Earlier this month, researchers at George Mason University released a report that shed light on the most pressing issue in American higher education today: the rise in adjunct faculty. Last year, American graduate programs awarded 160,000 doctorates; however, only 16,000 tenure-track professorships were given. Now, more than 50 percent of all university-level instructors have adjunct appointments.
Yale euphemistically classifies these adjunct members as “non-ladder” faculty.
University administrations must understand that replacing tenured positions with adjunct appointments is harmful to academic freedom, student learning and professor well-being. The once-prestigious doctorate has been disgracefully reduced to a five-year path to low-paying and unstable employment.
When a young professor signs onto adjunct status, he is at risk for disposability from the outset. How then is he able to encourage students to petition against an unpopular university policy or organize gatherings to discuss dissenting opinions?
At a panel at Columbia College Chicago earlier this month, professor Steven Salaita formerly of Virginia Tech and professor Iymen Chehade of Columbia recalled run-ins with academic unfreedom, the college’s student newspaper reported.
Salaita said the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revoked a job offer after reading radical posts on his Twitter page regarding last summer’s conflict in Gaza. Chehade’s course on Israeli-Palestinian conflict was cancelled after a student deemed his teaching biased, he said.
Salaita and Chehade both experienced firsthand the vulnerabilities that professors now encounter in the workplace. Instructors are at risk when their employers may choose not to renew their contracts at the end of the semester. Joe Berry, an adjunct at the University of Illinois, cites the “disempowerment” of faculty members as “the greatest threat to academic freedom and activism on campuses” in his 2005 book on improving working conditions for adjuncts.
Students, too, suffer from the rise in adjunct professors. Most adjuncts are paid a sum of money for a semester-long class. That is, they don’t receive any additional money for time spent working outside the classroom, including office hours and other meetings with students. An American Association of University Professors press release notes that while tenured professors are subject to university-sanctioned classroom observations, reviews of courses taught by adjuncts come only from student evaluations. Furthermore, adjunct professors have to meet different, usually lower criteria for departments to hire them, meaning that under-qualified professors can end up teaching.
Meanwhile, tenure-track status grows further out of reach for new professors, forcing them to research more and teach less. Turnover rates are also high among adjuncts. Universities dismiss a great number of them at semester’s end and reenlist a fresh batch in August.
As terrifying as it sounds, we soon will see a growing amount of faculty members approach the poverty line. According to the New York Times, an average tenured professor at a doctoral university earns around $127,000 annually. Instead of getting paid through a yearly payroll, adjuncts are paid by the course at a median rate of $2,700, according to the American Association of University Professors. This, divided by the number of hours the instructor spends working, either in the classroom or in the office, comes to a per-hour sum that is slightly below minimum wage. Furthermore, these adjuncts’ contracts contain fewer healthcare benefits and retirement perks than those of tenured professors.
Some non-tenured faculty are forced to pick up second jobs to make ends meet. It seems unfitting to have scholars teaching by day and working the late shift at the student bookstore. Professors should have a yearly salary that properly compensates them for both classroom time and research.
The appeal of non-tenure track appointments is found in recent university initiatives that seek cost-minimizing, profit-maximizing outcomes. Now more than ever, administrators at Yale and other universities are willing to swap liberal arts traditions for expenditure-cutting practices. But Woodbridge Hall must reassess its priorities. Tenure is essential to professors’ job security. It permits them to research what they please and teach what they think. To replace this custom with a new method that enables administrators to micromanage the work of their constituents is unacceptable.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Oct. 30
A previous version of this article contained inaccurate data on the number of ladder and non-ladder faculty at Yale. It also incorrectly stated that Steven Salaita was an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In fact, he was offered a tenured position at Illinois, which was allegedly revoked after administrators read his Twitter page.