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Adjunct professors: slave labor of academia

by Donald Prothero, Feb 05 2014
A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.'s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.’s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

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.

39 Responses to “Adjunct professors: slave labor of academia”

  1. MikeB says:

    I can vouch for about 90% of this.

    May I tell you my story? I was an adjunct who was perfectly happy with the position — it suited my lifestyle as a stay-at-home farmer just fine. My spouse and I have no kids to support, no debt, and we’re largely self-sufficient. So being an adjunct worked for me. But this year several events have “conspired” to bring it all to an unpleasant end.

    I had 25 years of experience, a fairly regular course load, and our U actually had a terrific insurance package for me that included coverage for my domestic partner (now my spouse — same-sex marriage is legal in Maine).

    My department, English, was extremely generous. I usually got my pick of courses, and they even offered me the opportunity to design a literature course to my liking that I taught for several years. This allowed me to breathe some air outside of the domain of introductory level writing courses which, as I’ll explain in a minute, turn out to be an absolute curse on the adjunct.

    Then came the Crash, and the budget cuts, and the declining young population in Maine. The number of high school graduates keeps declining every year, and, worse, many graduates leave the state for higher education, and others go on to community colleges rather than attend the state U where I teach.

    And the student quality has declined, too, such that the department had to design a course which would allow sub-standard students to fulfill an introductory writing requirement: It’s for students with SAT writing scores of less than 500.

    Teaching this course has been a disaster. It’s a course no one wants to take. (No discipline is maligned like English.) It’s a course for which the students are clearly not prepared. Sometimes over a third of the students fail (my students, anyway. I don’t know what the failure rate is overall). I was shocked sometimes by their incompetence and their inability to cope with assignments that involved working with quotations from multiple texts.

    And I did something that I now regret: For about a third of the semester, I assigned students readings in evolution. I simply love the subject. I wanted to teach something besides literature, something universal enough to be relevant to many of the disciplines the students would major in. I did not teach science — I am not qualified to do so — but I did teach them to write about articles that popularize evolution: Stephen Gould’s “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown”; a witty “parable” by Scott F. Gilbert called “York Minster’s Dilemma”; the chapter from The Selfish Gene called “Memes: the new replicator,” wherein Dawkins invents the term that now has such currency; a chapter from Darwin’s Century by the near-forgotten science writer Loren Eiseley, who writes about the history of Darwinian thought. I love this stuff. Most of my students hated it.

    Then all at once, the walls have come crashing in:

    1. Our U has a budget shortfall of 14 million dollars annually that is expected to recur for several more years. The powers that be have forced the English department to axe about half the courses it offers, including Introduction to Lit, which used to be a staple offering. The department has reformulated its work load to distribute more introductory level courses to full-timers and fewer to adjuncts. The result: Instead of 5 different courses to choose from, I now have two: freshman writing and creative writing. In the fall I was basically teaching full time (but not being paid as a full-timer), with 4 courses and 75 students. This spring I’m down to teaching one course with 7 students in it.

    2. As a result of this precipitous drop in my course load, my spouse and I lost our insurance coverage, and he’s a Type 1 diabetic. So now, thank goodness, we have gotten coverage through the Affordable Care Act. I am actually extremely thankful for two historic events that have happened in the last year: the passage of gay marriage rights in Maine and the implementation of Obamacare. So we are both covered. I can’t imagine what our lives would be like right now if this had all happened two years ago.

    3. Like a meteor out of nowhere, into this morass comes my personnel review. It was just coincidence: These happen every few years, and it was my time. These reviews are based solely on student evaluations. I want you to consider what evaluations are like for English adjuncts, those who teach courses most students don’t want to take and in many cases are not qualified to take. We have just 13 weeks to try to bring illiterate students up to college-level literacy: It just doesn’t work for many students. And many of them fail, and many hate my evolutionary topics. And it’s upon these students’ evaluations that my reputation rests.

