by Ann Kottner
If you’re sending your children off to college soon, you need to know something important about where you’re sending them, whether it’s an Ivy League school or community college. As much as 75% of the faculty are so grossly underpaid that they often cannot make a living. They frequently do not have offices (or office hours), do not have access to computers, phones, copying facilities, or even office supplies. Your children will thus have little opportunity for contact with these professors outside of class, and likely will never develop any sort of long-term rapport or mentoring relationship with them. I am one of these professors. I am a non-tenure-track adjunct faculty member and, like many of my colleagues, I teach four classes at three different universities, when I’m lucky. My annual take-home pay is $32,000 in a good year, $24,000 more often.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has revealed that many who received their advanced degrees within the last twenty years are so poorly paid that they are eligible for, or are actually on, some kind of government assistance. This is not a new problem, but it is a complex one, and one that is finally entering national conversations. In truth, it’s a long-term, ongoing scandal that can be blamed on many factors: the defunding of higher education on the state and federal level, the increased number of administrative positions, the expansion of sports and other non-academic programs and services, the glut of available faculty in certain fields, even the long history of using graduate students as teaching assistants.
Most infamously, however, is the lack of union representation for adjuncts. Few adjuncts are unionized, and many who are find themselves poorly represented, or represented by full-time faculty with whom they compete for funding, if not for actual jobs. And what is relatively new is the number of non-tenure-track faculty, and the exploitative way in which they are being employed—and how that affects the quality of education at our universities.
The Chronicle article starkly lays out the plight of non-tenure-track adjuncts: “Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees. An adjunct’s salary can range from $600 to $10,000 per course¹.” That $10,000 per class seems high, but it’s reserved for star guest lecturers, often non-academics from politics or industry. Adjunct faculty may teach as many as seven courses (four is considered full time) but earn an average of $12,000 per semester—and nothing over the summer—without retirement benefits, health insurance, or protection of any kind from summary termination of their employment without any chance to grieve the decision.
n addition, most schools bar adjuncts from teaching enough credits to wholly support ourselves at one institution to avoid paying for benefits—especially under the newly implemented Affordable Care Act. Because most academic work takes place outside the classroom, this can make it tough to do our job well. It’s not uncommon for adjuncts to spend as much time on the road as we do in the classroom, going from school to school to have enough classes to make ends meet. This leaves little time for in-depth grading, class preparation or, dare I say, sleep. It leaves zero time for the thoughtfulness or research that good teaching requires, even though working weekends is de rigueur.
Adjuncts’ inherent job insecurity is one reason we have been slow to unionize. We have little enough time and energy to do our jobs, let alone to organize, and our disposability makes us vulnerable to punitive dismissal when we do. In no other professional sector is the majority of its highly educated workers treated like seasonal labor—forced to constantly look for new classes; often not knowing in advance what we will be teaching until the night before; working for below-standard pay without benefits, job security, or much hope of full-time employment. In no other professional industry are wages based only on the hours involved in a single aspect of work, that is, only when we are actually in a classroom, not what we also do outside of it.
That tuition check and Adjunct Action
These are typical labor problems, but skilled, educated, white-collar workers deserve, expect, and usually receive better, and this is one reason many of my colleagues across the state are reaching out to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Adjunct Action. For those of us facing some of the gravest working conditions, and paradoxically employed by many of the wealthiest private colleges and universities in New York State, the arrival of Adjunct Action is at least hopeful for some contingent faculty New Yorkers. But for others around the nation, the deplorable working conditions persist.
These working conditions hurt individual faculty; they hurt the disciplines we feel so passionate about; they hurt our students; they hurt the university system; ultimately, they hurt the nation. Fewer full-time faculty means fewer voices and less diversity on curriculum committees and university senates to ensure students are well-prepared to graduate and to keep standards high. It means fewer of us invested in the quality of your children’s higher education, and fewer of us to defend it against unreasonable cost-cutting measures. Faculty are the backbone of the educational enterprise; without us, there is no university or college. Increasingly, that backbone is only present part time and doesn’t have time or energy to do our best work because we are always looking for more.
Vice President Biden and others have claimed that part of the rising cost of education is due to the increase in faculty salaries. Figures from the American Association of University Professors² and U.S. Department of Labor³ contradict this claim, and in fact show that salaries have declined, for both full-time and adjunct faculty. Before you sign that first tuition check, find out how many adjuncts your university or college employs. Then ask the administration how much those adjunct faculty members are paid and how well they are supported. Then ask why you’re writing such a big check.
That Tuition Check Resources: