Two Societies–Separate and Unequal: Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide

On Tuesday I posted the first of two posts on the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Education that took place in Washington,DC this past weekend.  That post was, as I said then, in a descriptive vein.  I promised a second one in a more meditative vein.  This is the post that reflects what I was actually preoccupied with most of the time I was sitting in the Summit.  And that is:  how far all of this is from the world I knew as a tenure-line and tenured professor.

One phrase kept coming into my mind throughout the day.  The phrase was:  “two societies.”  Two societies, that is, separate and unequal.  Or, in its original form, from the Kerner Report of 1968:  “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The Kerner Report, as it is known,  was a study commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots.

When it came out, the report was a damning indictment of white America and its abandonment of the black community.  It became an unexpected best-seller.  Its Introduction summarized its findings:

Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Setting aside any astonishment, in 2012, that a government-sanctioned committee would produce a document that included these words, I suppose it’s obvious why I found that phrase “two societies—separate but unequal” resounding in my mind the day of the Summit.  How much of a stretch is it to apply this to the tenure-line vs. NTT faculty context?  Let’s try it and see.

Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of university life; they now threaten the future of every university.

This deepening status division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for an administrative and pedagogical resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the university community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic educational values.

The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single higher educational context.

This alternative will require a commitment to action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every university administrator and faculty member it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the university must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new funding models enacted.

This is a truth I know in my bones.

The fact is, as a tenure-track and tenured professor, I never gave adjuncts a second thought.  They and their circumstances, their needs and goals, were of no concern to me.  I knew on the one hand that the job market was brutal, and that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I should have ended up employed on the tenure track, or that others of my acquaintance would not.  I did not believe that I was significantly more brilliant than others who ended up unemployed or adjuncting.

At the same time, by virtue of the fact that I DID succeed in gaining a permanent, full-time, tenure track position at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution, I was in the elite class.

I hasten to add that I didn’t feel “elite” particularly, and certainly not elitist, which is counter to my basic ethos in life.  And I was painfully aware of how, at the perennially cash-strapped University of Oregon, I enjoyed far, far fewer resources than peers at Ivy Leagues and upper crust institutions.

But on another more core level, I was elite indeed.  Because I was in the top tier—a tenure-line faculty at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution with a low teaching load and access to excellent funding for my research and writing.  I was being paid a (barely) liveable wage with benefits to do what was ultimately the work of the mind—to publish my research for the benefit of the discipline, and to teach it for the benefit of students.

At the time my identity hinged almost entirely on that elite status.  Not consciously, mind you.  It wasn’t that I felt others were inferior.  It was that they were irrelevant.  I was a player, and they were not.  I was in the game of academic status and competition and they were not.  I was credible, I was legitimate, I was competitive (for grants, awards, and honors) and they were not.  The people I “saw” (ie, who were visible to me) were the others who, like myself, were in the competitive status game.

Now, I hasten to add that even labeling that context a “competitive status game,” is to descriptively fail.  Because at the time, in that world, it wasn’t conceived of as a game but as sober and serious “work.”  It also didn’t feel competitive in an immediate sense since collegiality was common, and collaborations were also possible.

And above all, status was never, ever openly discussed.

So “competitive status game” is what I call it only now, with the benefit of hindsight.  At the time I was simply totally engaged in the impulse to produce and to get ever-increasing recognition and rewards for what I produced.

It was grueling, but it was also deeply, profoundly gratifying, and frankly, pretty fun.  After all, I did love what I did.  I loved my field, and my work, and my intellectual mission, and my pedagogical coolness (I was one of those young, hip assistant professors so beloved of the undergrads).  I loved campus life, and tooling about importantly heading off to conferences and meetings. I loved meeting colleagues for coffee and talking intently.  I loved, really inordinately loved, being able to write off for free desk copies. I felt powerful.  My world was, in short, completely absorbing. I had drunk the Kool-Aid.

And so it seemed to be for my colleagues, especially the junior ones.  We made wry jokes about looming deadlines, recalcitrant funders, and intractable reviewers.  But those jokes were the language that communicated our membership in a single tribe.  We were the people who “mattered.”

And to a large degree we were treated as such—the people who matter—by the members of administration who actually noticed us (which were not many).  We were, after all, the capital-generators, the content-producers of the university industry. Without us and our “research productivity” and grant money, the university had nothing to brag about or use to solicit endowment gifts.

So our idiosyncracies and self-absorption were more or less tolerated and enabled by the managers/administrators in charge of capitalizing on our talent.

I go into this detail to try and give a sense of the habitus of what was, ultimately, a position of enormous privilege.  And as with all positions of privilege, this one was invisible to us, its holders.  Because we only “saw” and engaged with others equally privileged, those outside that world were rendered invisible.  They were not people who mattered.

I’m not proud of this.  But I bring it up to articulate, with difficulty, my sense that because we occupied two societies, the tenure-line and the non-, the needs and concerns of the non- were utterly invisible to me.

