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Disposable Professors? How the Labor Crisis Threatens Higher Education

Adjunct faculty and grad students across America have had enough of service cuts and low wages. Should we expect an "Adjunct Spring"?

Photo Credit: Daniilantiq |


Relying on cheap labor at educational institutions comes at a high price -- for educators and students alike. Since the 1970s, a radical shift has been occurring in higher education, as growing numbers of institutions turn to contingent (or adjunct) faculty to cut costs, while keeping pay as low as possible for the support staff who keep campuses running. Students suffer, as the number of available services are reduced, class sizes increase, and educators are less able to provide direct assistance and mentoring to the students they are there to teach. Now, employees in higher education are fighting back, and facing real challenges from administrations when they do.

In a political climate where a leading presidential candidate freely discloses his belief that higher education has no value, and even poses a threat, discussing the working climate for higher education employees is more critical than ever. In some regions of the United States, educators and support staff are encountering  hostile attitudes in the outside world about the work they perform, as well as questions about whether teaching has worth, or is even a form of work. At the same time, their own administrations are slashing budgets, cutting wages and benefits to limit costs. Long dismissed as the sheltered ivory tower, American educational institutions, and their workers, are clearly under siege.

Part of the crisis we see in higher education is a direct result of the larger economic meltdown, which has had a severe impact on endowments and government funding. Particularly for community colleges and state schools, budgetary pinches are mounting, forcing schools to adopt a slash and burn tactics for handling their operating costs. Paradoxically, however, in some regions a building boom is occurring at universities at the same time that budgets are being cut, thanks to grants and funding secured before the economic collapse.

California public universities, for example, will spend close to $9 billion on construction projects in the very near future. In a number of cases, these schools lack the funds to pay personnel to staff the finished buildings – meaning they will sit empty for weeks, months or years after completion. This is reflective of a larger problem with funding priorities in higher education, a problem that is hitting core personnel hard as they fight to retain jobs in the midst of cuts, trying to eke out a living on reduced pay and benefits (when benefits are available at all).

While top executives in college and university settings are busy voting on large pay increases and fringe benefits for themselves, the educators and workers who oversee daily operations and interact with students are increasingly being left in the cold. In the classroom, growing numbers of colleges and universities are leaning more heavily than ever before on adjuncts, graduate student teachers, and emergency hires to meet their needs – and rescue their bottom lines. The cost of one tenured educator, complete with salary and benefits, is much higher than that of several contingent faculty members, graduate student instructors, and other low-ranking personnel. In fact, hiring an adjunct can be up to 80 percent cheaper than a tenured, full-time staff member.

Lara, a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, told AlterNet that student teaching salaries are so low that those making $8,000 annually “are the rich people.” She added that the glut of graduate students desperate for work ensures that employers in the surrounding area have access to a ready supply of cheap and essentially disposable labor, which forces most graduate students to take out large loans to meet living expenses, while working two or more jobs in addition. An attempt at unionizing several years ago was aggressively crushed by the university, according to a graduate student instructor who spoke with AlterNet.

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