By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I’m lifting the term “contingent academic labor” from COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor), whose mailing list provides terrific resource for understanding the wages and working conditions of a bewildering variety of non-tenured faculty: Adjuncts, part-timers, grad students, visiting professors, lecturers: Contracted faculty who work semester to semester at the pleasure of their administrators, generally paid on a piecework basis by the course. These terms seem to vary by the institution, and I tend to group all contingent academic labor under the heading of “adjuncts,” because that’s the term my university uses, and I will continue to use that term (as opposed to, say, “temp”). That said, all these workers are members of what Guy Standing has dubbed the precariat, and participate in what others have called the gig economy (a.k.a. the sharing economy, at least for services like Uber). As such, contingent academic labor has a lot in common with contingent labor generally. Gerald Friedman has a fine review:
Growing numbers of Americans no longer hold a regular “job” with a long-term connection to a particular business. Instead, they work “gigs” where they are employed on a particular task or for a defined time, with little more connection to their employer than a consumer has with a particular brand of chips. Borrowed from the music industry, the word “gig” has been applied to all sorts of flexible employment (otherwise referred to as “contingent labor,” “temp labor,” or the “precariat”). Some have praised the rise of the gig economy for freeing workers from the grip of employers’ “internal labor markets,” where career advancement is tied to a particular business instead of competitive bidding between employers. Rather than being driven by worker preferences, however, the rise of the gig economy comes from employers’ drive to lower costs, especially during business downturns. Gig workers experience greater insecurity than workers in traditional jobs and suffer from lack of access to established systems of social insurance.
Special surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1995, 2001, and 2005, and by the General Accounting Office in 1999, yielded widely varying estimates of the scale of the gig economy. The GAO estimated that as many as 30% of workers were on some type of contingent labor contract, including some categories of workers (self-employed and part-time workers) who are not counted as contingent workers by the BLS. Using the narrower BLS definition, 12% of workers were on contingent contracts in 1999 (similar to the number estimated from more recent surveys).
Higher education has been in the forefront of lowering the quality of work and life for its faculty by turning them into temps; their percentage of contingent labor is far above the national norm:
The number of contingent faculty nationwide has exploded in the past few decades. Since 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than 30 percent, according to the American Association of University Professors. Part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants now make up .
And exactly as Friedman urges, the universities have engineered this explosion to lower costs (and/or to redistribute revenues. But we’ll get to that). And they do this not for any educational benefit, and certainly not for the benefit of the students. From the (sadly defunct since 2015) Adjunct Commuter Weekly:
And what is behind the resistance of higher education administrators to regularizing and valuing the work of the majority of their instructors? Are there any academic studies that show that underpaid highly trained professional university and college teachers do a better job than those that are well compensated? Are there new results from higher education scholarship that demonstrates that the very faculty who are evaluated on their teaching (as opposed to mainly their research) should be part-time, at-will, temporary parts of their communities, marginalized and encouraged to move-on after a few years of paid-by-the-class piece-work? Have middle-level Deans and other bureaucrats shown that underpaying, disempowering, and churning trained university instructors with advanced degrees and excellent evaluations really does save money and yet keeps instructional quality high? Of course not. There are no such studies. The relentless pressure to keep contingent teachers precarious comes from the short sighted desire of small minded academic officials who want to keep all possible power in their hands.
But that’s unfair. It’s not just power. It’s money, too!
Now, one obvious answer to lousy wages and working conditions is a union, and there’s a good deal of union organizing going on in academia (with many bargaining units seeming to be divided by contract — that is, tenured vs. non-tenured — which rather seems to give away the game before it starts). I’ll list some random recent successes in the Appendix, but for today I’m going to focus on wages and working conditions, and then propose some very simple fixes that university administrators of good will could make, to ameliorate the suffering of their
proles temps contingent labor forces. For most of what follows, I’ll rely on the writing of the adjuncts themselves who, being academics, are writing up a storm. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to our elites that creating an badly exploited class of highly educated professionals isn’t exactly a recipe for regime stability.)
