Eileen E. Schell: Outsourcing U/You: Online Education, the Contingent Faculty “Entrepreneur,” and Open-Source Unionism

Eileen E. Schell: Outsourcing U/You: Online Education, the Contingent Faculty “Entrepreneur,” and Open-Source Unionism
Eileen E. Schell, Syracuse University

Many American colleges and universities, like manufacturing and technology firms, regularly  “outsource” jobs to save on labor costs and have been doing so for years:  dining services, physical plant maintenance, parking services, and the list goes on. Outsourcing teaching is also a familiar phenomenon for many four-year colleges and universities.   In “Outsource U:  Globalization, Outsourcing, and the Implications for Contingent Academic labor,” John P. Lloyd argues that the “shift from the traditional tenure model of academic labor to the contingent academic labor model is itself a form of outsourcing” (1). Further, he cites an example of how the CSU system has explored “ways to outsource certain coursework to lower-paid contingent faculty at nearby community colleges” (2).  Although Lloyd reports on this strategy in 2004, I remember it as a common strategy twelve years ago when I was teaching at a southern university and the English Department there decided it no longer wanted to teach sections of basic or so-called “remedial” writing.  The department simply stopped offering sections of basic writing and told students who had placed in the course to enroll in it a nearby community college.  Many of the contingent faculty who would have taught that course ended up teaching it anyway at the local community colleges and for less pay   So outsourcing introductory or remedial courses to community colleges has been a way for four-year campuses to save money and to off-load the work they find too tedious or too expensive.

With universities and colleges increasingly assuming a business management model with an emphasis on labor flexibility and market responsiveness, it only makes sense that outsourcing will continue to increase.  My goal here is explore the rise of outsourcing and online education and to discuss how open-source unionism can work to combat it.

The U.S. has been a major incubator of for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix and Jones International University.  Perhaps the most well known of them all, the University of Phoenix models what these universities are all about—profit.  Students meet in empty office buildings or rented space at night to attend classes or log-on to virtual campuses.  Approximately 95% of all teachers at the University of Phoenix are contingent faculty working off the tenure-track:  “While most colleges fight furiously over the top 25% of high school graduates, for-profits aim for the middle half of the class. They also target working adults hungry for technical and professional skills, including many lower-income ones. Even without affirmative action, almost half of for-profit students are minorities.” (Symonds).

As Ana Marie Cox reports in her article “None of Your Business:  The Rise of the University of Phoenix and For-Profit Education….”, in the past twenty years, “more than 500 new for-profit colleges and universities have opened their doors” (15), the four-year for-profits increasing their numbers from “ 18 to 192” (15).  Forty of those trade publicly on the stock exchange (15). A” quarter of the $750 billion spent each year on higher education stems from private, proprietary investment,” University of Phoenix (owned by the Apollo group) has earnings that surged 53%, to $247 million, as revenues jumped by a third, to $1.3 billion. Such stellar performance has given Apollo a market value of $11.4 billion -- equal to the endowment of Yale University, the nation's second-wealthiest college” (Symonds “Business Week”). The key question, though, is how has this impacted enrollments?

Ten of the biggest “publicly listed for-profits have already grabbed more than a half-million students. Add the hundreds of smaller players, and overall for-profit enrollment will jump by 6.2% this year, or five times the pace at conventional colleges, according to Boston market researcher Eduventures Inc. That will push the industry's revenues to $13 billion this year, up 65% since 1999” (Symonds). Higher education analysts “predict this segment will grow by about 20 percent a year, until it finally displaces nonprofit education” (Cox 15). For-profits also have grabbed 41% of the $3.5 billion online-degree market, which has tripled since 2000, according to Eduventures. They're aggressively expanding in foreign countries, too, targeting students in  China, India, Chile, and other expanding educational markets.   John G. Sperling, Phoenix founder and chairman of Apollo Group, predicts that as it rolls out online courses in developing nations, Phoenix could become the largest university in the world (Symonds). Let’s be clear, though, distance education as a market is not confined to the private-for-profit sector.  As David Noble points out in Digital Diplomas, most traditional colleges and universities have also developed online courses, setting up “for-profit subsidiaries” in the hopes of literally keeping up with the Jones—like Jones International University (Noble).

