Stories From the Adjunct Professorate: Bittersweet and, Yes, Bitter

by Dr. Roslyn Fuller

“What is education?” Ruth Wangerin asks me, when I Skype the sociology professor at her home in New York. “Is education a good for its own sake? Is it a process of weeding people out? Or is the student a customer paying for certification and the adjunct is there to train them?”

It’s a good question.

Wangerin is an adjunct at the City University of New York or CUNY. Although she completed a Ph.D. in the 1970s, the energetic 70-year-old spent her career outside of education, returning to teaching after filling in for a friend on sabbatical.

“I’m not sure how exciting academia is,” she tells me, “It used to be exciting when I was a grad student. We were always talking about the latest theories.” She looks uncharacteristically forlorn for a moment, before adding, “That being said, there were probably always hacks.”

As an adjunct, Wangerin is employed on a casual basis and earns somewhere between half and one-third of what a tenure-track professor would make for teaching the same courses. That is significant, because non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70 percent 

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16 Comments for “Stories From the Adjunct Professorate: Bittersweet and, Yes, Bitter”

  1. I have two Masters degrees and I’m even lower than an adjunct, lower than a grad student. I work about 5 hours a week, highly variable hours, at wages above what my students make as waitresses and cashiers but without the job security. I’m a tutor.

    I have my pride. I know how to write a significantly better Algebra book than the texts the school uses. I know that the college doesn’t teach the computer software packages that students really need to succeed. I know the value of an immersive engineering curriculum, and I know the types of students that our college needs to turn out.

    Our college just installed a new president. She says all the right buzzwords. She’s been at it for a while, which is why I now expect remarkably little change. I expect a cognitive disconnect between what she says and what she does. At least I won’t be disappointed.

  2. Thank you for this brilliant piece! So much for American Higher Ed and developing the intellectual lives of the next generation of college students. What I would like to add is that many of us who are fighting for faculty rights never wanted an adversarial relationship with our administrators. We need them (maybe not so many of them), and they need us, unless they want to teach all of our courses themselves. Where are the adults who can build collegial institutions that balance the needs of faculty, students and their administrators? Higher Ed DOES feel like Gotham City. Calling all super-hero faculty to step up and fix this mess.

  3. I became an adjunct a couple of years ago, after being laid off from my full-time professorship without notice and with next-to-no severance, ostensibly on grounds of “financial exigency”. I worked for two online universities, where I took seriously their invitation to contribute. Despite my being very successful with the students, both schools took advantage of a period of medical treatment I was undergoing, during which I fell a week or so behind in grading student papers, to terminate me on the spot. Since then, I’ve applied for more than 40 such positions, without getting even the courtesy of a rejection. I’ve had over 30 years in academia at some seven different high-grade universities and over 70 publications and presentations, so it isn’t for lack of qualifications.

    I doubt that very many people outside the ranks of faculty have any idea how different today’s teaching environment is from that of even 15 years ago. It’s a day-and-night difference. And at the moment there don’t appear to be any real levers that might be used to create a workable new system; things are simply going to deteriorate further. Sad!

  4. Important but rather old news—The “adjunct” was invented in the 1970s to meet a faculty shortage, then schools discovered what a profit-cow he/she is, and their addiction has been growing ever since. This struggle has been going on for years already and at last adjunct faculty are desperate enough to kick themselves out of the box and dare to form unions. I taught college courses as an adjunct for 22 years and, while students were great, the universities were the most shamelessly greedy and cynically manipulative creeps you could imagine. I did the math (something you shouldn’t do) and, if I were paid $8 an hour per student (below minimum wage and counting only time in-class) instead of the course fee, I’d make $800 a year MORE than what the school pays. At last I had enough and walked out—and while I miss students greatly, it was the right decision. They don’t care. They don’t have to. They’re a business, first and last.

  5. I’m 70 and this has been going on since I went to grad school in the 70’s. Every so often an article like this appears and then everything returns to business as usual which is all the American University is.

  6. Another big cost of adjunct instructors is driving to work. The instructor that taught all day at the facility had the same driving expense as I did to teach 1 class on that day, but most of mine were 2 or 3 days a week and sometimes 1 class was at one campus of the technical college and the other at another campus. I could often drive as much or more than a full time instructor but they had 4 full days of paid work. I had 6 or 7 hours. They had benefits too. Mine didn’t even count towards Social Security even if I wanted it to. Remember you need to get 40 quarters – 10 years to get Social Security. Fortunately, my previous jobs were enough time and many years ago I had 3 years when I paid the maximum Social Security.

