In my previous post, I talked about the dramatic differences between students and expectations in an elite four-year college vs. the two-year colleges. Implicit in the discussion was another topic that most of the public does not know about: the increasing use of underpaid adjunct faculty to teach courses throughout academia.
The topic finally broke through the media silence last fall when on September 1, Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years, died of heart attack at age 83, completely penniless. The original story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette soon made the national and international media as the sordid details emerged. Vojtko slaved away tirelessly at Duquesne for all those years with excellent teaching evaluations and everything else that should have resulted in rewards from the university. Instead, she got an adjunct contract year after year, working for less than $25,000 a year with no benefits. She fell further and further into poverty living on those wages, until she could no longer afford a home, and was completely broke by the time she died. When caseworkers from Adult Protective Services were called in to investigate, they were shocked that she was a hard-working professor, not some sort of bum off the street, and could not imagine how someone with a Ph.D. could have fallen so low without the usual problems with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness.
What the case did reveal, however, is that Vojtko’s story is not unusual. In fact, it is becoming the norm in higher education these days. Consider the case of Darren Brown of San Francisco State University:
When 39-year-old Darren Brown decided to become a university professor, he never imagined his career would leave him broke and living in his parents’ basement. “My father worked in a factory his entire life in Oakland, Calif.,” said Brown. “I took the academic route thinking that, just like anybody else, that if you want to be somebody, you need to go to college and get an education.” Not only did he become the first person in his family to go to college, but he also went on to earn a Ph.D. in American studies and teach university courses to rave student reviews. On his last evaluation from San Francisco State University, Brown’s students gave him the highest possible mark for teaching effectiveness. On Rate My Professor, where students can leave unvarnished comments about their instructors’ performance, he scored 4.5 out of a possible 5—well above the average SFSU faculty score of 3.71. “Darren Brown is one of the most awesomest down to earth professors I know,” one student wrote. “He has passion for teaching, too bad spring 2013 was his last semester at SFSU.” They are looking for people that they can pay at a very low rate who are high quality and who they know will do the job well, but are in a position not to be able to refuse the work. Leaving academia was a heartrending decision for Brown. “Teaching was my passion, and mentoring,” he said, fighting back tears. But as a part-time adjunct professor, he didn’t make enough to live on, let alone service the $100,000 in student loans he’d racked up earning his doctorate. “If I’m only teaching two classes, after taxes I bring home a paycheck that would be about $1,100 a month,” he said. “No one can survive on that in the Bay Area.” Working conditions for many part-time professors like Brown could easily describe those of fast-food workers — low pay, few to no benefits and little hope of parlaying a part-time position into a full-time career. While fast-food customers rarely suffer as a result, there’s a large and growing body of evidence that students taught by adjuncts are being shortchanged.
As colleges and universities across the board are trying to find ways to cut their costs and pay for all the high-priced new administrators and overpaid presidents and obscenely overpriced football and basketball coaches they hire, the natural place to cut is teaching faculty, especially tenure-track faculty with their benefits. They are replaced by the temp-workers of academia: adjuncts. Adjuncts are hired one course at a time whenever there is demand (usually notified at the very last minute). One semester they may have a large load (but never a full load, or they are technically full-time), another there are no courses at all for them to teach. They are paid the very minimum for a course (typically $150-200 for a three hours a week, or no more than $600-800 a month per course), and get no benefits (health care, retirement, disability, etc.) whatsoever. They are thrown into courses at the last minute with minimal staff support or facilities, often living out of their rolling luggage since they have no office space as well. They are never part of department meetings or decisions or planning, but just ghost figures who come and go from the campus for just a few hours a week while they’re teaching. They are never invited to campus events and never around for students except when they are required to be there during class hours or office hours. In short, it’s a highly demoralizing and depressing way to live.
I found out firsthand what adjunct hell is like when I left my tenured Full Professorship at Occidental College after I reached minimum retirement age at 58 in order to pursue my research and writing. After a year of writing (that led to five new books this year) but no prospect of royalty payments coming in for another year or two in the future, I took on some adjunct courses at Pierce College in Woodland Hills last year. This year, in addition to Pierce, I added Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, and now also at Glendale College. (Many adjuncts are “freeway flyers” since no single institution will give them full-time work, so they cobble together several part-time gigs to make as much as they can). I started by teaching my old bread-and-butter course, Intro Physical Geology, but soon ended up teaching a section of its lab, then Historical Geology and its lab, and last semester I added Oceanography and California Geology, two courses I’d never taught before (requiring a lot of late night preparing brand-new Powerpoints hours before my lecture). Except for those two new courses, the rest of the classes I’d taught many times, so I only had to adapt them to the Pierce facilities. The big adjustment (as I said in my previous post) was the nature of the student body, with 50% or more of my classes flunking out every semester because they simply don’t bother to show up.