    The personnel committee has read my evaluations and has discovered that I stifle the students’ “beliefs” as I shove my own “beliefs” (evolution) down their throats. They say that I make it so that they are afraid to speak up in class about their beliefs (meaning creationist beliefs, presumably). They say I am arrogant, condescending, that I laugh out loud at them in class, and that I destroy their confidence as writers. My evaluations, in other words, are abysmal. I have naively thought I was doing just fine. Either I am absolutely incompetent in spite of 25 years of experience, or just extremely unlucky.

    And so: my days as adjunct writing instructor are probably coming to an end. I won’t know until after the committee meets this week.

    There is not much money to be made in farming, either.

    • WScott says:

      “my domestic partner (now my spouse…”
      Congratulations! And condolances on the rest of your story. My sister teaches Remedial English as an adjunct too, and her experiences match some of yours. She gets good evaluations (as far as I know, anyway) but she knows she’s One Bad Semester away from finding herself in the situation you’re in now. It worries me.

    • Nyar says:

      Bravo! You certainly have creative writing skills. I admit that you had me going right up until you said that you were thankful for Obamacare, then I knew it must be satire.

      • markx says:

        Nyar, I’m prbably being pedantic over what was simply a wisecrack, but he explained exactly why he was grateful for Obamacare, and it certainly would appear to be to his benefit.

        In this case your belief is perhaps that Obamacare is detrimental under all circumstances, and this belief is ‘religious’ to the extent that you are deaf (blind?)to any evidence presented.

      • MikeB says:

        Nyar, my spouse is a Type 1 diabetic. We lost our health insurance through the university because of cutbacks. We got it back again through the Affordable Care Act. If you think that’s satire, then you’re a strange and insensitive person.

      • Nyar says:

        You say that I am insensitive? You are the one who is thankful that a couple of million people have lost their insurance because of this law as well as access to their hospitals and doctors. Some of those people will die because of the law, but who cares right? You got yours.

      • Pilobolus says:


        That two million number comes from the CBO analysis, which stated:

        “Obamacare will push the equivalent of about 2 million workers out of the labor market by 2017 as employees decide either to work fewer hours or drop out of the job market altogether, according to estimates released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office.”

        Read more:

        Thus, as the CBO pointed out, EMPLOYEES are making that decision, which suggests to me that they are in the full-time labor market expressly to maintain benefits. Now that they can buy it on their own, they don’t need full time employment which was required for benefits.

        What they did lose was substandard insurance; low premiums/low coverage.


      • Max says:

        No, the two million number comes from insurance companies.

        “CBS News has learned more than two million Americans have been told they cannot renew their current insurance policies — more than triple the number of people said to be buying insurance under the new Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare…
        Obamacare forces [companies] to drop many of their plans that don’t meet the law’s 10 minimum standards, including maternity care, emergency visits, mental health treatment and even pediatric dental care. That means consumers have to sign on to new plans even if they don’t want or need the more generous coverage.”

  2. Trimegistus says:

    It’s so odd that universities and colleges can’t afford to pay faculty. They manage to pay an ever-increasing pool of administrators well enough.

    It’s a mystery. An enigma. A stumper.

    • I agree. It’s something that bothers all the faculty in every place I’ve taught–faculty are under greater and greater pressure to do more and more (in a small college, they are on many committees that supposedly run the place), yet our administrative staff just keeps expanding. There’s a whole literature about this on line, if you’re interested…

  3. WScott says:

    My sister is an adjunct professor at (I think) three different community colleges, mostly teaching Remedial English. Her experiences match yours and (to some extent) MikeB’s. She spends more time on the road between schools than she actually does in the classroom, never mind teh time spend grading papers, etc that she doesn’t get paid for. It’s a depressing way to live.

    Coincidentally, I just came across this article this morning, which talks in detail about how “administrative bloat” is driving so much of the increasing cost of higher ed.

  4. geogavino says:

    Vojtko’s story was very sad, but cannot be boiled down simply to a case of underpayment –
    Not to draw away from your overall point, but there were many factors, internal and external, I think, that contributed to Vojtko’s circumstances.

