Two years ago, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who had worked for decades at Duquesne University, passed away at the age of 83. According to Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for her and the United Steelworkers, “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits, and with a salary of $3,000 to $3,500 [or less] per three-credit course.” But then in a matter of months, her cancer returned, she became nearly homeless as she could not afford the maintenance of her home or even the cost of heating it during the cold Pittsburgh winter, and Duquesne, which did not recognize the adjuncts’ union, let her go. She died as the result of cardiac arrest a couple weeks later.
Vojtko’s struggle and tragic story is a moving reminder about the plight of adjunct professors throughout the United States. Adjuncts strive to get by under immense stress on the lower rung of a widening two-tier academic system while educating the majority of students in colleges and universities. Over the past year, I have worked as a research scientist, a freelance science writer, and recently, a lecturer in physics at the University of California, San Diego. The latter position exposed me to only a fraction of the heavy workload of adjuncts, many of whom teach multiple courses simultaneously at different institutions and with little support, not knowing where or whether they might find work next.
According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts now constitute more than 76 percent of U.S. faculty. In a report titled “The Just-in-Time Professor,” the House Education and the Workforce Committee finds that the majority of adjuncts live below the poverty line. Many universities, especially public ones, experience perennial budget pressures over the years and have been reducing their numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty, resulting in a rapid shift of the teaching load to much lower paid “contingent faculty.” Incoming students expect to be taught by full professors and may be surprised to find adjuncts teaching their classes. In spite of their working conditions, the adjuncts are just as good, but “the problem is not the people who are in the part-time or nontenure positions, it’s the lack of support they get from their institutions,” said John Curtis, the director of research and policy at the AAUP.
Like freelance workers and those in the sharing economy, adjunct professors have become part of a growing “reserve army of labor.” After many years navigating academia, which can be viewed as “path dependence and sunk costs,” many people see teaching and educating the next generation of students as their calling. Adjunct jobs give them the opportunities they seek along with flexible careers that outsiders romanticize. But make no mistake: many adjuncts cannot make a living from their work and have become increasingly unhappy about their working conditions.
The craze about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, further increases pressure on adjunct professors. Many universities, including UC San Diego, have jumped on the bandwagon behind Coursera and other online-education companies. These companies’ MOOCs and technologies may have some utility, but they have not (yet?) delivered on their potential and they are not the wave of the future. MOOCs still have poor completion rates, and nothing beats interacting and engaging with a real teacher in real time.
Adjuncts have been exploited by the “Walmart-ization” of higher education, according to Keith Hoeller, author of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. This system neither benefits the universities nor the teachers, who have little job security and support, nor the students themselves, who need to develop relationships with teachers with sufficient resources, office space, and career-development tools. Many resist the adjunct crisis by joining unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (of which I have been a member), Service Employees International Union, and others, and by protesting, such as in the National Adjunct Walkout Day in February. Adjunct unions have advocated for more tenured positions and longer-term salaried contracts with benefits. Some also campaign for an aspirational $15K per course, connecting their struggle to that of workers calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.
Nevertheless, universities need more funding to significantly improve this situation. Increasing student tuition is not the solution, of course, as ballooning student debt levels are already far too high. Tuition costs have rapidly increased over the past few decades because of declining state and federal funding, growing administrations and bureaucracy, and the large costs of sports facilities and coach salaries. If efforts were made along each of these directions, student tuition could be reduced while improving teaching positions. In any case, universities and governments have an important opportunity and responsibility now to improve the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn. In the future, we can hope that other teachers will not have to experience what Margaret Mary Vojtko went through.