Academic Penury: Adjunct Faculty as the New Precariat

By Dr. Roslyn Fuller,  a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology and has lectured in International Law at Trinity College, Dublin and National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She is also legal correspondent for Russia Today. Originally published at Alternet

“What is education?” Ruth Wangerin asks me, when I Skype the sociology professor at her home in New York. “Is education a good for its own sake? Is it a process of weeding people out? Or is the student a customer paying for certification and the adjunct is there to train them?”

It’s a good question.

Wangerin is an adjunct at the City University of New York or CUNY. Although she completed a PhD in the 1970s, the energetic 70-year-old spent her career outside of education, returning to teaching after filling in for a friend on sabbatical.

“I’m not sure how exciting academia is,” she tells me, “It used to be exciting when I was a grad student. We were always talking about the latest theories.” She looks uncharacteristically forlorn for a moment, before adding, “That being said, there were probably always hacks.”

As an adjunct, Wangerin is employed on a casual basis and earns somewhere between half and one-third of what a tenure-track professor would make for teaching the same courses. That is significant, because non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70% of all teaching staff in American higher education. This means that roughly three out of every four courses a student takes are taught by someone without job security who is working on minimal pay.

When Wangerin conducted a survey at the College of Staten Island, a CUNY-affiliated institution, she discovered that one-fifth of adjuncts had no health insurance and that half of all respondents were seeking full-time employment but were unable to attain it.

“The work is there,” Wangerin tells me, “they just don’t want to pay.”

A one-time adjunct and contract lecturer myself, I decide to look into the matter more deeply. Are Wangerin’s contentions particular to her own experience or are they more widely shared across the United States? And if they are, what does this mean for higher education?

Information, as it turns out, isn’t hard to come by. I write one message to a long-time Twitter contact who also happens to be a contingent faculty member and my inbox explodes. As I sort through my e-mails a picture of higher education begins to emerge and, far removed from the conventional image of pipe-smoking professors in book-lined studies, it is largely one of exploitation and control.

“I am currently teaching one class, and in all honesty, unemployment benefits pay double that,” a community college lecturer who wished to remain anonymous told me, “I would be better off not teaching at all.”

An art professor from Ohio writes in to tell me that she’s just thrown in the towel after more than a decade of work: “My class was canceled two weeks before classes start and I decided to get my Alternative Educator License and teach at the high school level.”

I hear of a lecturer whose courses were allocated to someone else after he spoke out about a contract clause that demanded access to his DNA; about an adjunct who could not afford to pay property taxes on the family home after 20 years of teaching; and of someone who was fired after a student complaint that he was a “black racist.” “Whatever that means,” the adjunct reporting the incident grumbles.

I also hear, repeatedly, of lecturers working at low-paid jobs in restaurants and department stores to supplement their meagre wages. Some literally work alongside their students. It brings to mind the beginning of the Netflix series “Breaking Bad” where future drug lord Walter White is mocked by his students for working part-time at a carwash.

As I speak to contingent faculty from New York to Texas, Seattle to San Francisco, it becomes increasingly clear that academic penury has become the order of the day. And, concerningly, this is occurring at a time when higher education – and some salaries associated with it – is booming.

Unequal University

“Education claims to ameliorate class stratification, but it actually reinforces it,” says Alex Kudera, who has taught college writing and literature off the tenure track for over twenty years.

It’s not hard to see what he means. The average adjunct lecturer receives only $2700 per course taught. While that amount is sometimes portrayed as easy money, in addition to time spent in class lecturers must also prepare course content, create exams and assignments, grade, advise students, and, of course, travel from campus to campus. When academics are employed on a casual basis, such activity is not compensated, meaning that the true rate of pay is often around the minimum wage.

“It’s insulting,” Wangerin tells me. “Embarrassing,” is how Loraine Hutchins, a 68-year-old sexuality lecturer from Maryland describes it.

At the same time, salaries for school administrators and presidents have increased exponentially. “Universities have increased their profit-lines by hiring part-timers and increasing the cost of the school,” Arvis Averette, an adjunct and economist from Chicago says, “Schools are expanding but not to the benefit of the students.”

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, takes home over $3 million a year – about 140 times what an adjunct teaching a back-breaking eight courses would earn. The average pay for public college presidents was $428 000 in 2014. Some college sports coaches are paid as well, or even better: the 10 most highly paid college coaches in 2015 each earned more than Gutmann, with some bringing home more than $7 million.

This wage gap is facilitated by severe limitations on the number of tenure-track positions – i.e. positions that come with more secure, long-term employment – that are offered to teaching staff. Like a bizarre game of musical chairs, universities and colleges always need more teachers than they are prepared to offer long-term employment to. As a result, in an environment that is ostensibly about self-improvement, casual employment without the opportunity to advance has become the only option for many academics, while a small minority, who are able to literally and figuratively procure a chair are rewarded with pay packages that would, in some cases, have been viewed as absurdly generous only a few decades ago.

Unsurprisingly, a culture that legitimizes this stark differentiation between the haves and have-nots of further education has arisen.

“There is a stigma that contingent faculty just weren’t good enough to get a tenure-track job,” Maria Maisto, of New Faculty Majority tells me, “At the same time, there are a lot of tenured faculty who acknowledge that they would not get a job if they were to apply today,” she continues, referring to the fact that in the past a higher proportion of tenure-track positions were on offer.

