Class Warfare: Adjunct Professors

The army of part-time professors teaching at the region’s colleges are merely working stiffs at the bottom of an enormous and lucrative enterprise.

Feeling Crunched

How part-time faculty stack up, by the numbers.

Average salary for a full-time instructional faculty in the 2011-2012 academic year.

Median salary for a postsecondary-education administer in 2012.

Average per-course pay for Massachusetts adjuncts.

Increase in tuition costs since 1985.

Increase in the number of part-time faculty between 1970 and 2003.

Average reported annual income of more than half of the part-time faculty teaching in the U.S.

Average increase in earnings when a service worker is unionized, as of 2013.


Sources: U.S. Department of Labour Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chronicle of High Education, Adjunct Project.

  • Vic Verbal

    Provocative assessment of academia’s dirty big secret. Not all labor injustice takes place in sweatshops — some of the most exploited workers are standing in front of your college student, conducting class right now!

  • BeekersNeeya

    I’ve known this for years. I have several friends with post graduate degrees who have been teaching at many of Boston’s finest colleges/universities for years. Some were professors who taught me in grad school, others friends of mine in grad school. It’s time to break the secret second society discrimination with a union. People don’t always feel comfortable voting a union in; it’s risky. Without risk, the chance of success in winning this battle is nil.

  • jimbo jones

    The story here is not one solely of the big bad university keeping adjuncts as indentured servants. Certainly they are taking advantage of a terrible labor market where there are too many PhDs but as a PhD one is in the top 1% segment of most educated people on Earth! The problem won’t go away until PhDs start saying “NO” to these terrible jobs. As long as some are willing to work for such terrible wages the situation won’t change. Maybe making better employment stats available will keep people out of PhD programs that offer nothing on the job market. Many academics forget that an academic job is still just a job and there are other things you can do with your time and effort, and that includes your time in grad school. No one blames society that blacksmiths don’t make great wages. There are too many PhDs and not enough demand for PhDs (in some fields). I will say the thing no English PhD wants to hear, a doctoral program in the humanities is a complete waste of effort if you think that degree is part of building a viable career. It may be worth while and of abstract value but it is of no economic value. And I have a humanities doctorate….

    • DocHollywood_2

      Actually, if 75% of all teaching position at a university are filled by adjuncts, and the adjuncts organize so that so one will teach there as an adjunct until things change, the university would eventually have to suspend 75% of their classes since the FT faculty wouldn’t/couldn’t take up the slack.

      Just like the Teamsters did early in their history, adjuncts need to pick a high profile Ivy League university, inform every adjunct working there that they are organizing and intend to shut down the school academically, then let any academic (FT or otherwise) who crosses the picket line know that when the dust settles there will be a reckoning. Then and only then, would there would be some action.

      Imagine what would happen politically and financially if Harvard or Yale were closed for a semester because there were no adjuncts to teach and FT faculty unwilling to take the risk of reprisals if they crossed the picket line? Alumni and the press would pressure the university to change it policies since they control the money and where there are no bucks, there is no Buck Rogers

    • Lele215

      I agree with you up to a point. There are a lot of PhDs in STEM who will never find a full time tenure faculty position. Ask around. There is an oversupply of PhDs in the biological sciences.

      • jimbo jones

        absolutely it is not just humanities, there are plenty of fields with labor over supply. I think it is fair to say that most people enter a PhD program because of passion for a specific topic and rarely think of it in the context of the job market. Tenured faculty need to step up and be more forthcoming about what the post hooding ceremony life will be. That might mean sacrificing the cheap research and teaching labor from PhD candidates as well as a hit to the ego boost that having PhD students brings. And we need to be honest about that too, having a PhD student provides both of those things as well so we have an incentive to take on students regardless of their post defense job prospects.

  • Shawn Warren

    Unionization is not the answer. In fact unionization is a serious mistake that harms higher education and academic labour. This is so for at least four reasons:

    1) It perpetuates the use of unsustainable higher education institutions (HEIs). Unions only make sense where there are employers – in this case HEIs. But for many reasons this institutional model is not the only or best way to provide the service of higher education ( The universities and colleges of this model are not higher education – they merely facilitate the education service relationship between academics and students. As facilitators they are expensive and limit the access that academics and students have to one another because they necessarily have limits on the available staff, faculty and space they can employ in facilitation.

    2) It raises the cost to provide higher education under the current institutional model. As this piece makes clear HEIs have turned to adjuncts because the cost to provide higher education under this model is high, whether it is properly funded by the public or not. If as employees adjuncts manage to secure through unionization increases institutional labour expenses such as pay, benefits, job security and the like, then the cost to provide higher education will obviously go up – an increased cost covered by public appropriations and student tuition.

