"Who Cares" About the "Adjunct Problem"?

P.D. Lesko | May 2009

When the editor of the AWP Job List initially approached me to write a piece about part-time faculty employment, I was delighted. It wasn’t until after I started narrowing down a topic that the realization hit me: who cares? Seriously, outside of Academe, who cares that over sixty percent of our nation’s 1.3 million college faculty hold less than full-time appointments, and two-thirds of them have no benefits? I mean, really, where’s the fire? Dr. Paul Umbach recently released the results of a study he conducted on faculty job satisfaction. A piece about the study on one higher education news website was titled: “The Part-Time Satisfaction Gap.” Hold the presses, part-time faculty aren’t enjoying their jobs as much as their full-time colleagues. Next.

I know I’m being overly dramatic, but the question remains: how can we within higher education make the students whom we teach, the parents who pay the tuition bills, the politicians who steer billions of dollars toward the collective coffers of higher education, and the mainstream media who write about it all understand and care that the new majority in higher education are faculty who teach off the tenure track and less than full-time? Not to denigrate Dr. Umbach or his research, but studies about job satisfaction just aren’t the answer. Part-time faculty aren’t as “satisfied with their jobs as their full-time counterparts,” writes one higher education journalist covering the Umbach shocker. Then we have the kiss of death. The same reporter writes, “Adjuncts are 8 percentage points less likely than full-timers to say they would pursue an academic career again….”

Equally ineffectual are studies such as the one done last year by Dr. Andrea Jaeger. In her work, Jaeger examines student retention rates in courses taught by part-time faculty, and concludes that part-time faculty adversely (albeit slightly) impact student retention rates. Even the expert rhetoric of AAUP President Dr. Cary Nelson, who speaks eloquently about the “corruption” eating away at the soul of higher education in the form of “fast food faculty” isn’t getting a rise from the nation’s 18,000,000 undergraduates or their parents, much less state and national legislators. In fact, such rhetoric is getting the same response as would someone who complained that, “My diamond bracelet is too loose since I slimmed down during my month-long vacation to the islands.”

In 2007, Tom W. White, Peter Marsden, and James Davis, researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, released a study on job satisfaction in the United States. Guess which profession ranks number six among the top twelve list of 500 professions in terms of job satisfaction? Teaching. Job satisfaction bottom feeders on the list included roofers, amusement parks ride operators, food service workers, maids, machine operators, and freight workers. According to this study, in general—with the interesting exception of physicians—“job satisfaction increases with social standing of the occupations.” Hate your teaching job? Imagine for a moment cleaning the urinals every day in the building where your class meets for a breezy fifty minutes thrice weekly.

Here’s how this “adjunct crisis” is playing in our country’s collective Peoria: People at the top of the job satisfaction list, in a profession that is perceived as one that enjoys high social standing, are mewling about their problems to people in professions with abysmal levels of job satisfaction. That clever rhetoric about “fast food faculty” suddenly becomes, well, not so clever anymore. Is it any wonder, then, that Americans give a collective “talk to the hand” about the exploitation of part-time faculty within higher education or the diminished job satisfaction levels of college faculty? How is it that some of the cleverest, most well-educated people in our society can’t figure out how to effectively communicate exactly what the problem is and why it should matter so very much?

Take a deep breath and sit down; you may not like my answer. Perhaps the deep thinkers, researchers, writers, and all-around brainiacs within higher education haven’t managed to get our fellow Americans riled up, thinking and talking about the exploitation of part-time faculty because it really doesn’t matter to Americans; it’s not a situation they can comprehend. After all, how can someone without a college degree, earning at or above the minimum wage understand the exploitation of a man or woman with a graduate degree? It’s not convenient for part-time faculty, or those who would genuinely like to see part-time faculty treated fairly, but the proletariat bitterly resents fishing out of the fire the collective fanny of elite intellectuals. Evidence the national fury of taxpayers made to bail out the country’s bankers. (Financial industry workers ranked 12th out of 500 in terms of job satisfaction on White’s list).

Here’s an even more troubling thought. Maybe the exploitation of part-time faculty within higher education doesn’t matter to those who exploit them, and those who benefit from the exploitation (administrators and full-time, tenure-line faculty). So where does this leave us? My mother had a quaint saying: “In a tree, naked, covered in honey, with a hungry black bear looking up.”

First things first: the “adjunct problem” needs to be redefined. Part-time faculty will never get anywhere by focusing on their own “exploitation.” Like Wall Street bankers wringing their hands about lost bonuses, college professors (yes, this is how people outside of higher education view all college faculty—full- and part-time) are perceived as near the top of the academic food chain and, therefore, can’t hope to elicit sympathy about their “low pay.” There were recently articles in mainstream newspapers across the United States about the fact that the pay of “professors” increased more than the cost of living. Then, those same newspapers printed lists of faculty pay at places like the University of Michigan, where top earners rake in $147,000 per year.

The answer may just be found in another problem. Those who advocate for full-time faculty and tenure have a devil of a time pinpointing the exact differences between faculty off and on the tenure track. The attempts border on the comical and inept:

“Tenure-line faculty advise students and mentor them.”

“Tenured faculty provide continuity to the programs in which they teach.”

“Tenure-line and tenured faculty are dedicated to their colleges and universities.”

Frankly, there is no teaching, advising, or research-related task that a faculty member off the tenure track can’t perform. Herein, perhaps, lies the kernel of a strategy to use when talking and writing about the “adjunct problem.” Instead of expecting Americans to understand and care about exploitation of elite intellectuals, let’s phrase the debate so that it focuses on the chronic under-utilization of part-time faculty; let’s explain to Americans that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, experienced, and motivated teachers are under-utilized by their employers. Let’s explain exactly how the under-utilization of sixty percent of college faculty impacts the educations of over half of the country’s 18,000,000 undergraduates. After all, which is an easier sell: Tens of billions of tax dollars in order to fund more slots for tenured faculty, or spend hundreds of millions and make better use of the part-time faculty we already have?

To be fair, it’s not simply the plight of part-time faculty within higher education that has been lost amid the cacophony of competing political and social priorities. Higher education itself has gone from center stage in our national discussions about education. Evidence the dwindling number of national newspapers in our country with regular coverage of higher education. Throughout the European Union, in virtually every country, there are major newspapers that cover higher education daily. In the U.S., higher education has become a journalistic subject worthy of only short weekly pieces, and quarterly supplements.

Given these inconvenient truths, the only people whom we can expect to care that “adjuncts are 8 percentage points less likely to pursue an academic career again” or that there is a “part-time satisfaction gap” are the nation’s part-time faculty, their academic allies and advocates. We can’t even expect tenured and tenure-line faculty to care. They, after all, have the most to lose if sweeping changes were enacted. To the majority of those outside of higher education, part-time professors aren’t fellow proletariat pals in need of a million-man march and a rescue mission. Part-time professors are the ones who can help a manual laborer move up from the very bottom of the job satisfaction chart nearer to the top.


P.D. Lesko edits the Adjunct Advocate online magazine. She has written extensively about faculty off the tenure-track for a variety of mainstream and higher education publications.

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