The Social Injustice Done to Adjunct Faculty: A Call to Arms


The time has come. If senior faculty members don’t force the issue of justice for adjuncts, no one else will.

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It’s September, and many of America’s teens are headed back to college. This means that not a few parents will be left with that empty feeling in the pit of their stomach—not only because their beloved children are leaving the nest but because the bills to pay for their children's new college homes are coming due. According to the College Board, tuition, fees, room and board in private four-year universities last year averaged $42,419. That was up $1,464 from the previous year. Was your pay raise that high? Parents might be left wondering where all the money goes. Are all these faculty members getting rich?

In an earlier Public Discourse essay, I showed that tuition at American colleges and universities has been rising six times faster than inflation and several times faster than health-care costs, which has forced students to take on ever-increasing levels of debt to pay for their education. I also documented how most of those increases have gone to the support of ever-expanding university bureaucracies and to the salaries of upper-level administrators.

Many colleges and universities have engaged in a frenzy of building, competing to draw in students with lavish research centers, luxurious dormitories, and top-notch recreation facilities. All of these elaborate perks are meant to justify the equally elaborate sums of money students are being asked to fork over to attend such a “prestigious” and “elite” institution. Yet many of these colleges and universities have spent well in excess of their revenues and have had to borrow heavily to pay construction costs. Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011, according to inflation-adjusted data from Moody’s. In the same period, colleges’ cash, pledged gifts, and investments declined more than 40 percent relative to the amount they owe. A study released by Bain & Company and Sterling Partners, a private equity firm, found that long-term debt at US nonprofit colleges and universities grew 12 percent a year from 2002 to 2008, while interest costs increased 9 percent.

Feeling the crunch, administrators have tried to justify their salaries by cutting costs. They have targeted the people who are weakest and least competitive in the job market: the college’s bottom-level workforce. This level includes not just the janitorial staff, whose members have at least a minimal chance of being represented by a union, but also adjunct faculty, who currently possess absolutely no chance of the benefits of union representation.

The Role of Adjunct Faculty

Today, adjunct instructors make up half or more of all faculty. There is, of course, a legitimate role for such faculty. The category was created to cover those outside the academy who might come in to share their expertise in a special course—say, for example, a marketing executive who comes in to teach a business school course on marketing. These people aren’t looking to achieve a tenured academic position, but they are “faculty” nonetheless.

What such people are generally paid is what we might call an “honorarium” rather than a salary. We can’t really afford to pay the high-level executive what she earns at her regular job, but we feel it “honors” her to be paid something. The justification for not paying them benefits is due to the presumption that they have benefits (and usually better benefits) through their full-time jobs, and so offering them employee benefits such as health insurance (as opposed to, say, free parking, use of the library, and access to the gym) would be superfluous.

The kind of “adjunct” faculty we’re discussing now, however, are not in this category. Most of the adjunct faculty that now make up more than half of higher education faculty are not “honored” members of the community who have come into the university to provide students with the benefits of their practical experience. They are hired at poverty-level wages with no health-care benefits and no guarantee of continued employment from semester to semester.

How badly are these adjuncts paid? It varies a bit from institution to institution, but the going rate is somewhere around three to four thousand dollars per course. Even if such an instructor were to be allowed to teach three courses per semester (which would be very rare), he or she would be earning only about $9,000 (pre-tax) per semester, or $18,000 per year—without health-care benefits.

How Much Do Universities Profit from Adjunct Labor?

How little is this compared to what the university earns from the faculty member’s labor? Allow me to take an example from a fairly standard, private midwestern university. At this institution, a full-time student (taking twelve to eighteen credits per semester) paid $37,350 in tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year. Assuming the norm of fifteen credits, that would be $1,245 per credit hour or $3,735 per class. For twelve credits, that means that each student would be paying $1,556.25 per credit hour or $4,668.75 per class. At this same institution, the per-credit-hour rate for part-time students is $1,305 per credit hour, or $3,915 for a three-credit class. An adjunct faculty member at this institution is paid $3,000 per semester to teach a three-credit class, without benefits.

So, even for the student who is paying the least amount per credit hour (the full-time student, who pays $3,112.50 for the course), the University is still receiving more from a single student than it pays the instructor.

At nearly all institutions, classes taught by adjunct faculty that do not have at least ten or fifteen students are cancelled. Thus, unless the university is able to take in at least $30,000 for a course they are paying $3,000 dollars for—that is, $27,000 in excess of the amount they are paying the instructor—they won’t do it.

A normal adjunct who teaches three classes per semester will average about seventy-five students in total, which means that the University earns a minimum of $233,437.50 per semester from that adjunct’s efforts. With ninety students, the university would make a profit of $277,125 per semester (over $500,000 per year). When I was an adjunct faculty member, I can remember a semester I had 150 students and earned $2,800 per course.

