By Nolan Higdon
The increasing shift to remote work in higher education has threatened the power and influence of the professional managerial class (PMC). In response, the PMC are throwing everything at the wall from baseless claims about work productivity to coercive policies to cement their power over faculty. Coined by John and Barbara Ehrenreich, the PMC are an influential cultural group who hold advanced degrees, are considered experts, manage other people and their wealth, and shape dominant culture and public policy.
The proliferation of the PMC in higher education resulted from the shift to neoliberal managerialism in the 1970s which sought to maximize efficiency by entrenching corporate structures and competitive meritocratic processes in higher education. From 1993 to 2009, there was a 60% increase in administrative positions in higher education. As a result, many institutions spend more on administration, student services, and academic support than on instruction. The administrative bloat has negatively impacted students in two critical ways: increased tuition and instruction from overworked and underpaid faculty.
Much has been written about how the PMC’s approach to higher education has led to outlandish increases in tuition. For example, by the mid-20th century states like California were offering free tuition for its residents. Between 2004 to 2013, the tuition of California universities doubled. Between 2002-2022, there was a 175% national increase in in-state tuition costs for public universities.
However, less attention has been paid to the other impacts neoliberal managerialism has had on students and the classroom: the development of an apartheid system of faculty. There are two groups of faculty in higher education. The first group—tenured/tenure-track (TT) faculty, derive security, salary, and benefits, while the other type of faculty, known as non-tenured part-time (NTPT) faculty, also known as adjunct, do not. NTPT faculty, which are disproportionately women and people of color, experience precarity, low wages, poverty, and a dearth of benefits. Given that NTPT faculty positions are cheaper for school budgets, the PMC reduced TT positions and increased NTPT from one-third of all faculty in the 1980s to two-thirds by 2021.
Many NTPT faculty exhaust themselves commuting between multiple campuses to try to string together a living. One instructor reported that they taught 16-hour days—80-hour weeks—on seven campuses for 25 years. My recent peer-reviewed study found that when queried if they would recommend a career in higher education to students, NTPT responded in the negative: “No. I actively discourage it,” “Absolutely not—why waste time and money until you finally learn what’s going on & become disillusioned?,” “Not unless you recognize that you will be underpaid and under-appreciated,” “NO. It is a long slog to get a PhD and even then the job scarcity and precariousness,” “Fuck no,” “NO, NO!!,” “No. The future is even more contingency and I would not recommend this path to others,” and “HELL NO.” Rather than sympathize or support them, NTPT faculty report that their PMC and TT colleagues are “abusive,” “ruthless,” “exploitative,” “oppressive,” “aloof,” “removed” and “entitled slackers.” An NTPT explained “some pity us, others are contemptuous of us, and some are our de facto employers.”
For many NTPT faculty, pandemic measures offered an opportunity to escape hustle culture, so they could rest, improve their mental health, and better serve their students. Furthermore, it gave them more time and opportunity to be involved in campus affairs given that meetings were remote. Indeed, studies have made clear that faculty and students overwhelmingly prefer for the majority of courses to be offered remotely. Almost three-fourths of students prefer to have online course offerings. After decades of educational rhetoric and studies about a “student centered classroom” and “student led campus,” one would think that the PMC would let students dictate course modalities, but they would be wrong.
Although studies showed that workers were more productive when they worked from home, survey data showed that managers believed that working remotely was decreasing workplace productivity. This cognitive dissonance in neoliberal managerialism is a response to pandemic measures revealing that the majority of PMC positions are what David Graeber referred to as “Bullshit jobs.” Bullshit jobs are pointless and psychologically destructive. A recent study titled “What’s that smell? Bullshit jobs in higher education” chronicles how administrative bloat engendered numerous bullshit jobs in higher education.
During the shelter in place, educators and their students were able to collaborate on a constructive learning environment, and the PMC had little or anything to do with the learning process. Indeed, even though the majority of their tuition goes to the PMC, ask the average student the name of their favorite administrator and you will probably receive a blank stare.
In higher education and private industry, the PMC recognized that their lack of purpose was exposed, and moved swiftly to force people back to the physical workplace where they continue their charade.
The return to campus is certainly motivated in part by higher education’s dependence on the revenue that comes from having students in-person – such as food, drink, housing and related campus purchases – to maintain administrator bloat. Regardless, the burden of returning to physical work, while the pandemic still raged through the Omicron and Delta variants, was on NTPT faculty. TT faculty have protections and rights to choose their modality, which poverty stricken NTPT faculty do not. As a result, at risk of their health, NTPT faculty, as the majority of faculty, were often the one’s returning campus. The PMC recognized their lack of power in forcing TT to work and that is why many threatened to further increase NTPT positions and reduce TT positions. In addition, the PMC has taken to threatening all faculty by abandoning remote meetings and creating policies that punish faculty by utilizing sick days if they do not attend the in-person meetings.
While there has been a series of labor actions in higher education more recently, the apartheid system of faculty continues to prevent faculty from uniting with each other, let alone students, to resist the managerial coercion.