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America’s higher education institutions preach social justice while running on the exploitation of adjunct workers
Though there were many aspects of teaching college students that I loved, I quit when I realized that for all the work I was doing at a top tier university, I was making less than $10 an hour. My situation was not unique. I was one of the tens of thousands of adjunct faculty members whose underpaid labor fuels the modern university system, which has sacrificed the principle of educating students for the sake of maximizing profits and protecting administrative jobs. Debates about American colleges typically center on culture war battles over woke versus anti-woke curriculums. But if you want to understand how the university system got to be so broken you have to look at the underlying infrastructure of higher education. The best place to start is with the adjunct system.
When we think of exploited workers, our thoughts normally turn to fast-food employees, agricultural migrants, or day-laborers in the construction or landscaping industries. But one of the largest groups of exploited workers—a group we’ll define for these purposes as those who earn less than 30% of the salary of the prevailing wage for similar work—are college instructors. So-called “adjunct faculty” now account for more than 70% of all college and university faculty members but, despite their title, they are not treated as faculty in any protected, technical, or professional sense. They are adjunct because they are easily replaceable cogs in the academic machine. There’s even an obscure new name for these exploited knowledge workers, in keeping with the fashion of attaching obscure labels to familiar things: “contingent faculty.” At least the label is accurate. For adjuncts, who have sold their career, future hopes of promotions, and many of their rights as employees for wages that qualify some instructors for public assistance, their entire existence is “contingent” on the whims of university leaders and administrators. And while the system itself is inherently unfair, the adjuncts are not its only victims. The entire university experience, more expensive than ever for students, has been compromised and hollowed out by this short-sighted arrangement.
The rise of the “contingent class” is a relatively new phenomenon. Adjunct professors in the 1970s used to be a small subset of the teaching population. Most professors were either full-time or on a tenure track. Between 1980 and 2020, the same period when the hiring of adjuncts exploded, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169%, according to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
This economic model has created two distinctive classes of instructors in higher education. In the windowed offices are those tenured or tenure-track professors who are achieving six-figure salary status. These only represent something like a quarter of the total faculty at present. Wandering the halls, meanwhile, are the vast majority of adjunct faculty members, some three-quarters of all instructors, who are paid piecemeal, and lack job security and full employee protections.
For the past six years, I worked as a member of this “contingent faculty” (teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses). Teaching at this level typically requires a master’s degree or a Ph.D. to teach, and my credentials come from America’s best universities: Harvard, the Wharton School of Business, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others. In addition, I had experience as a corporate CEO and CIO.
Most adjuncts are naturally afraid to speak out against unfair pay for fear of retribution. They have no rights, and quickly learn to swallow any objections. At one prestigious university where I taught an evening graduate course, while there were thousands of unused parking spaces I could not even get a parking pass.
During the pandemic, this same university chose not to send its foreign students to their native homes during the two-year period of the COVID pandemic. The reason: The F2F tuition the school was charging the students (and this school was in the top 100 in Forbes magazine for their graduate school) was three times the in-state or U.S. citizen tuition. Sending foreign students home would eliminate a very lucrative revenue source.
Additionally, such foreign nationals were required, according to the school’s pandemic-era policies, to attend at least three classes in-person each semester to maintain matriculation status and keep their student visas. That meant that there needed to be instructors on campus to teach these classes, but of course the full-time faculty could not be forced to endanger themselves by breaking COVID lockdown rules. So it was left to adjuncts like myself, who did not receive any medical insurance from the school, to drive to campus to hold in-person classes for these high-revenue students.
Despite teaching as many as eight courses in one term, I was never offered any of the benefits that are customarily associated with a full-time academic salary in America. Some schools have elected to restrict the hours adjunct faculty are allowed to work in order to avoid the Affordable Care Act requirement that would otherwise require them to provide health insurance to their employees. According to AdjunctNation, more than 200 schools set limits on adjunct working hours. Adjuncts typically earn between $20,000 and $25,000 annually, while the average salary for full-time instructors is $84,300, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Some adjuncts cobble together a full-time teaching schedule by offering classes at more than one university—as many as three or four. However, professors who “moonlight” at multiple colleges rarely earn the same salary or benefits as full-time instructors.
Adjunct or not, the work expectations for college professors haven’t changed: Teach classes, maintain office hours, engage with students, write recommendations for jobs or graduate schools, grade papers, and participate in campus events. There is no payment to the teacher for course development, upgrading, or any of the other built-in work that goes into teaching. The course requirements on the school’s website mandate office hours (even digital ones), meeting options, and the number of hours that faculty have to respond to a student email. This is not only the same work for less money, it often has to be performed under tighter deadlines: A paper from the Center for the Future of Higher Education notes that contingent faculty have less time than full-time professors to prepare for courses.
The result of universities paying on the cheap is, predictably enough, an overall cheapening of the educational experience. According to Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, “institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates.”
Last year, I taught at two schools, a prestigious university and an average state college, for a total of 10 courses. Most academics would consider that a fairly full load for two semesters and a shorter summer term. My pay? $32,447.00 for the entire year. The more I considered all of the ancillary activities required of me, my pay rate on an hourly basis sunk under $10 per hour. After the W-2 forms came, I could calculate more accurately—and the answers were far more painful. I was making $1.77 per hour of work. Not since my days as a newspaper carrier did I earn so little. This same university, mind you, has a fully staffed and well-paid Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), with those salaries starting at $87,000 per year. Senior management salaries, meanwhile, are well over $150,000 per year. While many of these administrators and faculty members advocate for social and economic justice causes, it appears this doesn’t include advocating for paying their adjunct teachers a living wage.
In one sense, the treatment of adjuncts serves the same purpose in universities as does the exploitation of labor in all businesses—it allows the owners and shareholders to maximize profits. But in the modern university system, there is another crucial factor that has undercut wages for “contingent” faculty: The rapacious growth of the administrative class at virtually every institution of higher learning. From 1987 until 2011/12—the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to an analysis of federal figures done by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan, social-science research group, the American Institutes for Research.
Colleges and universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show. As Benjamin Ginsberg documented in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%.
Decades ago, the position of adjunct filled a temporary need in an uncertain scheduling system, an extra “hand” to pitch in and teach a freshman composition or biology class, and that seemed an ideal way of addressing staffing uncertainties. The system today has “matured” however, as the accountants have discovered that more administrators can be hired and more funds are available for nonacademic purposes. The system of tenured academic professionals engaged in a lifelong career of teaching and research is slowly being strangled by the actuarial table.
The sad truth is that this system, for all its inequities, profits by a seemingly unending supply of professionally educated knowledge workers somehow willing to put up with a substandard wage by either teaching part-time as a side hustle, or lowering their living standards. Until enough baby boomers die off, or competition for competent paid faculty rises, we may be facing this situation for quite some time.
But not for me. I decided to quit this subservient system and now earn a living wage that can pay my bills and not force me to go on public assistance. I am happier, more satisfied, and no longer tolerate an unfair system that sanctimoniously preaches “social justice” to its students while exploiting its essential workers.
The American university system is broken. The sooner that people wake up to this reality and realize that it is hurting students and faculty alike while profiting only the small group in the university’s ownership class, the better off for all of us.
Dick Bauer is a writer and teacher living in Colorado.