Adjuncts Are Only Part of the Problem: Sizing Up the Gig Academy

The rise of “academic capitalism”—a term for the broad shift to market-centered university planning and administration since the early 1980s first theorized by Slaughter, Leslie, and Rhoades (1997; 2004)—has transformed nearly every aspect of the postsecondary system, especially its relations of production. Anyone following higher education over the last decade or more has likely noticed a steady stream of polemic criticizing the state of the academic job market, with its withering opportunities for secure scholarly employment, and an ever-growing army of PhDs relegated to the precarious churn of adjunct pools at every type of institution. We are likely aware that contingent faculty—a minority of the workforce just a few decades ago—now comprise nearly three-quarters of college instructors. Denunciations of the “adjunctification” crisis have become an increasingly common refrain in mainstream discourse around education.

If only the crisis stopped there. Faculty work and hiring is but one dimension of a much larger collective problem that few scholars of higher education have taken up comprehensively. The truth is, today an overwhelming majority of all university workers, not just academic ones, work on a part-time, temporary, or contingent basis, (also called ‘at-will,’ ‘on-demand,’ or ‘just-in-time’ employment). In addition to the stratified professoriate, institutions depend on scores of graduate and postdoctoral workers, clinical and research-only faculty, and a wide array of nonacademic employees—everyone from clerical staff to maintenance, landscaping, housing, retail, and dining workers. This labor is no less indispensable to the smooth functioning of the institution as instructional labor. Regardless of the content of one’s job, these workers all face overlapping sets of conditions marked by undercompensation, insecurity, and alienation.

In our new book, The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University, we set out to do a few key things: first, we try to offer an empirically-grounded synthesis of how working conditions have changed at every stratum of campus employment, not just scholarly workers. Second, we integrate all the ways research has shown these conditions to have deleterious effects on student learning, institutional cohesion, campus wellbeing, and the university public mission into a single robust discussion.

Additionally, we seek to expand and deepen the conversation around academic capitalism by situating postsecondary labor within a new conceptual lens—the Gig Academy. In doing so, it becomes possible to trace a broader horizon of solidarity that links together not just all contingent university workers, but the growing masses of “independent contractors” within and beyond our walls whose algorithmically administered exploitation in the rapidly-metastasizing “gig economy” ought not be treated as a problem disconnected from our own. The importance of this new framing goes beyond matters of pedantic critique, it speaks directly to the kind of strategic action we must take seriously if we hope to liberate higher education from gig economy-style restructuring that has been unrelenting in its quest to draw every last sector of the nonmanagerial workforce into its gaping maw.

In light of this reality, our final aim is to address in earnest the highly uneven distribution of power that props up this regime, and must be collectively confronted if our goal is to undermine these disturbing employment trends. We discuss the potential for creating and sustaining ruptures in the neoliberal postsecondary order within which new, broad-based movements for workplace democracy can take root both inside and outside the academy.

To date, there are no extended scholarly works aggregating labor transformations among faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and support staff to analyze in a unified manner. Furthermore, few have undertaken a rigorous analysis of how the university and the gig economy complement each other beyond noting a handful of mainly cosmetic similarities. As such, we felt it is crucial to explore how the underlying models of restructuring are much more deeply intertwined than is often recognized.  

In researching this book, one surprising discovery was how rarely political organizing (both within existing union structures and beyond) is discussed as a recommendation in prominent scholarship about working conditions in higher education. We argue it is imperative to develop new mechanisms for coordinated, bottom-up action capable of effectively destabilizing executive authority and facilitating a democratic re-organization of institutions. Aside from a small but vocal coterie of academic unionist scholars, too-many commentators—even those skilled at mounting complex critiques of effects of university corporatization—seem to write as though the sheer power of inspiring rhetoric alone can move those in power to “restore” the “traditional” ideals of liberal arts, free inquiry, democracy, and so on, somehow overtaking logics of governance embedded over a period of decades. We can no longer afford to treat these moral appeals as if they constitute meaningful acts of resistance. If the current employment paradigm is allowed to persist, the long-term value and viability of higher education can only deteriorate further and faster. The trends outlined in this book demand to be forcefully challenged, a task that is simply not feasible without building an unprecedented base of power across all levels of the postsecondary workforce, organized consciously within a larger movement to bring dignity and democracy to every workplace. While our argument centers on higher education, the underlying sentiments are not unique to this sector and should be considered in light of all sectors touched by the gig economy.

To that end, we hope this book serves as a provocative tool for educating, agitating, and organizing against indefensible concentrations of power that serve to dispossess workers in the relentless pursuit of growth and prestige. In the face of long-term judicial, legislative, and administrative assaults on labor rights, we have seen a promising resurgence in collective action. Growth in the volume of strikes, for example, is surpassing thresholds not seen in a generation or more. These mostly union-based actions are cause for hope, but much more is needed. Our era is one in which a state of perpetual crisis can feel mundane, and yet, it is also a time when the kind of university so many of us long to serve—one built to genuinely prioritize the protection of academic freedom, critical thinking, intellectual enrichment, shared thriving, democratic participation, and political inclusion above all else—is perhaps nearer than ever to our collective grasp. But to achieve it will mean learning first to reach across our disciplinary/professional/institutional divisions in order to channel our myriad frustrations productively toward the dismantling of a sclerotic postsecondary system, left to languish as a public good only in the shallowest conceivable terms.

Order The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University – published on October 29, 2019 – at this link:

Tom DePaola, along with Dr. Adrianna Kezar, and Daniel Scott, coauthored the book, The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University, a new release from Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Kezar is a Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California, and Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education, where Mr. DePaola and Mr. Scott are also doctoral fellows and researchers.