How the Adjunct Crisis Hurts Students and the Importance of Fighting Back

Today I’m pleased to be able to publish this guest post by AAUP member Miranda Merklein, a contract professor serving the Northern New Mexico area. She holds a Ph.D. in English from University of Southern Mississippi, an M.A. in liberal arts from St. John’s college, and a B.A. in political science from College of Santa Fe.

Adjuncts are frequently told that basic necessities like a living wage and health care are not “in the budget” of the institutions that employ us, where we work full time hours as contracted, part time labor in a semester-to-semester purgatory state of what-ifs, often at multiple institutions with little to no control of our teaching schedules. We are the lowest paid, albeit terminally educated and skilled, employees at our institutions where we are treated like untouchables by virtually everyone on campus except our students who, until recently, had no idea we were teetering on the edge of financial ruin and emotional collapse. When we approach management about an increase in pay, a living wage, our intentions are questioned and we are accused of putting our own monetary needs above our chosen profession, teaching. At the same time, the people who are in it for the money—college presidents, upper administration, sports coaches—continue to earn raises like we collect white hairs while watching our students and our own children fall deeper into debt.

Tenure track and full time faculty speak of themselves as “we,” as in “we, the department”; contract professors, better known as adjuncts, are the outsiders, the “you guys”, separate and inferior no matter how long we have worked at a particular institution or how many classes we teach. “Thanks for helping us out,” they say. “We appreciate your flexibility.” While I realize this internalized superiority is not necessarily a result of conscious intention, it is damaging nonetheless, especially because this ideology is continually reinforced by the polarized working conditions of the two-tier faculty campus (see Jane Elliott’s Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes exercise). Although I consider myself lucky to have worked with many interesting and considerate colleagues in a variety of roles in my professional life, I would not be surprised if it were suddenly “in the budget” to build separate bathrooms for adjuncts; that’s how deranged the adjunct crisis has become, at great cost to our students and higher education.

Most people don’t pursue a career in higher education for the money. While I was in graduate school, however, I had no idea I would soon be entering a two-tiered system of academic apartheid where the majority of professors earn poverty level wages with absolutely no job security or benefits. I never envisioned a work environment where people lucky enough to have tenure or slightly more secure teaching contracts would walk past their adjunct colleagues in the hall and avoid eye-contact, choosing to look at an empty wall instead of saying hello to equally qualified professors with identical credentials. This behavior is destructive in numerous ways and it doesn’t stay outside of the classroom, even if our lips are sealed for our own protection. After all, adjunct professors are never safe. We must watch what we say and do at all times and can be fired for no reason.

The adjunct crisis is also a student crisis. How could it be otherwise? When a student attends her first college class, odds are she will most likely be taught by an adjunct professor, a member of a class of contingent workers who make up the majority of all faculty in the U.S. Instead of encountering a professional role model, as one might expect, students find themselves sitting before a frequently disheveled contingent laborer, quite possibly on the verge of eviction, as adjunct professors have to survive without pay for nearly two months between fall and spring semesters. Many colleges relying primarily on adjunct labor do not issue first paychecks until three weeks or more after the start of the semester, five weeks after we have begun work preparing syllabi and planning our courses (what I deem the indentured servitude period). Summer, for many of us, is a perennial catastrophe.

Parents and students may wonder how this can be when tuition keeps rising. Where is all this money going, after all, if not to education? They are right to question, and they should demand answers.

Students and faculty exist apart from the swelling ranks of highly paid administration personnel while we absorb all the risk to the point of instability; it’s a trend that makes little business sense, even in the increasingly corporatized university, because of the sheer amount of overhead. We have massive student support services, but American colleges and universities are doing a disservice to their students by financially exploiting them and trapping their professors in poverty. It’s no surprise that food donation centers are popping up all over campuses. Students and their professors are literally going to bed hungry because they chose to do the right thing and “stay in school.” Adjunct professors have held food drives too, and some even donate plasma regularly for cash.

