Silence of Lambs: Adjuncts in Academia

This week, I learned some distressing news -- news that has become all too common in these beleaguered economic times. One of my friends had not been paid for the last two months of labor.

There's more: He didn't know exactly when he would be paid. And in fact 400 other people at his place of employment had yet to receive any paycheck whatsoever. My mind reeled. I could only see red: "Is it the government shutdown?"

"No, this is my life... it's always been this way."

Anthony is not a post office worker, nor a park ranger. He's also not some undocumented sweatshop worker, either.

Anthony is a university professor at City University of New York -- one of the jewels of America's public education system.

Only here's a riddle that will help you to fathom the heart of his situation: Anthony is both a professor yet, simultaneously, he is not a professor at CUNY.

What do I mean? What is the answer to this paradox?

I mean this dedicated teacher -- armed with an Ivy League education and a Ph.D. from one of the great departments in his discipline -- is a lowly adjunct. Adjuncts are the scavenger fish among the great white sharks on the academic food chain: They comprise an expendable labor pool used by universities to deliver instruction and they are, to put it indelicately, worthless.

Adjuncts may be marginal (absolutely stripped of power) but they are also central. Why? Roughly 75 percent of classes in any university system are taught by adjuncts.

They work cheaply.

They get zero benefits.

They are often hired last-minute.

They are fired at the end of the term.

The university has no commitment to them individually, even as it depends upon them collectively for instruction.

Adjuncts are the Walmart workers of education, except for this: These folks come highly skilled and they're fiercely dedicated. Walk into any Walmart and you will encounter staff that are under-motivated and don't know where things are. "How can I help you?" at Walmart is simply a greeting, not an actual question.

My friend -- and many like him -- love teaching in the classroom; they live for the thrill of motivating young people, pushing them to sharpen that dull blade that is the mind. Anthony feels most alive when he is in the classroom. He is passionate about his subject and focused, always, upon making his teaching better and better.

How do I know this? I told him to walk out.

"I can't walk out." Those kids needed him. Anthony felt that need so deeply, he was still working at CUNY, despite the fact that he was borrowing money from friends and family to pay his exorbitant New York rent. He was most probably drowning in credit card debt.

"Stop grading. If they're not paying you, you should do the bare minimum." He couldn't do that either. He depended upon the possibility of rehire and was scared to no end not only about getting canned but, also, about raising the ire of his overseers.

"Go to law school, Anthony." But despite the fact that he would be snatched up on full scholarship by any top law school, Anthony knew this in his heart: This life of teaching can be an addiction -- the thrill of teaching more important than the fact of financial security.

In telling the story of Anthony -- one of the most brilliant minds I have ever known -- I am not holding out CUNY for special shaming, though indeed they should be ashamed, terribly ashamed.

I only want to educate the public about this curious fact: Many more adjuncts are consigned to a stiller death, a life of quiet desperation, the pin-prick anxiety of the hand-to-mouth. Studying Anthony's Facebook wall, I learned that many more of his friends -- not simply the 400 at CUNY -- but at numerous institutions across the United States deal with this reprehensible business practice. They do so with the silence of lambs.