Are Adjunct Professors the Fast-Food Workers of the Academic World?
I am what's called an adjunct. I teach four courses per semester at two different colleges, and I am paid just $24,000 a year and receive no health or pension benefits. Recently, I was profiled in the New York Times as the face of adjunct exploitation, and though I was initially happy to share my story because I care about the issue, the profile has its limits. Rather than use my situation to explain the systemic problem of academic labor, the article personalized – even romanticized – my situation as little more than the deferred dream of a struggling PhD with a penchant for poetry.
But the adjunct problem is not about PhDs struggling to find jobs or people being forced to give up their dreams. The adjunct problem is about the continued exploitation of a large, growing and diverse group of highly educated and dedicated college teachers who have been asked to settle for less pay (sometimes as little as $21,000 a year for full-time work) because the institutions they work for have callously calculated that they can get away with it. The adjunct problem is institutional, not personal, and its affects reach deep into our culture and society.
Though there are tens of thousands of personal stories like mine of economic hardship and lives ruined or put on hold, it is not to these stories that we should turn when we consider the exploitation of adjuncts in academia, but to our universal sense of justice. For the continued exploitation of adjuncts is, to put it bluntly, nothing less than unjust. Here's why:
1. Using adjuncts devalues higher education
According to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts and other contingent employees made up 70% of the faculty at American universities and colleges in 2007. Though the numbers differ drastically from one campus to the next, all but the most elite college students are being taught by overworked and underpaid adjunct lecturers. These faculty are essentially paid contractors, who come in, do a quick job, and then head out. Maintaining high standards and expectations, performing research, and providing honest and accurate assessment under such conditions is incredibly difficult, and the continued use of adjuncts is destroying the integrity and value of higher education.
2. Paying adjuncts less creates a hierarchy within academia
It is unjust because it creates an ugly hierarchy within academia that mirrors the increasingly gross divide within American society. While the private sector has seen a startling loss of living wage jobs, the erosion of benefits, and the destruction of unions, academia has undergone its own slow transformation. While the average faculty member makes anywhere between $60,000 to $198,000 a year (frequently for a course load of two or three courses per semester) most adjuncts are paid somewhere between $2,500 to $4,000 per course. They also have little to no control over their course assignments, except to refuse offered courses (which can lead to less work and less pay) and they have absolutely no job security, meaning they are subject to sudden termination at the whims of department chairs and administrators, without any explanation or any process for grievance or appeal.
3. Universities spend more on administration than teachers
It is unjust because it takes power away from the practitioners of higher education – teachers and researchers – and puts it in the hands of administrators. While the academe has become increasingly reliant upon temporary and disposable adjuncts, who live in constant fear of poverty, the administrative classes within those institutions have steadily grown. As Benjamin Ginsberg documented in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%. Such wasteful spending on non-essential staff is out of proportion to the actual goals of academic institutions, which are charged to teach and research, not administer.
4. Using adjuncts betrays the students who are most in need
The students who frequently need the most help – poor and working class students, first generation college students, and students of color – are also the ones most likely to be taught by adjuncts. It is no accident that the increased use of adjuncts followed quickly on the heels of a massive shift in the demography of college attendance in the late sixties and early seventies. As more and more working class people and people of color began attending public universities in California and New York, state funding was quickly reduced. Rather than continue to offer the best to these students, universities decided instead to expand the use of adjuncts. Just as the doors of academia were opened to the most underprivileged students, the feast of knowledge that lay behind was quietly hidden from view, and the paper plates and frozen dinners brought out instead.
5. Under-paying adjuncts makes full-time teaching unaffordable
Lastly, it is unjust because it cynically manipulates the better angels of the human spirit – the desire to help and to share one's interests and values, to cultivate meaningful relationships, to inspire, and to teach – in order to save a few bucks. Like federal and state governments, which are expected to subsidize the wages of full-time fast food workers, adjuncts – who frequently subsidize their earnings with other jobs – are voluntarily underwriting the institutions they work for. Though many of these adjuncts would be thrilled to dedicate themselves exclusively to teaching, few of them can, because none of them can afford to.
Many people ask me why, given all of this, I would continue to work as an adjunct, but that is the wrong question to ask. The work I do is important, it's what I was trained to do, and there's a clear and growing demand for it. Rather than asking why adjuncts don't find other work, or why they don't "just quit" as so many well-meaning commentators have suggested, people should instead be asking colleges and universities why they think it's OK to pay so little for such important work.
James D Hoff teaches writing and literature in New York City. He received his PhD in English Literature from the Graduate Center, CUNY in 2012.