Although contract labor in the U.S. is on the rise, few industries condone this level of wage theft, or to put it nicely, delayed pay for contract labor, further compounded by the lack of any meaningful benefits or health insurance. Our political leaders continue to emphasize the value of a college degree, endorsing it as a means of financial mobility, but for the vast majority of students earning four and two year degrees, their encounters with professors are with men and women (including graduate teaching assistants) barely holding it together amidst the chaos that encompasses their lives. (We don’t exactly project an air of financial stability or success.) At the same time, there are better days and better circumstances for some part-time instructors, but for most of us, the future is bleak. It’s simply deluded to think these working conditions have no impact on the quality of students’ education.

Adjunct professors tend to be empathetic, idealistic people—We dedicated our lives to truth, beauty, and art, after all—which is exactly why we make perfect targets for exploitation by the corporatized university and its highly-paid management personnel, but we are not stupid. We know that upper administrators are not going to just voluntarily consolidate their duties and resign unnecessary positions to save money and redirect desperately needed funds to the fundamental purpose of our institutions, or because they finally understand how expensive and harmful their professional entrepreneurship goals are to students and faculty, how they are depriving our schools of the ability to provide an affordable education. We know that hiring decisions are not going to all of a sudden become merit and seniority-based instead of unabashedly nepotistic.

If an attempt is made to rescue higher education and the profession, we must organize, refocus on student and faculty needs, and take direct action immediately. We have the ability to create change through basic organization strategies, collective bargaining and unionization. This opportunity comes at the right time for labor unions too, as here we have two sinking ships capable of saving and restoring each other to former glory.

As more students speak out and faculty gains confidence in solidarity, institutions are bringing out the big guns, the union-busting law firms, to counter unionization efforts, but at most this reactionary approach will only delay the inevitable. American universities and colleges can no longer support the weight of so many exorbitant salaries of non-essential personnel. Tuition cannot be raised any further if students are expected to attend. Therefore, arguing “budgetary realities” is no longer a defensible smokescreen since the budget and its skewed rationale has deviated too far from its original purpose: to educate our citizens and future leaders while promoting academic freedom and research within the professoriate.

There are funds for building big, beautiful country club campuses adorned with sushi bars and gourmet coffee shops, but at what cost to our students and their education? Don’t students deserve to be taught by someone with healthcare? Institutions would rather cap our teaching hours so that we don’t qualify for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, even though it’s common knowledge that teaching even six credit hours constitutes at least 30 hours of work per week. (Shh. Don’t tell the feds.) In order to fill in the gaping hole in teaching duties, since institutions have a high demand for contracted labor to teach the majority of classes, they simply hired more adjuncts. Problem solved, but at what cost to students? An instructor’s salary capped at less than 15 thousand a year is not exactly conducive to a productive learning environment, and it doesn’t bode well for academic freedom either, yet adjuncts are expected to survive on this wage while teaching the majority of classes.

The fact that adjuncts have to accept so many assignments just to live hand-to-mouth creates pressure for our FT/TT colleagues (all differences aside) who teach a manageable schedule and have other duties that together equal full time work. Management, often comprised of people who know very little about education or how it occurs—the very product they are administering—can always argue, “Well, these adjuncts teach seven courses a semester for next to nothing. Why can’t you teach more than three and do all this other committee work?” It is only natural, then, that our colleagues would harbor a resentment toward us, the sweatshop workers of academia, but they have to understand that we were deliberately led into this mess; the adjunct crisis is not a result of a million collective individual failures, as some would have us believe.

Do students deserve to be taught by someone who is not overworked and exhausted from teaching and commuting between multiple institutions? Again, our institutions say no. Adjuncts have to work the annual course load of a tenured professor per term just to make the equivalent of an entry level fast food worker’s wage. It’s like the concept of equal pay for equal work never existed. (I have to teach six classes per semester for my son and myself to survive on a basic level. Some adjunct breadwinners with bigger families teach as many as 10 courses per semester.) Sure, institutions could choose to hire only professors with independent wealth or spousal support, but there are simply not enough financially secure adjuncts to meet the demand for instructors.

Even if it were possible to staff 75% of classes with part-time “practicing professionals,” the message an action like that would send to students is that prior wealth, not education or training, determines one’s future income, which is incompatible with the most influential selling point students receive from admissions counselors and government leaders: that education is a means of financial mobility: Plato’s “noble lie” in reverse.

We need to decide very soon if we are going to reflect the values we teach or abandon them altogether, as the contradiction is apparent, and frankly, it’s becoming an embarrassment. Students are losing their favorite professors because many adjuncts can no longer survive at this subsistence level of existence. They burn out, or they simply find other employment. The Web is awash with personal stories of adjuncts throwing in the towel. Recently one of the best and most popular professors at the community college where I work, Jessica Lawless, left to become a labor organizer. I was preparing for class when I heard students conversing about how they could not take the class they wanted to next semester because the professor was leaving “to go fight for teachers.” While students often look to me to make sense of the world, I have lately been at a loss for words. (See Inside Higher Ed’s “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column by Joseph Fruscione for my recent interview with Jessica Lawless.)

Our students are entering a world where an education is most critical, as they must soon go toe-to-toe against a brutal, war-torn economy with a demand for highly specialized workers. Unfortunately, students and their professors are buried by debt, all in the name of higher education (I currently owe $160,000). Even with 1.2 trillion national student debt, there is a serious lack of regulation as to how tuition money and dwindling public funds are spent by institutions, unless it seems appropriate that students should work their entire adult lives paying off the salaries of people who had little to no impact on their actual education while their professors with their Ph.D.s and M.F.A.s retire empty-handed with no safety net beyond what social security and food stamps can provide.

The increasingly corporatized university, just like Wal-Mart, is shifting financial responsibility back to taxpayers, the difference being that the price for the product (education, training) is continually rising and padded with more special fees than the cable company while the quality (investment in the classroom, instructors, student learning) goes down. The textbook racket is a separate matter, but its price-gouging tactics compounded with rising tuition and the poor working conditions of precarious faculty is undermining our students’ education. Now is the time to take back our universities and colleges from those who are running it into the ground.

Adjunct professors—the contingent majority—deserve to be paid a salary commensurate with our experience so that we, America’s former students, have a chance to climb out of debt in our lifetime and reclaim higher education for our students and future generations. Students, often referred to now as “the consumer,” and their parents want to pay less tuition and see that money go to the classroom, not to unnecessary personnel whose tasks could be consolidated under a more reasonable salary matrix. After all, a case can be made that no one at a public institution of higher education aligned with the public good should be making a six figure salary.

Just as important, fighting the “adjunctification” of higher education requires unity between adjunct and FT/TT professors and our students. We can no longer afford to let this false narrative of superiority and inferiority control how we conduct our professional lives. We need to end academic apartheid because it benefits neither group but serves as a convenient and highly effective distraction from the Trojan horse that decades ago managed to penetrate the protective boundaries of academe.

16 thoughts on “How the Adjunct Crisis Hurts Students and the Importance of Fighting Back

  1. Reblogged this on Rainshadow Farm and commented:
    One view. A good one imo. Haven’t had time to post about adjuncting, farming, or aging into the life single lately. I’ll be back. Meanwhile, do read this. It says it all fearlessly.


    “Adjunct professors—the contingent majority—deserve to be paid a salary commensurate with our experience so that we, America’s former students, have a chance to climb out of debt in our lifetime and reclaim higher education for our students and future generations. Students, often referred to now as “the consumer,” and their parents want to pay less tuition and see that money go to the classroom, not to unnecessary personnel whose tasks could be consolidated under a more reasonable salary matrix. After all, a case can be made that no one at a public institution of higher education aligned with the public good should be making a six figure salary.”

    Maybe you agree, disagree, or stand in the middle. I’ll be back to continue on about how and why I do agree.

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  6. How can you say that adjuncts do not provide ‘a professional role model’? That is such a generalization and not accurate. That kind of rhetoric perpetuates the misconception of adjuncts. I am insulted by that statement, even though I do agree with much of what else you are saying in this article.

