The " Untouchables" of American Higher Education

American universities and colleges are riddled with a caste system that violates our societal sense of fairness, justice, and decency. Contingent teachers (or adjuncts) are the "untouchables" of our college system.
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American universities and colleges are riddled with a caste system that violates our societal sense of fairness, justice, and decency. Neither the general public, nor parents, nor the large majority of students are even aware of its existence. College administrators and tenured faculty, who are acutely aware of the system, have done little or nothing to remedy the problem. It is a festering sore that threatens not only the quality of higher education but the system's ability to recruit and retain good teachers.

Adjunct or contingent faculty, who are neither tenured nor on a tenure track, comprise nearly 80% of all college teachers. The 540,000 adjuncts who work part-time receive low wages, no benefits, no administrative support and no academic rights. While another 240,000 adjuncts are full-time, they too get low pay, fewer benefits --in many cases none at all--than tenured faculty, little or no administrative support and no right to academic freedom. Contingent teachers, as adjuncts are officially called, are the "untouchables" of our college system.

By contrast, the little more than 20% of all college teachers who are tenured or on a tenure track receive reasonable to excellent pay, health and retirement benefits and administrative support like offices, secretarial services and technological assistance. As the "Brahmins" of our educational system, they also enjoy academic freedom and rights.

These atrocious, stressful working conditions make it difficult for adjuncts to give their students the best instruction and experience the latter deserve. While their numbers are growing and they serve as the bedrock of college teaching, they continue to be shunned and disrespected by their tenured colleagues and high level administrators, an attitude that undermines their academic status and confidence

Contingent and adjunct faculty teach because they love teaching and their students. And they are, for the most part, excellent teachers. Yet their status as the "untouchables" of higher education places them in a position that often doesn't permit them to provide the full academic experience the students require. They are frequently hired to teach at the very last minute without the opportunity to review the texts used in their courses or the syllabi they had no hand in preparing. They often cannot provide the out-of-class time that great teaching demands. Without offices or technological support, they cannot be a constant presence on campuses. Regularly excluded from faculty committees and governance discussions, they cannot contribute their ideas and perspectives that might enrich the college experience.

Denied academic freedom - lack of job security, bargaining rights and the prerogative to appeal decisions affecting their academic standing-- their lives as contingent faculty are tenuous and shaky.

These horrible conditions should be a major concern for all of us who care about the health of our society. Democracy depends on a well educated citizenry, while our government institutions, nonprofit sector and businesses require the very best leadership and skilled work force that our institutions of higher education can produce. The latter, clearly, are not performing as they should.

In these tough economic times, the plight of adjunct teachers has become even more severe. They are paid by the course, but their compensation does not include the supplies they have to use, the out-of-class time they spend with students or the often heavy cost they incur in commuting to class, especially in rural and non-urban areas. In community colleges, where the slight majority of all college students are taught, they bear a heavy burden, comprising 80% of the faculty.

Most of these contingent teachers receive anywhere from $1,800 to $3,500 per three credit course. The average earnings per course across all institutional types and geographic areas is about $2,700. A few institutions pay more, from $4,000 to $6,500 per course, but they are the exceptions. By comparison, tenured professors earn an average of approximately $11,000 per course. Large numbers of adjuncts, working six courses during the year, barely make $20,000 annually, not enough to provide for a family or children.

Many have to teach at three or four colleges to obtain sufficient work. A growing number of adjuncts have been forced to depend on food stamps or sell their blood to hospitals to put enough bread on their tables.

Yet these demeaning working conditions don't seem to worry most of our universities and colleges, which are now run by quasi-corporate executives who may be great fundraisers--seemingly their biggest responsibility--but who are less and less concerned about their students, non-research activities, community involvement and the inequities embedded in their institutions. Their boards of trustees, whose primary, if not sole, job is to raise money, might have been expected to show some interest in the role and status of contingent faculty. But that hasn't been the case.

While part-time and full-time adjuncts toil for low pay in often degrading conditions, compensation for university and college chief executives is going through the roof. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 24 CEO's earned over $1 million in 2008. Many more will surpass the $1 million mark in a couple of years. High-level administrators--and there appear to be more and more every year--are also receiving huge increases. Yet these CEO's and their highly paid administrators can't seem to find the money from their endowments, operating budgets or slush funds to give a measure of financial justice to their academic "untouchables." Nor are they , with few exceptions, willing to provide a living wage to their low income, blue collar workers who are the mainstays of campus life.

A few, mostly local, unions have helped contingent faculty organize for better pay and treatment, yet these are scattered efforts that, to date, have had little national impact. Lately, the American Association of University Professors has taken an interest in the plight of adjuncts, but the Association remains primarily focused on those adjuncts who want and could convert to tenure status, not on the scandalous treatment of the adjunct community as a whole.

Adjunct teachers have learned a sad but important lesson. If they don't organize to change a dysfunctional college system, no one else will. With this realization in mind, a number of adjuncts recently have banded together to establish a national association, The New Faculty Majority, to educate and pressure educators, legislators and the general public about the need for serious reform.

Its board president, Maria Maisto, an adjunct working in Ohio, has described the mission of the association as "to have a national staff and engaged membership working year-round for the transformation of the current exploitative academic labor system into an ethical structure that treats all faculty members with justice, fairness and dignity."

Ms. Maisto and her colleagues are an impressive group of teachers and reformers. They deserve our enthusiastic support.

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