But the other big surprise was the way the entire community college system functioned. They operate with a minimum number of tenured or tenure-track faculty, so at Pierce the only tenured geology professor was the chair of the department, which also included physics, astronomy, and environmental science. He spent most of his time in endless faculty meetings or teaching his full load of classes. The entire rest of the geology faculty (four to six professors each semester) were adjuncts, only on campus a few hours a week. We came and went like ghosts, with no presence on campus, no office space, no staff support, and not even enough budget to pay for copying, so all my handouts were paid for out of my own pocket. Nearly all the other departments at community colleges are just like this: a handful of tenured faculty who handle the administrative duties, and then a much larger number of adjuncts hired one course at a time, and come and go without any commitment to the college experience beyond the hours they are in lectures. This is in marked contrast to the cozy collegial atmosphere I enjoyed as a tenure-track and then tenured professor at Vassar, Knox, Occidental and Caltech. There, I was invited to many events and often spent the whole day on campus, hanging out at the student union, attending campus meetings and lectures and concerts and games, and making myself available to students. At Occidental, almost half of the student body took a class from me sooner or later and they all knew my name. The polar opposite occurs in community colleges, where the campus commons is devoid of faculty except those passing through on business, and most students don’t know my name.
Why is it happening? Simple supply and demand, plus budget pressures. The fastest place to make a big dent on college budgets is to cut full-time employees with benefits, especially tenured faculty. Each time a full-time slot opens due to retirement or resignation, the administration fills it with adjuncts, and then it’s a major struggle to justify getting another full-time tenure-track hire in times of tight budgets, especially when 15 other departments are also waiting their turn to replace a lost tenure-track slot. Meanwhile, colleges and university administrators can exploit the biggest overproduction of Ph.D.s in American history, where you can expect 500 applicants for a single job in most fields, and the rest who don’t make tenure-track must scrounge along on adjunct pay. Sadly, another trend is that most academic institutions seems to hire more and more administrators for no apparent reason, bloating their personnel costs. And don’t even get me started on the outrageous salaries of college presidents or the coaches in football and basketball!
The numbers are alarming. In 1970, 77% of of the faculty in colleges and universities were full-timers in tenured or tenure-track slots. Now that number averages much less than 50%, and it varies depending on how much the institution conducts research vs. how much teaching is expected. In big research universities, where teaching is de-emphasized, and it is difficult to get good researchers without the long-term commitment to tenure, only about 27% are adjuncts. But at big teaching universities, the numbers climb to almost 46%, and in community colleges it averages almost 70%! (Personally, I think it is much higher at some of the places I’ve taught, where I can scan the course listings and find mostly names not listed in the college catalogue).
And what are the effects of turning academia into a bunch of temp workers with no commitment and no presence on campus? Anecdotally, I can say that during and at the end of every course I’ve taught at community colleges, my good students are very grateful that I’m the one good teacher they have experienced in all their semesters at that school. They tell me hair-curling horror stories about the competence and teaching skills of other faculty. And broader-term studies reinforce this. With few exceptions, adjunct faculty are not as good at teaching as full-time faculty across the board. As Adriana Kezar of the USC Delphi Project reported:
According to Kezar, community-college students taught by part-time professors are less likely to move on to four-year institutions. “It affects the transfer, their success if they have a lot of adjuncts,” she said. Kezar emphasizes that it’s not the quality of adjunct professors that’s to blame for poor student outcomes but the conditions surrounding adjunct employment. “Institutions do not set them up for success,” she explained. “They hire them at the very last moment, a day or two before class, so they can’t prepare for classes. They have no input into the curriculum, choosing textbooks, so they’re often teaching off of resource that they’re not familiar with. They also don’t know the broader learning objectives of the department or school, so they’re not tying in, or helping students to connect their learning to their other courses or curriculum.”
The same result has been suggested by other studies, which show that full-time faculty tend to be much better teachers and mentors (even in research institutions), since they have time outside class to see and advise students, and the confidence and security of knowing they’re paid to do their jobs without worrying about next semester, or their health benefits.
Is there any hope for American higher education? Frankly, I don’t think so. More and more colleges are finding clever ways to cut costs and minimize their full-time teaching staff, from adjuncts to partially online courses to completely online courses which means a student never need show up on campus, let alone see the professor in person. Nearly all the online courses that are expanding so quickly are staffed by part-timers who didn’t have any other choice of where to work. Sure, I know that there are some good online courses, but research is showing that by-and-large, the massively online-only courses (MOOCs) have the lowest success rate of all, because most students are not motivated and hard-working enough to do a good job when it’s so easy to forget to login or to skip an assignment. About 90% of the students who enroll in MOOCs fail to complete them. At least with enrollment in courses taught by a real professor on campus, they are forced to observe a schedule and meet deadlines and cannot let natural laziness take over if they want to pass.
For those of you who treasure your college experience in ivy-covered halls with tons of thrilling professors eager to teach, I’m sorry—but this is the apparent future of American higher education.