How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low Wage Nation

The triumph of the corporate university. Ph.D.s in crisis. The tuition gold rush.
Contingent faculty militance. The collapsing tenure system.
A nightmarish world of underpaid, overworked undergraduates.
And the steady conversion of the professoriate to the "tenured bosses"
of student workers and contingent faculty....

"The single most important recent advance in our understanding of the structure of higher education." --Cary Nelson

How the University Works
by Marc Bousquet

This is the seamy underbelly of higher education — a world where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates all work long hours for fast-food wages.

Tenure-track positions are at an all-time low, with adjuncts and graduate students teaching the majority of courses.

Burdened by debt, millions of undergraduates work multiple part-time jobs but quit before they earn a degree.

Meanwhile college presidents and basketball coaches rake in millions, even at schools where fewer than half of students are able to earn a degree in six years.

Assessing the costs of the corporate university at every level, How the University Works is urgent reading for anyone interested in the fate of higher education.


Get it from NYU Press
Paperback 22.00
Cloth 70.00

With a foreword by Cary Nelson

Excerpt: Who benefits from
the tuition
gold rush?

Excerpt: The real "kid nation."

Table of contents
About the author
Video blog

essays and interviews




Excerpt from Chapter 1
Who Benefits from the Tuition Gold Rush?

Less well understood is how the logic of the HMO increasingly rules higher education.  Management closely rations professor time.

Thirty-five years ago, nearly 75% of all college teachers were tenurable. Only a quarter worked on an adjunct, part-time or nontenurable basis.

Today, those proportions are reversed. 

If you're enrolled in four college classes right now, you have a pretty good chance that one of the four will be taught by someone who has earned a doctorate, and whose teaching, scholarship and service to the profession has undergone the intensive peer scrutiny associated with the tenure system.

In your other three classes, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it, was hired by a manager not professional peers, may never publish in the field he is teaching, and who got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because they were willing to work for wages around the official poverty line.

In almost all courses in most disciplines using nontenurable or adjunct faculty, a person with a recently-earned Ph.D. was available, and would gladly have taught your other three courses. But they could not afford to pay their loans and house themselves on the wage being offered.

Higher education employers can only pay those wages in the knowledge that their employees are subsidized in a variety of ways.

In the case of student employees, the massive debt load subsidizes the wage.

For poorly paid contingent faculty, who are women by a substantial majority, the strategies vary, but include consumer debt, reliance on another job or the income from a domestic partner.

Like Walmart employees, the majority female contingent academic workforce relies on a patchwork of other sources of income, including such forms of public assistance as food stamps and unemployment compensation.

It is perfectly common for contingent university faculty to work as grocery clerks and restaurant servers, earning higher salaries at those positions, or to have been retired from such former occupations as bus driving, steelwork, and auto assembly, enjoying from those better-compensated professions a sufficient pension to enable them to serve a “second career” as college faculty.

The system of cheap teaching doesn't sort for the best teachers. It sorts for persons who are in a financial position to accept compensation below the living wage.

As a result of management's irresponsible staffing practices, more students drop out, take longer to graduate, and fail to acquire essential literacies, often spending tens of thousands of dollars on a credential that has little merit in the eyes of employers.  

The real “Profscam” isn't the imaginary one depicted in Charles Sykes' fanciful 1988 book, which concocted the image of a lazy tenured faculty voluntarily absenting themselves from teaching.

Instead the “prof scam” turns out to be a shell game conducted by management, who keep a tenurable stratum around for marketing purposes and to generate funded research, but who are spread so thin with respect to undergraduate teaching that even the most privileged undergraduates spend most of their education with parafaculty working in increasingly unprofessional circumstances.

As the union activists of the nontenurable will tell you, the problem is not with the intellectual quality, talent, or commitment of the individual persons working on a nonprofessorial basis; it's the degraded circumstances in which higher education management compels them to work, teaching too many students in too many classes too quickly, without security, status, or an office; working from standardized syllabi; outsourced tutorial, remedial, and even grading services, providing no time for research and professional development. Working in McDonald's “kitchen,” even the talent of Wolfgang Puck is pressed into service of the QuarterPounder.