“To be an adjunct has become a class moniker,” Richard Aberle confirms, “Very few adjuncts, even those from top-tier universities, ever get on the tenure-track. The idea is that if you are an adjunct, you are a failed academic.” Aberle has worked more than 20 years as a casual academic teaching English, and racking up a bevy of awards, including a Campus Teaching Award in 2013 and a Chancellors’ Award in 2016. With such high numbers of academics denied tenure, he no longer finds such explanations convincing. “How can we all be failures?” he asks me, “And if universities do consider us failures, why have they constructed a system in which they depend on those failures to teach most of their undergraduate students?”

Aberle’s words remind me that Ruth Wangerin referred to academia as a “caste” system during our interview, a term later echoed by others. Tenured faculty can be fired, although in such cases cause must be proven. By contrast, because contingent faculty work on short-term contracts or on a course-by-course basis, a college or university need not even fire an offending lecturer; they need only refuse to re-hire them, something that can be done without any grounds whatsoever. Contingent faculty and adjuncts are not only poor, their work is also extremely precarious.

While the human toll on contingent faculty themselves is obvious, I begin to wonder what the consequences for society of transforming a group of independent intellectuals into exhausted, highly dependent labourers could be.

The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Academics may enjoy more intellectual freedom than many workers, but they also have a duty that does not generally fall on others: to research and to publish the results of that research regardless of how unpopular it may be. That might be the news that the earth goes round the sun, that smoking causes cancer, or that corruption exists in politics. I wonder what influence the lack of both money and job security is having on research today.

The first casualty would seem to be that non-tenure track staff are simply too exhausted from their heavy teaching loads to engage in any research at all. “We’ve figured out how to shut down intellectual vibrancy,” Aberle tells me, “It may not have been intentional, but it had the same effect as if it were. They are all struggling, so now they shut up. If you wanted to kill off intellectual life – left or right – this was the way to do it.”

“In most adjunct situations, nobody gives a damn about what you’ve published,” Gordon Haber tells me, “They just need a warm body.” But he adds that job precarity still has a chilling effect on what lecturers are willing and able to produce. “Administrators won’t bother re-hiring adjuncts if there’s the slightest hint of trouble. Think about how many students are at community colleges in the U.S., where maybe 60-70% of classes are taught by adjuncts. Make the slightest wave and the administrator simply won’t hire you back.”

For some casually employed academics the problems go deeper.

“The more you speak out on average, the less chance you have of getting a tenured position,” Alex Kudera tells me, “There is a lot of hypocrisy surrounding the alleged free exchange of ideas. When you are working in education, you feel that you have to agree with everything that is being said, and you have to agree enthusiastically. It’s actually quite exhausting – more exhausting than the actual work.”

Kudera has been teaching fiction writing and creative writing for over 20 years, writing a novel while taking a break to tutor students in South Korea. “I would never have finished my book if I hadn’t gone to South Korea,” he says. The novel—which is about life as an adjunct—won a fiction prize and has sold quite well, says Kudera, “better than many novels written by tenure-track professors.”

Kudera says he saw from the beginning that the subject matter of his book might have a negative impact on his career chances, but that he was past caring. He remains lukewarm about his job chances, “If someone doesn’t want to hire me, they can just say ‘we felt that his credentials or skill-set didn’t fit here.’ They can always find a reason not to renew a contract. It’s very vague and passive-aggressive, but you learn that it is about what I would call ‘the manners of the system’.”

It is easy to see how in a system in which job security has become a rare prize, conformity would quickly become the order of the day with precarious staff hesitant to engage in activity that could affect their long-term careers.

“The point of tenure was to allow new ideas and new technologies to develop,” Aberle says, “but do that as a contingent staff member and you risk your job. Teaching staff are expected to do nothing but teach, and are expendable if they challenge the prevailing ideology. If a tenured member is let go, that becomes a news item, but if I have one bad semester, I’m done; one controversial thing and I’m done.”

Robert Ovetz may know this better than most. Over 20 years ago, Ovetz, now an adjunct in California, wrote his PhD dissertation about privatization at the University of Texas at Austin. This led him to conclude that the budgetary crisis at universities was caused by channeling student fees into biotech and military research in the hopes of producing, licensing and commercializing lucrative patents. “In 1980, Congress changed the law to allow federal funding to be used for private profit,” he explains, “but it cost the public more to fund these projects than it brought in.”

Ovetz says that he is not in a position to assess the impact his research may have had on his career, although he concedes that “what you write about can have an impact. If someone googles you, they’ll find out about any controversial writing or other activities.” While he worried about this at first, he no longer lets it get to him: “I’m nearly 50. I can’t live my life in fear.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the chilling effect the entire complex has on academia is deep. He recalls that when he defended his dissertation, a faculty member refused to sit on the committee, telling him that he should not write about such topics until he was tenured. In hindsight, Ovetz realized, “he was telling me you need to self-censor until you’re safe.”

Since building a case for tenure can now take a very long time, even decades, I wonder what is lost in the long quest not to rock the boat until one is “safe.”

Danny Ledonne a former film adjunct puts it bluntly, “By the time you get tenure,” he says, “you don’t want to leave the cage. You need to get into administration or become a department chair to make money, so there’s always a reason to suck up to people.”

