The Adjunct Administrator

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The Adjunct Administrator: Turning the Tables

Each post on Ask My Professor illustrates a profound state of decline in American higher education from a different vantage point: the rise of for-profit institutions of higher learning, administrative bloat, runaway tuitions, chronic state and federal defunding of public education, and the influx of corporate business practices—to name but a few.

Yet, without question, among the most stupefying of self-inflicted wounds facing the American academy today is the widespread exploitative practice of hiring contingent on-demand part-time professors, for it is the poison that is slowly depleting American colleges and universities of their intellectual and moral capital.

Fact: more than half the American professoriate works on a part-time basis, earns fast food wages (sans benefits), teaches on semester-to-semester contracts, possesses little or no job security, remains largely invisible on campus (except to students), and lacks access to office space, faculty development funds, and other means of professional advancement. By contrast, their tenurable full-time colleagues are at least paid salaries that allow them to sustain themselves with modest dignity.

Sadly, even those adjunct professors who are highly regarded by students are considered by the administrations that employ them as “contingent” members of the faculty. In other words, despite teaching a majority of the courses on American campuses, adjunct professors are “not logically necessary” to their institutions, as the term “contingent” suggests.

By projecting this demeaning attitude onto so many American professors, administrators across the nation have justified paying an average of just $3,000 per sixteen-week course to these professional teachers, many of whom hold advanced degrees, and are trying to raise families.

As Matt Saccaro at Salon observes, if an adjunct professor “teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage.” Therefore, more than half of the professoriate in United States of America earns the same amount of money as a bartender.

These are the individuals whom we are trusting with the higher education of our children, and they deserve a living wage for their intellectual labor.

Indeed, it is dumbfounding that American faculty members of all ranks have tacitly allowed themselves to be so thoroughly de-professionalized over the last thirty years—and it defies comprehension that they continue to accept it as the new status quo.

One would think that all students, along with their parents, would demand full-time professors—considering the fact that college tuition and fees in the United States have surged an outrageous 1,120 percent since records began in 1978 (outpacing both inflation and the cost of healthcare delivery).

The historian of higher education recognizes that things were not always so dire in the American academy. For example, after the Second World War, the G.I. Bill created the opportunity for millions of returning soldiers to receive higher education. That national investment paid off handsomely, as America could soon boast of a highly trained workforce that innovated continually in science, technology, and engineering.

The resultant expansion of higher education meant that by the 1960’s nearly seventy-five percent of American faculty members were teaching and researching on the tenure track. While their salaries paled in comparison to those in business and industry, they at least made a fair living wage.

However, starting in the 1980s, a cultural shift took place in which American higher education began to be seen as an individual commodity (bought privately to ensure upward economic and social mobility)—rather than a public good from which the entire nation benefited.

The slow creep of corporatization into the academy during the 1990s and 2000s privileged campus executives, administrators, and managers over those who actually taught the courses and did the research.

The result is that while half the American faculty are being impoverished, a new class of highly paid administrators has mushroomed up, and they are commanding salaries that rival those found in the business world.

For example, University of Minnesota administrators are paid in line with their peers at Ohio State University, meaning the median base pay for senior administrators “ranged from about $207,000 each year to nearly $550,000 annually.”

In order to reverse this ominous trend, we should turn half of all full-time administrative positions into part-time adjunct ones—and cap top salaries at no more than say ten times what the lowest paid adjunct professor makes on campus.

The massive cost savings of such a move might be used to convert a majority of current part-time adjunct teaching positions into full-time tenurable ones. After all, what is more important: attending a college where highly paid administrators eat up campus resources—or staffing classrooms with full-time professors who are supported by their institutions and dedicated to their students?

By making the majority of management and administration positions part-time, not only will institutions of higher learning across the United States save millions in operating costs, but there will be less time for silly exercises such as strategic planning, assessment, and branding.

If such a future sounds like a pipe-dream to you, consider Iowa State University (ISU)—a real leader in American higher education reform.

Iowa State is the only institution of higher learning “in the entire country to spend the last eight years hiring full-time faculty and shrinking its administration. ISU President Steven Leath explained to the Des Moines Register that ISU wanted to ‘run a very lean operation and put as much into direct support of students and faculty’ as possible, boosting full-time faculty hiring by an astounding 41 percent.”

In short, making half of all administrative positions part-time offers many advantages to students, parents, and faculty alike. It would reduce bureaucracy, strengthen faculty governance, and protect campus democracy—thereby preserving it for the nation.

In addition, as adjunct administrative work becomes less glamorous (due to salary corrections), it will inevitably attract only dedicated individuals who will serve for the enrichment of the students—and not themselves. It will spell the end of American higher education as a place where executives and administrators become wealthy.

So while, at first glance, it might seem preposterous to suggest turning administrative positions into part-time adjunct ones—in reality, it is far less ludicrous than the fact that a majority of faculty members on American campuses are now underpaid—and undervalued—part-time adjunct professors.


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