    Education in the country needs fixing. More pay for teachers at all levels and much less pay for administrators and a lot less administration to begin with. Part of the big pay for the top executives is the skill they have in cutting pay and number of instructors. Everyone know the student-instructor interaction is where the learning takes place. Paying another dozen administrators a bunch more money only runs up the bill for the student and the only education is the school of hard knocks for the underpaid teachers and the deeply in debt student who is probably working side jobs. Full time students should be compensated enough that they need only work a small amount if at all. The purpose of the education is to GET EDUCATED.

  7. Universities always had a business component but now it has become dominant as the bureaucratic managers have taken complete control. I bet most of them have MBA backgrounds (or they are failed academics) because they know all the theory of profitable business: reduce costs, increase prices, maximize personal benefits, hide everything with meaningless statistics, use buzzwords and get out with a fat pension before the roof falls in.

  8. “The Campus

    The assault on the enterprise system was not mounted in a few months.
    It has gradually evolved over the past two decades, barely perceptible
    in its origins and benefiting (sic) from a gradualism that provoked
    little awareness much less any real reaction.

    Although origins, sources and causes are complex and interrelated,
    and obviously difficult to identify without careful qualification, there
    is reason to believe that the campus is the single most dynamic source.

    The social science faculties usually include members who are
    unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert
    Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San
    Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who
    finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be
    in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they
    are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student
    following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of
    the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence — far out of proportion
    to their numbers — on their colleagues and in the academic world.”


    “The truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
    ~ Joseph Goebbels

  9. This is what happens when you think the free market is the solution to everything, and that everything can be run as a for-profit business.

    • Part of the problem is that research on the situation of adjunct faculty tends to lump together two very different groups. First, between 25% and 30% of adjuncts are the kind of older, established professionals in fields like medicine, engineering, and law – the people who want to share their practice and field wisdom – in fact, the people for whom the whole idea of adjuncting was developed. It doesn’t matter to them what they are paid – typically, not a lot – because it’s a pure sideline for them.

      The second group is the academic lumpenproletariat described here – people desperate for employment and willing to work full-time for a rate of pay that was intended to be more of a gratuity than a salary. Averaging these two groups together will artificially inflate estimates of both salaries and satisfaction, although they are in fact vastly different in situation, status, and prospects. Honest analysis of the groups separately shows the stark realities facing the second group, which is the real point here.

      • The proportion depends on the schools and the departments. Particularly among those who teach “intro” level freshman and sophomore-level classes, the majority are in fact those “lumpenproletariat.”

        Schools hide their numbers of adjuncts. They continue to circulate the old stereotype of the adjunct as a professional who moonlights so they can cover up who many they actually use.

        Adjuncts are afraid to speak up for fear of not being renewed. Unionization doesn’t help, because often the unions negotiate state-wide, and that ironically keeps wages down.

        In one of my adjunct gigs, 80% of ALL the profs in the smallish private school were adjuncts. That paid $1800 per course.
        In my present gig, a mid-sized state school, over HALF the profs are adjuncts. The pay here is $2400 per course. But that is for classes that can range from 25-40 students!

        The average in my mid-sized city, across the disciplines, is about $2100 per course.
        People who try to make a living at this — and that is almost ALL adjuncts — teach at two or three different schools in the area, most often FIVE courses per semester.

        That is a 5/5 load, for those in the business.

        It’s also a stereotype that only film profs and other “humanities” positions are adjuncted-out. Nope — schools now use adjunct labor for everything from freshman comp to respiratory therapy to math professors.
        It’s amazing to me how the public just has no clue about what’s going on n higher ed and also doesn’t care.

  10. Over a twenty year span I taught at three different colleges, in one case driving two hours each way, sometimes for a reduced stipend. To be fair, I was allowed to teach for a full stipend when some courses were underenrolled. But never given extra compensation when the class was running at maximum capacity. I was unceremoniously dumped by at least two Humanities chairs… one who strung me along quite disingenuously before it was obvious I was blackballed. One institution I’d faithfully taught at for fifteen years ceased my employment with an email from the head of the department saying ‘thanks for your service’ and ‘we don’t have anything more for you’. I’m sure the fact I’d reached top pay rate for adjuncts had something to do with it…
    I had an eye-opening conversation with my union representative after being ditched by one chair without explanation. The rep told me that the schools discourage explaination… they generally do not offer one, as a policy, and choose to leave rejected adjuncts to speculate why they’re suddenly out of a job.

    Student evaluations tend to be the ONLY mechanism that administrators use to judge the effectiveness of an adjunct. I taught at one school for years before any full time faculty sat in on my class. It’s some disgruntled student’s word against yours.
    Topics like age discrimination have suddenly become personal experiences. I went two years unemployed before finding a contract job that pays one-third of what I was making with no benefits. I have not considered returning to teaching, even though I miss interacting with students…. I won’t be a tool for indifferent adminstrators, anymore.

