Inequality for All in America’s Higher Education System

Originally published on the San Diego Free Press:

By Jim Miller with Ian Duckles

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Thomas Piketty speak on economic inequality at UCSD. In his talk, Piketty hit on the central themes of his seminal work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: how our current level of economic inequality is now back to where it was before the “great compression” of the mid-twentieth century when union density, progressive taxation, and educational policies helped produce the high point of the American middle class. He underlined how there is no economic benefit to our current level of excessive inequality and that it is the product not of any “natural” function of the free market economy, but rather several decades of wrong-headed ideology, destructive politics, and bad policy. During the question and answer session following his presentation, a well-heeled older gentleman prefaced his question about why the “lower 50 percent” don’t just vote out the bad policies with, “this audience, we’re all the top 10%,” which drew a few laughs from people, many of whom were likely debt-ridden students, teaching assistants, campus workers, and lecturers whose income doesn’t come close to landing them in that realm. That there may have been a ragtag group of professors and students from lowly City College in attendance was not even in the speaker’s imagination. I couldn’t help but think how UCSD is a perfect microcosm of the macroeconomic inequality that Piketty was talking about and that the class-blind commenter was a perfect manifestation of the very elite ideology that serves to enforce our deep level of inequality. But of course, it’s not just at UCSD where this is an issue but across the entire landscape of American higher education, where what used to be one of the most solid middle-class professions in the country is in the process of being hollowed out, bit by bit. Coincidentally, October 26th through the 29th happens to be Campus Equity Week, a twice-a-year action designed to bring attention to this very problem. Thus, I will leave the rest of my column to Dr. Ian Duckles, my adjunct colleague in the San Diego Community College District, to further illuminate this issue.

Why Campus Equity Week? Monday is the first day of Campus Equity Week 2015, a biannual event first held around the turn of the millennium to draw attention to and raise awareness about issues confronting what are variously known as “adjuncts,” “contingent faculty” or “part-timers.” Defined in the California Educational Code as “part-time, temporary faculty,” adjuncts were originally intended to be just that: supplements to the full-time faculty to teach classes that wouldn’t support a full-time hire, or to help fill out a schedule and cover for sabbaticals and leaves. If, for example, a college wanted to offer courses in real estate, they wouldn’t necessarily hire a realtor full-time (who probably wouldn’t want to take the pay cut to become a full-time instructor), but instead invite a realtor to teach a class or two per semester. In this way, the college could take advantage of the professional expertise of these individuals without forcing them to quit their day jobs, the very thing that qualifies them to teach in the first place. There is clearly a role for this kind of instructor in the community colleges and schools wouldn’t be able to offer such a diverse list of courses and certificates without the assistance of these kinds of professional, part-time instructors. Unfortunately, the role of these “part-time, temporary faculty” has shifted considerably over the last 40-50 years. During the late 60’s to early 70’s the ratio of adjuncts to full-timers was about 20% to 80%. Today, the numbers have almost completely reversed with adjuncts making up about 75% of the faculty and full-timers making up about 25%. This shift in the make-up of higher education faculty is mirrored in all areas of higher education (community colleges, Cal States, UC’s and even many private colleges), and has some significant, negative impacts. In what follows, I want to explore these negative impacts on the adjuncts themselves, students, and full-timers. Beginning with the adjuncts, this emphasis on hiring part-time faculty has significant, negative consequences for those teaching professionals. These consequences are numerous and wide-ranging, but I will highlight just a few. In addition, because there are so many adjuncts, and these adjuncts live such a diversity of lives, it is difficult to speak for everyone. Instead, I will focus on my personal situation as a window into the broader issues confronting part-time college instructors. Perhaps the most significant impact is that even though I have a Ph.D. and over 10 years of teaching experience, I make significantly less than my full-time counterparts for the same work. As a quick example, I interviewed for but did not get a position at Miramar College back in 2008. Had I been hired, today I would be making an annual salary of $80,000-$90,000 for

Source: Inequality for All in America’s Higher Education System

How I Woke Up and Realized I Was Adjunct: An Adjunct Narrative from the Age of Neoliberalism

I am, by neoliberal, administrative definition, non-essential. How did I get here, to this dark and hopeless dead end, to the outer deck of this sinking ship?

