As the college admissions season winds down, I have some hard choices to make, but my dilemma is not about choosing where to enroll. It’s about how many adjunct instructors I will hire to teach required courses next fall.
As a department chair at Columbia University, I am compelled to hire many people on a part-time basis, although they want and deserve full-time jobs. These adjuncts are among the finest, longest-serving instructors in many universities, and it’s well known that their lasting contributions can transform the lives of their students.
It’s also no secret that they are getting a raw deal. Overworked and underpaid, they often struggle to get by and, when taken to an extreme, the consequences can be tragic.
With each passing year, it becomes clearer that cheap labor has become the hidden foundation of American higher education. According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 50 percent of all faculty hold part-time appointments. A vast workforce of mostly non-unionized adjunct instructors—the so-called “contingent faculty”—now comprises the core of the teaching faculty. They often teach as many courses as full-time instructors, but because they are considered part-time, they have no voting power in departments or universities, no benefits, no job security and no office in which to meet with their students.
The short-term benefits to a university’s bottom line are obvious. It is fiscally advantageous for institutions to hire adjuncts instead of creating more full-time positions with benefits, and the seemingly unlimited availability of part-time instructors makes it relatively easy to offer a large number of courses. And, as noted in the 2010 report of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, while adjunct instructors are long-time (albeit part-time) faculty and shoulder a substantial portion of the curriculum, institutional policies often treat them as if they are short-term workers with minimum involvement in academic life. More than once, adjuncts have been called “the fast-food workers of the academic world.”
To be sure, for some with other sources of income, the flexibility is an advantage. But for most struggling to make a living, the conditions are exploitative. Teaching numerous classes at multiple campuses to make ends meet, without access to the amenities and opportunities for advancement that come with full-time teaching gig, adjuncts are largely invisible and powerless. Above all, they are underpaid. The median pay for a three-credit course—one quarter of the average student’s classes in a given semester—is about $3,000 before taxes, and even adjuncts teaching a heavy load may be eligible for food stamps, while tuition costs are steadily rising.
How did this happen? When I was a student in the 1980s and 1990s, many graduate students supported their studies by teaching; universities needed them to meet the instructional needs of the growing population of undergraduates. Doctoral students stayed in school for many years, sometimes for decades, with little in the way of financial aid, so the flow of supply and demand remained relatively stable. In the last decade, however, many graduate schools have shrunk, graduating smaller and more select classes of PhDs. Meanwhile, the number of full-time faculty has not increased at the nearly same rate as the undergraduate population, hence the exploding need for adjuncts.
Even wealthy institutions that arguably have a vested interest in keeping adjuncts happy (if only to combat a growing trend toward adjunct unionization) are doing little or nothing to that end. At Columbia, the base rate of $5,000 per class for an adjunct has not increased in decades. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2013, the Campaign for Columbia raised more than $6 billion, the highest amount ever raised by an Ivy League university. So where has the money gone? In the same seven-year period, the costly expansion to the new Manhattanville campus has proceeded apace, faculty salaries have remained flat and the ranks of professional administrators have swelled, as they have throughout American higher education.
With a May 1 college decision deadline looming, future members of the class of ‘19 should ask universities some hard questions, such as how many adjuncts they employ instead of full-time faculty, and at what salary. Perhaps the only way to effect change will be through two time-honored American traditions: the customer is always right, and you get what you pay for. The consumers of higher education deserve value for their money. They—and we —must demand dignified working conditions and decent pay for the adjunct instructors in the classrooms of American colleges and universities.
Susan Boynton, PhD, is Professor of Historical Musicology and Chair of the Department of Music at Columbia University and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.