One of the enduring and mysterious beliefs about higher education in the United States is that college professors make a great deal of money. Many people do not understand the complexities of the hiring process and the myriad of teaching positions. They assume everyone is like the tenured professor they read about once, who only teaches one class every other semester and hasn’t published in five years ago and doesn’t contribute anything but still draws a huge salary because it’s impossible to get rid of people once they have tenure even if they’re clearly not adding much to the university community.
In fact, getting tenure is quite a battle, and there are a number of steps along the way, and that path is not open to all people in academia. Many people teaching at the college and university level are adjunct faculty, and they do not enjoy the protections of tenured professors. Likewise, universities use graduate students for a lot of their teaching needs, and grad students are in an even more vulnerable position than adjunct faculty. They are often required to teach, and may receive little compensation for teaching, while also trying to pursue their own degrees. Many are offered little support with issues like resolving student disputes, and receive little sympathy when the college messes up and doesn’t pay them, or doesn’t protect them from safety issues in the workplace.
Increasingly, adjunct faculty are doing the teaching in the US education system, particularly at the community college level. This is because they are cheap. Much, much cheaper than tenured faculty. They are often paid by the unit, instead of receiving a salary, and don’t get benefits. It’s cheaper to higher multiple adjunct faculty members than one tenured professor. Some community colleges don’t even have a full time faculty member supervising some departments. The entire English department, for example, may be part timers.
Some people enjoy working as adjunct faculty. The work is a lot more flexible, and you can choose whether to renew contracts between semesters, or move on to something else. There’s less pressure to publish, to perform, to establish yourself. You have more time to work directly with students because you don’t have to do administrative work. Some institutions are very open to suggestions for classes, so you get an opportunity to teach courses that interest you and engage with students who genuinely want to learn. Adjunct faculty have a lot to add to academic environments and are an important part of the academic community.
But the exploitation of adjunct faculty is another matter altogether. Many undergraduate students are not aware of the byzantine workings of college administration. They may not know, for example, that administrators tend to make the highest salaries, and that even star faculty may not receive very much from teaching. Their income is from grants, which need to be continually renewed, or awards, not the university directly. Star researchers are informed that they need to fund themselves, and their graduate students. The university is happy to share in the glory, but it doesn’t want to incur any of the expenses.
Likewise, those friendly faculty members at the head of the class, helping out during office hours, may not be making as much as students think they are. They come to school sick because they cannot afford to pay for substitutes to come in, and yes, some universities do expect their faculty to make arrangements for temporary replacements. They may not have health insurance, let alone other benefits. Like school teachers, they spend three months of the year without monthly paycheques unless they can land summer teaching jobs, which tend to be limited because enrollment drops in the summer term in many places.
They also have no employment security. The university can decide not to renew a contract without warning or discussion and doesn’t need to provide information about it. On the community college level in particular, this is very common, especially in states like California that are facing a funding crisis. As education funding is slashed, community colleges eliminate positions and sometimes entire departments. For students, this is frustrating, because it may mean they cannot meet requirements for transfer or graduation. For the faculty members shut out, it means going back on the job market in a time when jobs in academia are not exactly falling out of the sky.
Higher education in the United States is facing a number of issues, many of which are extremely complex. One thing is certain, though; like other industries, it has taken to the exploitation of workers like a fish to water. Bottom lines are important at colleges and universities just like everywhere else, and tenured faculty often bear the brunt of the load. They are disposable, after all; as part timers, that is exactly what they are designed for. To provide coverage until it is not needed anymore.
For students wandering where a favourite instructor went, the knowledge that tenured faculty are treated as throwaways comes too late. Relying on underpaid people in fragile positions should be unacceptable, but it’s increasingly the norm at institutions of higher education. Even as the cost of tuition rises to cover growing operational expenses, and administrators rake in huge salaries complete with copious perks like housing and vehicles, the instructors, the core of the institution, are starting to seem like the lowest funding priority.
Warnings of this trend were present long before the economic crisis, again especially at two year institutions. But they weren’t heeded, and that created a juggernaut that will be difficult to stop. Once funding is taken away, it is hard to restore, and funding for actual instructors is dwindling, which leads to more and more of a demand for adjunct faculty, and more and more opportunities for exploitation.