Why Music Schools Should Care About Market Forces When Considering the Acceptance Rates of Graduate


Photo credit: Austin Wahl

I must admit that it is with some reluctance that I continue to approach the adjunct crisis issue. As an adjunct instructor at three colleges, a DMA candidate and a student in a college music teaching course it might seem either contrarian, self-defeating or both. However, I believe that this is a problem that is eminently solvable. Before a solution can be formulated and implemented, as full an understanding of the problem as possible must be reached. After all, if the adjunct crisis was not worth further discussion it would not appear with the regularity that it does in The Chronicle of Higher Education, nor would it be on the tongues of faculty members and administrators so consistently. So, with little job security, limited hours and no benefits afforded to adjunct instructors, should colleges of music consider a reduction in the number of graduate students they accept on the grounds that granting degrees to students when few adequately compensatory academic jobs are available is unethical?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a speech given by Kevin Birmingham upon his acceptance of the Truman Capote Award. Dr. Birmingham became the first adjunct instructor to receive this literary award and he used his speech as an opportunity to speak out about what he views as a self-destructive course on which the academic profession and humanities departments specifically find themselves. Dr. Birmingham begins his argument by pointing out the lack of long term contracts or being “contingent” stating;

"To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be canceled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance."

This is to say that not only do adjunct instructors lack the certainty that comes along with a salaried position, they also do not know whether their job will exist from semester to semester. It may seem like a very obvious problem, but perhaps the number of effected faculty members is so small that it simply goes unnoticed. Dr. Birmingham goes on to speak directly to this question. He exposits three figures, which explain the current environment of higher education faculty employment. First, tenure and tenure-track professors make up only 17 percent of college instructors. That figure is down from 80 percent in 1969. Second, he says, “From 1975 to 2011 the number of adjuncts has quadrupled”. Finally, he states, “A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent at four or more.” The problem is simply too large go unnoticed. In fact, you are more than 4 times as likely to bump into an adjunct instructor in the hallways of your chosen college or university than you would a full-time faculty member. Furthermore, that report states that the median pay for adjuncts per course is $2,700 per semester. Divide that over the semester and that brings the monthly stipend to $675. In Tarrant County, which is the seat of Fort Worth, TX, a city with a tax base of 792,727 people according to the latest census, pays only $1,852.80 per 3 hour course or $463.20 per month. Additionally, course load caps have been placed at 9 hours per semester of instruction or 3 regular courses, which comes to a total of $1,389.60 per month in pre-tax dollars. If an adjunct is employed through the fall, spring and summer semesters with a full load that would bring there per institution yearly income to $16,675.20 in pre-tax dollars. The US Health and Human Services poverty guideline for 2017 is $12,060 for a single person and $16,240.00 for two people and a couple with a child is $20,420. So, in Tarrant County an academic must have a minimum of two adjunct positions and maintain a year-round course load of at least 12 contact hours shared between those colleges to meet or barely exceed the HHS poverty guideline if he or she has a family. Austin… we have a problem. Dr. Birmingham goes on the describe the issue nationwide;

"An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year 'the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718' from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps."

So, does this have to do with university budgetary issues? Birmingham continues;

"Harvard has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of a majority of the world’s countries [...] Last year the University of New Hampshire made news when one of its librarians, Robert Morin, who had saved almost 50 years of paychecks, left $4 million to the university upon his death. UNH spent $1 million of the librarian’s gift on a 30-by-50-foot high-definition scoreboard for the new, $25-million football stadium. The university defended its decision by stating that the donation had been used for 'our highest priorities and emerging opportunities.' Adjuncts in the English department there reportedly receive $3,000 per class."

Finally, what does the full-time employment market look like according to Birmingham? In the field of literature there were 361 assistant tenure-track openings as recently as 2014-2015 with 1,183 recipients of Ph.Ds. in English in that same time. The problem is growing. The number of outgoing Ph.Ds. in humanities is increasing at a rate of 12 percent per year in the US. So, what is the take of experienced adjunct instructors on this issue?

