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John P. Calvert, Published November 09 2013

Letter: Adjuncts epitomize exploitation

Although fashionable academicians are fond of embracing causes in the name of “social justice” and proclaiming themselves foes of labor exploitation, few institutions exploit their employees as mercilessly as the academy itself. Its treatment of adjunct faculty – who now comprise 70 percent of the teachers in higher education – is legendary. At the bottom of the caste system, adjuncts usually work part time for meager wages with no benefits, no job security, little chance for advancement and no office space to meet with students. They are assigned the largest classes and they are generally excluded from departmental affairs, campus governance and the faculty culture. Despite their majority status, adjuncts have little respect and no power.

Working as waiters

Administrators like them because they are easily procured from local sources and are just as easily disposed of. Adjuncts, for their part, accept their lot because the higher education bubble that began in the 1960s has devalued the college degree. Currently, some 115,000 college graduates are working as janitors and another 323,000 as waiters. That same bubble created an army of wannabe professors afflicted by “foot-in-the-door” syndrome – the belief that if they cling to some wretched academic niche long enough, they will have an edge should a tenure-track job one day open up. That seldom happens, but for many, it beats pushing the broom.

The recent case of Margaret Votjko illustrates how utterly surreal the situation is. Votjko, an adjunct who taught French, died penniless at the age of 83 after 25 years of service with Duquesne. Her salary was $3,000-$3,500 per semester course in her last year. While reduced to teaching one class and taking cancer treatments, she was terminated with no benefits, no retirement and no severance pay. Though she couldn’t even pay her heating bills, Duquesne did nothing except refer her to charities. She was buried in a cardboard casket.

Poverty common

Though many were shocked that this could happen to a professor, poverty among adjuncts is old news. According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a full professor in 2012 was $123,000, while for adjuncts it was just $2,700 per three-credit semester course or $16,200 if they were lucky enough to teach six courses. In that same year, according to ABC News, 33,665 Ph.D.’s and 293,029 M.A.’s were on public assistance.

OK, you might say that if adjuncts are exploited, it is by their own choice. But a faculty of part-timers diminishes the education enterprise. While many are outstanding teachers, most don’t have terminal degrees and the sporadic nature of their employment hinders both professional development and relations with students.

Sports palaces

Invariably, the campuses claim that they haven’t the money for a professional faculty. But money isn’t scarce, it’s just misallocated. It goes into things that are totally unrelated to education – sports palaces and athletic circuses, gyms with Olympic pools and climbing walls, sumptuous student centers, spacious apartments rather than yesteryear’s monastic dorms, star professors who don’t teach. And research being cooler than teaching, money goes heavily into redundant labs and technology. All this is frankly intended to attract enrollees who are otherwise not serious about college and to burnish institutional status.

And since 1975, the real cost of administration has tripled. Professor Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins finds that students and professors have both increased by about 51 percent, while administrators have increased by 85 percent; and their “support staff” – “deanlets” and “deanlings” – by an incredible 240 percent. Today, the campuses have more administrators than full-time professors. What most of these people do is uncertain.

Adjuncts are invaluable as pinch-hitters for absent professors and for providing short-term curricular flexibility. But a faculty permanently composed of part-timers and transients is not healthy. We need to restore professionalism to higher education; and with its bonanza wealth, North Dakota, at least, has no reason not to.

Calvert, a former college teacher, is a contributor to The Forum’s opinion and commentary pages. Email johnpcalvert@aol.com