For-profit educational institutions are profitable because they do not carry real estate and labor costs in the same way that traditional universities do.  They make money because they don’t keep up expensive grounds and expensive libraries and student centers—all things associated with traditional universities.  They also do not make commitments to expensive, tenure-line faculty.  They quite literally and quite nakedly make their money off of contingent faculty’s backs. They “outsource” their entire faculty operation to contingent faculty or they employ a few big name professors to design online courses (course ware) that are then facilitated by online contingent faculty.

Yet if we are to read some of the latest portraits of contingent faculty in this brave new world of for-profit education, we are told that contingent faculty should become entrepreneurial in relation to such online environments and to the situation of contingency itself. Stemming from the managerial discourse so pervasive in U.S. higher education, the adjunct as entrepreneur philosophy was pioneered by veteran contingent faculty member Jill Carroll, founder of Adjunct Solutions.com.  Carroll has self-published two books How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual and Machiavelli for Adjuncts: Six Lessons in Power for the Disempowered. She is a veteran teacher of 12 courses per year at multiple institutions.  The key, she says, to becoming an adjunct entrepreneur, is to develop courses like products: “Systemize their production until you can reap the benefits of economies of scale. Make them classes you can teach over and over, without mountains of preparation each time (Smallwood).  Her work publicized in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001 resulted in a regular column for a year in the “Career Network” section and spawned a number of spin-off articles about how contingent faculty are capitalizing on their contingency, especially in the online for-profit teaching market.

An April 30, 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education feature story intones that “for Online Adjuncts,” it is a “Seller’s Market.  The article then proceeds to feature the life of contingent faculty entrepreneur Ruth Achterhof, a tri-state online adjunct professor of business and management at four institutions:  Baker College Online, Jones International, Davenport University, and the United Nations Development Program.  Contingency is depicted as a blessing for Ms. Achterhof, a relief from the tedium of faculty meetings and the in fighting of petty academics.   With a master’s in educational leadership and a doctorate in organization and management, she tried the traditional classroom for a few years and was offered $35,000 a year to teach there permanently, which she turned down to take up online teaching in the late 1990s. She self-reports an income of $90,000 for juggling multiple online courses at a time, and her work days entail 14 hours a day in her computer chair typing email messages to students, responding to questions and posting work.  Her work weeks taper off to four hours a day on Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday is her sole day of rest. Despite this work week, she reports “plenty of time to relax, including time to spend with her grandchildren.  ‘I cook, I bake, I sew, I knit, I read,’ she says.  And I do sleep.”  She relishes the life, especially the idea that she’ll never have to attend another faculty senate meeting, and imagines teaching online well into her 80s.

While Ms. Achterhof reports a large profit margin, others are less sanguine about the pay and benefits.  As a University of Phoenix adjunct commented in a letter to the editor to Adjunct Nation, an online site, University of Phoenix’s compensation package is hardly noteworthy: “Training is unpaid.  The pay is usually $950 for a 5 week course with 13 students” with the expectation that the contingent faculty members in the “class” (read online) “at least 6 days per week.” The estimated pay rate is usually “$6 to $10 per hour,” although the college claims adjuncts make $50-80 per hour.  As the adjunct writer puts it,” The tuition for undergraduate is $1,266 per 3 credit hour course.  Gross to University of Phoenix is therefore $16,454. Less $950 to me leaves a pre-other-expenses margin of $15,506 per course.  In other words, the faculty member is paid only 5.7% of what University of Phoenix takes in for the class” (“University of Phoenix”).   This instructor reports that raises are not available until someone has taught there for 3 years, and that eligibility for the 401K matching dollars is not available to part-time faculty.  The anonymous faculty member ends with saying he or she will take the training and find a more lucrative contract.

The online contingent faculty entrepreneur Ms. Achterhof and the anonymous unhappy contingent faculty provide opposite stories along the distance education continuum, and these are familiar stories of boon and bane.  Yet the Carroll and Achterhof narratives are disturbing, as John Hess notes, because they offer a “trivialization of contingent academic labor and a dismissal of any collective approaches to changing its conditions” (Hess).  Contingency is to be accepted, capitalized upon, and celebrated.  This entrepreneurial rhetoric of the happy adjunct plays right into the entrepreneurial rhetoric of outsourcing and online education.