    I also think it is more than just an issue of supply-and-demand. Money is driven to colleges for political purposes. Students are subsidized at the expense of those who choose not to go to college. Athletes are subsidized at the expense of non-athletes. Coaches are among the highest paid public employees (, yet the revenue generation by football and basketball teams is likely overstated (esp. given the subsidized stadium-building and eminent domain abuse occurring at some colleges). When I was an undergrad in Ohio about 20 years ago, I learned that 2% of all construction money to state schools had to be earmarked for art, so a construction boom was often accompanied by a boom in various forms of art around campus (using the term art loosely as it is a very subjective value). The fairness of pay would be easier to evaluate if education operated more as a market, but these phenomena are driven by politics.

    Also, I don’t think the success rate of students is a good way to gauge the success of MOOCs. Of course, many people enroll in a MOOC and find that they can’t or won’t contribute the time required. Or don’t have the needed background. After all, there was no cost in enrolling. Some people just want to learn what they can with what time they have and don’t have any need for a completion certificate or anything. I don’t think you can infer course quality on success rate alone (or even largely on that basis). I have taken a few MOOCs and the experiences were very good, often with innovative methods of instruction and very professional teachers and assistants. And they continue to evolve in exciting ways. By contrast, I took several courses online since my undergrad days at state schools, paid tuition for them (actually my tuition was waived since I was in the military during many of them – another political transfer), and course quality was largely poor in comparison to the MOOCs I’ve more recently taken for free.

    • Lori says:

      I agree with you. The MOOC’s that I have been involved in often are better presented than classes I’ve paid for to take on a campus. And some MOOC’s I signed up for, I never had any intention of completing. Many people just want to browse a few topics and look at a few lectures as it is just entertainment for them.

      Don’t compare apples to bricks!

  5. lilskseptic says:

    I’m curious…do you think this problem is universal, or specific to the good ol’ US of A?

  6. Miles Rind says:

    “They are never part of department meetings or decisions or planning.”

    You cite this fact as if it were a drawback of being an adjunct. I would call it one of the perks!

  7. Kat says:

    Higher ed is following in the stumbling footsteps of industry all over the US. In my field (telecom for 25+ years) when a full time employee retires/quits, the company does not replace that person-they get a contractor. Now they save on benefits, wages, pension, and all the rest AND get extremely shoddy workmanship! But hey-the bottom line looks great…this quarter.

    Unions. We have to get them strong again.

  8. tmac57 says:

    This story parallels in some ways the problems and rising costs in healthcare that has been going on for many years. College educations costs have skyrocketed for students. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed for patients. Primary care doctors are getting paid less and less to do more. College professors are getting less to do more. Health outcomes
    are poorer than they should be even as costs are rising. Education outcomes are poorer even as the costs continue to rise. Doctors and hospitals are being forced to cut corners due to budgetary constraints even as costs rise. Colleges and Universities…well, the same.
    So the question is, where the hell is all the money going!?

    • Max says:

      Healthcare has other problems like defensive medicine, aging baby boomers, and uncompensated care. Some patients pay through the nose because other patients don’t pay at all. I don’t think the money is evaporating.

    • Eric Welch says:

      Where’s the money going? War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Immigration, War on this and War on that. A Banking industry totally out of control and a reverence for making money by moving money around rather than building anything. We have way too many colleges and a preference for credentials rather than competence, not to mention a high school system that values sports rather than academics.

  9. Max says:

    I can’t remember when I ever talked with professors about course content outside of office hours. Often, the TA’s were more helpful. I didn’t notice any difference in teaching between adjunct and full-time professors. Some of the worst, laziest, teachers were tenured professors. Maybe tenure made them lazy, I don’t know. Some of the best teachers were adjunct professors who worked in the real world and taught because they loved teaching. TA’s graded most of our work, and some professors counted only exams toward the final grade. My assigned “mentors” were professors outside my field of interest, and were just there to check off the box.