It took more than fifteen years, but I finally woke up and realized that I’m trying to win the lottery. I have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of getting a tenured position. I have been adjunctified. I am adjunct. Disposable.


A number of benchmark moments tell the story.

It took fifteen years for me to realize the absurdity of the situation because in spite of what now seems like obvious signs that tenure in higher education is fast eroding, and with it the quality of academic life, I was optimistic. My optimism had grown out of the success of my graduate career and from the influence of the general notion prevalent in America, and central to a neoliberal society, that, if you work hard, and do a good job, you will be rewarded.

I began my college career with the utilitarian notion, a fundamental principle of neoliberalism, that the goal of earning a degree was to get a well-paying job. When, as a senior in high school, I was poring over the career information provided by the guidance counselor, I was looking for the kind of job at which I could make a lot of money. Not get rich money, but a career that would provide for me a solid middle class lifestyle. I do not remember that this was especially encouraged, but making a decision about what to major in when I got to college based on potential salary wasn’t discouraged either. It should have been.

Waking, as an undergraduate, as if from a dream

But I woke up. After a few years in a kind of haze, not really enjoying my classes, I became the most serious student alive and made up my mind to pursue a graduate degree in English. As an undergraduate, I tried a huge array of majors before realizing that I was squandering an opportunity and that I might not get a second chance. In the last year and a half of this period, I finally settled on and earned a journalism degree, and began to envision myself as a writer. So how, in the following years, did I first get sidetracked from this aspiration?

8th grade intimations of an awakening

Like many who were or should have been English majors, reading and writing have always come naturally to me. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I had announced my desire to become a writer. My parents quickly informed me that since I wouldn’t be able to earn a living that way, I should choose something more practical, and besides I still had to go to high school anyway. And then college. Because they had a deep respect for education, they suggested that I become a teacher. But, of course, they never thought I would be an adjunct.

Awakening to a calling (or, a fateful turn)

In the liminal period between my undergraduate and graduate years, I attended a community college (coincidently, the one at which I now teach most of my classes). As the voracious post-baccalaureate student whose intellectual hunger could not be quenched, I made the most of this brief experience. Fatefully, it is where I decided my future path: I would be a community college professor, a more financially stable option than trying to earn a living as a journalist (or so I thought). I wanted to write and I wanted to learn, and I wanted to earn a living for it; where better to find the life of the mind than as a college professor? Little did I realize then, or even after I had earned my master’s degree, that in the world of neoliberal corporate education, college professors were no longer considered essential. The full realization of how non-essential would not become apparent to me for many years.

After some unexpected twists and life-events (every life has them, no?) I finally arrived at graduate school. Two years later, I completed my master’s thesis, opted out of the doctorate (I had enough debt!; still do) and began my life as an adjunct community college professor. And it was so easy to get started! I was first hired sight unseen, recommended by the university from the erstwhile GTA cum university adjunct pool during a new president’s strategic outsourcing of developmental English classes to community colleges. Around the same time, I published a chapter from my master’s thesis, and, so I imagined, was on my way.

A slipping into slumber

And so I became a freeway flyer. And I said, “I’ll write when I have tenure!” And so I became deluded, and stopped writing so I could teach a full-time load for part-time pay.

And the years rolled by. I taught my ass off; one semester I taught at four sites. I designed challenging curriculum, I said yes to all assignments, I developed my craft. So I worked on a book only as an afterthought, only between semesters, only after all the papers were graded. At first, in my delusion, I thought, “I will be a good adjunct, and in my time, I will be rewarded with tenure.” Unlike the common adjunct experience at most schools, the English department at this one school, where I have taught for fifteen years, noticed and appreciated their adjuncts. Well, perhaps “appreciated” is not quite the right word. Is it possible to be appreciated and exploited at the same time? At any rate, I was received with applause and all looked bright. Why did I need to get too involved in trying to change things? I just needed to work hard, demonstrate my excellence, and stay optimistic. Although full-time positions had been denied to some long-term adjuncts, who obviously had earned such position, I would be different. I did not yet realize that I was living in the age of the adjunctification of higher education, in which the neoliberal ideology of market fundamentalism was becoming increasingly the barely questioned status quo in higher education employment proactices.

