Southern Illinois University at Carbondale does not make national news very often. Occasionally the Salukis will pop onto the radar for sports fans, but given just how much “news” (using that term loosely) gets generated in the field of sport, those developments tend to age and be forgotten rather quickly. When the university does draw national attention for academic, rather than athletic matters, more often than not, the story is a negative one. And that is certainly the case when it comes to the latest development.
Two weeks ago, an internal memo got leaked. It was from an associate dean for Research, Budget, and Personnel, Michael Molino, and addressed to department chairs in several of the colleges. The SIUC Alumni Association – and as it turns out, the provost (though not mentioned in the memo) – were starting a pilot program looking to bring in qualified alumni with Ph.D.s for three year appointments with “zero time adjunct status” in graduate programs.
Within hours of the leak – first as a Facebook post by “The Professor Is In” – a variety of conversations, questions, knee jerk reactions, and rants flooded the internet, particularly on Twitter. Nearly all of it was clearly negative in nature, but hard information about the precise motivation and meaning of the memo was lacking, and as an alumnus of SIUC, the first thing that struck me was how a very unlikely school had suddenly become – in the minds of many people – a stand-in for their (often legitimate) gripes about contemporary academia in general.
Even more strangely, SIUC – a seriously struggling institution in a state that is essentially bankrupt – somehow was being looked at and talked about by many as if it was a much better endowed and funded school that out of overweening hubris just decided to stick it to their graduates. This wasn’t just the case for posts and comments in social media. Give a read through some of the entries in this roundup of posts:
- Want to Be a ‘Volunteer Adjunct’? Southern Illinois U. Is Hiring – Chronicle of Higher Education
- Opportunity or Exploitation? – Inside Higher Ed
- Volunteer Faculty: The Death Knell for Public Higher Ed – Insider Higher Ed
- Volunteers of the Ivory Tower – New Republic
- How do you draw the line between volunteer work and unpaid labour? – NatureJobs
There are also plenty of other posts about the matter across a variety of other news and opinion sources. In most of them, you’ll find passages quoted from the memo, concerns expressed about the continued “adjunctification” of American higher education, and disapproval expressed over what is perceived as an attempt to exploit recently graduated alumni.
First Impressions About Early Reactions
As I read the posts and comments – as someone who attended SIUC from 1995-2002, and received both my M.A. and Ph.D. from the institution – I had several first impressions. It struck me that most of the people weighing in on the matter knew practically nothing about SIUC, the fairly dire state of the Illinois university system, or the effects that the last decade of Illinois’ financial insolvency has exerted on institutions like SIUC. They were looking at SIUC as if it was a much more typical university, set in a fairly prosperous region, decently funded by its state, and not an institution that had suffered erosion and attrition for decades.
It also occurred to me that nobody was clear about what “zero-time” was supposed to mean, and that – before opining about the matter – it would be good to get some clarification about what was being proposed. Did it mean that these were genuinely volunteer, unpaid positions? Or that they were in effect, on-call? Or did that strange phrase – not one typically used in American higher ed – mean something else?
Another impression I had was that few people were reading the memo closely. What SIUC proposed to recruit these alumni adjuncts for were the following functions:
service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects.
“Specific . . . lectures”. So they clearly weren’t being brought in to teach entire courses, just to provide guest lectures. That’s already a common enough practice in higher ed, so it would seem rather uncontroversial. The “specific lectures” line also indicates that adjuncts weren’t being used to phase out tenure track faculty by taking over their classes.
The other three suggestions are a bit more uncommon, at least at first glance. Bringing in outsiders as members of thesis (and presumably dissertation) committees, having them on other committees, or working on grant proposals or research projects. Except that all of these “outsiders” would be alumni who would be granted adjunct professor status, thereby making them no longer outsiders to the university community.
Many of the reactions focused upon how SIUC was preparing to exploit a vulnerable pool of recent Ph.D. graduates by enticing them to serve their former institution for zero pay, taking on these onerous duties. Some proposed that the motivation would be getting an edge in this difficult academic job market by being able to add that “Adjunct Professor” line to one’s CV (which seems rather implausible, admittedly).
It seemed to me unlikely that the pilot program being proposed had recent graduates in mind as the alumni to draw upon. Instead, it seemed much more plausible that they had in mind mid-career alumni, i.e. people who already had an established track record as scholars, who knew what serving on committees entailed, who had years of experience honing and delivering excellent lectures.