    3) It is a partial solution. Labour unions by definition represent those academics who are hired/employed by HEIs such as universities and colleges. But of course this is a fraction of the number of Masters/PhD graduates who are qualified and want to earn a living providing higher education service. This necessarily means many individuals are excluded and will not be able to find academic work at all.

    4) It is a short-term solution. Technology in the hands of HEIs will displace the need of academics. From MOOCs to computer grading to artificial intelligence the number of academics required by institutions will decline – and as has occurred in other sectors unions are impotent to stop the replacement of human capital with electronic capital.

    I have an alternative solution that avoids all this. I invite collaboration and criticism:

  • Julia Holcomb

    4 grand a course? 5 grand a course? Who on earth gets that much? $2400 is what I’m getting for 2 of the 5 classes I teach this semester. The other 3 classes pay $3000. And I live in a wealthy exurb. This is my 11th year.

    • redsongia

      Shameless. These schools often charge as much as 3400 to one student who takes your class.

  • Concerned American

    That increase in tuition costs is going to be a lot higher if unionizing happens at colleges and universities.

    • Lisa Liberty Becker

      Concerned American, that’s what administrators and other anti-union folks want you to believe, but it’s just not true. Trimming administrative bloat would work just fine.

      • Concerned American

        No, that’s what reality dictates in the absence of anything else. Unions would mean higher pay and more benefits if the numbers remain static – which means the cost of doing business rises.
        Of course, there could be cost-cutting measures as you now allude to – and that could include cuts to the number of adjuncts hired, too. When you raise the cost of something, as unions would do here, people find a way to use less of it with all other things being unchanged. Union supporters want people to believe that the only thing being changed is that some people are getting better pay and more benefits, but reality is a bit different.

  • MSD

    Wow! This is why adjuncts will never succeed. They are going after full time professors who by the way do get hired every year but the number of adjuncts is the result of oversupply. So these adjuncts want full time professors to pay for their miscalculated sins? WOW!

    • DocHollywood_2

      What miscalculated sins are those, getting a higher education?

  • MSD

    And if full time professors want to save their jobs they need to unite NOW and kill these unions! They are terrible idea. Look what happened in NJ!

  • Dan Hirschhorn

    Great article! Thanks for all the inside info. I can’t imagine how you got so much personal experience data.
    The plight of adjuncts is not a gray issue. It’s an absurdity in black and white. It’s simple, like it was at the turn of the century and in third world countries today. If school management could get adjuncts to work free, they would. The history of managements’ view of labor starts with slavery. And it’s human nature. The management credo must be: “Whatever I can get away with, I will.” When someone has free reign to dominate abusively, they happily will do so. So the only way to win is to FIGHT back. That’s what unions are for, and the early faculty fighters, the first to battle, are likely to fall first.

  • DocHollywood_2

    “If people are saying they can’t make a living as an adjunct, I’m curious as to why they stay in the profession.”

    Can we all say “condescending?”

    A colleague has an MBA in finance and two PhDs (organizational management and leadership) and has been an adjunct for over six years ever since not having her contract renewed at the HBCU she taught at for 11-years with glowing evaluations and a stent as faculty senate president. Throw in age (she’s 61) and race (White) and you have a recipe for underemployment and poverty.

    Outside of academics, no one will hire someone with that education level out of fear that they may be hiring their own replacement, so she is now designing her own courses and selling them online to customers who want the knowledge just not the credits. Its the same course, same textbook, same everything, just now offered online for $45.00 a course.

    She tried to get a job at local retail store and call center but they too felt she was “over educated” compared to the rest of the management staff who might have a BA.

    The next time someone from the BLS (Bureau of Labor and Statistics) makes the statement that employers can’t find “qualified candidates” I am going to send them a baggie full of vomit.

    • amfriedman

      I find it ridiculous that PhDs don’t stop and think that perhaps including this in an application for a retail gig might alienate the hiring officer. Think of what advertising this credential might imply to the likely less-educated hiring officer — the applicant may not be invested in or last very long in the job, or might not be good at taking direction because of a presumed smartness, or might similarly alienate fellow employees. On these grounds, the fact that a PhD would put such a credential on an application for a lowly retail job indicates that they lack good judgement, which is a qualification for any job.

      • DocHollywood_2

        And what happens when they find out down the road that the canditate left that small bit of information off their application? Leaving off education on an application is equal to including degrees that were not earned.

      • DocHollywood_2

        Didn’t put it on the application, the company just decided that since the applicant was over 60 they wouldn’t be “able to keep pace”