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.
Daz: Uffish, yet slightly frabjous says
Numerobis beat me to it. I see there is an existing union, the AAUP. It’s hard to tell if they’re any good though.
Marcus Ranum says
It’s almost as if the establishment wants the population to be ignorant, for some reason.
Snarki, child of Loki says
AAUP is more of a professional organization, but they do act as union representation for (some? most?) cases where faculty is unionized.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it would really help. Colleges have been pushing fakey ‘faculty governance’ to try and defuse unionization measures.
Plus ‘herding cats’ also, too.
I’ll third Daz and Numerobis. Unionizing would bring some badly needed stability, pay increases, and benefits to adjunct life, and there’s a big push now to try and unionize them coming from (I think) SEIU.
When I was in grad school in the late 80s, being an adjunct was something you did while working on your dissertation. So I did it for about a year. It paid a little more than being a TA. But grad students are generally poor, and are often single, and we had health care, tuition waivers, and the like. This was before the time that students were driven into deep poverty by huge debts. I eventually dropped out while working on my dissertation due to conflict with my committee, which was demanding that I (not the Univ) hire an armed guard to protect me while I was doing research out in the desert. F*** that shit! I left academia forthwith.
Marcus Ranum says
Aren’t a lot of universities sitting on huge endowments that mean they have essentially unlimited money?
I remember Hopkins was always building some new building or other, with huge donations on top of their massive endowment; I don’t really understand why they need billions in the bank. Harvard, for example, has $35billion in its endowment. They can afford to pay teachers.
It’s like an extra kick in the teeth to have to sleep in your car then walk into some gorgeous over-architected hundred-million-dollar palace with some rich guy’s name on it, to teach, and then go back to bathe in the bathroom at McDonald’s.
Marcus Ranum says
The Supreme Court is poised to deal a sharp blow to the unions that represent millions of teachers and other public employees, announcing Thursday it will consider striking down the mandatory fees that support collective bargaining.
The justices will hear the case of Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who objects to paying fees to the union, which represents 35,000 state workers.
Marcus Ranum, #7
I suspect that the incredibly wealthy private universities like Harvard and Yale do not have this problem, given that much of it stems from underfunding of public universities. These are the places where the scions of the rich tend to go – double standards abound.
Of course, this problem is not just a problem with universities and how they are funded and organised. It’s a problem with America’s whole gutted social welfare system and the culture that allows people to fall into poverty and won’t help them out. Of great assistance would be rent control laws, affordable housing, subsidised public transport, no university tuition fees, a living wage or guaranteed basic income and proper socialised healthcare.
It would also be very beneficial indeed if American universities were run not as capitalistic businesses but as worker cooperatives, where the staff, both teaching and non-teaching, managed the enterprise and made all the decisions by democratic means. This is, in fact, how the first universities were run. They were collectives, like trade guilds, organised by the masters and students to protect their own interests and prevent exploitation. Some of the very oldest European universities are still run like this to some extent.
Sounds like a webbie project: List universities and colleges and per semester, the number of courses and credit hours, and how many are taught by permanent faculty versus transients.
That would give college seekers another metric in choosing a university experience. A permanent staff has a higher interest in helping the students have a successful and transformative college experience where no matter how committed to subject and teaching the adjunct, in the end it’s the university saying the game is marking time and body count for money.
Anybody know if the info is available anywhere that can be combed out? (Why do I have the suspiciion institutions aren’t eager to make such available?) Or would an interactive app be the way to go with this?
As far as the argument that it’s the same teacher teaching the same stuff and thus the same class at a community college goes, I’m not convinced. Low level classes at a full university routinely have hundreds of students in them – that same class at a community college is likely to have somewhere around twenty. That this doesn’t routinely make the education outright better at the community college seems unlikely.
This is exactly why I changed course and sought a Master of Library Science degree after earning my MA rather than pressing on to get a Humanities PhD.
It’s not going to get better until the above changes. In my own school, state funding for this university (and it’s a Tier 1 research university with some 35K students) has declined 47% JUST SINCE 2005. Why it’s as if the people in charge WANT to turn the US into a 3rd world hellhole with college education for the wealthy elite and starvation for the rest of us.
One other aspect that needs to be addressed: this continues happening because adjuncts let it continue happening. All of them are intelligent hardworking people with advanced degrees. They could do other things for a living if they wanted.
As someone starting to look at colleges for the offspring … what would be a good number to use as a measure of a “good” adjunct-to-full time ratio?
