in higher education, but, rather, because the resources that are being deployed in higher education are being largely misspent on things that have little to do with educational outcomes.
Administrators who persist in blaming the continued exploitation of contingent faculty (e.g., poverty wages, no job security, little opportunity for advancement, no health insurance, no access to unemployment compensation insurance, and limited retirement benefits) on circumstances beyond the control of their institutions are intellectually dishonest. It really is that simple, and it’s time to call a spade a spade.
Special Note: The author’s opinion is not necessarily the opinion of the organizations with which he is affiliated and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else associated with those organizations.