Underpaying Adjuncts Hurts Full-Time Professors and Students Too

A national 2012 study found that the median salary per course for adjuncts was $2,700; teaching four courses is considered full-time. Only 51 percent of adjunct faculty members were eligible for employee benefits. Furthermore, adjuncts rarely get raises or promotions. (Photo via Shutterstock)A national 2012 study found that the median salary per course for adjuncts was $2,700; teaching four courses is considered full-time. Only 51 percent of adjunct faculty members were eligible for employee benefits. Furthermore, adjuncts rarely get raises or promotions. (Image: Exhausted Teacher via Shutterstock)

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Adjunct faculty will participate in a nationwide walkout on February 25 to demand better pay and benefits.

Adjuncts make up a teaching underclass upon which colleges and universities have become more dependent.

Nationally, the proportion of adjuncts at public universities was on average about 75 percent in 2013. This is up from 67 percent in 2009, and only 22 percent in 1969.

A national 2012 study found that the median salary per course for adjuncts was $2,700; teaching four courses is considered full-time. Only 51 percent of adjunct faculty members were eligible for employee benefits. Furthermore, adjuncts rarely get raises or promotions.

Economics drives this widespread practice. When higher education institutions receive less state funding, they may increase tuition to provide revenue. But there is a limit to the tuition level the marketplace will bear. As the institutions struggle to balance their books, one way to reduce costs is to hire adjuncts rather than tenure-track faculty who make much higher salaries.

Add to the equation that in many states, college faculty members are public employees who are prohibited from striking. So adjuncts struggle to raise awareness of their plight. The walkout on February 25 is an effort to do just that, and may be the first time a nationwide action by adjuncts has been planned and executed.

As a tenured, full professor, I could ignore this problem, and tell myself that while it might be unfair, it doesn’t impact me directly. But I know better.

The program I direct is a graduate program, and all adjuncts have Ph.D.s and relevant, real-world professional experience. They generally get excellent evaluations from their students. But adjuncts do not serve as official advisers to students, meaning the advising load of the rest of the faculty is increased.

Over the course of my career, I have been an adjunct instructor at two different universities. At both times, I had another full-time job, and taught one or two university classes. I love teaching, and the universities were desperate to have the courses covered. Uncharacteristically for me, I would arrive just at the beginning of class, and leave immediately afterward due to my other obligations. Having a conference with a struggling student was a feat of scheduling magic. Most adjuncts have no office space, which adds to the sense of being second-class citizens. Adjuncts may share a cubicle with other adjuncts, but such environments are not conducive to constructive meetings with students.

Adjuncts do not attend faculty meetings, and do not have a chance to engage in program planning, the development of new initiatives and important decision-making. Their voices are absent.

Their perspectives might provide valuable insights, but the opportunity for involvement isn’t there. We may miss out on fresh ideas and novel perspectives that would enhance the program.

Because they are not supported financially, few adjuncts can afford to attend professional conferences at which we acquire current and exciting information about new research and practice in our fields. The infusion of new knowledge and techniques for engaging students is less likely to occur as a result.

It is true that some adjuncts have a thriving career outside of academia, and enjoy teaching a single class to share their wisdom with students. But many others have a passion for teaching and seek a full-time position with full participation and full benefits. So they often teach at multiple institutions, rushing from one place to the next, without enjoying the intellectual stimulation that is one of the attractions of academic careers.

Allison McCabe, an adjunct faculty member in the English department at the University of Arizona, told me in an interview, “Without equitable pay, without multiyear contracts, without the job security, and with inadequate working conditions, it is difficult to provide students with the education they deserve. The students suffer.”

Because of the financial uncertainty of their employment, adjuncts are likely to be perennially on the job market, seeking positions with promise of reward for good performance and certainty of employment from year to year. That means that regular faculty (and program directors like me) must invest time and energy searching for new instructors, orienting them and trying to provide professional advice to ensure our students are getting the high-quality education they deserve.

Financial resources are hardly abundant, with the three state-supported universities in Arizona facing a likely $77.5 million decrease in state funding next year.

But not doing anything to rectify such a glaring inequity is unacceptable. The practice of hiring adjuncts at paltry wages with no hope of advancement and inhospitable working conditions must be reconsidered, not just because it is unfair, but because it hurts the rest of the faculty, and most importantly, it hurts the students.