    • Dr. Merklein’s piece is wonderfully thorough. And painfully accurate. think it’s fair to say that I am a model citizen, and I deeply care about my work, but I would never recommend that any student follow in my professional footsteps. 13 years of experience, precarity, debt and poverty wages? No, I recognize that I am not a *professional* role model. But I am a damn good teacher, and I’ve inspired literally a thousand students. I deeply wish that I had an office, job security, good (not even excellent) pay. Then I could focus my energies on my field of study properly, and be the professional role model I know I can be. But until then, with no benefactor, I fully recognize that this is just not possible.

    • Bill, if you think performing any job for poverty wages, without institutional, department, or even secretarial support is a professional model, you have been working in some real shitholes, pardon my Anglo Saxon. Personally, I’ve left nonacademic jobs that refused to acknowledge or support my professionalism precisely because of that. Under those conditions, can anyone be considered a professional role model, no matter how well they perform their duties? And can the institution which imposes them be considered a role model for the profession? And yet, 75% of us work under those conditions–and many accept them as professional. What is wrong with us?

  7. The two and sometimes two and a half tier system in academia plays out in small and large ways. At even the smallest colleges where I taught, there were perks for tenure/FT instructors, including email accounts, phone extensions, offices, paid office hours, release time, vacations, insurance, retirement, mail boxes, copy cards and special parking, none of which were given to adjuncts. At one school, FT instructors were given keys to the faculty lunchroom and bathrooms, whereas adjuncts were not.

  8. Excellent piece. I am an adjunct at two private “elite” institutions, both of which engage–in every respect you mention–in the exploitation of adjuncts. I was particularly taken by the following: “I never envisioned a work environment where people lucky enough to have tenure or slightly more secure teaching contracts would walk past their adjunct colleagues in the hall and avoid eye-contact, choosing to look at an empty wall instead of saying hello to equally qualified professors with identical credentials.” In my experience, tenured faculty will say “hello,” but–without exception–do so uncomfortably. In one of the colleges where I teach, the department space is divided: adjunct faculty who share small windowless “offices” are on one end of the floor, and individual offices, with windows, for tenure-track or tenured faculty are located on the other end of the floor. In between are department administrators, and the copy room. A clear divide. Tenured faculty frequently interact in the hallways, and in each other’s offices, but almost never with adjuncts. And when they very occasionally do attempt to interact, it’s obviously painful for them. Like the time I was in the copy room and a tenured faculty member, having finished a conversation with another tenured faculty member, turned to leave, then visibly forced himself to turn back and say hello, without looking me in the eye and without any real interest in interacting. Ever the good leftist, he was going to make an awkward point of acknowledging the departmental peon. Honestly, beyond being insulted, I was embarrassed for him. I wanted to say to him, “You know what? The world is a much bigger place than academia. And out in the world, I am a person of worth. I am engaged in creative and social justice work. I have interesting friends who find me to be a valuable person. And, in all probability, I’m at least as “smart” as you are. And if you can’t see my value, I don’t need you to pretend that you do.” I also wanted to say, of course: “Just go away, for chrissakes. I, too, have work to do. And while you’re at it, grow the f–k up.” It’s as though adjuncts are the “untouchables,” even though I’ve seen adjuncts come and go in the department who are light-years beyond, intellectually and creatively, many of the tenured faculty, including people who’ve won national and international awards for their work. Or perhaps tenured faculty believe so thoroughly in the meritocracy of their position that they can’t help but see adjuncts as pathetic failures, regardless of the worth of the person’s work within and beyond the academy. Or perhaps it’s simply the same old story: mindless class bias. It’s as though their vision of the world, and their place in it, is so profoundly circumscribed by academic class consciousness that they lose any capacity for thinking beyond it. It’s especially disturbing to see such behavior on the part of faculty in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are politically “liberal” and whose intellectual work is committed to social justice, but who have no problem whatsoever in being contemptuous of adjuncts, and that contempt is nowhere as strong as when they engage in condescension. It’s the most bizarre environment I’ve ever been in. Every day, I go to work, and, every day, I have to ready myself to enter into the cognitive and emotional dissonance that is the bizarro world of the academy.

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