In a word, awful. You surely remember the stories of Walmart workers who are so badly paid that they had to go on welfare? Well, the universities have so arranged matters so that this is true for those who teach our nation’s college students too:
According to an analysis of census data by the University of California–Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, 25 percent of “part-time college faculty” and their families now receive some sort public assistance, such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, cash welfare, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. For what it’s worth, that’s not quite so bad as the situation faced by fast-food employees and home health care aids, roughly half of whom get government help. But, in case there were any doubt, an awful lot of Ph.D.s and master’s degree holders are basically working poor.
(What does it say about our society that the people who care for the sick and the elders, who feed us, and who teach our children are treated like garbage? But I digress.)
In fact, conditions are so bad that for many, a $15-an-hour minimum wage would be an improvement:
I am excited to be joining my fellow hard-working Americans at the Fight for $15. I am going not only to advocate economic justice but to serve as a voice for those faculty members who are starting to speak up for themselves. If we all come together, we can finally overcome this battle we have been fighting for centuries.
Finally, let’s consider benefits. In a word, down:
The number of institutions offering health care benefits to part-time faculty and staff members fell four percentage points since last year, to 33 percent. Doctoral institutions were the most likely kind of employer to offer benefits. The drop will likely disappoint adjuncts, who have increasingly been advocating not just for better pay but access to benefits in recent years.
(Of course, this crazy pants incentive structure means that a percentage of adjuncts will feel themselves unable to miss class even if they’re sick, and will transmit whatever they have to their students. Those adjuncts who teach at multiple institutions will put multiple student bodies at risk.)
Like other adjuncts, who are an ever-larger part of college teaching staff, my colleagues and I don’t have the dignity of an office to prepare course materials, meet students or grade papers. We work in our homes and cars, and meet students in coffee shops or by video chat.
Certainly sending a strong message about the value of an education! In more measured terms:
Respondents said that hiring faculty to more stable positions would reduce stress and enable instructors to better prepare for upcoming courses, according to the report. Many said that undergraduate class sizes were too big for providing opportunities for critical thinking and student engagement, and others said they worried classrooms were poorly laid out for learning. Some wanted private meeting spaces. Others reported wanting more opportunities for professional engagement, as well as more pedagogy and classroom training in their own graduate programs as preparation for teaching. Another concern was a perceived increased need to spend classroom time on remedial work in first-year courses, such as on essay structure.
In other words, the adjuncts simply want the conditions to do their jobs well (something that’s not, apparently, a priority for university administrators). One adjunct, being an academic, went meta and transformed their experience into a parody syllabus, “The Philosophy of Adjuncting”:
For the last five weeks of the course, class will not meet. Instead, students are required to spend, for each week, eight hours travelling between home and various college campuses. You must write the term paper during these hours while loitering in fast-food chains and uncomfortable public spaces. Bonus points if you can figure out how to connect to the various on- and off-campus wireless networks you encounter. Please email me your grade if/when you do.
Next, I would like to propose some steps that academic administrators can personally take to improve this terrible situation; simple, simple steps that will improve their public relations, don’t involve excess regulation, let alone those pesky unions, and which I hope will be taken in the spirit they are given.
The Modest Proposals
The first proposes better wages, and (as one might expect) the second better working conditions.
The proposal for wages comes from Sarah Wilkinson of Champlain College:
Here’s How We Can Pay Our Adjuncts Better
Turns out, the top 15 executive positions at Champlain College earn a combined $3,967,742, including bonuses. This number doesn’t even count the salaries of deans and other administrative positions. Why does a school of only 2,000 students needs so many vice presidents, deans and provosts anyway? And why are the top 15 alone paid so highly when our adjuncts are paid less than even UVM’s adjuncts, who make $6,600 a class?
I propose that we make salary cuts at the top – for the 15 highest paid executives – spreading that wealth to the bottom, where two-thirds of our professors have been toiling for the same low wage for the last decade.
In 2013, the top 15 executives made a base salary, plus extra compensation. If we take 10 percent of their base salaries and use 100 percent of their bonuses, $1,209,641.60 can be dispersed evenly among our adjuncts.