I’d imagine “zero” isn’t really feasible, just due to the fact that not all courses can justify having a full-time teacher, especially as you move away from the base curriculum and into more specialty knowledge. But how close to that do you need to be to still be a reasonably good number (and, yes, I know there are 1000 other things that all contribute to the quality of the education.)
I can look up what the national average is, but that isn’t helpful if the situation (on average) is already messed up.
Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says
Think about what your just wrote. This is victim blaming. Don’t believe me? Change a couple of words and you get:
Don’t blame the victims. Please.
In my own school, state funding for this university (and it1s a Tier 1 research university with some 35K students) has declined 47% JUST SINCE 2005. Why it1s as if the people in charge WANT to turn the US into a 3rd world hellhole with college education for the wealthy elite and starvation for the rest of us.
Well, the more I read of the evolving (or do I mean “devolving”) US educational system the more this seems likely.
At the pre-college/uni level, I found this article interesting : http://curmudgucation.blogspot.ca/2017/09/az-teachers-abandon-ship.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+blogspot/ORjvzd+(CURMUDGUCATION)&m=1. From the article Fun fact: a Costco worker will make $12,000 more in a year than the average Arizona teacher.
Appointing Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education is unlikely to help. The intend in a number of US states seems to be to destroy the education system from top to bottom.
Other countries are watching this with interest http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/skilled/index.asp
Ogvorbis #16: Wrong. I advocate for better pay and conditions for fast food/retail workers because they have no other options. But on the list of workers who need help, adjuncts are far down the list, somewhere in the 100’s, because every one of them could pack up and leave for greener grass tomorrow if they wanted. They *do* have better options. Pointing that out is not the same as blaming them.
To be clear, I blame universities for how they treat adjuncts. But I blame McDonald’s a lot more. Their workers are trapped. Literally: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/business/pay-growth-fast-food-hiring.html
Daz: Uffish, yet slightly frabjous says
Where is this greener grass?
I don’t disagree that fast-food workers and others at the bottom of the “service industry” heap are treated worse, but I don’t see why this fact should lead us to blame—even partly—adjuncts for their own maltreatment.
SC (Salty Current) says
Yes, it is, and you have no idea what you’re talking about. People dedicate their lives to becoming scholars and teachers (in many programs, you’re not allowed to do other work on the side, and wouldn’t have time if you wanted to), rack up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and find an increasingly and rapidly casualized labor market. Even if they just decided they didn’t give a shit about their talents or vocation and decided to turn to corporate jobs, for which many don’t actually have the qualifications and which aren’t fucking better options,* that wouldn’t address the problem with education that PZ points out.
The system fails everyone. We need an organized response, and the idea that GAs and adjuncts haven’t worked to organize unions for years, facing intense pushback from institutions and Republican administrations, is truly out of touch. Look, this is part of the neoliberal/rightwing assault on colleges and universities. What’s happened with Trump makes it even more clear that the offensive includes attacks on leftwing voices and faculty governance; the promotion of corporate and rightwing power in universities; the debt economy; the assault on all unions and social justice movements; the attempt to take over or ban leftwing student organizations; the increase in economic and social inequality; the corporatization of the university mission, and attempt to define its goals in corporate terms; the incorporation of universities into a capitalist/”national security” agenda;…
“Scholars have better options” is not a solution. This is a matter for the resistance.
* If PZ were finishing grad school now, do you think something like that would be a better option for him?
I had a professor that commuted every day from Pennsylvania t teach at Northern Virginia Community College.
Somewhat related, I went to my highschool reunion last month and asked everyone I remembered what they were doing…and while everyone worked, every one of them – EVERY PERSON I ASKED – was still living with or supported by their relatives. It’s everywhere, every one – this a nation of serfs and aristocrats. Universities, too, have been subsumed by the aristocracies. They’re just another profiteering corporation.
SC (Salty Current) says
Part of the Trump/Republican class war is the weaponization of shame. They often claim to be on the side of struggling people, but the idea that people rely on their relatives (“living in his mother’s basement”) is utilized as an attack. Until we can say that family support is wonderful but shouldn’t be desperately required in a good society, and that there’s nothing shameful and much good about this reliance but we demand more social support, we’ll contribute to an attack on ourselves.
This is exactly what we should be talking about. If dignity and well-being isn’t the goal, what the hell is the point of a society?
Union. It works.
Ours at this large state university is the state teachers’ union, not the AAUP. The union contract with the university states that if any department hires an adjunct for two consecutive semesters, the next hire must be for a permanent, benefited position.
