Adjunct faculty: an unsustainable disgrace

by Joseph Domino

There is perhaps no topic in America where we talk out of two sides of our mouths more than Education. Education is in crisis at all levels, but at the college and university level it cries out and no one seems to be listening. Everyone says education is important but our standards continue to drop and we fall behind other countries. Faculty, the hearts and souls of universities, are being relegated to “operating costs” which are forever scrutinized for reduction. The adjunct system, around a long time, provides that cost control, and it has slowly been eroding opportunities for full-time professors and the salaries and benefits that accompany that status.

When adjunct faculty handle a full-time course load plus work other part-time jobs to make ends meet it compromises the quality of their instruction which affects students. No matter how many courses adjuncts teach, they are still considered part-timers. It’s drudgery and adjuncts carry about the same status as a Wal-Mart greeter or grocery bagger, and the pay is about the same.

Let’s break it down.

Salary. Adjuncts simply do not earn a livable wage. When I divide my net pay by hours per week, it comes out to something like $11-12 per hour. The only way I can afford to do this is with supplementary income from investments. Other adjuncts are not so fortunate. Additionally, this hardship is by no way limited to adjunct instructors.

Matthew Benjamin in Bloomberg News recently reported, “The number of Americans who want full-time jobs but are working part time has increased 83 percent in a year to 9 million, according to Labor Department data.” He went on to say, “They are part of a broader group that includes those who want a job but have stopped looking for work and those who want full-time positions but have to settle for part-time employment. A measure of underemployment that counts those people has almost doubled in the past two years, to 15.6 percent, providing a more complete gauge of the labor market’s deterioration.” In the case of the adjunct, it is often a full-time work week at part-time pay.

As of 2004, my local County School District (K-12) had a base starting salary for first-year teachers of approximately $36K with post-graduate degrees. A first-level regular faculty Instructor position at the college has a salary range of $41-52K. Although I am in the system, I have applied twice for such a position and was not even contacted.

Benefits. There are none. Of primary interest, of course, is health insurance. Not even something basic like doctor visits and prescriptions. However the college does offer a benefit which full-time employees (faculty and non-faculty) can purchase: pet insurance. Locally, at any rate, this would be a public relations disaster except no one seems to know or care. I contacted a local newspaper reporter who covers higher education in the area. The reporter was not interested in the story.

There is a 403b retirement plan, which is mandatory. I need every dollar and the deduction doesn’t help me. When I questioned Human Resources, I was told schools do this to avoid contributing to employees’ Social Security – in other words, to save the college money.

Working Conditions. On the plus side, adjuncts work mostly unsupervised, but while the Administration says we have its full backing, there has been a growing culture of viewing students as consumers and professors as “facilitators.” It’s kind of the McUniversity model. Would you like a plus with that B? The widespread deficiency in basic skills and cultural literacy is shocking. The Administration also talks a lot about “student retention.” In four English Comp. II classes, no one had ever heard of Thoreau’s Walden, let alone having read it. Once in a discussion of psychology and Macbeth, I mentioned Freud’s theory of the subconscious. Blank stares. I asked how many had taken Psych. 101. A few hands went up. I said you covered Freud, right? No, they had not.

Many adjuncts with no other sources of income struggle to get by. I have heard of some teaching as many as nine courses across three campuses. (Editor’s Note: This phenomenon is not uncommon. I know one adjunct who taught eight courses per term at one campus, while also serving as the program director and consulting on the side.)

We do not have private offices, but instead a large shared room with computers, workspace, other equipment, lockers (this last gives it all the charm of a bus station). A new building opened recently with classrooms and offices. Many of the regular faculty moved their offices to the new building, leaving many vacant in the old one. A good number of them were quickly filled by instructors/consultants running a “Small Business Development” program.

An office, even closet-sized with no windows, is a small perk, but in the world of academic untouchables, no request is too small. The point is that an office communicates a sense of professionalism to students and and lends a sense of ownership and belonging to the instructor.

