Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

The Contingent Faculty Retirement Crisis

Full sinking ship

Image: Imperial Russian battleship Slava, 1917 / Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a little more than three years since Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, died in abject poverty at age 83. Despite having taught at Duquesne for 25 years, she had so little money that she was sleeping in her office after being unable to heat her home due to medical bills incurred as she fought ovarian cancer. Vojtko received $3,500 a course, and earned an average annual salary of less than $10,000. Like most adjuncts, she received no benefits, no health care, and no retirement plan from the university, forcing her to work well past the age of the average American pensioner.

At the time, Vojtko’s case was viewed as a potential turning point in the national debate on the treatment of contingent faculty. Adjuncts flooded Twitter with posts under the hashtag #IAmMargaretMary, describing their poverty-level wages, inability to save money, and denial of benefits.

But in the years since her death, little has changed. About 70 percent of faculty positions at U.S. institutions are non-tenure-track jobs, either part-time or full-time. Since 2013, more contingent faculty have formed unions with the goal of improving their labor conditions, and some institutions have granted them higher wages and promises of contract renewal. Yet their retirement prospects, much like Vojtko’s, remain grim. Contingent instructors living check to check have little or nothing left to set aside for their retirement.

America’s contingent faculty are not alone in that predicament. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, 92 percent of working households in the United States do not meet retirement-savings targets for their age and income — and 45 percent have no retirement savings at all.

In short, contingent faculty are part of a broad national crisis that has decimated the middle class since the 2008 financial collapse. According to the Federal Reserve, 57 percent of Americans said they had used some or all of their savings in the Great Recession. That recession led to an economic restructuring in which part-time and contingent labor — “the gig economy” — replaced full-time jobs; the number of low-wage jobs soared while the number of middle- and high-wage jobs decreased. And long-term unemployment forced Americans who did have retirement savings to drain them to survive. Contingent faculty are among the many temps, contractors, and freelancers whose ranks have grown since 2008, and whose 401Ks or other pension plans are modest at best.

Adjuncts are doubly disadvantaged in this economy since — in addition to receiving low wages and no benefits — they are far more likely to carry high student-loan debt. The average amount owed by an advanced degree recipient is $61,000. It is hard enough for a tenure-track, salaried professor to pay off such high debt, but for an adjunct who is making $2,700 a course? It is likely impossible.

Burdened by the debt of the past, struggling to survive in the present, contingent faculty often cannot fathom saving for the future.

What can you do if you’re treading water in the contingent ranks? On an individual level, not much. You can quit adjuncting to pursue more steady employment, but that means abandoning a career in which you’ve invested years. The rigid path of the academic job market — in which leaving, however briefly, to gain a stable income can lead to the perception that you are not committed to scholarship — can leave many Ph.D.s feeling like adjuncting is the only way to remain within the academic world.

Furthermore, the options seem limited outside of academe, too. The gig economy of adjuncting is replicated in the same professions that tend to attract Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences — like journalism or policy, where workers tend to freelance, receive poor wages, get temporary fellowships instead of permanent jobs, or all of the above. STEM Ph.D.s are in similarly dire straights: Their unemployment rate in the United States is more than twice its prerecession level. With dwindling outside options and high sunk costs, many adjuncts stay where they are.

Today’s contingent faculty are most likely to accumulate retirement savings through good fortune rather than fortitude: family inheritance, or a spouse working one of the remaining full-time jobs offering a pension plan. The large number of contingent faculty who fall outside this category are in trouble. But they can take solace — however bitter — in the fact that they are not alone.

Recently adjuncts have been organizing not only amongst themselves, but with other contingent and low-wage employees like fast-food and home-care workers. Americans with Ph.D.s and GEDs have found themselves in the same sinking boat. Mass protest will not solve the retirement crisis, but it will help force officials to acknowledge its existence, and — one hopes — eventually implement policy changes.

The nascent adjunct unions, understandably focused on securing immediate financial gains like higher salaries and stable contracts, would be wise to start pushing for retirement benefits in future negotiations.

The adjunct’s road to retirement is likely to be long and hard-fought. Margaret Mary Vojtko was the first high-profile case of an elderly contingent professor dying in poverty, but she is unlikely to be the last. Collective organizing is the most effective means to make her story not a portent for the future, but a tragedy of a bygone past.

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