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A Solution To The Adjunct Problem

OK people, it’s Friday evening, and I’m having problems with “Big Post Error”, so I’m going to keep this short and sweet and say what I think. Our problem, outlined below, was that the adjuncts are trapped in a situation in which their existing jobs are crap, but they can’t bear to leave the academy because they consistently have an unrealistic hope (possibly one inculcated in them by ruthless professors, possibly one to which they are temperamentally inclined anyway) of getting a fantastic job as a proper professor. My solution to it is simple and rather than build up to it, I’m just going to say it.

If tenured professorships are such great things and recently graduated PhDs want them so much, they are presumably willing to pay for them. Universities should sell their professorships, at whatever price the market will bear.

Hear me out. This isn’t a piece of hypothetical neoliberal Panglossian market-boosterism, despite appearances, it’s a very well thought-out proposal to return to a system that has already been thoroughly tested and worked very well. Commissions to be an officer in the British Army used to be bought and sold in the nineteenth century, and so did “livings” for parish priests. There was even considerable price discrimination; smarter regiments and more agreeable parishes sold for higher prices. Commissions had to be bought from the regiment, but livings for priests were advertised in the classified columns of the Times. Trollope wrote about little else but the buying and selling of these positions in society. I presume that the defence of the realm and the cure of souls are no less important than the “sacred guild of scholars”, so I will not be taking any objections on the grounds that there is something fundamentally immoral about taking money for an academic post rather than awarding it to the man or woman who has most enthusastically brown-nosed prominent co-authors on journal papers.

Note that I’m not proposing a free market free-for-all here. Just as one had to actually be an ordained priest to purchase a living, and had to actually commit to taking the risk of being shot to be an officer, colleges should only be allowed to sell tenured jobs to people who can actually put “Professor of Humanities” on their business cards without raising a laugh. But if you think about it, as well as providing a natty source of funds which could be used to better the condition of adjuncts1, the introduction of a market in tenureships would have a number of highly desirable side-effects.

First, it would massively lessen the psychic pain of PhDs who don’t get tenure. As Michael Young wrote in “Triumph of the Meritocracy”, the burden of failure is particularly painful in situations where the social arrangements puport to be judging people on their intrinsic worth as human beings. I don’t believe for one minute that the current tenure-track system actually does this, of course, but it certainly acts like it does, and it is powerfully difficult to remind yourself that it doesn’t. If, on the other hand, not getting a professorship was simply a matter of not having been able to afford one, then presumably people would feel about as bad about it as they do about not being able to afford other expensive luxuries ie not very much at all.

Second, it would most likely encourage PhDs into the non-academic workplace. If the career structure for a humanities scholar went graduate school – job – save money- buy professorship, rather than graduate school — adjunct — horrible worrying and brownnosing — maybe get awarded professorship, then we’d most likely get more well-rounded, experienced and worldly-wise professors of poetry, which would probably compensate for the dreadful rich kids who would also benefit from a market in tenured jobs. Equally importantly, because not everyone would bother to get back into the academy, we’d have more accountants, shopkeepers and management consultants with PhDs in poetry, which surely to Christ has got to be good for society. An embarrassing amount of the best work in most fields has been done by people not attached to a university.

Third, a lot of the problem of adjunctry as far as I can tell is the dearth of decent information for someone when they enter graduate school about what kind of job prospects they actually have. You can bet your life that if these things changed hands for money, there would be a whole cottage industry in telling you about them. One of my neighbours is the publisher of “What MBA” magazine and he drives a better car than I do. I daresay he’d be happy to start publishing “What Humanities Professorship” if the market was there. People would also take the academic career decision a lot less lightly if they knew about this major hurdle, rather than just assuming that getting to the top in academia is just a matter of continuing to come top of the class.

If anyone really thinks that there would be a terrible problem of impoverished geniuses being excluded, then I daresay that people like the MacArthur Foundation could buy up a few professorships every year to distribute among the needy. I’m frankly not in the mood to bugger about with the details. The only downside I can see to my plan is that it would mean that most likely the academic world would be dominated by fiftysomething white males. To which I can only reply “and that differs in which way from what we have now?” It’s perfect.


1I said could.

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