    • It varies from institution to institution, of course, depending on focus. At large research institutions where grants and publications are the only things that matter, and students just get in the way, the senior faculty are not encouraged or selected for good teaching, and you get a predictable result. At most universities (e.g., the Cal State Universities), teaching is important, research is secondary, but at least they have grad student TA’s to help out with the gigantic classes. At smaller liberal arts colleges where I taught, teaching is everything, research is a bonus, we have NO help from grad students (there ARE none), so we teach all our own labs, and the workload is almost as bad as at a community college (10-15 contact hours a week; 6 is considered heavy in a research university). And yes, some adjuncts (like me) love teaching, but that adjunct is still being exploited at substandard wages and benefits because they have no other job choices–and many at the JC level are not such good teachers, because they are hired at the last minute with no training or preparation, and many without any teaching experience. Those were the kinds I was addressing in this article, and in the sources I quoted…

  10. Loren Petrich says:

    Has anyone tried to find out what all those administrators do? If tenured professors have to do more of the administrative work, then what are those administrators doing?

    Also, what could be done about sports?

    • Max says:

      Here’s a comment from careercenterdirector

      Director’s To-Do-List:
      1.) Publish career outcomes results for August grads as required by administration, Federal and State agencies – check.
      2.) Get second of three surveys out to December grads on career outcome survey – check.
      3.) Provide data to two faculty for their pet projects – check.
      4.) Conduct workshop for class to prepare students for interning – check.
      5.) Teach adjunct for department because no faculty available – check.
      6.) Complete Storm Water Runoff Training because some one somewhere thought it a good idea (really?) – check.
      7.) Provide career data to assist academic department that is getting course cut from major core curriculum – check.
      8.) Sit on student suspension hearing committee to determine if student is a threat to himself or others (no faculty on committee) – check.
      9.) Monitor operating budget of which 60% is self-generated because it is okay to have money left over but don’t go one thin dime in the red – check.
      10.) Supervise, mentor and support a staff that is 60% smaller than the national average for an institution with our number of students – check.
      Meanwhile back on Capital Hill…..

      Here’s a comment from someone who says, “I am also both faculty and administrator. The latter role often has me dealing with personnel messes faculty can’t or won’t deal with.”

      Its pretty clear that the faculty responding to this post have never dealt with the student(s) in their class(es) threatening suicide, being raped, losing family members, running out of money, etc. etc. etc. As in all the debates I’ve seen on this topic, faculty seem to prefer remaining blissfully unaware of the realities of life and being left alone to do what they like in their tiny worlds. There are some really irresponsible comments here.

      • LovleAnjel says:

        I have actually dealt with almost all those things (luckily I have not had anyone threaten suicide to me directly). I do my best to help students cope with absences due to external factors like family deaths (there was one year I had two students miss a final because a family member was accidentally shot while out hunting). After dealing with the effect on their performance in class (which could be as much as telling the students not to worry about the final, I would exclude it and go on all their previous scores instead) I then refer them to qualified professionals on campus, who serve an important role. I am in no way qualified to help a survivor of trauma cope and regroup. Neither are 99% of faculty, that’s why we have counselors and psychologists in student services. That’s not Administration, IMHO, Administration is the senior vice chancellor of student affairs who supervises the junior vice chancellor of student affairs, under the purview of the chancellor of student affairs.

  11. Dave says:

    What a ridiculous headline. Slaves were involuntary servants. Adjuncts are highly educated free adults who can choose to take an assignment or not, or choose to go into a more lucrative profession if they fail to obtain a tenure-track job.

  12. Patrick says:

    It is most unfortunate that colleges are trending from one extreme (tenured faculty) to the other (adjuncts).

    There is an opportunity here to combine the two and help to address one of the major complaints of American business, which is that college graduates are woefully unprepared for the workplace.

    While tenured professors are rich in theory and experimentation, they tend to, in my experience, had a lack of practical skills. Most have not “practiced” in their craft, except for occasional sabbaticals as consultants, for years.

    Adjuncts lack the “theory” but often have the practical experience having recently, or often continuing to work, in the profession that they are teaching.

    It is a shame that academia is becoming too academic. Tenured faculty are fully engaged in the pursuit of grants and publications leaving the talent and teaching of practical skills to the underpaid adjunct.

    • GuerrillaScholar says:

      No. Chasing after grants and research money is NOT academic. Publication of sound research is, but publication for the sake of publication is not. Emphasizing a college education as job training may qualify as academic to some, but not to me, strictly speaking.