What should be done?

One hopeful arena for addressing change is through the international organizing of contingent faculty. The coalition building efforts of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) has involved higher education contingent workers from the U.S. Canada, and Mexico, and the movement has been successful in building solidarity and resulting in increased visibility and gains for wages through local unionizing campaigns.    These movements deploy what   Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers refer to as “open source unionism,”  a way to describe unionization via Web technology.  Like the open source software movement—“open source unionism embraces the utopian, collaborative ethos of the Internet revolution”  (qtd in Schmid 1).  As Julie Schmid notes in her excellent article “Open Source Unionism:  New Workers, New Strategies.” [r]ather than depend on the traditional means of union organizing—leafleting at the plant gate, holding organizing meetings in the break from, or ‘house visiting’ workers after hours. . . open source union organizing relief on cybertools such as listservs, chat rooms, and web Sites.  These tools help bring together people who as a result of the new economy, are employed at separate locations, often as temporary or contract workers, and lack a common work experience.” There is great potential here to organize workers across borders through open-source unionism, and there is also great potential here toorganize students as compatriots in the struggle.

In my research into the outsourcing and contingency of faculty, I found evidence of many students joining in the struggle to organize contingent faculty and educate the general public about the working conditions of non-tenure-line faculty. If the collective voice of students can be joined with that of contingent faculty and with full-time faculty as well, we have a fighting chance. As Marc Bousquet argues, we need “labor theory” of agency in higher education founded on a  “rhetoric of solidarity, aimed at constituting, nurturing, and empowering collective action by persons in groups” (“Composition”). In contrast to a managerial theory of agency in higher education, which Bousquet defines as a emphasis on “institutionally-focused pragmatism,” “acceptance of market logic,” and “collaboration with a vocational and technical model of education,"  a labor theory of agency promises to open up spaces in higher education for worker solidarity and alliances across the lines of rank and position. A labor theory of agency in higher education is particularly urgent as the widely documented corporatization and globalization of higher education has accelerated the casualization of the higher education work-force.    The now global struggle against casualization in higher education is about many things; it is about “job security and academic freedom and scholarly integrity and the public’s trust in its institutional heritage”, but in the words, of David Noble, “ it is above all, about the preservation and extension of affordable, accessible, quality education for everyone who wants it” (xii).

Works Cited:

Bousquet, Marc.  “Composition as Management Science:  Toward a University Without a WPA.”  JAC 22.3 (2003):  493-526.

Carnevale, Dan.  “For Online Adjuncts, a Seller’s Market:  Part-Time Professors, in Demand, Fill many Distance Education Faculties.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  30 April 2004.  Accessed March 8, 2005. <http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i34/34a03101.htm>

Hess, John.  “The Entrepreneurial Adjunct.”  Academe. (January-February 2004).  Accessed March 7, 2005. http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2004/04jf/04jfhess.htm

 “Letters to the Editor:  University of Phoenix.”  Adjunct Nation.com. Accessed March 8, 20005. http://www.adjunctnation.com/magazine/article/print?id_article=299

Lloyd, John P.  “Outsource U:  Globalization, Outsourcing, and the Implications for Contingent Academic Labor.”  Accessed March 5, 2005. Available as a PDF Download at <http://www.chicagococal.org/downloads/conference-papers/John-Llloyd.pdf>

Noble, David.  Digital Diploma Mills.  Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Schmid, Julie.  “Open Source Unionism:  New Workers, New Strategies.” Academe.  (January-February 2004).  Accessed March 7, 2005. http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2004/04jf/04jfschm.htm

Smallwood, Scott.  “Less Whining, More Teaching:  Jill Carroll, a Proud Part-Timer, Thinks Many Adjuncts Need a New Attitude.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education  August 3, 2001.  Accessed March 14, 2005. http://chronicle.com/free/v47/i47/47a01201.htm

Symonds, William.  “Cash-Cow Universities:  For-Profits are Growing Fast and Making Money.  Do Students Get What They Pay For?”  Business Week Online  November 17, 2003.  Accessed March 10, 2005. <http://businessweek.com/magazine/content/03_46/b3858102_mz021.htm>