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The Politics of Adjunct Faculty Labor

Research & Commentary
December 19, 2014

by Claire Goldstene

 The debasement of faculty labor over the past decade is really a battle over what happens inside the classroom.

By Claire Goldstene

Adjunct unionization is on the rise on college campuses across the country.

Adjunct unionization is on the rise on college campuses across the United States.

The ivy-covered walls of academe are hiding a growing class of low-wage workers. Some earn so little that they qualify for food stamps. Most lack access to employee-sponsored health and retirement benefits, are unable to pay down their student loan debt, and are deprived of opportunities for career advancement.

Who is this growing class of low-wage workers? Temporary and part-time professors.

Professors in this category shuttle among three or more campuses and teach upward of eight classes a semester to hundreds of students in order to cobble together a less-than-modest living. And most do not know from one year to the next, or even from one semester to the next, if they have a job.

Temporary faculty now comprise over 75 percent of college teachers nationally, which includes one- or multi-year contract faculty, temporary full-time faculty, and adjuncts, paid on a per-course basis. According to the Adjunct Project, the median pay for a three-credit course is $2,987. [pullquote] Education is an inherently political endeavor. [/pullquote]

Education is an inherently political endeavor. The debasement of faculty labor over the last number of decades—especially the last ten years—is really a battle over what happens inside the classroom. A system of higher education where the bulk of teachers lack job security, are grossly underpaid, and often find out just days before the semester begins that they are scheduled to teach necessarily degrades the quality of education.

A financially-stressed and time-constrained professoriate, in ways both conscious and unconscious, teaches in an inhibited manner. Anxious about contract renewal, fearful of negative student evaluations, and lacking the time and energy to fully dedicate themselves to any particular class, these faculty are unlikely to engage students in controversial discussions that question the status quo. [pullquote] A financially-stressed and time-constrained professoriate teaches in an inhibited manner. [/pullquote]

In this environment, teaching that emphasizes critical thinking, engages complex ideas, and presents students with perspectives that might upset existing social arrangements gives way to teaching more focused on rote memorization. Ultimately, all of this reinforces social and economic inequality—the very thing education is supposed to combat.

Despite claims to the contrary, the low pay and uncertain employment status of contingent faculty are not the inevitable result of supply and demand, where an overabundance of PhDs has depressed wages. Indeed, more students than ever attend institutions of higher learning, and the demand for qualified teachers is at an all-time high. [pullquote] Ultimately, changes in faculty labor reinforce inequality—the very thing education is supposed to combat. [/pullquote]

What has diminished is the supply of tenure-track jobs. This reflects, in part, declines in federal and state resources for higher education, but also decisions to direct money toward the construction of new facilities, including such things as rock-climbing walls and luxury dorms, and the ballooning number of highly paid administrators and their large support staffs, who greatly outnumber faculty in most cases.

The tendency to apply a corporate model of governance and management to universities is connected to an impulse to temper the historic role of colleges as sites of political activity and protest. Much of the anti-war and social activism of the 1960s emanated from universities among college students. But a financially insecure teaching core is less likely to encourage disruptive thinking and action on the part of students. Thus, amid these structural shifts in higher education, most students’ college experience is less about critical engagement with complex ideas and more about technical training. [pullquote] Most students’ college experience today is not about critical engagement with ideas. [/pullquote]

This is particularly the case in community colleges, where the preponderance of adjunct faculty is the greatest, and where the student population is comprised mostly of ethnic and racial minorities, those from working-class families, and first-generation college students. Increasingly, community colleges focus less on transfer to a four-year university and more and more on providing discrete job training. Doing so sustains class hierarchies, as students at “elite” universities continue to enjoy an educational experience centered on the intellectual breadth of the liberal arts, critical thinking, and a holistic understanding of education with the expectation that they will occupy more influential and higher-paying jobs.

As more students than ever attend institutions of higher learning, the working conditions of temporary faculty have national political ramifications. Like other low-wage workers, contingent faculty are successfully organizing. Through various forms of collective action, they are demanding better working conditions and higher pay. [pullquote] Like other low-wage workers, contingent faculty are successfully organizing. [/pullquote]

Much is at stake in this battle. The issue is not only whether college faculty will receive a living wage but also whether they will enjoy the financial and professional security essential to controlling what higher learning is—and should be—all about.

Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University.  She is the author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014). Dr. Goldstene can be reached at

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