The Adjuncting of Academia: Reflections on the Increasingly Temporary Nature of Work
A couple of statistics to ponder: Over the last thirty years, the cost of college education has increased by a staggering 1200 percent, double the rate of inflation for medical care and several times the rate of inflation for other basic goods. While the effect of these increases has been felt more at pricey private universities, state-run colleges haven’t been immune. Politicians, looking to slash state budgets, found plenty to trim from their state’s university systems, which, in turn, raised their tuition and fees to cover the funding deficit.
At the same time college costs have exploded, more and more teaching tasks have been relegated to a growing brigade of adjunct professors. As the chart below, which comes from an SEIU report on the adjunct labor force in the Boston area, indicates, in the 40 years from 1969 to 2009, the composition of college and university faculty has been dramatically transformed. Contingent or contract workers now account for nearly two-thirds of the professorial workforce; whereas, in 1969, they comprised only about one-fifth. College teaching has become the ultimate “temp” job.
Needless to say, adjunct professors, often hired to teach on a class-by-class basis, make far less than their full-time counterparts. On average, an adjunct pulls down about $20,000 to $25,000 a year as compared to about $84,300 for the typical full-time professor or instructor. Adjuncts also face a variety of other indignities that their full-time colleagues do not. As Tyler Kingkade explains in an article describing the myriad ways in which working as an adjunct sucks, adjunct faculty members
- often work one or more other jobs to make ends meet;
- can see the classes they were scheduled to teach get cancelled the day before they were slated to start;
- rarely have any say in faculty governance;
- and usually don’t get any benefits like health insurance, sick pay, or pension plans.
Adjuncts also have zero job security. As one adjunct told the authors of the SEIU study, “I am scheduled to teach a class at [a Boston university] in the fall. That class can be canceled up to the morning it is supposed to start—and that is it. No pay. So all of us are hustling for work. If I am offered another class and there is a conflict, I have to pick one or the other—but if the one I picked is canceled then I lose my compensation because the other one will no longer be available. They [administrators] treat us like we are Kleenex.”
Adjunct horror stories abound on the Internet. They range from the mundane–adjuncts holding office hours from their cars because the college wouldn’t give them office space–to the tragic–adjuncts sleeping in homeless shelters or subsisting on food stamps–because teaching several classes, often at different institutions, does not provide adequate compensation to cover basic living expenses.
One might think that in the supposedly uber-lefty halls of academe, the tenured and the tenure-track might show some concern for the plight of their non-tenured colleagues. But this is frequently not the case. A good portion of the tenured hold the belief that were an adjunct truly talented, he or she would have somehow managed to acquire a tenure-track position. As Keith Hoeller, editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, explains:
Such prejudice is the natural solution to cognitive dissonance, which holds that when people’s belief systems conflict with their behavior, they will sometimes modify their beliefs in order to justify their behavior. The problem posed for tenure-track faculty is this: how can they justify why they are treated so well while so many of their non-tenure track colleagues are treated so badly?
…for decades there have been far more qualified applicants than there have been tenure-track jobs. But it is precisely this scarcity of full-time positions that leads those who have them to see themselves as the winners in some sort of social Darwinian landscape.
The result is a two-track system with the tenured and tenure-track few enjoying the privileges of academic life–job security, decent salaries and benefits, good working conditions–while the untenured many eke out a living, desperately hoping for the break that will launch them into the top tier. Notes Hoeller:
Wal-Mart seems to provide an apt analogy for the economic trend that has occurred in academia. Wal-Mart has become well known for keeping its number of full-time workers to a minimum, and hiring many part-time workers, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security.
The so-called “Wal-Martinization” of higher education isn’t happening because universities, even public ones, are cash-strapped. To the contrary. While government funding contracted between 1975 and 2005, private gifts and grants more than doubled “from $141 billion to $293 billion (in constant 2005) dollars.” Moreover, enrollments increased by 60 percent during that time period.
Full-time professors haven’t benefited greatly from this increased cash flow. Their salaries, while reasonable, are consistent with those of other similarly situated professionals. Rather, it’s the administrators who are raking it in. According to Thomas Frank, university administrations have grown by 369 percent since the mid-1970s. A recent study from the Institute for Policy Studies, written by Adam Irwin and Majorie Woods, found that the 25 public universities where executive pay was the highest saw the sharpest rise in student debt, the greatest increase in the percentage in part-time adjunct faculty, and the greatest declines in permanent full-time faculty, as illustrated by the infographic below:
In short, the study concludes that rapidly rising tuition costs, huge increases in executive pay, and the increasing reliance on low-paid, adjunct professor are interrelated developments that drive growing inequality at many of our nation’s institutions of higher learning.
The universities’ two-tiered labor system reflects developments in the larger economy. As the authors of the SEIU study note:
The increasingly contingent nature of academic labor is not an accident of history but a deliberate business model that leaves taxpayers holding the bag by depriving faculty of wages, benefits and job security, forcing them to collect food stamps and subsidized healthcare, and forgo saving for retirement. In many ways, the crisis in higher education mirrors the crisis in the broader economy, where jobs are increasingly low wage and part time even while [corporate] revenues and profits are increasing.
So much for the peaceful groves of academe. Universities have become as ruthless in their employment practices as the global corporate giants, leveraging cheap adjunct labor to grow their endowments and their executives’ salaries. Here then is the future of work in this country, captured in the growing inequality of campus life: a small number of highly compensated administrators and superstar professors at the top; a shrinking number of well-compensated professors just below; and, at the bottom, an ever-growing number of contingent, low-paid, easily disposable instructors, lacking benefits, who can never be sure from one semester to the next where and if they’ll be teaching, left to string together a meager living from a series of part-time jobs. It is a story being told in one industry, one profession after another in our increasingly winner-take-all economy. At least college students will learn what to expect from the “real” world by observing the economic and social structure of their own universities.