Universities exploit adjuncts, hinder learning
“The dirty little secret is that higher education is staffed with an insufficiently resourced, egregiously exploited, contingent ‘new faculty majority,’” writes Gary Rhoades, the director of the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education, in an op-ed piece for CNN.
Part-time adjunct professors make up 49.3 percent of faculty members nationwide, while full-time nontenure-track professors make up another 19 percent. The vast majority of part-time adjunct professors receive a flat fee for every course they teach, get no benefits and have little-to-no job security. The tenuousness of an adjunct’s position, many of whom work on a semester-to-semester basis, leaves instructors wondering if they will still have a job in a few months.
A current UA adjunct instructor who wished to remain anonymous described the process of waiting to find out if he would be employed next year — he didn’t even know if he had would have a job in fall until late summer. He found out he would be rehired in early July, but the information he received was far from complete.
“I had no idea how many sections I was getting,” he said. “I didn’t know what my contract looked like.”
Only with a great deal of pestering did he learn that he was guaranteed at least two sections, or $8,000 a semester, with no benefits.
“That’s not very much to live on,” he said.
All part-time adjuncts must go through this waiting game and reapply for their job every year.
The exploitation of adjuncts can negatively affect the learning environment for students. Although the the adjunct professor emphasized this was only true for a minority of adjuncts, he said there are people “who purposely undermine the entire system to make sure that students are giving them high reviews [by] inflating grades [and] canceling class with a high level of frequency.”
He said he believes that adjuncts can impose very little change because of the tenuousness of their positions, particularly without unionization. Talks of unionization have had trouble moving forward because of the anticipation of university pushback.
“The reality is, if we try to voice our discomfort, the desire for better treatment, the university has the power to just can all of us,” the adjunct professor said.
The situation is not much better for full-time nontenure-track employees, as evidenced by former UA professor of Italian William Van Watson, who was unceremoniously let go in March after 13 years of loyal service to the university, which included two Distinguished Teaching Award nominations in the last five years.
“I was earning less in real terms than at any time in my life since I was a graduate student,” Watson said about his salary, which had only increased 4 percent in the last eight years.
Watson said that even though a large portion of the French and Italian department was vehemently opposed to his termination, administrative members of the College of Humanities ignored the actions of faculty members challenging the dismissal. Watson explained that his department head, Fabian Alfie, refused to discuss the matter with faculty members in his department, and Dean Mary Wildner-Bassett dismissed a letter-writing campaign by faculty and students protesting the firing, which included support from the American Association of Italian Studies. The dean declined to comment for this article.
It would not be the last time the administration went over the heads of faculty members.
“In August 2012, Alfie informed the faculty that the department ran a $40,000 surplus which was then swept back up by the college administration,” Watson recalled.
The anonymous adjunct said he is not surprised by these types of administrative hijinks anymore.
“I understand what they [administration] do is important to the university,” he said, “but I just don’t understand how it can be that much more important than educating the students.”
He is one of a growing number of academics who see the primary goal of the administration as gutting instructional programs to the bone.
Looking at his department, the adjunct said, “It’s underutilized [and] underpaid. All of our faculty are underpaid. All the adjuncts are underpaid.”
Yet tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1980, falling just below cigarettes as the product with the fastest rising price in the U.S.
“You would think logically, eventually, people are going to realize this is not what we pay out the ass to go to college for,” the adjunct professor said. “We want good instructors who care about teaching.”
The university is diverting resources from the individuals who provide the most value for a university student — the instructors — to a bloated and inefficient administrative staff that doesn’t have students’ best interests in mind. Instead of prioritizing spending on instructional services, universities are happy to trim their budgets by relying on ranks of adjunct lecturers who barely earn a livable wage. These cuts should be levied on administration, not instructors.
In the last 40 years, the number of professors has increased at roughly the same rate as the number of students attending college — slightly more than 50 percent, according to the Washington Monthly’s Benjamin Ginsberg. Meanwhile, the number of administrators and administrative staffers has increased by 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.
It’s a mystery why we require so many more administrators per student. Arizona universities were no exceptions to the national trends. Based on a national report by the Goldwater Institute, looking at data from 1993 to 2007, Arizona State University was one of the worst offenders. In that period, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students increased 94.0 percent while the number of teachers and researchers actually declined by 2.4 percent.
The UA didn’t fare much better, increasing the number of instructors by only 3.1 percent versus a 45.8 percent increase in administrators. In 2007, the UA employed more full time administrators than faculty members.
As administrative budgets inflate inordinately compared to the resources invested in instructors, more and more of our education is left in the hands of poorly compensated and often abused adjuncts.
So is it any surprise that in a world where six of the 17 academic deans at University of California, Los Angeles, have submitted doctors’ notes claiming that they have health conditions requiring them to travel in first class, we have to turn to a shamelessly exploited population of adjunct lecturers to perform so much of our teaching?
The byzantine nature of adjunct contracts gives adjunct professors very little negotiating power, particularly when they are informed that their contract will not be renewed. Adjuncts are not even entitled to receive a 90-day written notice.
Even though Watson was receiving benefits as a full-time employee, he did not qualify for sabbatical time for research and publication, things that are vital for the advancement of any academic career.
“These jobs are not opportunities, but rather, hold one back in the long run,” Watson said.
The instructor succinctly summed up the concerns of adjuncts, saying, “We get treated worse than K-12, and I’m pretty sure getting a masters or an MFA is a little bit more difficult than getting a credential.”
Most reasonable people would agree that their demands are fair.
“The real issue that most people really want is they want to have work on a consistent basis, year to year, with benefits, where they get paid enough to live on and to retire off of,” the adjunct said.
Why is it that faculty salaries are stagnating when college administrations are larger than ever?
Administrative bloat is slowly suffocating not just the wallets of those who pay to attend college, but the livelihoods of those who actually provide the education we are paying to receive.
Eliminating the waste at the top can go towards paying for part-time faculty to receive reasonable benefits, like health care coverage and more full-time professorships to improve the overall quality of education.
Max Weintraub is a senior studying creative writing and Italian studies. Follow him @mweintra13.