Invisible Adjunct has great readers; they’re constant commenters on her posts, including this one on the corporatization of the university, and whether it’s a good or bad thing. I added one myself, which I expand on slightly here….

Having gone to college and graduate school at just the period when this issue was taking off, I’ve long been interested in it, and have had the vague sense that the encroachment of the marketplace– and in particular, of the commercial culture of chain stores and logic of economic maximization– didn’t enhance my academic experience. But “corporatization” means a lot of different things– outsourcing of non-core functions, the use of economies of scale, preference for flexible labor arrangements, and lots of other stuff. What we’ve seen in the university several overlapping kinds of corporatization, but I’d argue that the term doesn’t apply so well to what’s happened with academic jobs.

The purest examples of academic corporatization are things like the contracting of bookstores out to Barnes and Noble and Follets, or the contracting of food services to whoever is big in the food service industry, or outsoucing janitorial services. These are pretty straightforward money-saving measures, and can be defended on the grounds that they’re not part of the university’s core mission, and can be done better and more cheaply by companies that focus specifically on them.

More complex is the phenomenon of academic-industry partnerships that take the form of “lablets,” the attempts by universities to monetize their patent portfolios, encourage faculty to do startups, etc.. Some of this behavior is entrepreneurial rather than corporate (an important distinction); some of it represents an attempt to leverage IP that would make any pharmaceutical company proud; and some of it is just a new version of age-old scramble for money.

What’s happened with the academic job market, it seems to me, is something different. It’s better thought of as a bad outcome of a conspiracy of the narrow interests of administrators and permanent faculty. Why do I say this? Look at the kinds of courses that are taught by adjuncts: introductory lecture courses, surveys, service-intensive courses like English comp. This isn’t because administrators or department heads have tried to create a more rational market, or to match teaching supply and course demand more effectively, but one driven more by convenience and hierarchy: it’s a way for administrators to cut costs, and for senior faculty to focus greater love and attention on their graduate students, enrich the collective intellectual life of their institutions, etc.

If you believed that this was happening because of a macroeconomic logic, you’d conclude that universities were operating under the assumption that it was impossible to know, semester to semester, whether there would be enough demand for Western Civ or differential calculus to have anyone permanently hired to teach it; but that it absolutely essential to have lifetime 24/7 access to specialists in [insert favorite absurd example of something]. What SHOULD be happening is the opposite. Since academic fashions change as quickly as any others, but the need for students who can write a decent paragraph and compute the area under a curve does not, universities should have spent the last two decades outsourcing their high-level, theoretical work, and investing resources in a permanent cadre of teachers.

If only….