Faculty Complicity

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Faculty Complicity in the Adjunct Crisis

A heightened focus on the exploitation of adjunct professors by the institutions that employ them is now underway, for adjuncts now constitute a majority of teaching faculty across the United States.

If we take the Colorado Community College System, for the sake of example, there are currently 3,235 adjunct faculty members who teach 66% of the courses offered across fourteen campuses. Nationally, that number is 69% at two-year colleges, while “at public, four-year schools” it is nearly 50%.

Increasingly, the general public is aware that part-time adjunct professors often commute between institutions, have no guarantee of continuing employment, and teach courses that can be canceled even after they start. On average, adjunct professors make $25,000 per year (often much less, and generally without benefits). Those raising families are now turning reluctantly to social welfare programs such as food stamps, while others constantly “struggle to make their car or rent payments.”

In addition, many adjunct professors feel invisible on campus. They are left out of department meetings, denied opportunities to participate in college governance, and sometimes do not have a desk—let alone a proper office.

Despite their relegation to second-class status by bottom-line minded university administrators, these part-time professors endeavor to help students outside of their courses, although they must balance class preparation, teaching, grading, and commuting from campus to campus with their family and household responsibilities.

If we want real student-focused reform in higher education, we must demand that the preponderance of part-time adjunct teaching positions be converted into full-time tenurable ones. Not only is this a matter of social justice (of providing a fair living wage and equal opportunity for advancement to all faculty), it should be a prerequisite of anyone who pays tuition. Students should choose a college or university that provides full-time professors who have the resources to dedicate to them.

Undoubtedly, the causes of the current crisis in higher education are manifold, and they are taking place against a broader backdrop of economic recession and a decline in American influence around the world. However, we should not let those who have enjoyed the protections of tenure for a generation (or more) escape blame for the explosion in the number of adjunct faculty across the country.

Confessions of tenured faculty members who awakened to discover their own complicity in the exploitation of their colleagues can be illuminating. Admittedly slow to understand the transformations in higher education that have marginalized adjuncts, Peter D. G. Brown writes:

“I must confess right off that I did not become a contingent labor activist until I turned 60, a mere six years ago. Until then, I was a fairly typical senior professor, passionately involved in teaching my students and interacting with my tenured colleagues on a variety of faculty governance committees. I have also pursued a fairly active research agenda.”

Mike Fabricant from Hunter College concurs that many tenured faculty members choose to “focus on their own research” rather than “disrupt their work life, even when they’re working alongside folks who are being exploited terribly.”

In addition to this willful self-absorption and ignorance about the working conditions of their adjunct colleagues, we must entertain the unsavory possibility that at least some tenured faculty members secretly believe in their own preeminence over their contingent co-workers. As Brown observes:

“Most tenured faculty view themselves as superior teachers with superior minds. In this view, the arduous six-year tenure process clearly proves that all of us are superior to ‘them’ and have deservedly earned our superior jobs by our superior gifts and our superior efforts.”

Perhaps, this elitist mentality emerges naturally in class-based systems like the one found on American campuses today (a breakdown of which may be found on the homepage of this website).

Regrettably, too many the current 27% “whom fortune favored” with a tenurable teaching position cling to the belief that they possess an irreplicable skill set that is lacking in their adjunct colleagues. For individuals who hold such snobbish views, one’s part-time or contingent status may be proof enough of deficiency to justify turning a blind eye.

In addition to the responsibility born by previous generations of tenured faculty for the current adjunct crisis, obliviousness to the adjunct plight, and an ugly elitism born out of classism, tenured faculty members are also complicit in the maintenance of the status quo through their own cowardice.

After years of graduate work, the dissertation defense, the anxieties of the job search, and the pressures to conform as junior faculty members, many whom earn tenure, and understand the current adjunct crisis, are too fearful of college administration to protest the misuse of adjunct labor on campus.

Most complicit, however, are tenured faculty members who work with the administration (as willing bureaucratic functionaries, sycophants, or quasi-managers) to implement and enforce policies that marginalize their adjunct colleagues.

Standing up for adjunct professors across the nation will require challenging management prerogatives that favor the use of contingent labor. We need to reject the existing multi-tier labor system at the American university and insist on fair pay, for fair work, for all teaching professionals.


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