This past week, October 24-28 marks Campus Equity Week, a time of education and activism that draws attention to the working conditions of faculty working on temporary, low-paid contracts, who now constitute the majority of college instructors.
To the larger public, there has been a longstanding misunderstanding of academic labor, fueled by movie and media depictions of professors as mainly working at rich and exclusive colleges, enjoying an affluent or upper middle-class lifestyle, driving mid-range luxury cars, or summering in Europe in private villas. This rarefied lot exists only within realm of perhaps 5%-10% of full-time tenure-track faculty.
A much harsher truth is that 73% of American college faculty are not full-time tenure track employees, but adjunct/contingent faculty working on often term-by-term contracts for a fraction of the wages of their full-time tenure track colleagues, with limited to no benefits. Further, as their hiring is contingent upon enrollment, there is limited to no reasonable assurance they can or will be rehired after a term ends, even with stellar evaluations. Moreover, in many states, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits or social security.
What does the face of the adjunct/contingent majority look like? According to survey information provided by the American Federation of Teachers, it’s not a pretty one. Of over 1,000 Adjunct/contingent faculty surveyed nationwide, 22% percent stated they were facing food insecurity. 19% rely on some form of public assistance. More than a quarter earn less than 26,500 dollars a year, and over half nave put off healthcare treatment due to the cost.
And just who are these faculty? Most are women, and most are over the age of 50. 37% Have expressed they do not know how they will manage retirement.
While racially, most of these faculty are white, the numbers of BIPOC adjunct/contingent faculty are increasing, and it is likely within 20 years, by sheer attrition alone, that this underclass of faculty will be increasingly comprised of folks seeing academia as a path to equity only to be denied it.
As an adjunct rep at two different institutions, I routinely encounter homeless adjunct/contingent faculty. All but one was white and male, and even his story is marked by working class struggle. I have watched adjunct colleagues die prematurely, worn down by the job, who put off needed healthcare, and have suffered mentally and emotionally by the isolation, precarity, and poverty brought on by the work. Others have gone to Mexico for necessary and even emergency medical procedures they could not afford in the U.S.
Many and most of these faculty are teachers who taught for years, not out of desperation or a desire for wealth, but out of a true love in aiding students reach their dreams. Usually, it is the adjunct/contingent faculty who teach the underserved and marginalized students with the greatest needs—those students in greatest need of equity.
But these faculty, who often teach more classes than their full-time tenure track colleagues, and with fewer resources, are kept by precarious working conditions from their true potential.
The clear inequity between the working conditions between Full time-tenure track faculty and their adjunct-contingent counterparts has been long known, but little energy or action has been asserted at the Federal level to address it. Among policymakers at both the federal and state levels there has been a collective handwashing on dealing with the issue, with such policymakers claiming the cost truly creating academic labor equity is either too steep or incalculable.
In truth, is it neither. Public colleges, by law, are required to be transparent with their budgets, which are in turn reported to larger public entities themselves required to be transparent regarding government spending. This is information that is accessible, collectable, and can be analyzed.
The US Department of Education, under the direction of the Biden administration, could clearly undertake such a study regardless of the roiling partisanship in Congress. Further, they could publish it and reveal the inequity of a two-tier system, and in that inequity, the cost of addressing it. That cost could in turn be broken down at the individual state, local, and system level, and with it, a hard and solid target could be set.
And what would that target look like?
Imagine that when a student walks into a classroom they see a professor or instructor, not an adjunct/contingent, or tenure track faculty member.
We should simply make that what the student sees as truth—that each instructor, holding similar qualifications and benefits doing the same job, receive equal pay and benefits proportionate to their work. Additionally, all instructors, whether working full-time or not, should be not only allowed, but encouraged and even expected to be involved departmental and shared governance activities. Finally, in as much as it is possible, given the challenges of fluctuating enrollments, all instructors should have the right to equivalent job security protections, subject to evaluation similar to the tenure process accorded tenure-line faculty.
In effect, there would no longer be a two-tier and ever-exploitive system of academic labor.
Doing so would create a stable and secure academic labor force better equipped to empower students, particularly those in need of their own equity, to achieve it. It would also likely convince administrators to hire more full-time faculty outright to reduce the costs and challenges of employee turnover, and truly create the 75%+ full-time labor force often spoken of as some halcyon goal that could in fact be a reality.
Most of all what it would create is a sense of solidarity in a higher mission for higher ed, not one grounded in division and parsimony and, but inclusion and prosperity. It is not beyond imagining.
Now we must create the collective will to make it happen.