      I question the seriousness of American employers complaining about ill-prepared grads especially when there are so few jobs for said grads in the first place. It feels too much like they are making excuses to allow them to pay new hires even less.

      But if you really want qualified graduates, pay the people who teach them a decent fucking wage with respectable benefits. For the most part, the quality of education delivered will attend to itself.

  13. GuerrillaScholar says:

    I can personally confirm just about everything in this article and more.

    I am a co-founder of a fairly successful for-profit online school. I wrote most of the initial programs, most of the manuals, the academic documentation that got the school through state approval and national accreditation. I recruited and trained the starting faculty of about 100 people. I conceived and oversaw the development of their flagship professional doctorate (literally the first of its kind), and founded their peer-reviewed academic journal–and much more.

    Then the economy crashed. The investors gained control in exchange for the cash needed to keep the lights on. They decided to streamline the operation by decapitating the Academic Affairs Dept. The Chief Academic Officer (that’d be me) was laid off, plus the Dean of the Doctoral Program (ditto), and the Provost. Amazingly, although there were pay cuts, there were no layoffs on the business side.

    The faculty who teach there get even worse pay than most other adjuncts. There is no real effort to provide even nominal academic resources for students, such as proper access to online library materials, etc. To their credit, they don’t scam students by setting them up to fail, and they have excellent retention; they understand that online courses can make up for distance, but you can’t run them well on the cheap.

    My layoff was nearly 5 years ago. Since then I’ve spent most of that time looking for any kind of work, academic or otherwise. I’ve recently found some work as an adjunct. My courses are well-attended, my evaluations are excellent, students love my classes. But the pay is horrible.

    For-profit colleges are responsible for much of this. The business people who run them don’t understand academia as a public good and frankly scoff at the idea. They are dull, profane people with a one-dimensional view of the world where everything is equidistant from the profit imperative. Creative people such as teachers and scholars–anyone who will work out of passion–are just another resource that’s particularly easy to exploit. The university’s “public good” is now little better than “public relations.”

    The business mentality is part of what drives the administrative glut, but the accreditation process is also to blame. Regional accreditation in particular often mandates having certain administrative positions in place and filled, whether the university needs them or not. I’ve seen universities hire administrators as Potemkin stand-ins for an accreditation evaluation, only to be let go once the eval is over. Regional accreditation is also highly biased in favor of a business approach to higher education. I suspect that they are are more complicit in the lousy wage structure of adjuncts than is generally realized.

    Another problem that bothers me, partly because it gets so little attention, is that we typically debate the universities and education only in terms of job training. Gone are discussions of the opportunities to find oneself intellectually, to craft a personal philosophy, or just the profound joy of learning for its own sake. Any revival of quality education in America will need to make that part of its agenda.

  14. Rod Smith says:

    My dad was a geology professor. A great one at that, much loved by his students – he never made much, but was happy, saying “teaching is like having a license to steal, because I get paid to do what I love.” Yes he knew he could, and did, make much more in industry. He hated and refused to play campus politics, but he was fortunate enough to have a Ph.D. back when they were scarce. That was a different era, different in many ways.

    Mid 1970s I went to CC in CA. GREAT professors, esp. the math professors. They were humble and caring, enthusing their love of math in me. BECAUSE of their great teaching, in my 1st quarter of calculus, I came up with some “outrageous” new theorems and developed what appeared to be a new area of calculus. Instead of being arrogant and resentful at a student being so presumptuous, the CC professors advised and worked with me, even asking me to lecture them. I always thanked God for those professors (none of whom were adjuncts).

    Then I went to a big university, where I earned an EE degree. It was like going from an oasis to a desert. There I found the professors were very different. Into their own little worlds, building their own kingdoms. In class one even announced “Today I wanted to spend time with my grad students, but the university says I have to spend X time teaching you, so here I am.” Made us feel real special. (At the university I did find several great professors, but unlike the CC they were exceptions.)

    Students now pay an order of magnitude more for tuition than in my day. Why? Why do they pay so much, yet schools have to hire adjuncts?

