The Adjunct Faculty Scandal

Two phenomena that are attracting a lot of attention in this presidential election cycle are economic inequality and insecurity, and skyrocketing college costs. At the intersection of these two issues stand a remarkably large and heavily abused class of people called adjunct faculty, who are taking on an ever-increasing share of the instructional load at colleges–even while many are living at or below the poverty line.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Constitution Society president Caroline Frederickson takes a close look at the adjunct explosion and how it short-changes both faculty and students.

The raw numbers alone are a bit astonishing:

In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs….

To say that these are low-wage jobs is an understatement. Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Known as the “Homeless Prof,” Mary-Faith Cerasoli teaches romance languages and prepares her courses in friends’ apartments when she can crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends can’t take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she responded, “Sure, it’s the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue.”

As Frederickson points out, the rapid growth in the use of adjunct faculty is part of a broader phenomenon in which employers seek to build a work-force of part-time contract employees with no messy and expensive benefits, no job security, and where possible, no minimum wage or other public policy protections. What makes this trend so strange in higher education, of course, is that colleges aren’t exactly resource-strapped–or perhaps would not be if they were not spending so much money on cost-centers remote from their instructional missions, from corporate-sponsored research to athletics programs to a vast administrative bureaucracy.

The research findings are mixed about the educational value delivered by adjuncts, who often have real-world experience in the fields they teach that their tenured betters could only dream of. What is clear, though, is that adjuncts themselves are getting fed up with their treatment, and in some cases are even unionizing.

One way or another, something has to give. Judges and regulators are taking a harder look at companies that misclassify their workers as contractors, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is promising to crack down hard on the practice. Unions are moving in to organize adjuncts, with some success. And pressure continues to build on the higher education sector to allow the federal government to collect data on student outcomes. That’s the single best way to provide policymakers as well as colleges and universities with the data they need to determine which kinds of instructors (tenured or adjunct, part-time or full-time) serve which group of students best, and what kinds of support (training, office hours, wages) they need to do their jobs.

In the headline of this post, I called the situation with adjunct faculty a “scandal.” I think before long that’s exactly how it will be regarded, unless something changes soon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.