Why That Pilot Program Could Make Sense
The longer I thought about the memo and the reactions to it, the less it seemed like a typical administrator-mentality attempt to exploit graduates of SIUC and get something for nothing. Instead, it seemed to me to be a rather innovative effort to shore up a long-beleaguered institution by drawing upon one resource that up until now had been overlooked, the expertise of alumni who had gone on to successful careers. It had been poorly articulated, to be sure, by Molino in his memo, not just creating confusion but setting the entire school up for the negative attention it received. But in my view, the pilot program actually does make good sense.
As I noted above, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has been struggling for a long time. Here’s a good retrospective piece – Even at its peak, SIU Carbondale suffered from inadequate support from the state – written by journalists who actually know the area. If you don’t know about the history of southern Illinois itself, or the state of Illinois and its longstanding budget issues, or SIUC, you should read that piece before formulating any opinion about the recent SIUC pilot program. And then, reflect that the article just scratches the surface about how rough things are and have been for so long.
When I was a graduate student at Southern, the entire building in which many of the humanities and social sciences had their offices – Faner Hall – was on “indefinitely deferred maintenance” (I discovered this when rainwater began leaking into our office – the only reason I got any action on that was by threatening to bill maintenance for damage to books). Still, many things were still in relatively decent shape.
Take the SIUC Philosophy Department itself. At that time, by my count, we had around 14 or 15 full time faculty at any given time in the department. If you look at the current roster, on paper there are 9 faculty. That already represents a significant loss, stretching resources pretty thin for a Ph.D.-granting institution. But, that’s on paper. In reality, starting next year, it’s really a 7-person department. One professor is retiring, and another actually moved over to a different department. So, from the mid-90s and early-2000s when I was studying there, the SIUC Philosophy department has lost about half of its tenure track lines.
A 50% attrition rate means that everybody certainly does have to do the proverbial “less with more”. Of course, enrollment is down as well, so there are fewer classes that have to be taught. And likely there are a smaller number of thesis and dissertation committees that need to be staffed, so that’s a bit of a consolation. But when you shrink a department like that, you don’t just lower numbers – you also open up gaps of expertise among those faculty who are left.
Given those sorts of conditions – and given the fact that neither the state of Illinois nor the federal government will do much to help – it makes sense to turn to the alumni. You can ask them for money – alumni organizations do this all the time. Or you can ask alumni to help out their alma mater in other manners. And that seems to be what this pilot program – however hamfisted their PR and copy might be – is really about.
The general idea seems to be to bring in “known quantities” – alumni suggested by the faculty through their department chairs to the administration – to engage in limited but useful volunteer work, in order to make the all-too-meager resources of the academic departments stretch further. Is that exploitative, as the critics of the proposed policy charge? It doesn’t seem so to me. Quite honestly, that is precisely the sort of thing that every university ought to be doing regularly – tapping the specific expertise of their more talented alumni where they have something of value to contribute.
Some Minor Clarifications From The Chair
As I was observing the early reactions to the leaked memo, and suggesting to some of the people making comments that matters might stand otherwise than their critical reactions assumed, I decided to write the acting chair of the Philosophy Department to see if he could clarify what the memo was really saying. I emailed him on April 24th, and got a short response on the 26th, stating that the department had plans to discuss it in a meeting later that day.
In my query email, I did several things. The first was to ask for clarification about the language and points in Molino’s memo. The second was to express that, as an alumnus with a Ph.D., and concerned about the state of the university and the attrition the department had undergone, I would be potentially interested in helping out along some the lines that the memo seemed to suggest.
Five days later, on May 1, I got a very short response. The administration was indeed looking for individuals to serve on committees for PhDs, if the need arose. The department was doing fine with that matter, but they would keep me in mind. I asked for a bit more clarification, and I got precisely that, just a little bit, framed in terms of what the academic departments could do. Very tellingly, there was nothing about what the Philosophy department was going to do. The only bit of new information was that the pilot program was being advanced by both the provost and the alumni association.
I expect that what the Philosophy department plans to do in response to the memo – as far as I know, precisely nothing – is typical of the reaction of other departments at SIUC. It’s unfortunate in many respects, since I expect I’m not the only alumnus who would actually consider volunteering to assist their former department on a limited basis, and the departments at SIUC quite likely could use whatever help and support they can get.
The issue, however, is not whether they could use such help, but whether they can use – which means, to accept – that help. That would mean consider cooperation and coordination between faculty, administration, and alumni, which is – quite honestly – tough to pull off even when things are going well in an institution.
So in the end, this pilot program is likely to end up an interesting but lost opportunity. That’s unfortunate, since then the only real effect of the policy would be the initial bad – and largely mistaken – press Molino’s leaked memo drew as a response.