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The plight of the adjuncts
Its cause and solution
The recent furor over academic freedom at Minnesota’s Hamline University, where an adjunct professor was terminated following her showing of a portrait of Muhammad in an art history class, highlighted the precariousness of adjunct faculty at American colleges and universities. This theme is a familiar one, and it evokes familiar laments that higher education in this country rests on the backs of an underclass of underpaid and insecure instructors. “They really have no idea about how we live and how we survive or how much we’re being exploited,” said an adjunct who split his time among American University, Georgetown University and George Washington University. An adjunct instructor at Duke University inferred that the low pay and disrespect she endured were by design. “It keeps you nice and disposable,” she said.
The tone of the coverage is consistently commiserative. “Low Pay, Long Commutes: The Plight of the Adjunct Professor” is the headline of a typical NPR piece. The Atlantic pronounced, “There is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.” PBS reported, “Homeless Professor Protests Conditions of Adjuncts.” A documentary called “Professors in Poverty” features an adjunct professor who says, “I have the highest level of learning and I am literally on welfare.”
One can’t help sympathizing with people who work hard and still struggle to keep head above water. Yet one has to wonder where common sense has gone in this discussion. Numerous articles point to the growing number of courses taught by adjunct faculty, compared with the number taught by permanent instructors. Plausible estimates indicate that courses taught by adjuncts outnumber courses taught by permanent faculty three to one in in America as a whole, whereas the ratio was just the opposite fifty years ago.
What explains the flip? In a word: Oversupply. In the four and a half decades after 1970, the number of PhDs conferred by American universities doubled. Student enrollments doubled during that time as well, which might have suggested that the job market would absorb all the new PhDs. But larger classes can be accommodated by existing faculty; a professor can lecture to two hundred students as easily as to one hundred.
Indeed, those larger classes became a factor in the overproduction of PhDs. That lone professor was often aided by teaching assistants drawn from the ranks of graduate students. The larger the classes, the more incentive for the universities to expand their graduate programs.
The upshot was that by the 1980s the number of doctorates conferred regularly outstripped the number of permanent—tenured or tenure-track—jobs available, especially in the humanities and social sciences. In history, for instance, new PhDs in the mid-2010s were twice the number of permanent jobs.
Few of those who didn’t land the jobs were pleased to write off the time and resources they had invested in graduate training. Many were willing to take adjunct jobs in the hope something better would turn up. For most, it didn’t. They found themselves stuck in the endless loop of semester-to-semester employment. Trained to reason and write, they could and did plead their case articulately.
But this didn’t mean their complaints were justified—at least not to where anyone else should do anything about them. Nobody is compelling the adjuncts accept the jobs they are offered. If they don’t find the terms satisfactory, they should look elsewhere for employment. After all, they have an advantage over most of the rest of the population in that they are (very) well educated.
To be sure, other jobs aren’t the ones they had hoped for, but nobody is guaranteed the job of his or her dreams. And it’s not as though the shortfall of jobs took anyone by surprise—not in this century, at any rate.
Arguably the graduate programs that admitted the students bear some responsibility. They knew the job odds better than the applicants to their programs, and some understood their departments’ ulterior motives in accepting more students than their disciplines could employ at the other end.
But the people who accepted the admission offers were all adults, consenting and reasonably intelligent. And many were counseled against unrealistic hopes by members of the very programs they entered. (Here I speak as one who has done such counseling for decades. I know I am not alone.)
The message is sinking in, finally. The number of PhDs awarded fell 5.4 percent between 2020 and 2021. May the trend continue. One day, perhaps, the sellers of labor rather than the purchasers will have the edge in higher ed.