Columbia University
A man sits on the Columbia University campus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The business of higher education is increasingly a gig economy, with instruction by underpaid adjunct professors no longer the exception, but the rule. Only 37 percent of faculty who teach at U.S. universities are either tenured or tenure-track, compared to 80 percent in 1960. Even at a university as prestigious as Columbia, almost half the core faculty in the humanities are full time contingent, earning about one-third what tenured faculty do.

The reason is obvious: College administrators are struggling to pay the bills. But displacing professors with the academic equivalent of an Uber driver is a foolish economy. Most obviously it’s bad for the young PhD who aspires to a stable teaching career and doesn’t want to go on food stamps (a 2019 study found one-quarter of adjuncts are on some form of public assistance and one-third live below the poverty line). But it’s also bad for the student, who pays ever-higher tuition to attend ever-more-oversubscribed classes taught by ever-more overworked contingent faculty who may not even enjoy library privileges or have a desk. (According to Erin Bertram, editor of of Contingent Magazine, $3500 is about average pay for a part-time adjunct.)

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

A government-imposed salary floor for university teachers and ceiling for adjunct hires might sound outlandish, but there’s precedent for this type of government action. President Joe Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, imposed a minimum wage on government contractors through executive orders. Meanwhile, starting with the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress not only increased funding for colleges and universities, but also shaped the market for student loans, including experiments with income-contingent loans; set rules for the operation of for-profit colleges; and barred students convicted of drug offenses from receiving federal money. Meanwhile, the courts have become intimately involved in shaping how universities design, or don’t design, their affirmative action policies. Throughout, the government’s principal concern has been to improve students’ access to and experience at institutions of higher learning. Lousy labor conditions have no small impact on that experience.

Federal policies that funnel money to universities need to consider how taxpayer money flows, and to steer it toward rebuilding tenured faculty and paying teachers a living wage and benefits, including those they need to do their jobs. Limits on how much federal money may support university administration could help restore to college faculties to greater responsibility for university governance.

At a time when “infrastructure” is all the rage, we must remember that universities are essential infrastructure too. No other nation has anything like the number of first-class universities found in America. They’re a precious national resource. Let’s create policies that support those who teach there, who provide bridges for the next generation’s success.

Correction, August 12: An earlier version of this article stated that more than half the Columbia core faculty in the humanities are full-time contingent. In fact, 47 percent are, or nearly half.

Holly Brewer

Follow Holly on Twitter @earlymodjustice. Holly Brewer is Burke Professor of American History at the University of Maryland and author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005).