Friday, February 6, 2015

Academic Day Labor: The Exploitation of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

Imagine this scene:

A group of well dressed, professional looking people of all races and genders are gathered outside a Home Depot store, about two dozen feet from the entrance. Some sip coffee from paper cups. Others clutch briefcases as the glance furtively around them. A hardy few make jokes with others standing near them. Suddenly, a car pulls up in front of them and stop. A surge of anticipation floods through the crowd. Everyone stands up tall. Those with ties straighten them. A few murmur a prayer. The car window lowers and an equally well dressed person sticks their head out the window.

“Any of you teach Government?” the person asks. “Or Math?”

A few hands are raised. The driver of the car motions them over. They gather around the car and talk for a minute. Heads nod. A few smile. Then they hop into the car and drive off. A deflated feeling hits those left behind. Heads drop. Shoulders sag. And they wait for the next car.

Sounds ridiculous, right? It is more accurate than you might think. When you send you child off to college, odds are their professor will not be a tenured or contracted faculty member but a member of the crowd described above. Adjunct faculty are the day laborers of higher education. The “a” word is no longer used as much as it was by the colleges. Today they call these people “contingent” faculty or “part time” faculty, but we still wear the Scarlett A no matter what you call us. The American Association of University Professors reports that over half of all faculty positions are now held by part-time (ie: adjunct) faculty. When you add full time non-tenure track faculty to that, it jumps to 74%.

Over the past twenty years, the number of adjunct faculty has grown steadily. But consider what college tuition has done during that time? Forbes has reported that since 1985, tuition has gone up 115% and it has continued to climb at a higher rate than the inflation rate. So where is this money going if it isn’t to pay for full time faculty? Well, why don’t you check the salaries of the top administrators and also the number of administrators with overlapping or completely unnecessary job titles? What about the money spent sending said administrators to conferences all over the country while class sizes grow and education sufferers. Administrators at our nation’s colleges and universities are fiddling while Rome burns.

Part time faculty work for a fraction of what the full time faculty make and often get no health benefits or retirement. This may vary from college to college. At one institution where I teach, adjuncts do have access to the health insurance plan, but the college does not contribute to the premium. This means that to insure just themselves, the entire paycheck for one class would go to covering the health insurance premium and that is just for the four months you get paid per semester. You’d be on the hook for the rest of it during the remainder of the year. That isn’t really “affordable” health insurance. If a full time faculty member at a community college is contracted to teach five classes per semester and an adjunct can teach three, that is slightly over half of regular teaching load. The college should contribute an equal portion to that adjuncts health insurance, but that won’t happen.

The average per class salary for an adjunct in the United States is $2700 per course. In my area, that is more like $1700 per course which is my gross at the institution that has the best pay. Many adjuncts labor for years trying to make ends meet, all the while holding out hope that if a rare full time position were to open up that they will get it. Sadly, that is not always the case. I have seen colleges hire outside candidates despite having well qualified adjuncts who have already demonstrated loyalty to the institution in the applicant pool. I have to teach 8 or 9 classes each fall and spring (almost double a full load) just to make ends meet. In doing so, I get four paychecks in the fall and four in the spring. I’m on my own the rest of the year unless I can get summer classes which are harder to come by. I am far from being the only one in this boat. Once upon I time, teaching was a side gig for me. After my injury, it is now my sole source of income. How are we expected to stand in front of a classroom and tell students that education will open doors for them when we are barely above food stamp levels ourselves? In 2014, I taught 8 classes in the Spring, 4 in the summer, and 9 in the fall. I grossed $35,000 which is about $10,000 less than a full time faculty member despite the fact that they only have to teach 10 classes. Any that they teach over that will only bring them more money. Of course, I did not get any health insurance. Luckily, in Texas, public institutions will allow you to pay into the state teacher retirement which is one small perk. Keep in mind that I have to have the same qualifications to teach a class as a full time faculty member, so it isn’t a matter of one being more qualified than another.

Over the course of my time as an adjunct, I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been told that I cannot do something because I am “just an adjunct” despite no policies actually existing to prohibit things I sought to do. Asking questions gets you in trouble. With no job security, a school is free to simply not have any classes for you the next semester. Adjuncts are scared to ask questions or challenge the discrepancies that exist. And rightfully so. I’ve seen it happen to people. In fact, because I wrote this article, it will probably happen to me. But in everyone’s life there will come a time when they have to make a decision. Do you stand up and fight back against injustice or do you go along to get along? I’ve made my decision. What’s yours?

To be fair, it is not just the fault of the administration at our nation’s colleges. It is also the fault of our politicians. Texas, for example, is notoriously anti-public education. It goes along with the party that controls the state. They have regularly slashed funding for schools and for colleges as well. Several years back, Governor Rick Perry and the State Legislature deregulated the tuition levels at state schools. He promised that the cost would not be passed on to the students. This is yet another lie. Colleges are not getting enough funding, but they also do not make adequate use of what they do receive. Full time positions are allowed to remain vacant with that faculty spot now going to two or three more adjuncts. Colleges do this to save money on health insurance and other benefits. They are not spending it on providing full time faculty. That’s for sure.

Is there an answer to any of this? Yes. There are things that you can do. Take the time to educate yourselves. Vote for candidates who are pro education. And if you are an adjunct, organize, organize, and organize. There is safety in numbers. We teach the majority of the college students in this country. If we speak with one united voice, they will have to listen. Do you really think that colleges will turn away students (which equal money to them) just to continue to take advantage of adjunct labor? I doubt it. They like their income source too much to do that. We need job security. We need proportional access to health insurance and retirement benefits. We need policies that treat all faculty the same rather than singling out adjunct faculty for “special treatment”. And most of all, we need respect. Together we can get it. Remember, if you are not part of the solution, then I am sorry to say that you are part of the problem.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. (I apologize for not writing a history post this time around. Next time I will.)


  1. As an adjunct myself, I am sitting here, reading this blog, and shaking my head, knowing that those who make the decisions for us have no clue what their decisions mean ... to adjuncts OR to the students. It is either that, or they just don't care. Either way, it is a shame.

    Great Job, Lee!

    1. Thank you. I apologize for just now replying. You know how it is....teaching at multiple schools trying to pay the bills takes up a good portion of the day. Hang in there and fight the good fight. I like to think we are making a difference.