That’s, *one* adjunct in per department one semester, *one* adjunct in the same department the next semester, teaching any two classes and it doesn’t have to be the same person hired or for the same class. If you hired even one adjunct for two semesters, that’s the end. You can no longer hire adjuncts until after you’ve made a permanent hire.
Works real well: not many adjuncts here at all, and they’re not treated too badly (or at least, not for long).
Not going to last, though: the Supreme Court is about to gut public unions, so outs won’t be able to keep it up. I expect to see the place flooded with exploited adjuncts soon after.
Daz: Uffish, yet slightly frabjous says
SC (Salty Current) #22:
Well yes. According to the “personal responsibility” doctrine of The Holy Friedman, any reliance on others, whether family, friends or society at large, can only be due to personal failure. Or as Thatcher put it, “There is no such thing as society.”
Not just adjuncts, but grad students are also a source of cheap labor for universities to pawn off their teaching to. Especially the R1 institutions. Some of them, such as the one I’m currently at, have over half of the teaching done by graduate students. And each semester and each year, the budget for things like paying for teaching assistants goes down and down, so more and more obligations are being pushed on incoming graduate students as required but uncompensated labor. The kicker is, relative to other universities around the country, we have a very strong graduate student union here. It’s just that the situation is *that* bad around the country.
Yeah, that’s exactly my point, SC. Family support is wonderful but shouldn’t be desperately needed – but it IS desperately needed in this society, and that’s wrong. None of us want to be living in our parents’ basements (my dad kicked me out almost a decade ago, and I’ve been living in a friend’s parents’ basement since), we all want to be able to go out and support our own life but…that opportunity just isn’t there any more.
And our baby boomer parents are retiring or dying or getting sick, healthcare costs may soon consume their entire 60’s and 70’s legacy wealth, and when that lifeline is cut off, what is there for us then?
We’re in these straits now because of the Republican and Republican-chasing Democrats’ class warfare over decades. And sadly it doesn’t look like it’s going to abate because 60 million fucking degenerate scumsucking cumrags decided to fucking immolate themselves to set fire to what little anyone else had and voted for Trump and the Republicans. I still have hope that we can take over the Democratic Party and install leadership that will save us, but that’s only because the alternative is despair. And for now, the most important thing is excising the most aggressive RWNJ cancer, so we’ll have to throw in with whatever Democrat we can find to run wherever we can.
It’s a nation of serfs and aristocrats…and half the serfs side with the aristocrats just for the evulz.
About “invite them to faculty meetings, treat them like other faculty”…
Views differ on that. Here’s the issue: we don’t pay them enough to do service work. I’m happy if one of my adjuncts WANTS to sit in on department meetings, but even the act of asking them has to be delicate, since they may feel beholden to do so (like a WalMart employee asked to pull a few minutes of unpaid overtime).
But, another view on what we can do for adjuncts: insist they have office space to meet students. Space is at a premium in most schools, so this is a big cost.
Ohio professors at private colleges are explicitly forbidden by law from unionizing.
Adjunct professors may NEVER SEE EACH OTHER at their school. How do they organize? How do they even learn about the names of their fellow employees?
The solution is NOT simple.
I’m a mid-level professional in industry, finishing my Master’s degree at a private university, with tuition paid for by my employer.
My Master’s Thesis involves methods to reduce laboratory costs in engineering education — finding low-cost microcontrollers that can take the place of expensive devices from National Instruments and dSPACE.
I believe the professors at my university would like me to teach as adjunct once I’ve completed my degree, but I also know the pay would be pitiful. Fortunately for me, I don’t need the pay, as I probably make more than most of the tenured professors working in industry.
So… am I the new paradigm of adjunct? Find a job in industry that pays you well enough to make a living, and then teach part-time because it’s important to do?
Does that perpetuate the problems, or solve them?
SC (Salty Current) says
Yes, I wasn’t disagreeing with you, just expanding on what you were saying.
Gotcha, I wasn’t sure which way it was.
ck, the Irate Lump says
Effectively, you’ve changed teaching from a productive skill that a practitioner should be compensated for, to a hobby where compensation isn’t important. That might be okay for you, but what about those who want to be educators for a living? It’s the perversion of “Sharing Economy” all over again where you take all the risk (get your degrees on your own dime) and do all the work, and the owners of the platform take all the revenue.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with teaching without expectation of compensation, but only when the entire endevour is built around that. There’s a big difference between volunteering to tutor kids living in poverty to help them get in college, and volunteering to teach college students that the college turns around and charges the students thousands upon thousands of dollars to benefit from.
Definitely not the latter.