The Appalachian

Letter to the editor: What every student should know about the modern university

The Appalachian

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

College is one of the most thrilling times of your life: a time to learn, discover yourself, and forge lifelong relationships. If this is where your attention is focused, that’s perfectly normal. But it’s absolutely crucial that your generation realize that it is living through an unprecedented—and deeply troubling—moment in the history of higher education.

As Henry Giroux explained in his stirring talk last Thursday, universities—and particularly public universities—are facing an unparalleled attack from politicians, businessmen, and all those who subscribe to the dogma of free-market fundamentalism, commonly known as neoliberalism. This is not your parents’ university. If you want to control your own destiny, you must understand the changes being imposed on college campuses—particularly since those responsible would much rather keep you ignorant:

Many of you are being taught by adjuncts or contingent faculty. They are among the least paid and most overworked people on this campus. Previously, college professors generally held tenure-track positions, promising them job security once they had demonstrated competence in teaching and research. But in an age when public institutions are viewed as financial burdens rather than as investments in the future, these jobs are seen as too costly. Instead, universities prefer to hire adjuncts, the academic equivalent of temp workers. They are paid by the year or even by the course. When no longer needed, they are simply let go. Many don’t get benefits. Some live so close to the poverty line they need food stamps to make ends meet. Adjunctification is a problem for students, too: not because adjuncts are bad teachers—they’re usually uncommonly dedicated—but because their working conditions are appalling. A 2013 study published on shows universities that rely on adjuncts have lower completion and retention rates, offer less access to faculty, and employ fewer successful teaching practices.

The problem of rising income inequality has its counterpart on campuses. Our so-called Appalachian Family consists of a few rich uncles and many poor cousins. Of our university’s nearly 3,000 employees, only a fraction—ASU’s one percent—earn six figures. The athletics director (who earns $235,606 annually) makes seven times more than a colleague of mine, a full-time adjunct with fifteen years’ experience who teaches four courses, or around 120 students, a semester. Staff, who literally make our university function, are often paid even less than faculty. Income inequality isn’t just about economics. It’s also about values: at ASU, the more you spend teaching and researching, the less you are paid. An alien visiting our campus might conclude that teaching was a form of punishment.

Furthermore, as Benjamin Ginsberg notes in a February 2014 article published by The Fiscal Times, between 2000 and 2012, campus administrative costs rose nationally by 28 percent. In other words, “colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers,” Ginsberg said in his article. Not only is this a dubious use of resources, but it distorts university priorities by giving authority to administrators who disregard faculty inclusion in governance and value quantifiable, data-based outcomes over genuine education.

Meanwhile, students face some of the most daunting economic challenges in generations. No problem is greater than the crushing student debt with which many of you are saddled. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), some 40 million Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loans. As Kyle McCarthy argues, student debt can destroy your credit rating and force you to postpone starting a family, buying a home, or just living on your own. The payoff? One of the toughest job markets in the past century.

These problems have a common denominator: the attack on public institutions in the name of free-market fundamentalism, which distorts our tax system, budget priorities, and educational policies, in the US and across the planet. It is incumbent upon your generation to decide if this is the right direction for our globalized world.

So what do we do? One thing is certain: we need a genuine, unflinching campus dialogue about these issues. My organization, the American Association of University Professors, wants to be part of such a conversation. Faculty must engage with students to discuss matters of common concern. It is my hope that such a conversation can begin in these pages or in a comparable forum. Students must speak out.

It’s a fact: you live in difficult times. But they also present great opportunity. Another university is possible—and another world is, too.


Michael Behrent is an associate professor of history and President of the ASU Chapter of the AAUP.


8 Responses to “Letter to the editor: What every student should know about the modern university”

  1. Zach on October 2nd, 2014 10:04 am

    These are issues that matter and nothing is going to get some by sitting silently and hoping for the best. Well said

  2. Zach on October 2nd, 2014 10:05 am


  3. Hannah Malcolm on October 2nd, 2014 8:14 pm

    I absolutely agree with your assertion that “sitting silently” will accomplish nothing. So let’s not be silent. This ought to be the topic of discussion, not some new coach or the latest game.

  4. Kasey on October 2nd, 2014 11:47 am

    I’m so thankful for Henry Giroux’s talk that was held on campus last week. It has brought light to some major issues that many students do not think about. We need to as a university acknowledge that this is affecting all of us. We should have a say! Thank you so much for writing this article!!

  5. Bill on October 3rd, 2014 10:43 am

    The problems are far greater than you write about…

    Administrative bloat? Yes!
    Greater emphasis on athletic success? Yes!
    Less emphasis on academics? Yes!
    Rising Tuition? Yes!
    Unaccountable Faculty? Hmmm?

    Let’s also agree that there is a rise in adjunct (and contingent) faculty because there is a decline in the number of hours actually taught by tenured professors. If we could get tenured professors to work a 40 hour week, with fewer 6 month sabbaticals, we would be using far fewer adjuncts and contingents.Take a look at the UNC General Administration site to review how many classes are taught by tenured professors.

    Also, a recent study by researchers at Northwestern University found that non-tenure-track lecturers at that school were superior to tenure-track faculty…

    It’s an interesting read for sure.

  6. Michael C. Behrent on October 3rd, 2014 7:01 pm

    Thanks to Zach and Kasey for replying to my article. I think it is crucial students are involved in these discussions. Bill, thank you too. I don’t agree with everything you say, but that’s part of a discussion, and you raise important points. Let me just respond briefly:

    – I believe it is crucial that tenure-track (TT) faculty support non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. What’s happening with NTT in most universities is unconscionable.

    – That said, I do not believe that separating research from teaching and denigrating research is the right way to go. Not only is research—producing new knowledge—integral to the role of the university, but, in my experience, teachers who remain active scholars tend to be better teachers as a result. You’re right that some institutions encourage professors to privilege research at the expense of teaching—and if that’s your point, I fully agree. Moreover, I think it’s often under-recognized that NTT faculty actually do do research: what’s unfair is that this isn’t acknowledged. But, at the end of the day, the dividing line should not be between TT faculty and NTT faculty (especially since most TT faculty have experience being NTT at some point). We share too much in common. The dividing lines, in my humble opinion, are between those who actually fulfil the core mission of universities—teaching and research—and those who, though they do neither, earn dramatically superior salaries and have incredibly better working conditions.

    – I’m glad you mentioned the Northwestern report, but it would be better to mention the report itself rather than a second-hand summary of it. The report does not actually question the value of research, as one might gather from reading your post. It makes a rather strong case for the value of research; it suggests, however, that some should do teaching, and others should do research. If you’re going to rely on this research (and let’s not lose sight of the irony of the fact that you’re criticizing research-oriented professors by quoting a research institute, comprised of the those very research-producing professors you criticize), it’s worth quoting from the full article (available from the NBER via institutional subscriptions) at length: “Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.” If one is going to accept the study you quote to its logical consequences, then this means one IS accepting a division of labor between research and teaching—not an abolition of the former. Just to be clear.

  7. What every student should know about the modern university | The Academe Blog on October 3rd, 2014 2:25 pm

    […] State University and President of the ASU Chapter of the AAUP. This was first published as a letter-to-the-editor of The […]

  8. AAUP on October 4th, 2014 5:00 pm

    This article was also picked up by the national AAUP’s blog:

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

The Student News Site of Appalachian State University
Letter to the editor: What every student should know about the modern university