The adjunct professor

Are younger professors becoming more moderate or is there something else going on?

In last month’s The New York Times, an article appeared entitled, “The ’60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire.” The article sought to delineate a supposed shift in political worldviews as younger scholars “replaced” retiring “baby boomer” professors. In the article, reporter Patricia Cohen argued that these younger scholars were “less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate” than their predecessors and that this was changing the overall ideological makeup of the university.

This central assertion is problematic for many reasons – not the least of which being that entire political worldviews can be pigeonholed in terms like “moderate” and “liberal.” Moreover, as Cohen admits, “information on professors’ political and ideological leanings tends to be scarce.” However, given space limits, for the sake of this column I am willing to take the premise of Cohen’s piece at face value.

That said, I think the article misses the central reason that this might be the case – namely, that the positions of these “boomer professors” (particularly in the humanities and social sciences, with whom the article mainly focuses) are not being “replaced” by younger scholars with tenure but with term limit, adjunct professors without tenure as institutions look to save money by phasing out tenure lines. Cohen hints in passing at this phenomena when she writes that “shrinking public resources overall and fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities have pushed younger professors in those fields to concentrate more single-mindedly on their careers.” However, this is a digression in a 2,800 word article which largely presents the political shift as a matter of choice.

Moreover, this digression misses the centrality of adjuncts in the political shift Cohen purports to describe. Namely, adjuncts (and for that matter, untenured assistant professors) are less likely to politically “rock the boat” given their lack of job security. Also, as adjuncts try to scrape together a living on low wages often at multiple institutions, research often takes a back seat to merely making a living.

Let me give a personal example to further illustrate the point. I just received my doctorate in history here at the University. This fall semester, after receiving no tenured job offers, I will be taking an adjunct professorship with my old department as I try the tenured job market once again.

For many reasons, I am happy with my adjunct position. It is a course I have taught before and love. I like the students here at the University and the people in my department. However, I would be remiss if I did not note that the University is saving quite a bit of money by not filling my position with a tenured professor. Moreover, although I make slightly more as an adjunct than I did as a grad instructor, my adjunct status now makes me ineligible for the health benefits I had as a graduate student.

Finally, I must note that it took me some time to decide to write this column (it has been over a month since the Cohen piece was published). Was this because I was becoming one of those “politically moderate” younger scholars who does not care about the regressive labor politics of the University? Or is it because I didn’t want to “rock the boat” as an adjunct? I’ll let you be the judge.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]