Higher Education’s Darkest Secret

In this op-ed, the president of New Faculty Majority reveals just how poorly adjunct professors are paid—and treated—across the country.

It's not easy to live on an adjunct professor's salary. (Photo: Ryan McVay)

With days to go before classes begin, it's not uncommon for department heads, or even deans, to ask adjunct professors to take on last-minute teaching assignments.

For one professor, this offer was tempting. She was a "part-time" professor and her husband was unemployed. She had taken on more classes at several area colleges in order to support her family and afford health insurance. Despite the extra work, she was still making under $25K per year.  The professor knew that refusing the offer could mark her as "uncooperative" and torpedo her chances for a full-time teaching position. Yet she knew there was no way she—or any of her colleagues—could take on yet another class. Better to cancel the class, she suggested to the dean, than to give students a teacher who cannot serve her students.

The dean nodded gravely and said with some urgency, "But we don't want to cancel the class. Really, all we need is a warm body in the classroom."

The dean's words reflect a grossly utilitarian managerial approach now common in higher education, one that is not well known to the public. Students are exposed to this approach when they peruse class schedules and observe that one remarkable professor seems to teach the majority of classes. This teacher is called "Professor Staff."

Professor Staff is actually the majority of the faculty known as adjuncts, lecturers, part-time profs and other confusing titles. In the U.S., they number roughly one million. These teachers work on temporary, low-wage contracts, largely ineligible for basic job protections that support academic quality in the classroom.

At the community college where I teach, the percentage of "part-time" professors has gone from 14.1 percent in 1995 to 77.7 percent in 2009, according to a database maintained by the Modern Language Association.

The shift in faculty employment from secure, living-wage jobs to temporary, un-benefited, low-wage work is consistent with what is occurring in the economy. The National Employment Law Project calls it a "good jobs deficit." 

At colleges and universities, this deficit has existed for decades. It has gone unnoticed only because faculty regularly make enormous sacrifices to shield their students from its worst effects.

Those effects, documented in a report I cowrote with the grassroots Campaign for the Future of Higher Education and based on a fall 2011 nationwide survey of adjunct professors, include teaching assignments with three weeks or fewer to prepare and scanty access to critical campus resources, from phones, computers, and other technology to offices, textbooks, orientation, and professional development. 

Adjuncts prepare to teach on their own dime, knowing that their classes can be, and often are, canceled or reassigned at the last minute, for any reason. Generally denied benefits or retirement unless they are part of the 30 percent of all adjuncts who are unionized, these faculty have found themselves in increasingly dire economic circumstances. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in May that the percentage of graduate degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010. While there are no statistics indicating exactly how many of those people are adjuncts, the documented average annualized income that adjuncts receive likely qualifies them for various forms of assistance. However, they are often reluctant to take advantage of it. In two recent cases, students and colleagues extended private aid to adjuncts in the form of fundraisers and food drives.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities regularly misrepresent their employment status to federal and state agencies, thereby blocking their access to economic lifelines like unemployment insurance, student loan forgiveness, and now, the healthcare meant to be provided under the Affordable Care Act.

Professors without independent financial support work elsewhere to make a living, lessening the time they have for students. This creates an odd twist on class-based access in higher education: A professor's individual economic circumstances, rather than her dedication or qualifications, becomes disproportionately important in determining her effectiveness.

Our report calls these practices "just-in-time" (JIT) hiring, after the business model that higher education has adopted so uncritically. Treating faculty as an interchangeable, inventory of warm bodies is an example of the harm the approach inflicts on both faculty and students.

As a faculty member, I have experienced this shockingly unprofessional treatment firsthand. When I've spoken up against it, I've been told that if I don't like it, I should simply leave. Instead, I have dedicated myself to exposing and reforming these practices by cofounding and building the New Faculty Majority and the New Faculty Majority Foundation, national nonprofits that work exclusively on improving the quality of  higher education by improving the working conditions of the majority of its faculty.  I do this work not just because I am a professor, but also because my children, including one with Asperger's Syndrome, are future college students, and because I believe firmly that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.

JIT faculty hiring means students cannot plan to take classes with adjuncts they know or were recommended. Without offices or time to meet, these professors are hard pressed to provide the help and mentoring that research shows is crucial to student success. They can be hard to track down for letters of reference.

We cannot expect college students to learn the skills of the future if we treat the majority of their professors with the dehumanizing managerial practices of the past.

Students seem to understand the problem. In a recent Gates Foundation-funded survey, community college students said introductory courses, the ones most likely to be taught by adjuncts and subject to JIT hiring, "are not offered in a way to help them succeed." Faculty who give their support and guidance are in high demand but "hard to come by."

Many administrators understand the problem too. In 2008, the then-vice president for human resources at the University of Akron, A.G. Monaco, declared, "Wal-Mart is a more honest employer of part-time [faculty] than are most colleges and universities."

Those who pin their hopes for a more robust economic recovery on higher education need to pay attention to the lessons "Professor Staff" is teaching us. Higher education needs to be more transparent about its adjunct faculty employment practices—and correct them. We cannot expect college students to learn the skills of the future if we treat the majority of their professors with the dehumanizing managerial practices of the past.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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