The Plight of the Adjuncts

Although they do not teach classes, at most universities and four-year colleges the Presidents of those institutions are remunerated with a six-figure salary and a comprehensive benefits package. Presidents occupy positions within the hierarchy of the university that correspond to those of corporate CEOs in business, and they are compensated accordingly.

For instance, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer, is paid like a high-powered corporate executive, whereas the adjunct professor who teaches at that same institution may be compensated like an entry level worker at Wal-Mart and accorded similar social status. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2011, the most recent year for which we have data, Zimmer’s total compensation package was $3,358,723.

By contrast, the majority of adjunct professors, many of them holding PhDs, find it difficult to earn a living. Adjuncts are untenured, they are compensated by the course, and they are required to teach multiple courses, often at different institutions, or to hold some other job in order to make a modest living in academia. Moreover, many of them are saddled with astronomical student loans accrued while earning their degrees while adjuncts typically have no benefits or job security and they work under short-term contracts.

The academic equivalent to a temp agency hireling, adjuncts rarely have a voice in university policy. Because they have no job security, many of them are unwilling to say or do anything controversial, a circumstance that inhibits creativity. Often they do not have an office, and have neither full access to libraries nor full copying and printing privileges. Adjuncts, like any other “at will” employee working for a corporation can be terminated without reason or explanation. These oppressive circumstances do not permit adjuncts ample opportunity to do research, and it makes adequate preparation for classes problematic.

According to the American Association of University Professors, median pay for adjuncts in the U.S. is $2,700 per three credit hour course. By comparison, the pay for adjuncts at Shepherd University is $1,869 per course. The Los Angeles Times recently noted that the median salary for the lowest paid assistant tenure track professor is on average about twice that of an adjunct.

If the ostensible purpose of institutions of higher learning, at least those calling themselves liberal arts schools, is to promote critical thinking, to intellectually and culturally enrich our communities, and to facilitate human development, it makes little sense for them to invest so much of their respective budgets in non-teaching administrators. The value placed upon executives reflects the corporate influence upon institutions of higher learning. These are invariably detrimental to the long-term prospects of educators and students. Universities should not be run like corporations, and thus students should not be construed for clients. Education is a higher calling than business.

Another impediment affecting professors, students, and administrators is the austerity that is being imposed upon the working class to pay for a crisis of capitalism neither they nor the government created. Private enterprise, particularly the banking industry, is the culprit and also the chief beneficiary. Austerity and sequestration were the result of the public bailout of big banks, endless military incursions, and tax cuts for the rich combined with decreasing corporate taxes.

Although we may rarely think about it, austerity and sequestration have already had a profound impact on everyone at Shepherd. It is largely the university’s attempt to cope with government imposed budget cuts that fosters the increasing use of adjuncts as a cheaper alternative to tenured faculty.

Furthermore, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many colleges and universities are limiting the hours an adjunct can teach so that the institution does not have to pay for their mandated health insurance and thus putting the onus for payment on the already beleaguered teacher.

Only forty-five percent of the professors at Shepherd University are full time. Fifty-five percent of them are adjuncts. By comparison, the national average is just over forty-seven percent. The majority of the teachers at Shepherd University are part-time, non-faculty or non-tenure track faculty. These statistics may be interpreted as indicative of either the university’s commitment or lack of commitment to long-term high quality education and fairness.

To its credit, Shepherd University recently hired four non-tenured full time adjuncts, which is a step in the right direction. These new positions provide a living wage, benefits, and security. But it is not enough. More such positions need to be created.

It behooves Shepherd University to tenure as many of its adjuncts as possible—and the sooner the better. Educators need to know that the university supports them and nurtures their development as researchers and as valued and equal members of the academic community. Students benefit from knowing that their professors will be here long term with ample time for research and class preparation. Continuity and security is important for everyone’s development and maturation, including institutions of higher education.

Prospective students with a social conscience must consider the economic exploitation of adjuncts when choosing which school they will attend. Liberal arts institutions should be bastions of equality that provide security and justice for teachers and students alike. In the final analysis, a university’s character, either its greatness or its mediocrity, is judged in part by how it treats its adjuncts.

• This article first appeared in Shepherd University’s Newspaper, The Picket

Charles Sullivan is a Master Naturalist, community activist, and free-lance writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. . Read other articles by Charles.