    I suspect unions are behind this degeneration of higher education. Unlike my father’s time, full-time professors now are very well paid. Do unions permeate all staff at most universities? Adjuncts. Is that how you fight faculty unions? Admins – exploding bureaucracy?

    How to fix higher education? If you were to distill the entire thing down to one basic principle, I suspect it would be this: Accountability. Or, the lack thereof. That is why the free enterprise system, as opposed to government, works so well: If a company doesn’t deliver value, it’s gone. Maybe out of the ashes the old system will rise. I can wish.

  15. Richard says:

    From a different angle. I was a Sr Instructor in the private world of industry. My students, with a class size of 1 to 20 per one to six months of classes were great in all respects. I was responsible for very little admin, (I never designed an exam, we had “separation of instruction and evaluation” for example) students sitting on the front edge of their seats 100% of the time….. I was paid well and loved my teaching. My supervisors occasionally sat in on my classes to actually supervise me and my students knew exactly why they were there – two things that are missing the Public Schools and many colleges.

  16. Bob says:

    A nice blog, but it fails to bring up revenue per course or per student. This is important so as to stake a claim as to how little the adjunct is paid relative to the revenue being generated or assert why it should be more.

    To be on the scale of professional service firms, the billable staff typically gets 1/4 to 1/3 of the revenue as compensation. If you have 20 students paying $1000 for the semester course, then likely only $5000 to $6600 would be available for the instructor. If a semester covers 4 months, that works out to $1250-$1650 per month.

    Coaches? Those teams are really a marketing budget item for the institution.

    Administrators? Connect them to the unfunded mandates imposed by legislation/regulation of the “progressive” state.

    • Anon Adjunct says:

      I did that analysis the other day… small private college; my courses generate 96K/year (6 classes over 2 semesters). I get paid ~9K/year (1/10 revenue), but the full prof gets 60K for teaching the same number of classes (2/3 revenue)… so I think ‘faculty’ are indeed being paid 1/3 revenue, it’s just monstrously unfair how they distribute it

  17. Glenn Beaton says:

    I served as an Adjunct Law Professor for years. I received only a small honorarium, but enjoyed it and it was helpful to my career.

    When I’d had enough of it, I stopped. Oddly, they didn’t track me down with dogs and bring me back in shackles.

    “Slave labor”? C’mon.

  18. ECW0647 says:

    At my college where I was a dean, we were under financial pressure just like most schools. We did an analysis of revenue generated by each faculty member and measured that against his/her salary. Every single FT faculty member lost money for the institution. Ours was a CC so we had tax revenue and some state money. Even when that was added in, the FT faculty were a net loss. I suspect that’s true of most large universities except for the huge lectures of hundreds (is that really teaching?) This situation cannot continue. FT faculty everywhere are going to have to teach more sections AND push for better pay for adjuncts to balance the equation. Otherwise, there will be no FT faculty soon.

  19. drpbl says:

    I left academia for industry in ’96. Reading all the above merely reenforces the soundness of that decision, as it appears to have gotten much worse.

    My nephew is teaching now at a CC, E Lit, and has asked me how I have “succeeded”. My advice to him was to leave teaching, get a technical degree, and go to industry while you still can.

    I am bemused by the slavery charge being leveled here. Sounds like a disappointed entitlement mentality hunting for sympathy. The problem appears to be simply a supply and demand issue. Though I do admit government mandated administrative overhead is no surprise. I can’t wait for the governent’s next step….mandatory adult continuing Ed for welfare recipients as a works project for underpaid adjuncts?

    BTW, I spent 6 years in the UK. Horrible health care system. Anyone who really cared for their family’s health had to carry private health insurance in addition. They certainly did ration national healthcare, and made arbitrary life or death decisions for the minions who thought they were “covered”. Just one more way of taxing the middle class and, please, don’t shoot the messenger.

  20. Max says:

    U.S. News & World Report college rankings are supposed to take into account the percent of the faculty working full time, but colleges often interpret “faculty” to mean tenure-track, excluding adjuncts and TA’s.

    “Hiding Adjuncts From ‘U.S. News'”