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.

And yet, adjuncts now make up the largest chunk of the university-level teaching force in America—an impressive 41 percent, according to the most recent report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Although they are critically important to the country’s educational system, adjuncts are widely treated as disposable employees who aren’t entitled to basic job protections or support. They are “the underclass of the academic world,” says Claudia Dreifus, a longtime adjunct, New York Times writer, and coauthor of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. She says that the way the majority of adjuncts are paid and handled may just be the biggest dirty little secret of university life. “It’s not like the normal work world, because experience doesn’t get you anywhere,” she says. “And there are so many people willing to work for so little.”

The issue gained widespread attention last September, when the newswires picked up the story of longtime Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died at age 83 in September. Vojtko had recently been let go by the university after making $10,000 in her last year of teaching and living in poverty without health insurance. Her death sparked national outrage, and the hashtag #iammargaretmary began trending on Twitter.

California Congressman George Miller began investigating the working conditions of contingent faculty, and in January, he released a report finding that “Adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.”

That’s why union organizers have targeted adjuncts, advocating for higher pay (including a pay scale in some cases), a guaranteed number of courses per semester, continued employment, benefits, and representation in the faculty governance. But they’re up against vast, well-funded institutions that have become systemically reliant on maintaining a subclass of underpaid instructors.

Here in Boston, unions claim that local universities are ruthless in blocking the SEIU’s efforts to organize. Last May, UMass Lowell told Ellen Martins, adjunct-faculty-union president through the UAW Local 1596, that her contract would not be renewed to make way for a full-time faculty member. After filing a complaint that she was let go because of her union post, she was reinstated in the fall. Northeastern hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to squash unionizing efforts, and it now appears that the heavy-hitting firm Mintz Levin wants a piece of this action. Last month it published an article on the legal-intelligence website JDSupra Business Advisor advising universities of the “tell-tale signs” adjunct faculty may be looking to unionize.

But consider this: Higher education would collapse if all of us decided to strike.


It wasn’t always this way. When tenure was introduced early in the last century—designed to encourage academic freedom and protect big thinkers from the whims of university bureaucrats—an elaborate and increasingly impenetrable caste system formed in its wake. At the top sat tenured and well-paid professors with their comfortable, ongoing contracts. Tenure-track positions, known as assistant professor and associate professor slots, were a step down. Below them were the full-time, non-tenure-track positions, often called instructors or lecturers. And at the bottom were grad students and adjuncts. Created to fill single-course gaps, adjunct positions were originally given to experts in their fields, often near retirement, who wanted to teach merely to keep a foot in academia or supplement their income, not as a full-time career. They could come and go as they pleased.

The astounding expansion of higher education over the decades solidified this hierarchy. Annual enrollment at American universities hovered at 1.5 million students 75 years ago, but when the GI Bill and the civil rights movement pushed a wave of new students into private universities, fledgling state and community-college systems expanded wildly. As more students enrolled, universities began bringing in part-time teachers to help fill in the gaps. By 1969, part-timers made up 18.5 percent of university faculties.

In the 1980s, the use of adjunct faculty grew exponentially when federal funding for higher education was slashed, enrollment numbers declined, and the U.S. fell into a recession. To cope with such economic uncertainty, universities brought in more contingent faculty, says Dreifus, the writer and adjunct professor. And then they were hooked. As the economy recovered, those same universities realized that relying on a corps of adjuncts freed up big money for blue-chip faculty. Thus began an academic arms race for prestige: Schools dangled dollars in front of big-name professors, brought in legions of staff to manage operations, and began paying college presidents like CEOs. “Tenured professors started getting huge salaries and huge perks,” says Dreifus, who argues that universities now focus more on rankings, fundraising, and facilities than they do on curricula. There are now one million people working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, since 1985, tuition has risen by more than 500 percent.