Despite the tens of billions “saved” on faculty wages by substituting a throwaway workforce for professionals scrutinized by the tenure system, managed higher education  grows ever more expensive.

Tuition soared 38% between 2000 and 2005, outpacing nearly every other economic indicator.

Where does the money from stratospheric tuition and slashed faculty salaries go?

At for-profit institutions, the answer is obvious: it goes into shareholder pockets. Lacking even the veneer of a tenurable stratum, the dollars squeezed from a 100% casual faculty joined tax money and tuition from the country's poorest families in enriching the shareholders of education vendors.

But in nonprofit education, which only “pretends” to “act like” a corporation, where have the billions gone?

At first glance, there are no shareholders and no dividends.

However, the uses to which the university has been put do benefit corporate shareholders. These include shouldering the cost of job training, generation of patentable intellectual property, provision of sports spectacle, vending goods and services to captive student markets, and the conversion of student aid into a cheap or even free labor pool. So one sizable trail to follow is the relationship between the financial transactions of non-profits and the ballooning dividends enjoyed by the shareholder class.

The shareholders of private corporatations aren't the only beneficiaries of faculty proletarianization and the tuition gold rush.

Because public non-profits have been receiving steadily lower direct subsidies from federal and state sources, there has been a general belief that higher tuition and staff exploitation has all somehow been accomplished by sharp-eyed, tight-fighted managers with at least one version of public wellbeing in mind, if only within the narrow framework of “reduced spending.” But that belief is open to question, since managers have been spending fairly freely in a number of areas.

One area in which nonprofit education management has been freely spending is on themselves.

Over three decades, the number of administrators has skyrocketed in close correspondence to the ever-growing population of the undercompensated. Especially at the upper levels, administrative pay has soared as well, also in close relation to the shrinking compensation of other campus workers.

In a couple of decades, administrative work has morphed from an occasional service component in a professorial life to a “desirable career path” in its own right (Lazerson et al, A72).

Nonprofits support arts and sciences deans, chairs, associate deans, and program heads comfortably in six figures. Salaries rise into the mid six figures for many medical, engineering, business, and legal administrators.

University presidents have begun to earn seven figures, close on the heels of their basketball coaches, who can earn $3 million annually and are often the highest-paid public employees in their state.

In thirty years of managed higher education, the typical faculty member has become a female nontenurable part-timer earning a few thousand dollars a year without health benefits. The typical administrator is male, enjoys tenure, a six-figure income, little or no teaching, generous vacations and great health care.

There are lots of other areas in which nonprofit administrators have spent even more. With the support of activist legislatures, they've especially enjoyed playing venture capitalist with campus resources and tax dollars by engaging in “corporate partnerships” that generally yield financial benefit to the corporate partner but not the campus (Washburn).

More prosaically, they've engaged in what most observers call an “arms race” of spending on the expansion of facilities and physical plant. And as Murray Sperber and others have documented, they've spent recklessly on sports activities that--despite in some cases millions in broadcast revenue--generally lose huge sums of money.

The commercialization of college sport has raised the bar for participation so high that students who'd like to play can't afford the time required for practice. Students who'd like to watch can't afford the ticket prices.

Traditionally, the phenomenon known as “cross-subsidy,” the support of one program by revenue generated by another program, primarily meant a modest surplus provided by the higher tuition and lower salaries associated with undergraduate education, used in support of research activity that was unlikely to find an outside funding agent.

Under managed higher education, cross-subsidy has eroded undergraduate learning throughout the curriculum while becoming a gold mine for all kinds of activities satisfying the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobby horses of administrators:

Digitizing the curriculum! Building the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bringing more souls to God! Winning the all-conference championship!

