Academics lament what is happening in universities and colleges. Promising young scholars cannot secure permanent, tenure bearing, lines so that they can move up the ladder and devote themselves to what brought them into the profession, which was to pursue the advancement of knowledge or, at the least, the preservation of cultural interest in the authors and genres which they care about. There may not be a need for a new biography of Napoleon, but it is a good idea to remind people of every new generation of what he was and how he altered the world for good and bad and that his times were thrilling. The same is true of Montaigne and Dickens. I have known scholars who devoted their careers to reading and rereading a particular author and publishing their reflections on the author. We all need those reference points so that we can think of ourselves as cultured, though there are those who think we need less culture and more STEM (which means “science, technology, engineering and medicine”) because those are the things that profit the world while books are the kinds of things you can buy after you have made money doing something useful. Never mind that literature and history help you understand politics and the human soul: from Jane Austen, how people flirt, and from Jane Austen and others, how people contemplate their economic circumstances. The view of STEM advocates is that the soul does not need to be cultivated, even though that is what “culture” means. But there is another explanation, a structural one rather than a cultural one, that can show why part timers and short contract assistant professors have for a generation or two now been replacing full time professors in the humanities, the part timers making their livings by covering a few sections at one college with a few sections at another and so carrying heavier class loads and making less total money than someone on a tenure track, and short contract people moving from one campus to another until they find some sort of full time employment, possibly outside of academia.
A professor is, to put it curtly, someone who professes. He provides students with the fruit of his learning as well as modeling for them the rigor with which his mind works in approaching his subject matter, whether or not he is rigorous in thinking about other parts of his life. So his or her students “sit at his or her feet”, as it were, absorbing what there is to absorb. The professor is credentialed to do this work not only by his degrees but also by his publications. As Peter Gay once put it to me, a university is made up of the people who have their names on the index cards at the university library. As another scholar once told me, nothing changes when students arrive on campus in the fall. You just have an intrusion on your ongoing scholarly program. A professor is then a member of one of those highly acclaimed professions which are understood as devoted to their callings rather than to their remuneration and who perform an important role in maintaining the society, as do doctors and lawyers and military officers. We need the professions and so we both put up with and honor their pretensions.
Colleges and universities have discovered, however, at least since universities and colleges started employing modern accounting techniques and business practices in the Sixties and Seventies, that they were largely in the business of servicing students who either paid tuition or was subsidized by the state government to supply students with an education, whatever that might mean and however that was descended from what had occured in the University of Paris where professors presented lectures, presided over discussions, and tested their students for what they had acquired. This meant that they were concerned with the number of people they needed to employ to cover their classrooms and how cheaply they could manage that, people employed who were thought sufficiently trained to be able to preside over classrooms without students feeling unsatisfied, and, indeed, there are studies that show that students are as satisfied with their part time instructors as they are with tenure track instructors. So you don’t need a great scholar or a promising scholar to cover a class, even if many a promising scholar will take up a part time position because of the overall decline in liberal arts students.
What we have here is one example of the development of a whole new category of occupation, what I would call the para-professions. These include legal assistants and nurse practitioners and those other occupations which extend the services of professionals, making the use of the time of the professionals more efficient because then the professionals only have to deal with hard challenges. A second category of the para-professions are the stand-alone ones, such as social work and librarianship, each of which has its own domain and is not associated with a “true” profession. What all para-professions have in common is that they require less professional education than do true professionals and that they are less well remunerated and that they carry less prestige with them. They are not indispensable people but a kind of luxury or ele just a means to economic efficiency.