The Chronicle published an article by former adjunct instructor Jill Carroll entitled, Leaving the Adjunct Track. Dr. Carroll spells out her experience as an adjunct, which is an all-to-common story saying;

"I taught up to 12 courses a year at three different institutions in the Houston area. I juggled about 400 students a year in my courses, and each student wrote three to five papers. Do the math — that’s a lot of grading […] Also, it seems to me that in our post-2008-recession era, adjuncting is now just another example of the gig economy. Adjuncts do short-term contract work alongside Uber drivers, Taskrabbit workers, and people who sell their skills on Fiverr.

Dr. Carroll ultimately left the world of academe altogether and sought employment as a full-time freelancer. She relays her reflections on her experience as an adjunct, “But I still don’t miss it,” she laments, “and I think I would have to be really desperate to go back into higher education.” Is the problem really this bad or is it just the zeitgeist? Is it spirit that has emerged amongst a feeling of general uncertainty in an era of social and political upheaval perhaps?

An Economic Prophet for Our Time by Patrick Iber, published in The Chronicle walks us through the ideology of economic historian, Karl Polanyi. Polanyi, a critic of a full Laissez-faire approach to economic matters calls the unfettered market economy a bit short sighted. “Laissez-fair was planned, but planning was not.” He saw market as a means of turning people into commodities and this was unacceptable to him. His belief was that restrictions must be put in place to restrict the market and deny it the ability to take advantage of the worker. This obviously has direct applications to the adjunct crisis so far as to say that the state is not meeting its obligation to protect adjunct instructors under its direct employ. These are state jobs after all, so the state is obligated to see to the well-being of its employees is it not? Is it not the regulator-in-chief? This can be taken too far, however as Polanyi’s biography will tell you. In 1933 he ultimately had to flee the socialist “paradise” he helped create as the state grew increasingly authoritarian. So, if neither academic institutions nor the state is functioning in a way that will keep the vast majority of its educators above the poverty line, then what are we to do?

In the article, Helping History Ph.D.s Expand Their Job Options, The Chronicle’s, Vimal Patel interviews the executive director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman. Mr. Grossman has made it his mission to change the way that academics think about the career options. The article states that the unemployment rate of doctorate recipients is less than 2 percent. An incredibly low number. Unfortunately, precarious employment like adjunct instruction accounts for some of those who are counted amongst employed. Mr. Grossman says about recipients;

"History Ph.D. recipients are qualified for a lot more things than people think. They learn to understand how change happens. Combining that with teaching experience is fabulous leadership training. We do that well. What we’re missing are five basic skills that can be integrated into existing programs: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy."

The idea here is that adjunct instruction isn’t a bad thing if it isn’t the only thing. Graduate programs must begin to retool the way they design their degree programs. M.M. students as well as Ph.D. and D.M.A. candidates must be equipped with the abilities necessary to approach the job market in a much broader way. Additionally, students need to be informed of how colleges and university’s function in order to take part in the system and perhaps get noticed and hired into a full-time position. Mr. Grossman continues;

"Learning how to read a university’s budget, for example, increases your ability to participate in shared governance and makes you a more qualified department and committee chair. It’s also essential to working outside the professoriate. These skills are not a waste of time for students wanting an academic career. They make you a better professor."

This same mindset is further explored in the article Opening Door for the Ph.D. Stephen Aron encourages adjunct instructors to get creative with the resources they have. If you rethink intro courses and gear them toward specialized courses, which you create, you may very well end up creating a full-time position where there previously wasn’t one. Mr. Aron created a course called “The Many Professions of History”, which helped to solve this problem by both creating a new course for himself and helping Ph.D. candidates think about employment in their field in a new way.

So, should colleges of music consider throttling their acceptance of graduate students based on market conditions? If a college of music makes it its business to stay current on the full range of employment opportunities afforded their students and educate them accordingly, then there is no reason to deny potential students the education they desire and hurt the funding of the college of music in question. However, if colleges of music do not pay attention to these factors and continue to train students to believe that there will be an academic career and a pension waiting for them upon the completion of their D.M.A. then they do so at their own peril.

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