Marc Bousquet’s “How the University Works“

Marc Bousquet’s “How the University Works” was published in 2008, with an attendant blog page.

 A great account of how, in the USA, decent long-term or tenured academic jobs are giving way to temporary teaching positions occupied by “adjuncts”. This suits American university managers – who now hold more power than ever, and are generally well paid – just fine, since it reduces wage bills and costs.

One criticism: Bousquet seems to miss in the parts I read,  that outside the USA, the tenure/non-tenure track/untenureable divide is less strong, or even absent. It is my view that tenure in the USA disadvantages contingent, adjunct lecturers and teachers. In the UK and Australasia, non-permanent staff with no chance at a permanent job at least get paid a decent wage and there is some prospect of further contracts and mobility in the sector. Also the ‘permanent’ staff can still be kicked out with persistence, if they do little or no work. This is fairer. We all end up on not-so-great-wages (except in Australia, but only because its currency is strong), but there generally more equality.

The book should really be renamed “How the American University Works”. In general, very few commentators on academic labour in the USA seem to acknowledge that different labour systems, often without the tenure/no tenure divide, operate elsewhere. I work in one. They aren’t necessarily better, but the absence of a ‘tenured class’ outside the USA reduces the awkward fact that, in the States, only a chosen few get to the top of a greasy pole that many people with PhDs never even get to approach. Life for the latter is not all that great.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Marc Bousquet’s “How the University Works“

  1. Anonymous (I don't have tenure!)

    Bit of a late response, but yes, the UK system without tenure is much fairer than the US system (I’ve worked in both). But I’d also add a few words in favour of the much-maligned RAE. Believe it or not, this does inject an element of objectivity into the hiring process as one is more or less hired on the basis of publications. In the US, there are tenured and tenure-track academics with weak and even non-existent publication records lording it over adjuncts with genuine scholarly records. The hiring process is wholly subjective in the US — there are no measurable or meaningful standards. Want to know why the UK is awash with American PhDs? Because they couldn’t find jobs in the US — even if they were actually good scholars.

  2. I have worked in the US, UK, Australia and Denmark. Agree about the RAE, or whatever it is now called – however I do remember the horse-trading that went on in the 90s and 2000s in the UK – there was the oft-reported case of a professorial appointment being hastily made at a service station on the M1, to get the guy in before a deadline.
    However I would say that a string of publications is not necessarily a good indicator of being a trustworthy and good senior colleague making decisions. Simply running a Department can easily take up 35 hrs a week in meetings with staff, dealing with budgets, consultations, etc. A better qualification for seniority is the ability to manage fairly and good knowledge of the constraints and opportunities in the system as they apply to all staff. I speak from experience. Basically it is almost impossible to manage well and to keep research flowing well. Some do it, but at what cost?

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