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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"?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Daniilantiq | Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

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.

These practices are justified by administrators as necessary in a decreased funding environment. Colleges and universities argue that using adjunct labor shouldn’t affect quality of education, and indeed allows educational institutions to offer more classes in a wider range. They also argue that the use of adjunct faculty serves as a gateway to other employment opportunities for these individuals, propelling them toward and preparing them for full-time positions. But there is no proof that adjuncts necessarily experience career development as a result of their contingent work; in fact, when most educators are not tenured or in tenure-tracked positions, competition tends to be fierce for both positions and research funds, and little nurturing actually occurs. Moreover, studies suggest that relying on adjunct labor does indeed affect the overall quality of a student’s education, in part because of the poor working conditions many adjuncts face.

The True Cost of Cheap Labor

Despite the cost-cutting benefits cited by colleges and universities, relying on adjuncts poses a significant problem for students and institutions as a whole. Lack of institutional support and poor working conditions for contingent labor are a pressing issue, and critics argue that better environments for contingent labor could result in better student outcomes. For example, adjunct faculty often have trouble connecting with students because they lack office space, and thus can’t mentor struggling students. Their fragile position as contract workers also means they are less able to be outspoken about campus reform and improvements, and less able to advocate for their students when administrative issues arise.

Jane, currently an instructor and adjunct at a large Midwestern university who is making the rare transition to a tenure-track position, shared her experiences in higher education to illustrate the many problems with relying on contingent faculty as the main teaching force in the university setting. “I was never really taught to teach,” Jane says. “There's remarkably little oversight of my courses apart from student evaluations.” She adds: 

This is a terrible system -- it creates perverse incentives to please students (with good grades, a certain personality, entertaining content) rather than push for harder course material. In contingent positions, evals are all important to what courses you're assigned, whether you're given more courses as an adjunct, etc. Before I started teaching two new classes this semester, no one asked what content I'd cover, what books I was using, or whether my assignments and grading standards met curricular goals. It's astonishing the trust there is, but also the lack of attention to ongoing pedagogy.

Jane is not alone in her outrage. Unwilling to sit by as standards of teaching and fair compensation disintegrate around them, faculty and graduate students have been pushing back for decades, from the graduate student strikes of the 1990s to a jump in labor organizing among graduate students in the 2000s to, most recently, a national push spearheaded by newly minted adjunct professor Joshua Boldt, who started the Adjunct Project to document working conditions at colleges and universities across the country. Using technology that protesters of the '90s could only have dreamed of, Boldt’s aim is to promote transparency by creating a crowdsourced database of information from workers on the ground, highlighting educational institutions that are getting it right – and those that are getting it wrong.

Boldt’s accidental activism around what he refers to as disposable professors began when he started teaching in adjunct faculty positions and was struck by differences in the treatment of adjunct faculty at various educational institutions. In its current configuration, the Adjunct Project allows participants to communicate directly with each other by editing a shared, living document, and Boldt was astounded when it blew up nationally. He thought he’d “be lucky to get 200 entries” -- currently, the database holds nearly 1,600 entries, with information about pay, working conditions and personal experiences in higher education spanning the nation. He’s garnered over 50,000 pageviews on the new Web site for his project within the first six weeks alone, and commenters on his site suggest that the renewed energy inspired by the Project may, in fact, lead to an “Adjunct Spring,” uniting contingent labor across the United States.

His work, Boldt says, has helped draw increased attention to the issue and generate energy around organizing for better working conditions among adjunct faculty. It’s sparked conversations outside of higher education, too, as the Project has been featured on NPR, CNN, and other major news outlets. Locally, individual groups are forming to discuss options for organizing, and on a national level, agitation among adjuncts is on the rise. His goal, he says, is to frame this as an “all faculty” issue, erasing the dividing line between tenured and adjunct faculty and bring all faculty together to embrace the issue as their own. Some tenured staff members he’s in contact with have indeed indicated support for his campaign, though he wishes tenured professors, on the whole, would be more outspoken on the issue. Because their contracts are constantly up for renewal,“[adjuncts] run the risk of not being rehired whenever we talk like this,” Boldt points out. Tenured faculty, of course, have the security from which to speak – but they do so far too rarely for his liking.