Uniquely among those I speak to, Ledonne eventually took a more confrontational stand with his institution. A film major, he started working as an adjunct at Adams State University in Colorado in 2011. He says he was given to understand that he was working on an emerging program and that if he developed it and enrollment increased, there would be a full-time position available in the future.

Ledonne, who described himself as lucky to be starting out with no student loans, scratched together a living teaching two to three courses a semester, summer school and making promotional videos for the university. When a position opened up for full-time faculty in 2014, he thought his hard work was finally paying off. But when he applied for the post, Ledonne was not invited to interview for the position. The role remained empty and he applied again in 2015. This time he didn’t even make the cut for semi-finalist, despite an additional year of experience and a good track record. Ledonne raised a petition on campus to support his application, a move that he still sees as a pivotal in his relationship with the institution’s authorities. “It upset people that I wasn’t just going to pack up and leave. In their eyes, there is no greater sin than self-advocacy.”

A short time later he was told that he could no longer teach at the university or make the promotional videos that he had used to subsidize his career.

Deeply disappointed, Ledonne found himself watching the Batman Dark Knight Trilogy, a choice that was to prove fateful. “I slowly realized that Bruce Wayne comes back to Gotham, this city that he loves, and realizes how corrupt it is. And as Bruce Wayne he can do nothing about it, which is why he invents the persona of Batman. Bruce Wayne is powerless but Batman isn’t.”

Like Bruce Wayne, Ledonne struck out into an alternate persona as the founder of Watching Adams, a website primarily aimed at drawing attention to the poor working conditions many contingent faculty face. Within days of publishing articles on payment delays and lack of transparency on the website, Ledonne was banned from Adams’ campus. When he tried to follow up he was told that his actions were “threatening” and that “someone said they felt harassed.”

“You start to half-guess yourself,” Ledonne says, “Did I threaten someone? What could I have done?”

With the help of the ACLU, Ledonne eventually took a case against Adams, which was settled out of court when the university agreed to pay compensation.

Nonetheless, his experiences and those of others show how vulnerable contingent faculty are to being ‘disciplined’ for raising legitimate concerns about hiring processes or engaging with controversial subject matter. That is concerning when one considers that academia as a whole is supposed to work as a force of scientific inquiry, challenging conventional wisdom and independently assessing the truth of various claims and studies. If many qualified academics are no longer in a position to carry out this vital societal task, either through lack of finances and time or through more aggressive retaliation, the question is raised as to who will do so? What will be the consequences if the students of today are not exposed to conscientious role models who are not afraid to shine a light into every dark corner?

Students: Suckers for Education

Considering the difficulties contingent faculty face, the concern that they show for their students often seems almost pathetically touching. Every person I speak to agrees that low pay and job precarity impact on the level of service they are able to provide for their students; they repeatedly express concern that students are unaware that the education they are “purchasing” may not be the ticket out of poverty that they had hoped for.

Arvis Averette knows more than most on this topic. He graduated high school in 1957 and marched on Washington in 1963 as part of the civil rights movement. Thanks, in part, to a college education, Averette became a successful economist who never depended on his adjunct position for income.

“I lived in a steel town. About 90% of students were white and 10% were black, but 50% of college graduates were black,” he tells me, referring to the traditional method of overachieving one’s way out of adversity. While Averette remains upbeat, he admits that things are different today: “One per cent of the population used to work for General Motors. Now one per cent of the population works for Walmart. I don’t need to say anything more. People who are from minorities or lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t even have a chance.”

Almost every lecturer I interview tells me about students who excelled in their classes and now work as waiters, movers, even strippers.

“There are a lot of good people who have something to give who are lost to the system. People who were good enough to write a dissertation, a book, articles,” Ruth Wangerin says. “It’s such a waste. Wasted education and wasted effort.”

Worse, many students go into debt to finance their education – a good often provided by people who are themselves in debt. “I expect that I will die before I pay off my grad school debt,” says Loraine Hutchins, who went back for a PhD in her 50s before beginning to teach. “We are misleading students to think that education is a way out of poverty, meanwhile the teacher isn’t making anything.”

But if anything, students have often become unwittingly complicit in their own undoing, unknowingly contributing to poor education standards and the insecurity of staff trying to aid them.

Because student evaluations can play a substantial role in whether contingent faculty are rehired, teachers are often reluctant to provoke their students by bringing up controversial subjects in the classroom, pushing students out of their comfort zone or grading them vigorously. This means that while students now rarely fail a class, they often fail to reach their full potential as intellectuals and to develop the ability to self-examine and revise their own conclusions.

“Student evaluations determine who is rehired and that changes how you teach to a certain extent,” Aberle claims, “That makes it risky to stake out any controversial positions. No administrator wants to deal with controversy. It’s easier to just get rid of an adjunct who generates controversy.”

“I am scared most of the time of making a slip that could end my career like that, and has for others I know,” a community college lecturer in California, who wished to remain anonymous agreed. “A student who gets pissed off for any reason, and wants to slam a teacher, for any reason, can make an accusation, which, even if it has no substance, is very dangerous for that teacher.”

It is something Beth Rosdatter knows all too well. Rosdatter began teaching as an adjunct alongside her own post-graduate studies in the 1990s. A committed anti-war activist, Rosdatter has previously served time for trespassing onto nuclear weapons sites. When we talk, she is expecting another court appearance. While committed to publicly opposing what she views as illegal wars, Rosdatter says she always refrained from proselytizing in class. “The important thing,” she said, echoing so many others I speak to, “is just to get people thinking.”