And how are these adjuncts treated within the community? Adjunct faculty members are usually the invisible men and women of modern academia.

At most institutions, when a “regular” faculty member dies, the entire institution is informed. If the institution has religious affiliations of any sort, there will usually be a large funeral or prayer service on campus. After the death of a longtime adjunct faculty member at the same midwestern university I was discussing above, no campus-wide notice went out. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the students in the professor’s class going to campus ministry to ask whether something could be done, there probably would have been no public recognition of this man’s death at all. The chair of the department finally sent out a note to department members informing them that the students wanted “to have something in the way of memorial during their class,” and inviting them to pencil it into their calendars if they were so inclined.

Professional Associations Must Demand Justice

Without over-romanticizing the medieval guild—a very human institution that was susceptible to all the very usual human failings—when guilds were at their best, they did three things well that protected their members within the context of an uncertain and increasingly mercantilist economy. First, they set standards for the treatment of apprentices and set forth the basic requirements to be met for becoming a master. One was not automatically elevated to “master” status, but neither could one be kept at the level of a lowly apprentice forever. The guild also took care to control the apprentice system so that there were not too many apprentices for the jobs that were likely to be available within an area. Such rules helped, among other things, to protect those at the bottom of the guild hierarchy from abuse and set out for them a clear path to economic security and independence.

Let me suggest that one of the closest things we have to “guilds” in modern American society are the professional academic societies: the American Philosophical Association, the American Political Science Association, and a host of others across the academic disciplines. And in all three areas I’ve just set forth—sensible training and raising up of apprentices, care that there were not too many apprentices for possible positions, and protection of those at the bottom of the guild hierarchy from abuse—the modern academic associations have failed miserably.

Graduate students are allowed to tread water with their heads barely above the surface for year after year without appropriate guidance. There is often little or no thought among graduate faculty to the placement of their graduates in appropriate jobs, or whether in fact perhaps their own graduate program ought to close to help clear up the glut of excess graduate students on the market. Closing such graduate programs would of course necessitate two grievous sufferings that many senior faculty members are unwilling to undergo: the loss of the prestige that comes with teaching in a graduate program and the terrifying possibility of actually being required to teach freshmen in introductory-level courses.

It is crucial, in my view, that senior faculty show themselves willing to make the necessary sacrifices for justice rather than merely laying the blame solely at the feet of administrators. Senior faculty must shoulder their share of the blame.

Senior faculty must demand basic justice for those who are at the lowest end of the hierarchy and who are the weakest before the ever-increasing power of the corporate university establishment: the “invisible” men and women of the adjunct faculty. These academic guilds have been able to get themselves together to do all sorts of things—print journals, arrange conferences in expensive hotels in big cities, condemn apartheid, affirm global warming, decry racism—but somehow they never have had the time or will to vote for something that might involve “goring their own ox,” so to speak: namely, a nationwide strike among all the guilds of any and all institutions that do not agree to transition all adjunct faculty in the country who do not have full-time jobs elsewhere to “Instructor” or “Assistant Professor” rank, with a regular salary and health-care benefits.

The Time Has Come for a Nationwide Strike

Striking is seen as something blue-collar workers do, not people who sit in the book-lined offices of academia. I mean, elementary and high school teachers in public schools strike, not college professors. Let’s be honest: it’s a class thing. But we in academia have allied ourselves for too long with the wrong class. As much as we like to give lip service to helping those in the lower classes, we ignore those in our midst who do the work we’d prefer not to, from janitorial tasks to grading student papers and teaching non-majors.

It’s time we in academia leveled with each other. If senior faculty members don’t force the issue of justice for adjuncts, no one else will. Most administrators see the increasing use of adjuncts not as a problem, but as the solution to a problem. One might almost sympathize with them if they hadn’t exacerbated the situation by padding their own paychecks, adding ever more bureaucracy, and leveraging their institutions into higher and higher levels of debt with grandiose building projects. The salary of just one $250,000 Vice President of Something-or-Other and his staff of five would go a long way toward topping off the salaries of five or six underpaid adjuncts.

All this criticism of administrative bloat, while entirely appropriate, should not obscure another important point. Senior faculty must realize that they will have absolutely no credibility on any of their complaints about “corporate America” until and unless they force their institutions to do right by adjunct faculty. These members of our community must be paid a wage appropriate to their experience and level of training. Under no circumstances whatsoever are they to be left without health-care benefits. The time for justice for these “invisible” men and women of academia is now. The only question is how it can be done and how soon.

I don’t know which is worse: the fact that higher education corporate bureaucracies perpetrate this crime against the weakest and least competitive members of their workforce, or that the members of the university professoriate allow the practice to continue unabated in their midst, while enjoying the benefits and freedoms tenure provides.

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

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