The Adjunct Professor


The Adjunct Professor: Then and Now

Once upon a time, the adjunct professorship allowed professionals and those with technical expertise working outside of the academy to teach on a part-time basis. An accountant might offer a course at her local university on current methods in the field, and a machinist by day could share his knowledge with others for a few hours a week at the nearby community college.

Traditionally, these adjunct teaching positions did not pay much, in part because there was an assumption that those who filled them had full-time employment with benefits. Therefore, colleges and universities that employed adjunct professors could offer very modest compensation (on a per-course basis), yet still employ qualified faculty who had “real world” experience that complemented the focus on theory and methods found in the college classroom.

Historically speaking, adjunct faculty members have never been well paid for their work, yet at one time they benefited more from their part-time employment. In return for a modest supplemental income, adjunct faculty gained a professional credential, and they could use their institutional affiliation to advance their own status in the field (by consulting, publishing, or giving public lectures, for instance). In addition to their full-time work, adjunct professors of yesteryear were also motivated, as they are today, by a desire to serve the community through education.

Remember, in 1969, contingent faculty members together (adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and visiting professors) made up less than 22% of the faculty. Yet, by 2009, contingent teaching professionals were filling nearly 66% of all faculty positions in the United States. The adjunct professor today is a professional educator who teaches full-time but is paid only part-time wages.

AAUP reports that a large percentage of adjunct professors are paid on a per-class basis, commute between institutions, and are denied access to health care benefits and retirement plans by their employers. Congressman George Miller has recently created an online forum dedicated to collecting information about the working conditions of contingent university faculty.

Consider, for the sake of example, the life stories of adjunct professors featured in a recent article in the liberal leaning Huffington Post. Today, adjunct faculty members dedicate themselves to the classroom and their students literally to the detriment of their own wellbeing. The situation has become so dire that, according to the more conservative newspaper USA Today, college students are helping adjunct faculty to organize for better working conditions, salary equity, and a voice in academic areas traditionally within the purview of the teaching faculty.

Because so many professional adjunct professors now drive from one school to another to make a living, it has become increasingly difficult for them to become fully invested in the campus life of any single institution. Many regret not being able to spend more time with their students, but the logistics of being an itinerate professor do not allow it.

Moreover, without the summer and winter breaks free of teaching duties, or the institution financial support for professional development (such as conference funding), adjunct faculty are hard pressed to stay active as scholars. Thus, there exists a real risk of stagnation over time, thereby making it harder for adjunct professors to provide their students with the most up-to-date thinking in their fields.

Michael Bérubé, former President of the Modern Language Association (MLA), has bemoaned the fact that so many college faculty members “are exploitatively underpaid.” He recognizes that in communities still suffering from the economic downturn in 2008, there may be little sympathy to the current plight of adjunct professors. Yet, he believes, “it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources—offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance—that make it possible for them to do their jobs.”

For all of these reasons, it is crucial that college students—and their parents—speak out on behalf of adjunct professors across the nation. Converting current adjunct teaching positions to tenure-track appointments is one component of a viable solution to the crisis in U.S. higher education today.

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!



Copyright © 2014 Mark S. Ferrara, All rights reserved.

One Response to “The Adjunct Professor”

  • Charolette L. Says:

    Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the issues.
    It was really informative. Your site is extremely helpful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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