College administrators may prattle on about how they’re so socially conscious, but they are as just as eager to save money on business costs as any CEO. Over the past 40 years, they have been economizing more and more on the expense of faculty by hiring adjunct instructors who are paid a small fraction of what full-time professors are paid. This situation is made possible by the glut of people who have Ph.D.s and want academic careers, but can’t land one of the shrinking number of full-time positions. (Federal student-aid programs have a lot to do with that glut.)
So adjuncts get hired to teach a course or two. The pay is low, the working conditions are poor, and benefits usually non-existent.
Inevitably, this leads to dissatisfaction and calls for unionization. It might also lower the quality of instruction for students, but teaching quality can’t really be measured so administrators don’t much care.
In today’s Martin Center article, Dan Way of the John Locke Foundation takes a look at the issues surrounding adjunct faculty. “Few question the credentials, knowledge, or teaching skills of adjunct and contingent faculty. But some are exploring whether their working conditions, lack of institutional support, and, primarily, meager compensation might take a toll on classroom quality, and weaken students’ education,” Way writes.
He quotes Maria Maisto of a group called New Faculty Majority, which pushes for improved pay and working conditions (but not necessarily unionization):
You can’t expect people to compensate for the deficiencies in the system. Constantly you get massive burnout in people. Eventually it becomes very difficult to sustain the level of quality when you’re constantly battling low pay, the lack of benefits.
That’s no doubt true, but you also find lots of full-time faculty who are burned out (from the publish-or-perish routine) and devote scant effort to teaching good courses. Groups like Maisto’s and the unions that are always looking for workers to “organize” would have you believe that the problem of poor adjunct teaching will go away if they get paid more — the SEIU is demanding a huge increase to $15,000 per course. Most adjuncts would gladly pocket the additional money and go on with their work as before.
“Even if ‘peak adjunct’ has passed,” Way concludes, “the tensions in the shifting world of higher ed will remain.” He’s right, and I’d argue that the only true solution is to move away from the old academic labor market where a few high-cost professors are employed mostly to do useless research and toward one where more are paid a reasonable, market-based salary to teach.