Editor’s Note: Gordon Haber explores a controversial topic in academia today — the use of non-tenured, adjunct faculty. He recently published a novella, “Adjunctivitis“, detailing the misadventures of one such poor soul.

What line of work has terrible wages, no job security and no health benefits? You might be thinking Walmart associate or Amazon warehouse worker. But there’s another job that’s just as precarious and it requires a higher degree: adjunct college professor.

Around 50% of all college teachers are adjuncts, or part-time teachers paid by the class. Most adjuncts earn around $3000 per section, which is basically a journey to penury. When I was an adjunct, I usually taught four classes per term and two in the summer—meaning in a good year I earned about $25,000 after taxes. The 2013 poverty rate for a family of three, like mine, was $19,500. I felt like Tom Joad with a master’s.

I paid out-of-pocket for health insurance; many adjuncts simply do without. Even Obamacare won’t help. The Affordable Care Act mandates that employees working 30 hours per week or more are eligible for benefits, so colleges are simply assigning individual adjuncts fewer sections.

Most colleges won’t give an adjunct more than two or three sections anyway. This means a lot of commuting—especially in a sprawling city like Los Angeles, where I used to live. When you combine that with near-starvation wages you have a recipe for stress and unhappiness, which is why, like a lot of adjuncts, I’m getting out.

(One good thing did come out of my adjuncting experience: it inspired my novella Adjunctivitis, recently published for the Kindle by Amazon. Readers without Kindles can get free reading apps for their device. Yes, I know that’s shameless self-promotion, but I’m a recovering itinerant college instructor.)

So why are colleges paying starvation wages? Because they can. College administrators, like Walmart executives, have grasped that you don’t have to pay decent salaries or provide benefits to contingent workers. You’d then think that, given the giant tuition increases, that colleges would be awash with money. You’d be wrong. Both the staffing savings and the tuition increases have been offset by the enormous growth of “professional” positions—in admissions, human resources and the like.

Adjuncting has been academia’s dirty little secret for decades. But only in recent months has the problem come to national attention. The impetus was the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a part-time French teacher at Duquesne University for 25 years. As her lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, explained in a Pittsburgh newspaper, in 2013 Vojtko was only given one class per term, putting her annual earnings at less than $10,000. Her house was literally falling apart, and she couldn’t pay for her cancer treatments. In mid-August 2013, Vojtko had a heart attack. By September she was dead.

Kovalik’s op-ed went viral. Gawker and the Huffington Post covered the story. Vojtko’s demise also inspired a Twitter hashtag, #IamMargaretMary. Slate’s L.V. Anderson wrote fascinating piece about Vojtko’s death and life. Then news outlets like New York Times, PBS and Al Jazeera America finally turned their attention to adjuncts. Apparently sometimes somebody has to die before the media notices a problem.

Much of this coverage has been sympathetic to adjuncts. So as you might expect, there’s been a backlash. Labor lawyers are advising colleges to look out for union literature on “car windshields in the parking lot.” One trollish op-ed in the L.A. Times suggested that it’s all about supply and demand: if enough adjuncts “just say no,” the situation will improve for those remaining. In the New York Times, David Brooks cluelessly argues that Americans with “precarious living standards” are too “risk-averse.” They have no faith in “American possibilities;” instead they rely on “friends and family.”

Wait, what? Who else are they supposed to rely on? But I suppose it is fair to ask why someone would adjunct in the first place. I did it because I like teaching, and I wasn’t earning enough from writing. And then I got stuck. When you’re working sixty hours a week, commuting an hour each way and earning a pittance, it’s not like you have many “possibilities,” American or otherwise.

Yes, of course, we are all responsible for ourselves. But let’s not conflate the deliberate mistreatment of American workers with American self-reliance. (One of the most galling aspects of the exploitation of adjuncts is that it happens at colleges that profess to have religious values.) Supply and demand is a useful way of understanding market forces, and yet somehow we’ve allowed American institutions—first our corporations and now our colleges—to turn it into a kind of moral value.

So is there any way to improve the lot of adjuncts? Unfortunately, I doubt it.

Administrators hold the purse strings; it would be ludicrous for us to expect them to lay themselves off. Just as it is extremely unlikely that any college president will accept a significant salary cut. Where else could the money come from? Tuition is already too high and state governments are unlikely to increase their subsidies. 

The simple fact is that an American college is not run to benefit students or even faculty. A college exists to benefit administrators. And yet most serious attempts to discuss education costs resort to the language of the marketplace. This is truly unfortunate, because education should be one of the few American institutions that don’t have to respond to market values.

The way to help adjuncts is the same way to improve higher education in general—to stop thinking of it as a product like any other. When it’s done right, a real education is slow, inefficient, and expensive. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Further Reading:

Rebecca Schuman’s column in Slate

Joe Fruscione’s “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column on Inside Higher Ed.com

The New Faculty Majority, a non-profit devoted to better treatment of adjuncts

Image credit: Steven Depolo via flickr

About The Author

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writer and journalist

Gordon Haber writes fiction, criticism and journalism. His recent stories include the novellas Adjunctivitis and False Economies, both published as Amazon Kindle Singles. He is a frequent contributor to Religion Dispatches and the Jewish Daily Forward. He does not live in Brooklyn.