The Human Cost of Adjunctification and the Need for Equal Pay

Adjunctification is a machine. To halt the human destruction this machine causes, we need the power of conscience.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”–Upton Sinclair

To local, state and national tenured and tenure-track faculty everywhere who want justice (and I know this means you):

Before you allow resentment to define your response to adjunct resistance to an unjust order, I appeal to each of you to bring forward your best Self and rise above your resentment. Some things, perhaps hard things, need to be said.

One reason for adjunct dissent within the union is that tenured faculty, through no intentions of their own, but as a result of being part of a two-tiered class system, which existed before they came along, benefit from the exploitation and oppression of adjuncts. It’s just a fact. Let us consider it together, dispassionately.

Adjuncts are frustrated because most are in a dead-end situation. Highly educated, deeply indebted, exploited for their commitment to the public good, adjuncts feel betrayed. This is the human cost of the erosion of tenure-track positions aptly named adjunctification. Adjunctification is the first step in the scheme to privatize higher education. And this stage of the scheme is fast nearing completion.

One thing that seems to happen in the breakdown of communication between adjuncts and tenured/tenure-track faculty is the resentment that is bred by the competition between so many for the rare chance to win the lottery and escape the adjunct ranks. Sometimes, the frustration adjuncts feel erupts as resentment against the lucky one in a hundred who got the tenure-track spot for which any of the many were eminently qualified. Sometimes, it’s the lucky one who feels like he must be hated by the unlucky for his luck and so reads envy into all the comments and actions of the unlucky adjuncts. No matter who projects it, or if it is mutual, there is tension between adjuncts and tenure-track.

The fact is that the class privilege of tenure is invisible and so therefore unnoticed. Well, not exactly. Tenure-track faculty have offices, adjuncts do not. Tenure-track faculty have their own computers, adjuncts do not. Even when adjuncts have benefits, like the ones we have at AFT Local 1931, they aren’t quite as equal as those of tenure-track faculty.

But the more significant privileges are not so readily visible. The institution sees tenure-track faculty as essential, for instance, and sees adjuncts, by definition, as non-essential. It doesn’t matter if actually we are essential. And telling us we are essential rings hollow, just as it does when a tenured faculty member sings, “I once was an adjunct.” Actually, even if it may salve your conscience, when you say these things, it ultimately serves to maintain the status quo exploitation. It’s reminiscent of Freire’s “false charity.” It doesn’t help. Only “happy adjuncts” want to hear it.

Tenure-track faculty have the privilege of financial security that comes with a contract, with being defined as essential. This security, and those of you who have endured very much time in the adjunct ranks know this, is life-changing for an adjunct. It would change the quality of your life: you would have the security of providing well for your family; you would have the security of paying bills and having money left over; you would have the security of paying off your student loan. Most importantly, perhaps, you would have the academic freedom that comes with being defined as essential, and therefore, greater freedom to challenge students to grow and learn.

The financial insecurity of adjuncts has an adverse effect on students’ education. Because of our professional commitment, we deliver the best education possible, but the truth is that we are hampered by having to navigate freeways and multiple campus protocols, constantly adjust curriculum for different student populations, and struggle against the distraction of never having enough money, of living paycheck to paycheck.

I hardly need to observe that college faculty, and indeed, public education in general, are under attack. As Randi Weingarten put it about the attack on K-12 public education in a speech last year, we in higher education are, like K-12, under attack by “privatizers and profiteers” who want no less than to privatize every aspects of public education. And make no mistake, we are up against the edge of the cliff. One of the privatizers’ biggest victories has been the erosion of tenure through adjunctification to the precarious point where the number of tenure-track faculty is dwarfed by the legions of adjuncts. Like soil erosion, tenure erosion has happened so gradually that most could ignore it, especially those on the solid ground of tenure. So much has eroded by now that most of us are struggling against a slow landslide. Adjuncts are in the landslide, but the erosion is continually creeping up the hill. Ground that seems firm today eventually will erode. Unless we do something different, the number of tenured faculty will continue to decrease.

In many ways, tenured/tenure-track faculty are caught between the forces of privatization and the consequent oppression of adjuncts. I think it must sometimes be difficult for tenured faculty to fulfill their contractual duties and fully resist privatization. I wonder if they ever lie awake at night and struggle with this dilemma. At any rate, as Paolo Freire observed, one cannot be “neutral” in the struggle against oppression.

To resist privatization, to save higher education, what is our plan? What is our plan to stop the erosion of tenure? Is it the AFT FACE campaign? If it’s “advocating for more full-time positions,” what’s our timetable for reversing the erosion of tenure? And what about those who are clambering in the slow landslide? How many can be saved? How many adjuncts will go over the cliff, chained to their student loans?

If you truly want unity, if you want solidarity in the resistance to privatization, you, my tenured and tenure-track friends, need a new attitude. We need a new strategy. To begin, we need to demand equal pay for adjuncts. Adjuncts’ working conditions are student’s learning conditions; these working conditions are shared by tenured/tenure-track faculty as well, especially when, for instance, they are asked to increase their committee workload.  I think the privatizers will work relentlessly to divide us. If we are all too busy with maintaining the system or with survival, we won’t even notice the hum of their machine. Empowering adjuncts with equal pay would not only do right by adjuncts, it is a crucial strategy in the struggle to save higher education. We need a union that makes equality within its ranks the first priority.

I hope not, but, even if it’s still possible, the reversal of tenure erosion may take too long to save many of the adjuncts now in the landslide. Equal pay for equal work, however, would provide a bulwark of support to stanch the slide and strengthen solidarity and resistance. It would be the first, very needed step in reclaiming the promise of higher education.

I appeal to your conscience. Do the right thing and support, no, demand equal pay for your colleagues.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”– Frederick Douglass

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5 thoughts on “The Human Cost of Adjunctification and the Need for Equal Pay

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