In 2005, however, a former student took a deep exception to Rosdatter’s personal activism, claiming on the website Free Republic that he had been “oppressed” in her class. “The funny thing,” Rosdatter says, “is that he got an A in that class. He was a really good student.”

Things didn’t stop there, Rosdatter tells me. The former student also posted her phone number and address online, along with photos of her children. Other commenters on the site threatened to shoot Rosdatter, and most horrifyingly of all, to rape her daughter (the website later removed the content).

“I thought he just didn’t understand what he was doing,” Rosdatter tells me. “It was his first year in college.”

Passing the student in the hallway one day, she asked him to remove the photos of her children. The student’s mother soon phoned the college’s administration to complain. Rosdatter was called in to meet with officials and told that in order to placate the student’s mother a reprimand would be placed in her file for having created “a hostile learning environment.” Rosdatter never saw her file and doesn’t believe that the reprimand affected her employability, but she was thrown off balance by the administration’s reaction and eventually stopped teaching.

Rosdatter’s views on foreign policy may not be universally shared, but it is hard to see how being exposed to the fact that some people oppose certain aspects of American military action could engender serious harm in the learning mind or why lecturers should refrain from participating in social activities outside the classroom. Indeed, much of the mission of higher education has historically been concerned with exposing students to different narratives and encouraging them to devise their own methods of testing each contention for plausibility. It is the cultivation of this capability, and not any particular content, which will one day make the student independent of the teacher—the ultimate goal of education.

Much like parents, teachers traditionally hope to be thanked later in life when children and students come to realize the benefits of being forced to clean their rooms or complete a daunting assignment. Students should undoubtedly be involved in their own education and protected from bullying, but when they are handed the whip-hand over the very people charged with pushing them to achieve their full potential, one has to wonder whether education is truly doing them any favours or if students have merely become walking dollar signs to administrators anxious to keep them placated and paying for the degrees that now so rarely result in upward mobility.

Beggaring Our Intellect

The growth of insecure faculty in American higher education has consequences that reach far outside of the classroom and far beyond the lives of poorly paid teachers. Universities and colleges have fulfilled an important mission in our societies, not only in imparting skills to students, but in testing research, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, and providing a forum in which ideas can be independently scrutinized. When these bodies are starved of the time and resources needed to fulfill these tasks, how will the spirit of scientific inquiry that has contributed so much to our wealth and progress as a civilization proceed? Who will serve as role models for future generations to question “what everybody knows”? Most importantly who will freely share their knowledge with other researchers as universities and colleges have done for centuries, providing a powerful engine for the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Thus far the brunt of this change has been borne by adjuncts and contingent faculty like Robert Ovetz and Beth Rosdatter, and by people like Renee Fraser who was once given a heads-up that she was “teaching communism” after mentioning Karl Marx in a history of Europe. “If I had tenure,” she tells me “I would teach more challenging materials, and have more debate-style discussions. I would have an office and office hours and enough time to meet with students when they need help. I am the first person in my family to get a college degree,” she continues, “I have been teaching a full load of classes ‘part-time’ for 20 years. I have been rated ‘excellent’ by all three of my evaluators for the past nine years. Students love me. I volunteer for committee work and campus events. And my chest tightens for a month before each semester as I check the enrollment figures in my classes, and in all of the classes of the full-time faculty who can bump me, until the semester begins.”

Traditional higher education is being unraveled, and the public goods that the relatively secure tenure-system provided cannot be adequately replaced by a dependent, impoverished workforce. Sooner or later, the implications of holding education and educators in such low-esteem will come home to roost.


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  1. Jim Haygood

    ‘Academics may enjoy more intellectual freedom than many workers, but they also have a duty that does not generally fall on others: to research and to publish the results of that research regardless of how unpopular it may be.’

    Proposal for a joint Econ/Law paper

    Thesis: US academia is a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization

    Synopsis: using de facto antitrust immunity garnered by its politically connected administrators, academia relentlessly hikes tuitions as well as its intake of governmental funding.

    Via false and deceptive marketing, students are promised nonexistent benefits from earning a degree, then subjected to a loan sharking racket which indebts them for life, at inflated cartelized prices, without informing them of the non-dischargeability of those debts.

    Systemic marketing fraud is further enabled by glossy alumni magazines touting the achievements of tenured faculty, without divulging that a majority of classes are taught by adjuncts.

    Recommendations: RICO the entire industry; consolidate it; convict the managers; reopen it under new leadership (former politicians banned for life), under new legislation prohibiting marketing fraud and loan sharking.

    1. Norb

      Seems like the logical solution and the only way to avoid actual collapse of the institutions. This higher education scam can only continue until parental funds are tapped out, which is this current generation of collage age families. New entrants into the workforce, on whole, will not be able to save enough, or have job security to even consider college for their children.

      The social contract that the elite are forging ahead with is the bond and willingness to be scammed. It is amazing to see their disbelieving expressions when any form of resistance is encountered. The rational response would be to ease up on the exploitation, but doesn’t seem to be happening. Other forces will have to be brought to bear.

  2. ProNewerDeal

    “non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70% of all teaching staff in American higher education. This means that roughly three out of every four courses a student takes are taught by someone without job security who is working on minimal pay.”

