“…Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.
“Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. Unlike the legal and the traditional news industries, higher education has been booming in recent years. Nor does higher education seem to follow the pattern of other industries being transformed by contingent employment. In his book The Fissured Workplace, David Weil of the Boston University School of Management (and currently the administrator of the U.S. Wage and Hour Division in the U.S. Department of Labor) writes that the growth of contingent employment is being driven mostly by firms focusing on their core businesses and outsourcing the rest of the work to contractors.
“But teaching students is—or at least is supposed to be—the core mission of higher education. That colleges and universities have turned more and more of their frontline employees into part-time contractors suggests how far they have drifted from what they say they are all about (teaching students) to what they are increasingly all about (conducting research, running sports franchises, or, among for-profits, delivering shareholder value).
“To be sure, the old tenure system has its problems, and the rise of the contingent professoriate has its advantages—chief among them allowing fresh teaching talent into the higher education system, often people with more real-world experience than the regular faculty. The problem is that universities are using their power in ways that shortchange both contingent teachers and, ultimately, students. With courts and politicians increasingly questioning the fairness and legality of contingent work in industries like transportation, institutions of higher learning could soon be facing scrutiny, too…
“To say that these are low-wage jobs is an understatement. Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Known as the ‘Homeless Prof,’ Mary-Faith Cerasoli teaches romance languages and prepares her courses in friends’ apartments when she can crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends can’t take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she responded, ‘Sure, it’s the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue.’
“When an adjunct carries similar responsibilities as full-time staff but for less than half the salary, colleges may be evading their legal obligations as employers… A recent study shows that a large portion of universities and colleges limit their adjuncts’ teaching hours to avoid having to provide the health insurance now required for full-timers under the Affordable Care Act.
“But apart from feeling sorry for the underpaid faculty, why should we care that college professors have the same job conditions as day laborers, fast-food workers, cashiers, taxi drivers, or home-care aides? They did, after all, choose to pursue a career in higher ed. Administrators at these institutions of higher learning argue that they need to use adjuncts because it is the only way to keep tuition from rising even faster than it has. And isn’t access to education the higher good?
“If the rationale for using low-wage professorial labor is affordable college, however, it hasn’t worked. Tuition increases inspire awe at their size—public universities cost three times what they cost in 1980, private universities twice as much. As universities have added amenities like squash courts and luxury dorms, their spending has increased threefold, but the student-teacher ratio remains the same as it was in the past. If you think these tuition increases resulted from an investment in providing a better education for the students in the classroom, consider the growth in administrative staff and administrative pay.
“Even while keeping funding for instruction relatively flat, universities increased the number of administrator positions by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, 10 times the rate at which they added tenured positions. In the old days, different professors would take their turn as dean for this or that and then happily escape back to scholarship and teaching. Now the administration exists as an end in itself and a career path disconnected from the faculty and pursuit of knowledge.
“Writing a few years ago for this publication, the Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg described colleges and universities as now being ‘filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.’ So while college tuition surged from 2003 to 2013 by 94 percent at public institutions and 74 percent at private, nonprofit schools, and student debt has climbed to over $1.2 trillion, much of that money has been going to ensure higher pay for a burgeoning legion of bureaucrats.
“As administrators make more and more faculty positions part-time, allegedly for cost savings, they don’t apply that same logic to themselves. While the part-time professor is now the norm, the percentage of part-time administrators has actually gone down. Their salaries, too, unlike those of professors, continue to go up, increasing by 50 percent between 1998 and 2003 even while tuition was going up and faculty numbers were going down. Estimates put the increase in average salaries for CEOs at public institutions at 75 percent between 1978 and 2013 and at 170 percent at private institutions. As Ginsberg reported…
“Even if the cost of a college education weren’t increasing, the amount of the money in the budget for non-classroom-related activities would have a negative effect. In 2013, colleges and universities devoted less than a third of their revenue to instruction, and, in 2011, at the end of the recession, despite growth in revenue, public and private research universities cropped their education-related spending. One adjunct teacher, JJ, posting a comment online, calculated his/her pay as an adjunct as $65 per student per semester, adding up to the princely sum of $2,000, noting that ‘each student paid $45,000 in tuition and took about 4 classes a semester.… I think their parents would be rather upset to learn that only $65 of the $45,000 went to pay one professor for an entire semester.’
“Of course, what parents really care about is whether their students are benefiting from the money they’re spending. So the real question is whether the shift to adjunct teaching has helped or hurt education outcomes. That turns out to be a hard question to answer definitively, because comprehensive data on student outcomes is hard to come by and the variety among adjuncts (part-time, full-time, graduate students, and so on) and schools (selective schools, open-admissions schools) makes comparisons difficult without good data. According to some research, adjuncts get high marks.
“One study found that freshmen at Northwestern University learned more in introductory classes taught by non-tenured faculty. Another study, of a public four-year school in Ohio, showed that students who took science and engineering classes from adjuncts were more likely to take more classes in those fields, especially if the adjuncts were older (the authors theorized that the real-world industry experience of these older instructors may have captured the students’ imaginations).
“Other research, however, points strongly in the opposite direction. A study of community-college students found that those who had more exposure to part-time teachers were less likely to transfer to four-year universities. Another detailed study of six public universities within one state found that at four of those schools, freshmen who had more time with part-time faculty were substantially less likely to return sophomore year. Interestingly, however, at the other two universities in that state, freshmen with higher exposure to part-time teachers were slightly more likely to persist to sophomore year. The difference, the researchers discovered, is that these two schools gave their part-time instructors more support, including them, for instance, in new-faculty orientation programs.