Why have those who control nonprofit colleges and universities so readily fallen into the idea that the institution should act like a profit-seeking corporation?

At least part of our answer must be that it offers individuals in that position some compelling gratifications, both material and emotional.

This is an age of executive license. In addition to a decent salary and splendid benefits, George Bush enjoys the privilege of declaring war on Afghanistan and Iraq. College administrators commonly enjoy larger salaries and comparable benefits, and have the privilege of declaring war on their sports rivals, or on illiteracy, teen pregnancy, or industrial pollution.

It feels good to be president.

As a “decision maker,” one can often arrange to strike a blow on behalf of at least some of one's values.

What must be swept under the rug is that the ability to do these things is founded on their willingness to continuously squeeze the compensation of nearly all other campus workers.

The university under managerial domination is an accumulation machine. If in nonprofits it accumulates in some form other than dividends, there's all the more surplus for administrators, trustees, local politicians, and a handful of influential faculty to spend on a discretionary basis.

Get it from NYU Press
Paperback 22.00
Cloth 70.00

With a foreword by Cary Nelson

Excerpt: Who benefits from the tuition gold rush?

Excerpt: The real "kid nation."

Table of contents
About the author


Excerpt from chapter 4
The Real Kid Nation

The reality of the undergraduate workforce is very different from the representation of teen partiers on a perpetual spring break, as popularized by television (“Girls Gone Wild”), UPS propaganda (“they're staying up until dawn anyway”), and Time Magazine: “Meet the 'twixters,' [twenty-somethings] who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate. They're not lazy--they just won't grow up.” [Grossman]

There are more than fifteen million students currently enrolled in higher ed (with an average age of around 26. Tens of millions of persons have recently left higher education, nearly as many without degrees as with them. 

Like graduate employees, undergraduates now work longer hours in school, spend more years in school, and can take several years to find stable employment after obtaining their degrees.

Undergraduates and recent school leavers, whether degree holders or not, now commonly live with their parents well beyond the age of legal adulthood, often into their late 20s.

Like graduate employees, undergraduates increasingly find that their period of “study” is in fact a period of employment as cheap labor.

The production of cheap workers is facilitated by an ever-expanding notion of “youth.”  A University of Chicago survey conducted in 2003 found that the majority of Americans now think that adulthood begins around 26, an age not coincidentally identical with the average age of the undergraduate student population.

The popular conception of  student life as “delayed adulthood” is reflected in such notions as “30 is the new 20” and “40 is the new 30” (Irvine). 

The fatuousness of these representations is confounded by looking at the other end of one's employment life.Few people are finding that in terms of employability after downsizing that “50 is the new 40.” Persons who lose their jobs in their 50s often find themselves unemployable.

What are the economic consequences for a person whose productive career can begin in their middle 30s or later, and end at 50 or sooner? 

This pattern presents real obstacles for both women and men wishing to raise a family. 

Yet mass media representations of extended schooling and the associated period of insecure employment are often cheery, suggesting that it's a stroke of good fortune, an extended youth free of such unwelcome responsibilities as home ownership, child-rearing, and visits to health-care providers.

In this idealistic media fantasy, more time in higher education means more time to party--construing an extended youth as a prolonged stretch of otherwise empty time unmarked by the accountabilities of adulthood.

 But concretely the apparently empty time of involuntarily extended youth associated with higher education is really quite full.

It's full of feelings--the feelings of desperation, betrayal, and anxiety, the sense that Cary Nelson has captured for graduate employees under the heading of Will Teach for Food.

Writers like Anya Kamenetz and Tamara Draut have captured the similar feelings of upper-middle class college graduates in books like Generation Debt and Strapped.

Many of the persons Draut and Kamenetz describe will have added graduate school to successful bachelor's degrees at first or second tier institutions.

But little attention has been paid to the role of higher education in organizing the vast majority of the lives it touches--those who don't graduate, or who graduate with community college, vocational, or technical degrees.
























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