The college has a formal commitment to “Sustainability,” which appears proudly on their Web site. Areas of sustainability include the environment, economic growth, and social [my emphasis] responsibility.

This is embarrassing, when one considers the passive abuse inflicted on adjuncts. In fact, it is the height of social irresponsibility. I have heard of faculty being chastised for drinking from plastic water bottles. I suppose the only thing we should throw away is people. To my mind, it’s not far removed from Orwell’s 1984, where any statement must be accepted as true because the State says it is. At the very least there is a latent hypocrisy at work here.

The Lone Star College Model. In an article entitled, “Adjunct Inspiration,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in its March 27 issue that “officials say they are trying to improve conditions for both faculty members and students by offering a limited number of “full-time adjunct” positions. These are adjuncts, typically hired for an academic year, who work a full-time teaching load — usually five classes per semester. They receive full benefits and their pay is 70 percent of what a comparably qualified full-time faculty member would earn. That’s because full-time pay is based 70 percent on teaching and 30 percent on service and professional development. Adjuncts do not have the latter two requirements.”

Not great, but a better deal than we have presently. It might provide a good model or basis for working toward reform. It should not be characterized as a compromise, but as a step in the right direction.

The Larger Implications.  Tenured faculty seem often behave as though they have no stake in this situation. They do. They are systematically being phased out. This should be their fight, too.

The two-thirds model (adjunct staffing percentage) can be viewed as analogous to the Feudal system, where the peasants and serfs constituted the majority and wealth and power were concentrated in the minority ruling class.

For the future, we would have to ask who would be inclined to become an educator in the current environment?

Conclusion. In an interview, Michael Moore responded to a question about whether every American was entitled to health care. His reply, applicable here, was, “We have to decide what kind of people we are.” He was referring to our national character. Do we extend a hand to the deprived, or simply say “every man for himself”? Politically, health care, education, and livable wages are “social” problems. As soon as the “S” word appears, many reactionaries equate this with “social engineering,” a stone’s throw from the dreaded iron fist of socialism.

Institutions of higher learning should not follow the Wal-Mart business model (e.g., 39-hr. a week employees, classifying them as part-timers, who then do not qualify for benefits).

We are slowly but inexorably abandoning our national commitment to academics, and thus losing our vision. In doing so we cannot sustain our democratic way of life. One of our founding fathers put it this way:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1816


Joe Domino is currently an Adjunct Professor of English at Palm Beach Community College in Boca Raton, Florida. His classroom instruction and methodology emphasize critical thinking, cultural awareness, and a sense of history. Joe is also a published fiction author.

4 replies »

  1. Funny thing…out of all my friends in my PhD program at NU, I was the only one who didn’t go on to teach, do a post doc, or gravitate towards government or industry. Miraculously, everyone else in my class got jobs and are now professors somewhere. I looked some of them up on one of those rate a professor sites, and found an interesting correlation. The guys who were the biggest fuck-offs in the program turned out to be the hardest most arrogant teachers, while the most dedicated guys ended up getting high marks for being easy and affable i’m just glad I got out while the ink was still drying on my diploma.. i feel sorry for the guys coming up today as we had it so easy back in the 70’s….at least in the physical sciences. There was so much money going around back then and it wasn’t dog eat dog like today.

  2. I’ve always felt the adjunct system treated people like second-class citizens. There ire instances, of course, where it’s preferable to have an adjunct because of sound educational practices: someone with specialized knowledge teaching a specialized course, for instance. But on the whole, adjuncts get overworked and underpaid, and students get short-shrifted. How on earth can a student possibly get an appropriate amount of sustentative feedback on a composition paper, for instance, if the professor is teaching six sections of composition at three different campuses? (I knew someone in this area who had to teach in that situation.) I teach two sections every fall and even then find it hard to give students the kind of feedback I think they deserve because the grading is so time-intensive.