“This last finding gets to the larger point. As a class, adjuncts probably aren’t any worse at teaching than tenured professors (who, for the most part, aren’t hired for their teaching ability). What seems to make a difference is how adjuncts are treated. At most schools, adjuncts simply aren’t getting the tools, training, support, or even status that they need to do their job...
“With contracts that last only a semester, adjuncts are hard-pressed to do more than just find the next term’s job—updating their courses, mentoring students, and writing letters of recommendation has to come out of time in which they are writing their own applications or traveling across town to teach at campus number three. As JJ commented online, ‘Did making so little money affect my job performance? Yes. I missed a week of class once due to being hospitalized for stress and exhaustion. Working 40-50 [hours a week] for a grand total of $4000 over four months … working extra jobs on top of that to cover my rent and to buy my health insurance and taking other extra jobs to cover my student loans nearly killed me.’
“…Without job security, adjuncts may lack the independence they need to challenge students by critiquing commonly accepted ideas. What makes the situation even worse is that adjuncts are often disproportionately assigned the courses filled with the students who need the most assistance, such as introductory courses, freshman-writing classes, or remedial education. Incoming students often need basic grammar and composition skills, which requires the kind of intensive hands-on teaching that is difficult for a part-timer with full-time teaching hours and insufficient support to provide.
“And there’s a more subtle danger lurking in contingency: With no job security, precarious financial situations, and weak institutional support, adjunct professors may lack the independence and status they need to challenge students by presenting unpopular positions, critiquing commonly accepted ideas, or even giving out poor grades.
“Academic freedom doesn’t mean much in these circumstances. And while we tend to see academic freedom as protection for provocative scholarship, it also performs the even more important function of facilitating discussion and debate in the classroom. Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, finds the potential for censorship and self-censorship in the adjunct system ‘troubling,’ and adds, ‘I think at minimum adjuncts should have contracts with both terms of several years and promises of academic freedom.’
“When professors know that students’ assessments may be the only evaluation they receive and thus are the most significant factor in whether they will be hired for another semester, they have little incentive to grade critically and instead may grade to please, resulting in grade inflation and permissiveness of students’ wrong-headed ideas or disruptive behavior. The system gives students leverage to attack a teacher they may not like or to avoid the consequences of their own academic failure…
“Some adjuncts are refusing to accept the status quo. Across the country, many of them have turned to the Service Employees International Union, the United Autoworkers, the American Federation of Teachers, and other unions to improve their lot. Mary-Faith Cerasoli attends rallies in her ‘Homeless Prof’ vest. In D.C., the SEIU, led by adjuncts including Mitch Tropin, has successfully pushed for contracts at American University, Howard, Georgetown, George Washington, Montgomery College, and, just recently, at Trinity, meaning that the majority of adjuncts in the D.C. area are now represented by the union. Fighting under the banner of the ‘Fight for $15,’ like fast-food workers, they argue that they should be paid $15,000 per course—which would equal $90,000 annually for a professor with three courses per semester.
“(Given that the American Association of University Professors estimates the average earnings for assistant professors at $62,500 to $76,900 and for associate professors at $75,220 to $91,200, this figure is truly aspirational at this point.) While some schools like Georgetown have accepted unions without too much fuss, others have adopted the tactics long used by anti-labor businesses: falsely accusing labor officials of earning exorbitant salaries, hiring law firms that specialize in union busting, and firing those involved in the campaign. But many adjuncts are committed to the fight. Tiffany Kraft, who teaches at four different institutions in the Portland, Oregon, area says, ‘What do we have to lose? We’ve been scared into complicity for so long, but I didn’t go through fourteen years of higher education to be treated like shit.’
“Traditional higher-learning institutions face another threat besides unions and online competition, in the form of lawsuits. The Delphi Project’s Adrianna Kezar calls on university boards to exercise oversight. Writing in Trusteeship magazine for the Association of Governing Boards, she recommends that colleges and universities examine their use of adjuncts, because over-reliance on contingent teachers may place ‘their institutions at greater risk of becoming involved in a class-action lawsuit related to their employment practices.’
“With courses that need to be taught every semester led by an interchangeable set of adjuncts, the schools seem to be doing just what trucking companies, housecleaning services, and now app-driven businesses such as Uber and Lyft have been accused of doing: misclassifying workers as contractors. Especially when a teacher is asked to carry out similar responsibilities as full-time permanent staff but for less than half the salary, there may be grounds to believe that universities and colleges are evading their legal obligations as employers. And with the overrepresentation of women in these jobs, it seems possible that many of these universities could be violating not only labor laws but civil-rights laws as well…
“One way or another, something has to give. Judges and regulators are taking a harder look at companies that misclassify their workers as contractors, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is promising to crack down hard on the practice. Unions are moving in to organize adjuncts, with some success. And pressure continues to build on the higher-education sector to allow the federal government to collect data on student outcomes. That’s the single best way to provide policymakers as well as colleges and universities with the data they need to determine which kinds of instructors (tenured or adjunct, part-time or full-time) serve which group of students best, and what kinds of support (training, office hours, wages) they need to do their jobs.
“In the end, it may all come down to results. By creating an inferior product that is too expensive and doesn’t satisfy students, parents, employers, or academics, traditional institutions are either going to change how they’re doing things voluntarily and proactively or they’ll be forced into it by innovative competitors, legislators, regulators, and the courts.”