The adjunct run-around. We ought to be ashamed. The Guardian explains how bad the adjunct game has become: professors living in poverty, homelessness, and even turning to sex work to make ends meet. This is simply not right, and yet universities are openly exploiting the people who should be the most important workers in their institutions. Why do they allow it to continue? Money.
Adjuncting has grown as funding for public universities has fallen by more than a quarter between 1990 and 2009. Private institutions also recognize the allure of part-time professors: generally they are cheaper than full-time staff, don’t receive benefits or support for their personal research, and their hours can be carefully limited so they do not teach enough to qualify for health insurance.
This is why adjuncts have been called “the fast-food workers of the academic world”: among labor experts adjuncting is defined as “precarious employment”, a growing category that includes temping and sharing-economy gigs such as driving for Uber. An American Sociological Association taskforce focusing on precarious academic jobs, meanwhile, has suggested that “faculty employment is no longer a stable middle-class career”.
This behavior is blatant capitalistic criminality, and it has to end. I have a few suggestions.
The accreditation agencies are playing a role in allowing the exploitation to continue. They are supposed to be assessing the quality of the educational experience at a university; when half the faculty are part-time, paid on a shoestring, and are receiving no benefits for their work, that says that the teachers at that university are disrespected and are not provided the resources to do their work, and they should not be accredited. When a big name ivy league university is told their degrees will count for nothing unless they increase the percentage of full-time faculty, they will change.
Make it illegal to hire faculty for less than some high percentage of full time (with exceptions; some part-time medical leave, for instance). It is absurd that anyone has to take on 3 or 4 piddling little teaching appointments to make ends meet; that says right there that there is enough work for a full time person, but they’re artificially breaking it up to avoid paying benefits. Sometimes you do have to hire faculty purely for teaching, with no research option, and that’s OK — but do it with an integral number of teaching lines, instead of breaking it up into dribs and drabs that are not fair to the people you hire. When my wife was working as an adjunct, it meant driving all over eastern Pennsylvania to piece together enough work. She would have been thrilled with a job at one place, with an office and some acknowledgment of her existence, even if it involved just as much teaching.
My tenured and tenure track colleagues have a part to play, too. Are the contingent faculty in your department treated in the same way as everyone else? Are they asked to attend faculty meetings? Do they have a say in the curriculum and course offerings? Or are they told to come in, teach their one course, and then get out of the way and disappear? Are you telling your administration to create teaching lines, or are you simply lobbying for individual courses to be staffed? Are there part-timers in your department that you are used to seeing show up briefly and disappear? Do you talk to them?
Parents of prospective students: do you ask about how classes are staffed? How likely is it your first-year student is going to meet or be taught by tenured faculty? If their classes are all taught by a temporary faculty who is also teaching part time at a local community college, you might as well start your kid in that community college. They’re getting the same education, from the same person.
We treat too many people in this manner of prolonged cruelty. It really needs to stop.