Is This the Worst Free-Market Higher-Ed Idea Ever?

It doesn’t work in the construction business, and it won’t work in academia, either.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

There have been some pretty ludicrous ideas about higher education from the American right recently. Last week, Jeb Bush made his bizarre comments about psych majors; just Monday I got a piece of hate mail accusing UCLA of being a “leftist seminary.” But the best idea, by which I mean the worst idea, is this gem out of Jeb!’s own Florida. Carlos Beruff, a trustee of the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota, has introduced a policy wherein faculty applicants would effectively have to place salary “bids” along with their applications; these bids would be taken into account in hiring decisions. As in the construction business—which, as you will not be surprised at all, is Beruff’s own field—the faculty job would usually go to the person willing to work for the lowest pay.

Beruff apparently isn’t content with mere destruction of SCF’s system of rolling contracts for high-performing faculty earlier this year—not tenure, mind you, just a contract system—which he decried as impeding “freedom of work.” His idea is not merely “repugnant,” as Greg Scholtz of the American Association of University Professors told Inside Higher Ed—it would also backfire spectacularly.

The repugnance of this particular plan should be apparent to anyone with even a glancing awareness of the current model of university faculty employment, wherein an ever-growing number of courses at American postsecondary institutions are taught by part-time adjuncts, many of whom earn the equivalent of minimum wage and qualify for public assistance. Academic jobs—especially in such “useless” fields as English, history, philosophy, and the foreign languages—are so scarce, and seekers so desperate, that if underbidding became standard practice, the winning underbid would always be zero.

I’m not fearmongering. This is already happening. There are already “nonstipendiary” positions that receive a competitive amount of applications; would-be profs are already encouraged to write, publish, and attend conferences on their own dimes (for “networking” and “exposure”). Willingness, nay, eagerness, to teach a full course load for free is not that far-fetched a next step.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “negative underbid” (i.e., a worker paying for the privilege of a job) became a regular occurrence. What, after all, is an unpaid internship? Also, my academic press solicited me for a donation about three days after my manuscript was accepted for publication; there’s no reason the faculty-hiring world wouldn’t adopt similar tactics—maybe they’d switch up the chronology and ask for the donation first.

The moral abhorrence of Beruff’s proposal isn’t the best reason to destroy it. As anyone who has survived a home or small-business renovation can tell you, the contractors“bid” system routinely baits and switches on customers and almost always ends up forcing them to pay far more than they ever thought they would, with a time frame that is often far longer than “promised.” That $2,500 underbid on your new oak flooring seemed too good to be true because it was: The guy promised two weeks and it took seven; then, as soon as the check cleared, you realized the “oak” was actually highly flammable factory-reject laminate, the scraps of which, left on your front lawn for months, recently caught fire. When you finally managed to get him on the phone, he says, Sure, he can get one of his guys out there to clear those scraps—next week, for a grand.

It is delicious to imagine how this might work for the professoriate. Let’s say I’m a sad desperate Ph.D. (easy to imagine so far), and at $3.14 for the semester, I’m the lucky underbid for a sweet new professorship at State College of Florida. For the first two weeks, the administration is delighted with the bargain. But then I start showing up later to class, and leaving earlier, until one week I don’t show up at all. Meanwhile, the students are halfway through a project worth 75 percent of their grade, and I haven’t given them the instructions on the final three stages yet. They haven’t gotten any of their quizzes or papers back, either.

When I finally return the dean’s increasingly panicked phone calls after a month of radio silence, I explain matter-of-factly that the job turned out “way bigger” than I estimated and to finish it I’m going to need … [pauses to tap on an old-timey calculator] huh, approximately $235,000. They can expect final grades [tappety tap tap] in 2024.

Here’s the problem with applying indiscriminate free-market principles to things like higher education. The market-driven economy depends on the distribution of scarce resources. Sure, before the project—sorry, semester—starts, the “scarce” resource is that elusive faculty job. In fact, this particular resource is so scarce that the university can basically act however it wants and every open position will still receive hundreds of applicants. But 10 weeks into term? Twelve? When students have put in serious work, and serious cash? Few, if any, people can adequately take over a course in progress. How long would it take to find someone willing to fix this mess—and at what price? Hmmm, what’s scarce now, a-holes? Oh, you want your final exam graded by Tuesday, so you can graduate on time? And I’ve had it for three weeks? Welp. It’s 4:15 on a Friday now, so, nothing I can do.

Carlos Beruff might like to remember that finding a reputable, honest contractor—who does the job without going over bid, in the time he promises—is one of the biggest headaches homeowners encounter. Yes, the current employment system in the American university has problems. But it does us good to remember that we are still several underbids away from total ruinous collapse. In the meantime, I look forward to the next terrific supply-side idea for fixing higher education—perhaps from an executive in the moving and storage industry.