More to the point, looking back now, I do not know how I could have found any place of common interest with NTT faculty at the time, or indeed through most of my career, extending well past tenure and even into my administrative career as department head. As a department head wrestling with criminally inadequate program funding (albeit in a department that almost never hired adjuncts because we had a pool of graduate students for our grunt-work), I mainly just wondered how fast I could find one when needed.  I don’t know when a space for common interest would have arisen, in what context, or what would have compelled it.

What did eventually happen was this:  as my absorption in this world declined for a constellation of reasons both personal and vocational, my ability to “see” those off the tenure-track increased.  When I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (and this was a painfully slow, difficult, and shame-ridden process indeed), the rotten structure, the crumbling edifice of the whole system became visible, and in fact, inescapable.  A growing friendship with a NTT faculty member on campus, and hearing her story and daily experiences, brought it into relief. After a time I couldn’t see anything BUT those who are excluded and marginalized by the system of privilege I had once uncritically inhabited.  And that status began to stink, and I didn’t want it anymore.  By the time I had the opportunity to leave, I was ready.

What astounded me most then was the dawning realization of my previous total lack of critical perspective on the academic world and its structures of privilege.  After all, all of my scholarly “work” had been dedicated to the critical analysis of social privilege and power.  How was it that someone totally committed to a “critical” ethos was able to spend 15 years in a profession and never turn that critical eye onto it?  How was it that power and class status were something I analyzed, but not something I inhabited?

Let me hasten to add that I was well-versed in the issues of white privilege and class privilege as they applied to myself in “society.”  I was very conscious of my backpack.  It’s just that I did not make the connection to the equivalent privilege and status in *the university setting* itself.  Status differentials there –outside of the authorized ones of assistant-associate-full-dean-provost-chancellor—were invisible to me.

I think they are invisible to most tenure-line faculty, even the most avowedly Marxist.  As the Japanese proverb goes, darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse.  There is something profound at the heart of the university enterprise, particularly in the liberal arts, that mystifies its members to the structures of money and power that organize it.  I don’t know what it is.  But it apparently persists long after the economic justification for it has evaporated.

The Kerner Report went on:

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.

Indulge me a moment longer in this exercise of translation:

Segregation and poverty have created in the adjunct ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most tenure-line faculty.

What tenure-line faculty have never fully understood—but what the adjunct can never forget—is that the educational institutions are deeply implicated in the ghetto. The educational institutions created it, educational institutions maintain it, and educational institutions condone it.

Tenure-line faculty enjoy a position of sanctioned ignorance about the conditions in which the NTT labor, and the degree to which tenure-line positions and salaries, not to mention funding for research, are paid for by the labor of others who may be going without health insurance, adequate medical care and food, and sufficient money to pay for rent and clothing in the same month.

“We have no adjuncts here” say faculty and administrators on campus after campus, apparently believing it, according to Adrianna Kezar, Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, who spoke at the Summit.  To acknowledge adjuncts’ existence next to you on campus, doing identical classroom work but getting paid 1/20th of the salary, is to acknowledge that what you do is a form of employment with an economic rationale. And to acknowledge the existence of a shadow economy on your campus, the underbelly of the university ideal.  Is this why so many tenure-line won’t meet the eyes of NTT they pass in the hallways?

As one tenure line assistant professor at the University of Oregon said to our campus union organizer, “please don’t come talk to me about a union.  If you make me think about how little I’m paid and how little I’m respected, you’ll take away the last, the very last illusion that I’m clinging to—that this is more than just a job.  Without that illusion I don’t think I can go on.”

While I think that tenure-line faculty are not actually privileged enough, in the present moment of the neoliberal university, to be able to afford not to have common cause with the NTT faculty, I believe that few of them are prepared to relinquish the sanctioned ignorance (or willful delusion) that derives from their invisible (to them) privilege.  Based on my former career and experiences, I believe that like Lyndon Johnson, most –with some notable exceptions—will continue to deny the existence of the two societies in their shared community, and hold fast to the status quo.

Similar Posts:


Two Societies–Separate and Unequal: Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide — 14 Comments

  1. Thank you. Thank you for getting it. Thank you for sharing your understanding. Several of your posts have moved me to tears, just because I’m so grateful that someone out there gets it. Being an adjunct is very isolating and I have no one to express any of these sorts of thoughts to that is in a position (academia) to really get it.

    I’m quitting being an adjunct; I finally turned down offers of classes. I found I could work as a seasonal retail employee and make as much money for much less stress and they appreciated me. People giving me positive feedback and expressing how much they appreciated my presence was a balm on my soul after years of being a faceless shadow to my “colleagues.”

    I’m on the private sector job market and feeling like I’ve been released from a cult. And I’m so angry at myself for being a chump and falling into that cult for so long. I just hope I can find a decent job in spite of my PhD.