Professors, instructors, lecturers, and teaching assistants aren’t the only people facing poor working conditions at colleges and universities. Many support staff -- including janitors, cafeteria workers, clerical personnel, groundskeepers, and housing coordinators—also work for low pay, and are often forced to commute long diastances from satellite locations because they cannot afford the cost of living near campus. When benefits are provided to these workers, they are typically less than adequate, and services like employer-provided childcare -- which might be affordable on a tenured professor’s salary -- remain out of reach for people like janitors and healthcare workers: a janitor makes an average of $22,000 a year versus the $127,000-$157,000 average for full professors at doctoral institutions.

Demographics about support personnel also reveal that the population is heavily racialized and gendered, which adds an element of complexity to their labor organizing. Many people in support positions are women, and people of color are overrepresented in low-ranking, low-paying positions. People like groundskeeping staff and cafeteria workers are often immigrant laborers who can be endangered if they attempt to organize on the job. At California’s Pomona College, for example, cafeteria workers recently involved in labor organizing were intimidated and later fired.

Jacob, a web designer for a California university, tells AlterNet that union membership at his university is not available to all personnel; eligibility depends on what department you are employed by and your employment status. As a student employee and non-union member, Jacob faces limitations on working hours, given a cap by the university which he cannot exceed in a week. He is also paid at a lower rate when compared to other staff; when he chose to return to school, he was obliged to take out student loans to cover his expenses.

Jacob says: “My pay is good considering I’m a student, but wouldn’t be competitive if I was looking for similar jobs in the private sector.” Moreover, he points out, “it's hard not to feel that your work is undervalued when you've already reached the pay cap as a student assistant and you still need to take out loans to get by.”

Universties and Labor Organizers Go Head-to-Head

As labor organizing on college and university campuses has increased, so has the pushback against it. Boldt noted that attempts to unionize on college campuses across the United States have been suppressed, most recently in Chicago. One tactic is a concerted effort from the top to pit those on the bottom against each other: “One of the real talking points now is trying to suggest that adjuncts in power will hurt the full time faculty.” These kinds of tactics are designed to keep workers from joining forces to unionize or support those who are attempting to form unions.

One particularly troubling instance can be seen among religious colleges and universities, which have been faced with a tough mandate from the National Labor Relations Board. Schools wishing to claim a religious exemption to prevent workers from organizing are being ordered to prove that they are truly religious, rather than secular institutions. The result, some fear, might be increased conservatism at traditionally liberal religious campuses as schools attempt to meet NLRB scrutiny in order to suppress labor organizing on campus.

In addition to following the general trend across the US toward cheap, disposable labor in the workplace, colleges and universities have also followed the unfortunate track of promoting anti-worker and anti-union sentiment on campus. In addition to fighting labor organizing tooth and nail, many institutions of higher learning actively malign unions in an attempt to get workers to abandon organizing attempts. Columbia University has made unions a target as it fights its clerical workers, who are resisting the university’s attempt to reduce their compensation and implement the use of biometric scanners for tracking employees.

Despite what the universities are teaching through their actions, there’s no doubt that ensuring safe, secure and fair working conditions for university workers across the board is the ethical thing to do. As costs of attendance rise and students express dissatisfaction with their educational experiences, solving this problem will be complex – but one element of the solution must be fair wages for college and university personnel. Educators and staff who are fairly paid, in secure jobs, stand a much better shot at continuing our long tradition of academic excellence in the United States, educating the next generation of innovators and thinkers. 

Organizers have noted that labor organizing on college campuses tends to be most effective when people reach across the aisle to cooperate with each other. When faculty support each other as well as support staff, a united force of laborers can push for better working conditions overall; this support can take the form of refusing to cross picket lines, joining union actions, and supporting employees who are fighting for the right to organize or join unions, among other measures.

L., who works in a para-professional capacity in library settings, notes that union involvement has made her workplace safer and more pleasant, with actions like preventing layoffs, assisting with accommodations negotiations for disabled employees, and helping personnel file grievances. As a union member and alternate steward, she is grateful to be in a labor-friendly setting with contracts “above the industry standard.” And she is optimistic about the future of labor organizing on campus. “I keep hoping,” L. says, “that our graduate students will someday get together enough momentum to unionize.”

Jane, who is making her transition from adjunct to tenure-track faculty, concurs with L.’s positive sentiments about union presence. “The independence of this career in terms of oversight, hours, etc., can make it feel a bit lonely,” she notes. “Without the union, I would have felt pretty intimidated had I needed to stand up for my own interests.” Involvement in a labor-friendly workplace has made it easier for Jane to concentrate on what she loves doing most: teaching.

Every educator should be so lucky.

Editor's Note: Some names in this story have been changed.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.
 
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