    Is this actually true? If say some adjuncts are full-time other job & teach only 1 course, some adjuncts are perma-temp FT & teach ~4 courses, & tenure-track teach ~4 courses; then you could have a situation where say
    1 portion of teachers that are adjuncts. The article mentioned 70% of ANY teachers teaching at least 1 course in a given semester at Universities are adjuncts

    2 portion of courses taught that are taught by adjuncts: A lower number, say 40% of the courses taught at Univs are taught by adjuncts, due to having tenure-track Profs teaching ~4 courses & adjuncts teaching ~1 course each.

    The author seems to make a logic error assuming that metric #2 is the same as #1. It may happen to be, but doesn’t necessarily need to be.

    What actually is the metric #2 number?

    I have empathy for the perma-temp FT adjuncts, IMHO it is no different than perma-temp FT workers in other occupations, despite the prestige of Unviersities perhaps somewhat masking its practice.

    1. diptherio

      You’re right that we don’t have enough info to know #2 from the article, but I also don’t know that you’ve got it quite right.

      If full time instructors are half-and-half tenure/tenure-track and adjunct (for instance), that would mean that 30% of profs are tenure and 30% are full time adjuncts. That would leave another 40% of the total that are less-than-full time adjuncts. So you’d have a majority of classes being taught by adjuncts. But, of course, we need more info to figure it out for sure, but it seems more likely to me, based on my experience (~ half my classes were taught by adjuncts during my college days, which were in the late nineties-early aughties) that adjuncts represent a firm majority of both personnel and classroom hours.

    2. MooCows

      I’m not an adjunct but I’m a non-tenure track faculty member in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at a very large university. I teach 8 technical courses a year (3/3/2) while the tenured faculty teach 3 or 4 (2/1/0). We also have adjuncts who typically teach one course a semester.

      I bring this up because it could be that, from the author’s perspective, I still fall into the adjunct category because my contract must be renewed yearly and the administration can choose not to renew without cause. I would say that non-tenure track faculty are responsible for about 50% of the courses in this department but, being in engineering, our department is small relative to something in the College of Liberal Arts.

  3. upstater

    This fits in, sort of, to this posting… the dean of the B-school, with a $500K salary, a supposed expert on “risk management” at Syracuse University, busted in a prostitution sting:

    SU dean arrested in prostitution bust told students: ‘Nothing is worth your integrity’

    I guess he’ll have to hire out at Goldman — aren’t they the ones with the running tab at a NYC escort service?

    Plenty of adjuncts at Syracuse University, where the tuition is $55K/year.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    More of a question here, as I see the author teaches in Ireland. If Dr. Fuller comes below the line I’d be interested to hear her thoughts on whether the same process is infecting Irish and other European universities. I know if at least one college administrator in Itelamd who loudly proclaims the superiority if the US system. One can only wonder why…

    1. Anon

      Superior in what way? Science? Technical research? Economic research?

      For the US undergad, adjunct instructors is the norm. (My local community college has 70% adjunct instructors.). My local University has slightly less, but uses more experienced gad students to guide less experienced grad students. In any event, the product/experience has been cheapened.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Oh, he is a well known senior administrator for a minor university, and always claims the US system is more ‘dynamic’ and ‘innovative’ compared to Europe. Of course, we all know what that means.

  5. tony

    Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don’t make academics a priority, a new report shows.

    Report: First two years of college show small gains

    Morris Berman has pointed out that US college has become a social rather than a learning experience. I suspect this cultural shift has made academics themselves replaceable. Does it really matter who babysits these four-year party retreats?

  6. Robert Dannin

    i was an adjunct professor of urban studies at new york university for 12 years. the entire academic department was staffed by adjuncts and part-time instructors except for the chairman, who was ironically a tenured professor of labor history. my classes were always bursting to seams, we studied contemporary issues and were focusing on the sub-prime crisis back in 1995. one class toward the end of my lecture, i wrote the math for my salary on the blackboard. it came down to twenty-five cents per student per class, a tiny fraction of their per semester tuition. a student from the business school remarked that i could probably make more panhandling the same hours outside in washington square park. everyone laughed. by the time i got back to the department less than 20 minutes later, the chair invited me into his office. “don’t talk about salary issues with your students. GOT IT!” someone had ratted me out. guess i spoiled their day. easier to discuss poor people in the outer boroughs than someone on your doorstep. in the following years i spent my spare time organizing the first adjunct faculty union. door-to-door, button-holing adjuncts on the sidewalk or in the hallways. the less experience they had, the more reluctant they were to get involved for fear of ruining their chances for a F/T tenure track position. they wouldn’t listen, when i explained, once an adjunct, always an adjunct. after five more years, they began to see the light and wanted union. then the uaw swooped in, demanding my lists and fealty. they knew nothing about activism on an urban campus and didn’t want to listen. when i tried to participate in meetings, i was accused of disrespecting the regional organizer who commuted to the union hqtrs. from her home in litchfield, ct. at one meeting they told us who our “friends” were on campus. yep, heading the list was my dept chair, the good-old red-diaper baby himself. finally, there was a vote, the union won a shitty package that deliberately excluded any new hires. end of the semester the dept chair sends me an email, you’re fired! meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    1. SpringTexan

      Thanks. Wish every adjunct would teach this if this is appropriate to the class. (and mention it in passing if it’s not)

    2. Uahsenaa

      I do this with my students as well, noting that about 10% of their tuition goes to me, while the rest goes to the University.

