I appreciated Rebecca Schuman’s Chronicle piece earlier this week on “The Disposable, Indispensable Faculty Member.” Bret Devereaux’s detailed reflections from his own experiences as an adjunct are also important reading. For decades now, American academic institutions have been relying on adjuncts—part-time faculty hired sometimes mere days before a semester begins on a course-by-course, semester-by-semester basis—to teach what amounts to, in some institutions, the majority of general education courses. This has been a way to slash the costs of hiring tenure-track faculty—after all, an adjunct costs an institution very little, not only because the per-course pay for an adjunct is but a fraction of what it might be when calculated as part of a full-time faculty member’s salary, but also because adjuncts do not qualify for benefits—health insurance and retirement.
For anyone who thinks this system is in any way a good idea—and a remotely moral one—I recommend reading this heartbreaking essay in The Atlantic from a few years ago: “The Death of an Adjunct.” Or this story from a decade ago: “The Sad Death of an Adjunct Professor Sparks a Labor Debate.”
But, someone might say, these tragic stories all involve people who accepted these positions. We would really like to think that fair is fair in the labor market—if a job is advertised and someone takes it, what’s the big deal? It is a good question, one that brings to the fore the extreme over-idealization of academia that would even lead some to accept such a position year after year. It seems that the worst and most exploitative outcomes, situations like the one profiled in The Atlantic article, involve people who idealize the life of academic employment so much as to not be able to fathom doing anything else. There is, one could say, a dysfunctional unrequited love here—one in which the adjunct loves the job, the career, and keeps hoping for something more permanent to manifest over time. But more often than not, nothing permanent will happen—because it is simply too expensive for the institution that would rather rely on the adjunct’s cheap labor.
To be fair, two caveats are appropriate here. There are some situations where the adjunct is not exploited but is genuinely teaching for fun. I have known lawyers, for instance, or other professionals who enjoy teaching one class per term at a local college for the sheer joy of it. These individuals often have a full-time job of another sort but enjoy the thrill of being a part-time professor or even see this as a kind of community service, an act of giving back to the community or institution they love. That is fine. Furthermore, I have known multiple cases where institutions made it a priority to create a permanent position for a talented adjunct after some time—recognizing that everyone benefits from these kinds of scenarios that redeem the originally exploitative situation.
Second, it is important to note that there is plenty of potential for exploitation in the academic tenure-track world. I know enough faculty who are expected to teach crippling overloads—usually at adjunct pay—to see how this works.
But as we talk about costs—costs of full-time faculty and of adjuncts—we can’t ignore another cost that trumps all. This is the cost of administrators, which only keeps rising. Here’s an example of how this happens. For 5.5 years at my previous institution, I directed the Quality Enhancement Plan. Unless you’re at an institution accredited by SACSCOC, this means nothing to you, but in a nutshell, I ran institutional assessment for one component of the university’s accreditation, made sure we had all our ducks in a row for completing the required plan, and it all concluded swimmingly (to keep going with my nautical duck analogy). Anyway, I did it as a regular full-time faculty member, and my compensation was one course release per semester. I didn’t feel exploited, to be honest; it felt like perfectly reasonable compensation for the amount of work required to do this task well. I really did spend about as much time on this task as I would have on all things related to designing, teaching, and grading one new course.
One year after I stepped down, the university’s new administration hired a new Quality Enhancement Plan Director—a full-time administrator with a very high rank and a salary to match. The QEP is his sole job responsibility. That same administration also hired multiple other new associate vice provosts and vice presidents, creating an administrative bloat that was particularly astounding given the institution’s finances over the past three years, which necessitated laying off and firing multiple full-time faculty, including several full-time lecturers and tenure-track faculty—and replacing them with adjuncts.
Dave Ramsey gets a bad rep in some circles, but it might not be a bad idea to put most institutions’ presidents through his class.
When we talk about institutional finances and the need to balance budgets, it is important to look at this holistically. And the big picture shows that tenure-track faculty whose job responsibilities include both teaching and institutional service, are the best investment of all—because they will complete those administrative tasks much more efficiently and cheaply for the institution than full-time administrators hired for just those tasks alone. Adjunctification, on the other hand, in addition to being fraught with moral complications, simply isn’t going to yield the same results. You are only paying the individual to teach a class. Nothing more.
Valuing people and investing in them is not just the morally right thing to do. It’s also good business. Even in academia.