    • Thanks for this moving comment, Tired Scholar. I also felt that I’d been released from a cult when I finally gave myself permission to depart from academic standards of judgment about personal worth, value, and failure. The sign of the cult-like nature of the system for me was the many years of intense shame that I had to move through to get to the other side–and I was someone exiting voluntarily. I wonder when it happens that we’re inculcated into this cult, and why, and how. I would like to know more about this. In any case, best of luck to you as you enter the next stage of life.

  2. So much to say about this as a Brit with the equivalent of tenure in the UK, now working my first US job as a NTT right now and earning very little. While there ARE important similarities in the UK, there are so many differences. In the UK a single Union and the power of the EU’s impact on part-time lecturers’ (the equivalent to NTT) contracts are 2 positives.

  3. You’ve been knocking it out of the park lately. I admire you for taking a firm stand on academic exploitation when that exploitation is, to a degree, what keeps your own business going. (Desperate PhDs wouldn’t need your services so badly if the job market worked fairly, and if the fate they were trying to avoid — adjuncting — weren’t so miserable.) Respect!

    • (lol) thanks Sarah. I have to admit that I am not really worried about things changing so quickly or drastically that it would impact my business! Would that it were not so!

      Thanks for reading and your kind words.

  4. Actually, my experience is that Marxists can be the worst in terms of exploiting the labor of those below them on the academic totem pole. Don’t feel too bad about not seeing the exploitation going on around you…I’m constantly shocked that almost no one who is in that system seems to want to admit their position of privilege. I know that professors feel like they barely make a living wage, but in comparison to most working class Americans a professor’s salary is a major step up. On the other hand, in comparison to most highly educated professionals, they are sadly underpaid. It is worse for those of us who would like to get into that position of privilege but see the negative parts of the system.

  5. Really enjoyed your article. I guess I’ve always been positively prejudiced in the direction of professors, and I assumed they knew they (TT) were living off the fat. However, I guess all of us, even “Marxists”, want to believe we attain our successes essentially because of our talent and hard work, without realizing that TONS of people work hard and get passed over. I guess politics is personal. Like most white people don’t want to admit they benefit from a racist system (even if that white person is poor), I guess we intellectuals who think we are above that misapprehension, really aren’t.

  6. Pingback: Academics, External Validation, and Entrepeneurialism: Some Autobiographical Reflections | The Professor Is In

  7. I know my comment may not be in the exact right section, but I have read through several of the posts relating to adjuncting- including the documentary, and I am sad and angry about the situation. I am an adjunct working on getting a TT position, btw.

    I’m wondering how administrators have been able to get away with growing their salaries when, like the documentary says, it is not clear what their jobs really ARE. It seems so clear to me that they are the fat, and that the teachers are the ones doing the real important, valuable work.

    With all the belt tightening, why can’t universities begin by cutting down the roles and salaries of these administrators? It seems so clear. I am confused about how they can continue to exist as they are and even grow as the documentary describes. If I were in their shoes, I think I would be living in fear that people would realize how overpaid and unessential I am. I must not understand what they really do or how they keep their power.

  8. Pingback: How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism | The Professor Is In

  9. This is great but I have to say that not all of us on the tenure track are as ignorant as you were. (In fact it shocks me to read how ignorant you were!) Although I was a TT faculty member at an R-I university, I was married to an NTT and have always had many good friends who were NTT instructors. I think it would be fair to say that a number of NTT faculty have their own ignorance of TT faculty. I’ve heard and read many NTTs describe their job as the same as a TT faculty’s job — when in reality many NTTs don’t have a terminal degree, have no research or publishing responsibilities, little or no service responsibilities to the public, the department or the larger profession, and did not have to compete on a national search for their job. My spouse was stuck where I was and so could not go for a TT job in a national search. That’s the case for some NTTs– they don’t have geographic mobility necessary for “climbing the ladder.” Others didn’t get the degree they’d need. One of my dearest friends has a full-time benefitted NTT position at a university making close to $50K–the best she could hope for because she never went on after her MA to get her doctorate. She didn’t like research and writing; she only liked teaching. To me it’s unfair to describe her as exploited simply because she’s not on a tenure-track. The NTTs who are exploited are those who are adjuncting– i.e., getting paid by the course and scraping together a living teaching on 2, 3 or even 4 campuses working well over full time but not getting benefits. It’s also exploitative for campuses to employ those adjuncts over and over when the original purpose of the adjunct was to fill in when enrollments were unexpectedly high, or to give a graduate student some experience teaching paying them about the same rate as any other graduate assistantship pays, or to offer a course on a unique topic by someone who has a day job outside academia (e.g. a lawyer or screenwriter). So I think we need to hire full-time benefitted instructors. And we ought to limit the number of graduate students we take on based on the number of good jobs there are out there in our discipline. Why recruit so many grad students if we know they can’t all be employed?! At the same time, I’m not sure I buy the parallel to the horrid racism of mid-century America. There are administrators (and athletic coaches) who make triple my salary but I don’t consider them as people who carry an invisible backpack of administrator privilege.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.