      I also like to point out that they pay six six times the tuition compared to what the people running the university did, and that’s before you take into consideration that they didn’t have to pay an extra 1K in “fees.”

      If they simply cut me a check for the percentage of their tuition that goes to the class, I’d make upwards of 300K a year.

    3. ProNewerDeal


      Thanks for sharing your story. I am sorry to hear that you were fired, apparently for exercising you human & Constitutional right to labor-organize.

      The fact that your boss was “a labor history Prof” is worst-tier hypocrisy & irony. Reminds me of Constitutional Law Prof 0bama, who continually defecates on the Constitution with his assasination of US citizens overseas program, NSA bulk spying, etc.

      I hope you found an alternative job that had better working conditions & a fairer boss.

  7. NoBrick

    “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.” CSNY

    It seems the “social unrest” stemmed from the collective consciousness permitted by
    unrestrained objectivity. The master-client relationship was overwhelmed by repeated
    gestures that breached the ordained demeandor of prostrate obedience.

    The balance between confusion and illumination (consciousness) must be modified!
    After all, successful marketing/propaganda begins where consciousness ends…

  8. Benedict@Large

    I was fortunate enough (a long time ago) to attend an Ivy League university, with my brother attending the same two class years ahead of me. I became frustrated at one point, finding my courses to always be a number of degrees more abstract in what they were teaching than I had anticipated, and sought my brother’s advice. “Brown,” he said, “doesn’t make engineers; they make graduate students.” As I would later come to say, we were not taught to be mathematicians or chemists or historian; we were taught to think like them. I can’t tell you how valuable that approach to education has turn out to be for me, both professionally and personally, as I’ve made my way through life. These are things you don’t unlearn.

    I think about this whenever I read articles (like this one) about the direction of education today, especially but not limited to the college level. These experiences are being lost as we turn our schools into trade schools and our students into mere mechanics; OK at any situation for which they have been specifically trained, but kind of useless for those when that has not been the case. Our elites tell us that this is what the market wants, but I never see any of them actually asking the students, and when I check back at the Ivy, I find that the elites still teach their own the way I was taught. The answer is clear. we are deliberately being divided by education into a world where the children of the elites, whether they have earned it or not, will find no intellectual competition from the classes below them. The Poors really will be stupid, but it will be intentional, and built in to the Nature and Nurture the elites have allowed them to have.

    1. beans

      Excellent comment, Benedict. The art of teaching people how to think instead of what to think – the educator who can do this is invaluable, now more than ever.

  9. Punxsutawney

    I might add as well, that many of these adjuncts came out of industry, having lost well paying jobs as operations were moved overseas.

    Now working part-time for less than 1/2 of what they were making, if they are lucky!

  10. Bitman

    Few points to add to this excellent article:

    1. The shift needed to understand the modern University is to think of it not as an institution of higher learning, but as a processing plant – it produces “students” and “graduates, and adjuncts are the staff assigned the role of processors. The model is industrial. Elite institutions of all sorts have conspired with the University to require professional credentials for more and more of the occupations they staff, in order to assure large flows of people pass through. This also means that larger populations are drawn into the debt system and thereby depoliticized.

    2. The most important role an adjunct can play is to bring the issues associated with the industrializing of the university into the classroom. Make students aware of the labor situation, and what they’re buying. Explain to them that adjuncts, like nurses in hospitals, are expected to overperform, and that their overperformance is what props up a diseased, corrupt institution. It’s very, very important for adjuncts not to get caught up in the official institutional morality that guilts them into overperformance (hospitals are probably the leader in this respect). How much overperformance you indulge in is a personal decision, in my view, but it should never be taken on uncritically.

    My own individualized response to this system has been to take on as many classes as I humanly can, so that a) my wages actually compare to those of my tenured colleagues, and b) to demonstrate to students by so doing that the University does not give a shit about their education. No one pays attention to how many courses I teach or how prepared I am to teach them. I’ve taught hundreds of courses (no exaggeration) and no one ever supervises me or even checks in (It’s happened twice in 25 years) .Fact is, I happen to be prepared, but I stress that that is not at all a concern of the University. I’ve been asked to teach courses in subjects where I have absolutely no expertise, but since I’m teaching undergrads, know how to read, construct a syllabus, and make compelling arguments, I get by, sometimes even comfortably. Many get by this way. But it shouldn’t be confused with providing student a good education. And I’m getting too old to maintain the pace, as we all do.

    According to the evaluation numbers I’m somehow still providing students with an above-average experience in their courses, but I do so full in the knowledge that I WILL NOT overperform without making the students aware that that is what unfairly is expected of me, even though I’m given none of the resources tenured faculty are given. I cancel classes sometimes, for the express purpose of the fact I need a break (I don;t get sabbaticals). They almost invariably understand. They also are sometimes infuriated that this state of affairs persists, though like adjuncts they fear making waves.

    3. Tenured faculty are the enemy (unfortunately) or PT faculty. Eevn the labor activists among them have different class interests than PT faculty at most large universities. Full-time faculty are dominated by the administration and feel themselves to be under siege, but one response to this is that they dominate PT faculty as a means of freeing themselves as much as possible from the industrial-style teaching of large University life. As a rule, they are not willing to equitably share the burdens PT faculty face, and there’s no getting around that.

