American professors are a vaguely resented lot. Critics, particularly conservatives, often see them as a coddled, inefficient group of people, luxuriating in their tweed and their generous pensions and studying something like gender issues in Shakespearean times, while the rest of us worker much harder to earn a living.

The reality is that the secure professor, free to explore what he wishes while earning a reasonably good living, is rather rare. Only about 30 percent of college instructors have tenure-track positions.

Many of the others struggle daily to make a living, often holding low-wage adjunct positions teaching at multiple institutions. This is surely a problem for the adjuncts, but should society in general be worried? Is this a problem worth fixing?


It is. The way adjuncts are treated matters, according to this piece by Sarah Kendzior, even if you aren’t an adjunct professor. As she puts it:

But there is no escaping the consequences of academia’s reliance on contingent labor. If you do not experience the adjunct crisis directly as an academic, you may well experience it as a citizen: as a student, a parent, or a professional facing a similar contingency crisis in your own field. The adjunct crisis in academe both reflects and advances a broader crisis in labor. Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.

Labor exploitation is not the new normal. Adjunct professors are distinct from other low-wage contract workers only by virtue of degree – that is, the Ph.D. Like other exploited workers, adjuncts are told that their low pay and mistreatment are the deserved consequence of poor choices. While low-wage workers without college degrees are told to get an education, adjuncts are asked what they thought all that education would get them. The plight of the adjunct shows one can have all the education in the world and still have no place in it.

Undermining the rights of labor, after all, matters even if you aren’t a factory worker, or a teacher, or a nurse , or a public employee or any of the other jobs that are still well organized professions. We’ve long gotten used to limited labor rights in this country. A certain Wisconsin governor has organized his career on such a philosophy.

But those of us with career jobs have a tendency to think of labor struggles as someone else’s problem. Professionals, after all, have extensive education and training, what do they need labor organizing for?

But Kendzior argues that adjuncts are important because treating an workers as if they’re expendable impacts the power of labor in general, makes is easier to curtail further rights, and makes it harder to get those rights back. Adjunct professors, after all, are just as well educated as America’s accountants and insurance salesmen and nurses and businessmen. If their rights can be undermined, can’t anyone’s?

And, as Kendzior points out, it’s not like academia doesn’t have any money. Administrators and coaches are still compensated quite lavishly, and colleges are still building new buildings. “It is, she writes, “a social problem, indicative of how labor exploitation is justified with the rhetoric of prestige. Supporting the adjuncts’ call for higher wages and job security means supporting a system in which tuition money goes to education instead of exploitation. “

This development isn’t inevitable. This is about how we as a society place our resources, what college is really for, and what we value in higher education.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer