David French over at NRO points to this very interesting article on the declining percentage of university faculty with tenure (or on tenure-track). French chalks it all up to "market forces" and seems pretty sanguine about the whole thing. After all, tenure just protects those ol' hippie radicals and gives license to lazy profs who do less and less work without penalty.
Well, that's no doubt part of the story. Adjunct and non-tenure track faculty are cheaper than the tenure-track sort. But if it's the case that "market forces" are driving things, then why is it that this change is occuring precisely while university tuition has been increasing at rates far above tuition (something like 6-8% per year) and while university endowments have seen spectacular growth? Maybe it's because I just finished teaching Marx to my modern political thought class, but with just those set of facts at hand, it sure looks like it's just a product of universities squeezing the faculty to enrich themselves (or at least the institutions they control).
But I don't think that's the whole story - or even the most important part of the story. Universities are controlled, in ways most people just don't get, by the faculty as a whole. Faculty individually might not like the increase in the number of adjuncts or part-time lecturers, but the acquiesce in their employment because, truth be told, those folks serve the tenured profs' interests. Suppose that the resources available to any particular university were to remain constant and the faculty decided that they would make an effort to have fewer adjuncts teaching their classes. One of two things would happen: either the school would hire more tenure-track faculty or the current faculty would teach more students. The first we can discount, since no faculty I've ever heard of has voted themselves a pay cut in order to hire more faculty. (For all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, university faculty are plenty attentive to their economic interests, even at the expense of others). So why not do the latter, and have the current faculty teach more - either teach more students in their current classes or teach more classes?
Because that would interfere with their research and publication? And less research and publication means less prestige? And since universities are almost entirely now in the prestige business (as opposed to the knowledge or truth business), they dare not do that. So even though I think French is right to point to "market forces" as an important element in the changes in higher education employment structures, such an analysis is just incomplete.