  11. David

    Having come up through the academic process and seeing the handwriting on the wall deciding to opt out of trying for an academic career, I think I can comment a bit.

    First, no one is forcing these folks to be adjuncts. It’s their choice.

    The real issue is one of information and honesty or at least reality over hopeful expectations. When I was an undergrad my professors encouraged me to go to grad school and were pleased when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. They all implied, if not said, that I would be able to then get an academic job. I think they really believed this, but the reality was far different even at that time. By the time I graduated, unemployment in my field was at an all time high. The reality was that only 20-25% of graduates would get “potentially permanent” positions in either academia or research. So, when I finally graduated I posted a letter for the undergraduates informing them of the future in the field. Needless to say the faculty were taken aback, but when they checked they found that my data was correct.

    Do these adjuncts believe that a “potentially permanent” position awaits them if they keep going on their present path? Are they being told that by the universities? If so, then they are being deceived. Or, is this just a case of blind optimism and not wanting to give up their dream? In this case, it goes back to being their choice. Or do they want a career as a serial adjunct, and just want the job to be better? The this is just typical employer/employee bargaining and back to their choice.

    So, they can agitate for more money, security, authority, etc. which is what they appear to be doing, or they can leave the field for one that is more lucrative, which is what the vast majority of us have done.

    1. reslez

      It’s their “choice” to be an adjunct. Really? If there was a true choice wouldn’t the vast majority “choose” to be full-time faculty with benefits and equivalent pay? Free marketeers keep using the word “choice”, but the choice they offer is usually one where you get to “choose” between homelessness and and marginal survival at $11 an hour. A mighty impressive choice!

      Do they “believe” they’re going to get a full-time position, because realistic career expectations wouldn’t help universities get cheap grad student labor?

      Or maybe they end up in grad school like a lot of people I know — because the job market was so terrible that the idea of staying in school for another couple of years was their best “choice” at that point in time? Since the media constantly tells us education is always good, and those who don’t have it will fall behind, the idea that more education isn’t always better comes as a foreign idea to a lot of 22 year olds. An assembly line of cheap grad student labor then gets funneled into adjunct teaching.

      1. David

        Yes, their choice. They can abandon the academic pursuit and choose another career. Most people with advanced degrees do just that.

        I agree that their are way too many grad students and they become the adjuncts that are desperate for full time jobs. But grad students serve an important purpose as cheap labor, particularly in research universities. Why would they want to give that up? Again, this is an issue of information, which is why I posted my letter. If undergrads knew the actual prospects for grad students after they graduate perhaps they would choose a different path. But, grad school and academia are extremely attractive pursuits for many people so they readily put up with all the impediments in the hope of making it as a professor. The reality is that academia has become an avocation, a hobby, rather than a vocation for most people.

  12. diptherio

    Here’s a thought: maybe if our education system weren’t built around fear, we’d be able to present a more united front.

    Consider: instructors are tasked with judging students and, if they grade on the curve, punishing some of them regardless of their skill or effort…and often enough this sorting is accomplished through BS methods like high-stakes, time-limited testing. So yeah, sometimes students get resentful of the instructors who get seen as the enemy. And so, they take it out be leaving a bad review.

    The reviews, just like the tests and grading systems, are being used to sort and punish profs. Bad reviews from students can be devastating financially and career-wise, as detailed in the article. So profs get scared and therefore fail to ask much of the students, so as to come off as a “nice guy/gal.” The students live in fear and don’t learn, and the teachers live in fear and don’t teach. But what if we did things differently?

    What if the point of a review process was to improve teaching methods and get feedback from students about what works and what doesn’t? What if reviews were done in a way aimed at supporting instructors, rather than censuring them? And what if students were treated the same way. What if, instead of a reprimand and a shaming, students were given support and encouragement (more like Evergreen and Sarah Lawrence)?

    Maybe then we’d stop being afraid of each other and be able to support eachother as we demand an answer to the question of how it is that tuitions keep going up while faculty pay keeps going down. Demand in no uncertain terms that the top Admins take major pay cuts or step down so their secretary can take over for them (with a hefty pay raise, of course, but something reasonable).

    That’s my two sense.

  13. KYrocky

    We are looking at the decades long pursuit of making higher education “more like business”. The mantra of privatization and that attitude that segments of our society which served the public: schools, universities, hospitals, departments of governments at all levels, etc., would all be better if they were run as businesses has been proven false a million times over.

    University Boards have, for decades, been stacked with advocates of market based systems which have been imposed on institutions which formerly served their students and the public. Students are no longer viewed as students but as revenue streams. Public funding for higher education has similarly declined as the cult of the marketplace including that institutions serving a public purpose needed to be more self funding. Because forcing them to have more skin in the game would force them to trim the fat and innovate. You know, like Walmart.

    For decades, political contributions bought politicians who in turn mandated that federal student loans had to be administered by banks, thereby siphoning off billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars that could have otherwise gone to students and universities. The politicians also permit these banks to gouge students on interest rates, to pass laws making it harder or impossible to discharge loan debt through bankruptcy, or to refinance their loans. None of these abuses of students served a public interest. All of these abuses exemplify our current model for how to apply business practices to higher education.

