Nov 1 2013

The Adjunct Crisis

Admin

This website is dedicated to encouraging students and parents to ask one question of professors and administrators when they choose a college or university:

“How many faculty members at this institution hold part-time adjunct positions, instructorships or lectureships, and tenurable appointments?”

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In fact, the implications of asking this question of professors and administrators are profound and potentially transformative to higher education in the United States. The need for change has arguably never been greater as tuition has outpaced inflation for a generation or more, business models of education increasingly commodify degrees and orient universities to the “marketplace” where “consumers” select an institution based on “branding.”

An emphasis on “profitability” and “best practices” has meant a race toward mediocrity and the ellipse of broad humanistic learning in favor of vocational training. The massive retrenchment of public funds to our public universities has left many state campuses scrambling to attract outside funding from business, whose main concern is not producing well-rounded human beings, but rather highly technically trained but narrowly-focused individuals who ask few questions and can be easily controlled.

Today, MOOCs (with completion rates at 7% and content that can resemble Youtube tutorials more than rigorous collegiate study) are being passed off as equivalent to college courses. Steve Kolowich, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the State University of New York (SUNY) is using MOOCs “to help students finish their degrees in less time, for less money.” The SUNY Board of Trustees are calling for “new and expanded online programs” that “include options for time-shortened degree completion.” The smart consumer (formerly known as the promising student) will no doubt realize that she is being short changed.

Rather than tenured or tenure-track professors with proven records of quality teaching, ongoing scholarship, and providing individualized attention, students of the SUNY system now face having their teachers beamed-in from other institutions. When these students need the assistance of their professor for any number of reasons, they get instead “peer-evaluation” and a “community of learners” to draw from. In other words, the students teach each other outside of the video recorded lectures. While this model of education delivery may be a boon to the bottom line of the SUNY business, it is hardly a way for a savvy consumer to get the most value out of the educational experience.

On the homepage for this website, I’ve outlined general distinctions between tenured and tenure-track faculty, full-time lecturers and instructors, and adjunct faculty members. As noted, lecturers, instructors, and adjunct faculty–all contingent employees who can be dismissed without recourse–make up more than 70% of the teaching faculty nationally. Not only is this a disgrace, but it speaks to gains administration has made, bolstering its ranks at every turn at the expense of faculty and students (the very individuals that the institution is suppose to support).

Two well-reported cases of adjunct exploitation have outraged the public and helped to bring into the light the most marginalized of employees in the modern American university, the adjunct faculty. These individuals have little or no say in department or college governance, matters of curriculum (although they teach an increasing number of courses), and they generally receive little support for their scholarship or professional development. Under threat of losing their jobs at the whim of an administrator or department chair, and paid wages that can impoverish themselves and their families, adjunct faculty members like Melissa Bruninga-Matteau are resorting to food stamps and Medicare out of necessity. Even more shocking is the plight of a longtime adjunct faculty member who recently died in destitution after her contract was not renewed. Margaret Mary Vojtko taught french for twenty-five years at Duquesne University.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!