The most important characteristic of a para-profession is the way it is organized. Professionals provide a package of services. A professor lectures, advises, publishes. A doctor teaches, does rounds, publishes, administers. Professionals are compensated with a package that rolls together these various sorts of activities. Para-professionals, on the other hand, are compensated for carrying a case load. The nurse practitioner meets a certain number of patients a day in a medical setting where examinations take longer because of the limited expertise he or she can provide but where a good number of cases can be handled in a day. The social worker has a number of clients whose lives are to be reviewed and interventions recommended or sought. The paralegal is there to service a number of clients by doing the scut work for standard issue contracts or divorce degrees, as that is supervised by a fully fledged lawyer. A high school teacher covers a certain number of classes in the course of a day, each one containing the number of students assigned to it by school and board of education regulations.
An adjunct or part time college instructor is more like a high school teacher than like a professor. Their value lies in the coverage they provide for their client list, which is the total number of students they have on their rosters, rather than on how sublime they are as scholars or lecturers or advisors. They are interchangeable with one another and so by the laws of supply and demand they will earn less than will the highly prized scholars who are sought out so that they can add prestige to your institution and perhaps even act as a draw for undergraduates and graduate students. Not everybody cares about the football team, but enough do so that is the draw and teachers are to be recruited to fill out the classroom part of instruction, just one of the things that make up “the college experience”.
Many professions have undergone the process of going through downward mobility by ceasing to be professions with their attendant remuneration, prestige and pleasures of the workplace to being paraprofessionals, which brings with it less income, less prestige, and fewer satisfactions. Even if people are entitled “professors”, they are downwardly mobile in that they make less money than professors at prestige institutions, have less prestige than their colleagues who publish, and have class loads higher than there are in universities and students less interested in sitting at the feet of wisdom. Medical doctors are also undergoing this transition. They are more and more on salary for covering a caseload, indebted to their employers for rent on their facilities, and engaged in more repetitious work than greets the senior doctors who get the more “interesting” cases. Lawyers do less and less of crafting individually exquisite trust instruments and more and more administering cadres of paralegals who use standardized forms.
Major colleges and universities do not have to follow the economic logic of cutting costs and raising tuition. They have large enough endowments so that, for example, they could charge much lower tuitions for a number of years by using the interest on their endowment to balance their budgets and so not feel the pinch but they feel no need to do so because more than enough students apply to them whatever they charge and so they simply reinvest the yearly interest on their endowments. Similarly, both elite and non-elite colleges and universities have available to them an oversupply of highly able people to take on part timer and short term contract positions. That is because the academic calling is so attractive to some people because it means a life of thought and writing and reading and going to libraries that people pursue it even if it is no longer a good way to make a living. That will change when there are fewer and fewer graduate students because people don’t want to prohibit themselves a middle class life because of insufficient remuneration. They will do other things. Scholarship may not lose much because there will not be another thesis on Vergil, but universities and colleges will lose their steady supply of adjunct instructors. Indeed, the same thing will happen to major colleges and universities when parents finally catch up with the idea that college tuitions are too expensive, that a state institution does not provide that much poorer an education than an elite school and for far less money. The colleges and universities will cut their tuitions-- or won't because there are still enough people willing to pay the luxury tax. Why, after all, did Lori Loughlin (“Aunt Becky”) want to get her daughter into USC anyway? It wasn’t as if she would have benefitted very much from its academics however much she would have benefited from the collegiate atmosphere, which is the reason so many parents send their children off to both elite and non-elite schools: to give them time to grow up.
But, putting tuitions aside, as well as what are the reasons people go to college, where colleges may return to be what they were before the baby boom, when only a few percent of the population went on to colleges known for their gentleman C students and their rah rah spirits, I don’t know if we will return to college instructor as the first step on the ladder of a professional career except for a very few people. Remember that the great expansion of college education during the baby boom years, the one that led to higher enrollments, new campuses, and to a great deal of employment for people with academic Ph. D’s, was just that, an expansion, bound to stabilize, in that there is a limit to the percent of the population that is college ready, and so more and more places called institutions of higher learning, are just high schools anyway, and so what someone there needs to preside over a classroom, even if they are called “professor”, is an amiability and firmness appropriate to a high school teacher and not all potential scholars have that skill set.