    In the business sense, the only concern a University has for its product is its relationship to the revenue stream. A little like the charter school model. Universities have a need for instructors, and in applying the methods of successful business as it is defined today they will seek to fill that labor need at the absolute lowest cost achievable. Those who long for the past are out of luck; universities are never going back. Faculty pay will keep going down as long there are new warm bodies to take the place of those who don’t like it, and adjuncts will be squeezed for all that can be wrung from them.

    Adjuncts are nameless, faceless, and entirely forgettable as far the University administration is concerned. The administration will blow as much smoke up adjunct’s asses as needed to keep their slots filled. Adjuncts are in an abusive relationship, whether they understand it or not. The abuse is never going to end, as the obstacles are not just the administration and the university Board, but the politicians, the big donors, and the attitudes of our society at large.

    1. templar555510

      What you have so precisely described is yet another Ponzi scheme. Of course it is because that is what post capitalist Capitalism is . Think of it like this : there is approximately 7 billion of us living on planet Earth and between us we can and do produce enough food, clothing and could produce enough housing ( that’s another matter ) for all 7 billion. So the problem for the capitalist is how do I create the illusion of scarcity upon which Capitalism works. Answer : grab by any and every means possible – legal and illegal , it’s all the same thing – the lions share of what already exists ; in other words steal it . That’s the 1 % . And then con the 99% into believing resources are scarce etc, etc and bending to the will of the 1 %.

  14. Jim

    Most of us continue to hope that we will eventually find a secure/meaningful position somewhere in one of the major institutions that make-up our society.

    This is a false hope–especially in higher education.

    The University, the large corporation, the particular governmental agency, are now beyond internal reform and we all know this in our bones.

    Somehow we must individually and collectively find the courage and creativity to move, maneuver and survive outside of these institutions–trading in the fear and anxiety of trying to succeed in dying institutions for the fear and anxiety which comes with creating new institutions.

  15. spk

    “It seems also to be the case that the academy system works to the advantage of, and hence is supported by, the prestigeful older generations, particularly the medicine men, herbalists, theurgists or pri’yNrz, and of course, the very numerous ti‘y&r castle, itself.” — WILLARD WALKER, 1970


    Never in history has the surplus labor value theory of exploit been so specialized, but the currency of contingency workers is now prominently gamed from migrant workers to hospital physicians. Adjuncts could unite, except that the market is in the way. There is no path to any market resolution…so:
    Which way to the revolution?
    Wake me when it starts.


    Pay climbs for private colleges’ presidents
    3 in Boston area among $1m earners
    By Peter Schworm Globe Staff December 07, 2014
    “Three dozen presidents of private colleges and universities — including three from the Boston area — received more than $1 million in compensation in 2012, as the salaries for college leaders continue to climb, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Among private colleges surveyed in Massachusetts, many presidents received far more than the national average of $400,000 a year”


    The “capture” of the University is an historical compromise. The University as a citadel for the pursuit of wisdom and perhaps cultural survival has seen its day. Of course learning and research still appear prominently (perhaps as much for marketing in that order as well), but the primary pursuit of knowledge is an open communication system and navigating this process has become the task at hand for truth seekers. Collaborative advantage exists in Universities as much as in Research and Development filters the public and private interests, but the corporate marketing motives is a revenue sharing model that makes “non-profit” idealism a false category. The University hierarchy preserves political class economy and the lower tiers support the higher salaries (self-paid elites) through a medium of training for careers that has multiple parasites and predators linked into its administration, “growth” and managerial priorities that mediate models of administrative (business) necessities to sustain the expansion of market scope and scale. The bottom line is occupational hostage taking and brokering of certificates and licensing. The PhD paperchase of yester-year has become an emblem in name only for many who have strove to achieve it, and unfortunately we all know well placed PhDs that are above it all and quite complacent in their quiet contentment. the Old Regime in that sense, is not going to give up territory and the ideals of self preservation are stronger than blood and certianly thicker than water.

    A good example I know first hand is coming into play with brokering of Nursing credentials. The University has produced its own assessment (U. of Penn in particular) indicating that a college educated entry will make better nurses than what has previously been a century of in-hospital training as the primary modality. O interest is the fact that actual college Nursing courses to advance practicing Nurses do no exist, only programs and departments. The idea that colleges are out to advance Nursing is a sham. It is a revenue pool that now is one of the biggest “growth” populations in the college inventory of careers brokering. . They are seeking to make it mandatory and as hospitals prefer middle management Nurses over practicing patient advocates, they are in full support of this, increasingly demanding the college degree for new Nurses entering the market.

    The details become intricate on how this is insidiously but dramatically changing the institution of Nursing, and (on paper) it actually sounds vitally reasonable. Afterall, a college degree surely must make a better Nurse; right? But while traditional Nursing is being transformed into a career path dependent debt trap in hospitals, the “adjunct” Nurses being hired to teach and accredit the departments are in the same trap as others in the University system. Meanwhile those that continue on in the more expensive PhD producing programs are actually geared more towards training administrative and credentialed University department heads rather than applied Nursing itself. The bulk of the working faculty are adjuncts under their management and generally are paid per semester as sub-contracting contingent workers at competitive market scale; typically under two thousand dollars and no paid benefits. The irony of it all is that as these Universities expand and progressively increase the Nursing population, the professional career values competitively decline and hospital administrators (much like the University administrators) reap the benefits, along with the banking system that owns their career until ‘paid in full’ is fully achieved.

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