The slow but unrelenting erosion of tenure-track positions continued. Tenured faculty retired. Adjuncts were hired to replace them. More years passed. Then, word came from the district office that the English department had received funding to fill a tenured position, and I received an interview. Just as I had expected! But no second interview.

Somewhere, under the surface of my semi-conscious mind, a quiet, little voice asked: “what just happened? OK, look closer, something is wrong here.” But before I could look more closely, another, louder, cheerful voice cried, “But wait! Here comes the AFT FACE campaign! Surely, in a few years this campaign will be successful and adjuncts will get justice.” So I optimistically and foolishly imagined. Then, the bubble economy burst and FACE went blank. Hiring freezes were the order of the day. And more years rolled by.

Awakening to adjunctification

The ideology of the market that seeks to commodify all and everything defines me as non-essential and makes me a precarious worker. Some tell me that I chose my fate and that if I don’t like my wages I should find another job.

But I see that what I do is important for the maintenance of civilization. If higher education continues to devolve into corporate job training, our democracy will disappear, eventually. Without the ability to think and communicate clearly, without the humanistic values that enter into society through a liberal arts higher education, without the deep understanding of science available in college, in thirty years (or so) when the climate destabilization beast really gets angry, Hell will break loose. Ah! The rough beast slouching towards the Ivory Tower! The widening gyre! The sinking ship!

I am defined as non-essential, I am serially unemployed, financially challenged, but I know that I’m needed because I have been called back and given a “tentative agreement” over thirty times. I know I make a difference because students tell me. The value of my contribution is not contingent or non-essential but my status and pay is. The adjunct me is different from what should have been the full-time me only in that he gets less than half the pay. At the very least, I deserve to be paid as well as if I were full-time.

Tenure looks like a dying sacred cow. I’m not sure I even want it anymore. But I am going to demand equal pay. The impact of my talent and energy has been enormous. I have earned the right to be paid on the same schedule as someone who has been tenured for fifteen years. Indeed, I had the right from the beginning. Now I’m calling for it. I am now seeking justice.

Myths about College Degrees and the Job Economy

This blog post, by Bob Samuels, from the blog “Changing Universities,” not only concisely ties the link between income inequality and higher ed., but  identifies what every adjunct ultimately learns and what every student needs to be taught as regards the value of a college education:

Of course, the wealthy have used their financial advantages to not only game higher education but also the political system, which helps to enhance wealth through tax policies and anti-labor practices. Yet, even with all of the ample evidence that most of the wealth and wage inequality is being driven by corporate hording and governmental policies favoring the super-rich, Cassidy continues to argue that we really do not know what is going on: “Why is this happening? The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. One theory is that corporate cost-cutting, having thinned the ranks of workers on the factory floor and in routine office jobs, is now targeting supervisors, managers, and other highly educated people. Another theory is that technological progress, after favoring highly educated workers for a long time, is now turning on them.” Here we see how the focus on technology and education blinds us from seeing how human greed is driving the exploitation of labor, and without any counter-force, like strong unions, governmental regulations, and progressive tax policies, there is nothing to stop the concentration of wealth at the top. 

Instead of hoping that higher education should be the solution to all of our economic problems, we should follow Cassidy’s advice and return to the notion that college is a public good and an end in itself: “Being more realistic about the role that college degrees play would help families and politicians make better choices. It could also help us appreciate the actual merits of a traditional broad-based education, often called a liberal-arts education, rather than trying to reduce everything to an economic cost-benefit analysis.” If we focus on making higher education more accessible and affordable as we enhance its quality, we can at least make sure that it does not enhance inequality and decrease social mobility. The first step is to stop believing that college degrees produce good jobs.

The Mesa Press Covers Campus Equity Week 2015

Student journalist Shane O’Connell, writing for The Mesa Press, covers Campus Equity Week: “Campus Equity Week Aims to Open Discussion Over Adjuncts”

O’Connell’s excellent report represents the most comprehensive coverage of the adjunctification at Mesa yet. Look for his continued coverage in The Mesa Press