By adding the college executives’ bonuses and 10 percent of their base salary, 220 adjuncts teaching four classes each over the course of two semesters see their wages increase from $3,300 to $4,674.59 per class, an increase of $1,374.59.
That’s a great start, but what if we took it one step further and deducted another $1,000,000 from the executive salary pool and re-distributed it among adjuncts? That would still leave $1,758,100.40 for 15 executives, which would be $117,206.69 for everyone if split evenly — a perfectly substantial wage.
With that additional $1,000,000, adjunct salaries rise to $5,810.96 per class, an increase of $2,510.96 over their current wage.
The money is already in the budget. To lift our adjuncts up from the bottom of the ladder, it might be necessary for those at the top to take a few steps down.
This seems very simple; it amounts to a demand that well-paid administrators tithe themselves on behalf of the adjuncts they exploit. What could be simpler, or easier to accomplish?
And the second proposal is like it: I propose that the top administrators allow adjuncts to use their offices when they are elsewhere; their offices have windows, WiFi, are quiet, even hushed, have excellent seating and even real desks! What environment could possibly be better for faculty-student interaction? In fact, the truly innovative administration would develop an app for this purpose. When geolocation shows that a Dean is on the golf course, or at a conference hotel, or servicing an important donor off-site, the app would alert nearby adjuncts, and they could schedule their meetings with students in the Dean’s office, or even use the Dean’s WiFi for handling their email, working on their curricula, or sending out grades, or they might even sit in the Dean’s (leather padded) chair for a brief moment of relaxation. Surely it is better to maximize the use of the university’s office facilities for educational purposes, and not simply allow them to lie idle?
Adjunct Commuter Weekly invokes Saint Precaria:
A while ago in Italy contingent workers, all those workers without secure and sustainable employment (almost everyone these days), started carrying around their invented saint, Saint Precaria, a saint for precarious workers. Lecturers, adjunct faculty, part-timers, freeway flyers, the frontline teachers at the universities and colleges of North America now also call on St. Precaria for succor. After all, she is the saint of those fighting for more democracy, justice, to educate the next generations well, and to honor the work of the mind. And above all, she is the saint of those who help themselves.
True, “those who help themselves” are important; I would never disagree with that. But I like to think even though academic administrators have helped themselves — and to heaping portions, I might add — a proper sense of noblesse oblige would lead them to accept the two modest proposals I have outlined here.
Otherwise, how will they live with themselves?
 Note the class bias in so-called sharing economy usage companies like Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB:
Some 41 percent of Americans with an annual household income of $100,000 or more have used four or more of these services. That’s three times more than households earning less than $30,000 annually, according to the survey.
 As usual, I wonder if we have the right rhetoric. I don’t much like “precariat,” although it’s accurate so far as the social relations go, because I don’t see people wishing to self-identify as having precarious lives; an entrepreneur without any capital is a failure by definition, just as a musician is a failure who has no gigs.
 Adjuncts of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your debts!
APPENDIX: Some successes
Champlain College, Burlington, VT, a success for SEIU:
The adjunct faculty and administrators at Champlain College in Burlington have struck a tentative deal in their first contract negotiations.
According to a source close to the talks, the deal as it stands would include a double-digit percentage bump in adjunct pay plus some investment in professional development. The person refused to be publicly identified.
CUNY, New York, NY, a success for the Professional Staff Congress:
94 percent of voting members ratified a new union contract. A record-breaking 72 percent of eligible voters took part in the three-week long ratification vote administered by the American Arbitration Association.
No single contract, especially one in a regime of economic austerity, can end the scandal at the center of American higher education: the reliance on a radically underpaid, precarious workforce for the majority of undergraduate instruction. The CUNY budget, like the budgets of most public colleges and universities, is based on the underpayment of more than half of its teaching workforce. While the provision in our new contract for adjunct job security represents the first crack in the wall of precarious labor, it does not end the system of exploitation, nor does it narrow the gap between full-time and part-time salaries.
One adjunct comments: “As a CUNY adjunct I’ll make less over my career than my coworker Paul Krugman does in a year.” Oddly:
What’s a bully pulpit for if you don’t use it?