The Abysmal State of Adjunct Pay and Actions to Create Change

Most recently, the Chicago teachers’ strike provoked a great deal of thoughtful discussion on the topic of K-12 education and teaching conditions. Important aspects of higher education, however, continue to be overlooked. In particular, the broader public is likely unaware of the increasingly unfair and perhaps even damaging teaching conditions adjunct or part-time professors are increasingly facing.


Today, non-tenured, part-time instructors (adjuncts) comprise almost 70 percent of college and university faculties. These teachers are paid very little. Until recently, these educational laborers have been largely ignored. With newly organized projects such as the Adjunct Project, part-time college teachers are beginning to demand recognition of their plight and how it impacts students. In June 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” finding that the median adjuncts were paid for a standard 3-credit college course was $2,700 (in fall 2010). Based on responses from more than 10,000 part-time college educators, the report found that the median pay ranged from $2,235 at 2-year colleges to $3,400 at 4-year doctoral or research universities. Adjuncts teaching at the community college and state college level in Florida, for instance, made under $2,000 per class. This means that teaching 8 classes a year would yield $16,000 annually for the most highly paid community or state college adjunct. Typically, adjuncts have no benefits to speak of. This translates into a growing number of college professors who face severe economic hardship.


Many adjuncts comprise the growing number of impoverished graduate degree holders. As “ABC News” reported in May 2012, the number of people possessing a PhD who received some kind of public assistance increased more than 3-fold between 2007 and 2010, from 9,776 to 33,655. Nearly the same was true for those with master’s degrees: 101,682 in 2007 to 293,029 in 2010. In her article, “The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps, in the Chronicle for Higher Education, Stacey Patton speaks to adjunct faculty who rely on government assistance for economic survival. Among those are adjunct professor Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, PhD; Elliott Stegall, 51-year-old married father of 2 who teaches in the English department at Northwest Florida State College; and Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, a 35-year-old single mother with a master’s degree in English.


As Sarah Kendzior points out in “The Closing of American Academia,” these poverty-level wages are downplayed by attitudes toward teaching that treat such pay “as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course.” This attitude is explicitly deployed by at least some college administrators who regularly address adjuncts as if they are all volunteers working side-gigs, when, for many, it is their principle financial means. Many adjuncts teach the same or more courses as full-time faculty, but are paid a fraction. Indeed, this is the reason many adjuncts teach larger course loads than full-time faculty. Yet, approximating full-time pay of say $60,000 would require an adjunct to teach 25 to 30 classes a year


Some of those unfamiliar with the time-consuming work of college-level instruction ask why teaching two-dozen or more classes a year is problematic for instructors. But adjuncts teaching a 6-course semester load, for instance, find themselves struggling to meaningfully teach and engage upwards of 300 students, while also continuously developing the knowledge base from which they are expected to teach. Such conditions often result in bureaucratized teacher-student relations: more scantron tests, fewer writing assignments, less one-on-one communication, and generally fewer opportunities for teachers to engage students as individuals and address their unique developmental needs.


As discussed in “Dismantling the Professoriate,” an article on the CAW report’s findings: “Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part-time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position.” Seventy-five percent of survey respondents indicated that they have sought, are seeking, or will seek a full-time tenure-track position.


Working for Change


In response to these conditions individuals, organizations, and groups are mobilizing. Some adjuncts are now relating their cause to the broader Occupy Wall Street movement. In the video, Adjunct Occupies Wall Street, an unnamed adjunct educator explains his reasoning for joining the Occupy Wall Street movement including his dismay with poverty-level adjunct income and the failure by President Obama to address working conditions for people like himself: “I decided, after following this on the internet for a few days, that I had to come up here and show solidarity with these people. I’m an adjunct professor. I get paid $2,500 per class, that’s $7,500 a semester, $15,000 a year. No benefits. Nothing. It’s not enough to live on. I have $45,000 in student loans I have to pay. I think a lot of people here had hope when Barack Obama won the election. He ran on a platform of change and it didn’t happen.” (In April of this year, adjunct activism and the Occupy Wall Street movement converged when Occupy Boston’s General Assembly endorsed a rally for the union of adjunct faculty at UMass Lowell.)


The connection between the plight of adjuncts and Wall Street is clear to Michelle Kern. In her article, “Part-Time Faculty Pay Reaching Poverty Level,” Kern writes: colleges are increasingly turning toward corporate models and business culture…. Cheap and surplus labor is the model for an expanding bottom line in Wall Street-driven institutions and the same process has taken hold of our institutions of higher learning, especially in privatization at public universities.”


The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has begun a campaign called FACE, the Faculty and College Excellence campaign. Its aims include promoting legislation to increase part-time pay and establishing a better balance between full-time and contingent faculty via more full-time positions.


Founded by Joshua A. Boldt, the Adjunct Project brings together part-time college educators who continue to document the pay and benefits (or lack thereof) received from institutions where they teach. In addition to documenting adjunct pay, the website also fosters solidarity among adjunct educators, a dialogue about action, and sometimes simply the opportunity to vent.


In another campaign, activists are seeking 3,000 signatures to their petition, Better Pay for Adjuncts: Stop their Exploitation. Authored by Ana Maria Fores Tamayo, the petition demands “better pay and status for the majority of the faculty teaching in today’s institutions of higher education across the country.” (As of this writing the petition is about 200 signatures shy of this goal.)


For her part, Kern calls on adjuncts to view themselves as the essential workforce they now are, and to organize through unions to improve their conditions and those of their students.  


Jeff Nall teaches philosophy and gender studies at two Florida institutions. He is a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic University and has a masters in Liberal Studies from Rollins College.