  11. Thanks for the article. It covers one of the many problems with the corporate takeover of universities.
    University administrators are now primarily real estate developers, and department chairs at “research” universities are guardians of corporate profits and deceptions. Your example of Amy Guttman in Philadelphia helps highlight the use of the university’s non-profit status to drive real estate development. Both Penn and Drexel administrators focus on controlling city governmental agencies to drive neo-liberal gentrification and real estate development for themselves and their corporate partners. Philadelphia universities pay no taxes and the small group of power brokers are handsomely rewarded for their services. That is their primary mission; not education or the betterment of society.

    Research departments too have a strict hierarchy of authority run more like the military than a location for the advancement of knowledge. The few at the top make all decisions and have all authority, and the junior researchers and staff, who actually do all the research work, are tremendously devalued and forced to kiss-up in the hope that they can join the elite group. Corporate agendas dominate the way research dollars are allocated by the federal government and individual corporate grants. So, department heads rule the junior researchers, who are forced into these limited and often harmful agendas rather than the important work to advance the public good. Consider “education reform” and the war on drugs, as powerful examples of how academia develops destructive propaganda to support corporate agendas. Most of it is pure nonsense; cloaked as serious research but incomprehensible to all but the elite power brokers. The public and lower level researchers are expected to be in awe of the brilliance of the elite, who can see what nobody else can see. This institutionalized fraud is not the fault of the dis-empowered researchers, lower in the hierarchy, who would mostly like to advance their field.

    Like society in general, universities need to be democratized instead of run by a tiny elite with a completely separate and hidden agenda. Adjunct faculty and junior researchers need to join together and revolt against their corporate dominated university elite, and blow all the whistles. Most Americans have no idea how deep the problem is at universities, and we need more articles like this to shine the light on this corporate takeover and neo-liberal agenda that dominates universities in this era of trickle down economics.

    • It should be noted that both Penn and Drexel, while private, are technically “non-profit” institutions. It’s easy to blame the mess on for-profit universities, but in fact there is no meaningful difference between non-profit and for-profit schools except for some accounting details. Exactly the same incentives and constraints operate in both cases, and they swim in the same pond.

      • I work at an non-profit hospital. When The hospital went from being a healthcare facility to a profit generating business during the Ray-Gun years, staff were informed that non-profits are allowed to make a certain amount of profit. You are right JD, there is not much difference between profit and non-profit, although in our world non-profits are viewed more favorably than for-profit.

  12. I wish it were funny how the US seems to be following in the footsteps of Mao and Pol Pot, both of whom realized an educated population represents a clear and present danger to tyranny. Both authoritarians established new national education programs devoid of actual critical thinking and rife with the propaganda of submission to the State. Both utterly destroyed their societies in very short order by exterminating and marginalizing all citizens capable of intellectual resistance to their authoritarian rule. Neither pursued any of these policies until after they’d gained complete control over their economies and civil societies.

    Inverted Totalitarianism is a social structure that appears democratic and free, but in reality is completely dominated by an entire class of managers and owners who are unaccountable to anyone outside of their class. These overlords dictate social policy and priorities in service to themselves without regard for the rest of society or the future of civilization. They live apart from everyone else in a world characterized by extraordinary excess and pervasive psychopathy. Members of this disconnected class cannot be influenced, petitioned, taken to court, or punished, no matter how egregious their conduct.

    Taken together, these two observations lead inexorably to the conclusion our society is dying, but not from neglect, or from impossible to solve problems, or from outside pressures. Our society and our future are being murdered by a tiny class of monsters, taken together, a dictator class. Mao died at 82 and Pol Pot died at 73; neither man ever faced any punishment for the millions of people he’d slaughtered. If you can name even one billionaire in living memory who’s been punished for his crimes, I would be deeply impressed.

    Our MIC doesn’t belong to us, but to itself, and is immune to our oversight. Homeland Security’s reach and authority is unbounded by the general public. NSA spies on every American, retaining content of conversations and their metadata. The Executive Branch has accumulated more and more autocratic power over the decades and has become relatively free of the constraints of Congress. The Legislative Branch has become a clearing house where lobbyists purchase whatever legislation they want. The Judicial Branch has become a rubber stamp for corporate agendas and an impassively psychotic and brutally punitive tyrant against everyone else.

    Preemptively starving out dissent on our college campuses is but one plank in a growing totalitarian platform. Collapse and/or global war are our only hopes for freedom, but in all likelihood, war will bring even greater pain, austerity, abuse, and fatal pressure to conform while simultaneously eliminating all oversight.

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