Image: Strikers picketing during the 1913 Rochester, New York, Garment Workers' Strike.
In 2012, I got my Ph.D. and left academia with no regrets. Like all decisions based on financial stability, it was not so much a decision as a reaction.
Academia, I had discovered, was not an industry in which one works for pay but one in which you must pay to work. New Ph.D.’s are expected to move around the country in temporary postdocs or visiting professor jobs until finding tenure-track positions -- financially impossible for me as a mother of two – or stay where they are and work as adjuncts with no job security and an average wage of $2,700 per course. While making an income below the poverty line, a new Ph.D. is expected to spend thousands of dollars on job interviews at conferences in expensive cities and write paywalled papers for free.
I left. But there is no escaping the consequences of academia’s reliance on contingent labor. If you do not experience the adjunct crisis directly as an academic, you may well experience it as a citizen: as a student, a parent, or a professional facing a similar contingency crisis in your own field. The adjunct crisis in academe both reflects and advances a broader crisis in labor. Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.
On February 25, 2015, adjunct professors across the United States are planning to walk out of the classroom to protest their low pay, lack of benefits, and unfair treatment. Their struggle is one we all should support. Here are the reasons why you should care.
Labor exploitation is not the new normal. Adjunct professors are distinct from other low-wage contract workers only by virtue of degree – that is, the Ph.D. Like other exploited workers, adjuncts are told that their low pay and mistreatment are the deserved consequence of poor choices. While low-wage workers without college degrees are told to get an education, adjuncts are asked what they thought all that education would get them. The plight of the adjunct shows one can have all the education in the world and still have no place in it.
The contingent labor market is marked by two paths: one of low-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of wealth. Adjuncts fall in the latter category, indicative of how the rhetoric of prestige is used to justify low compensation. Since the recession, academia’s pay-to-play business model has been adopted by other professions, including law, policy, and media – all of which increasingly rely on unpaid or low-wage labor. That should not be accepted as “the new normal” but rejected as a crisis of exploitation.
Hurting researchers hurts research. “There’s this huge labor force here to do the bench work, the grunt work of science,” biologist Gary McDowell told The Boston Globe in a recent article. “But then there’s nowhere for them to go.” McDowell was talking about the rise of postdoctoral fellowships in the sciences as a path to nowhere, but the same applies to adjuncts. In the current market, only 15 percent of American scientists are expected to find tenure-track jobs. As a result, many Ph.D.’s leave academia and abandon their research in the process. The lack of a career track means that discoveries are derailed. When the ability to continue research becomes based on independent wealth, the quality of research and diversity of topic declines as more researchers are forced to leave the field.
Exploiting teachers means harming students. If you know anyone in college, odds are good that they are taught by an adjunct. If you are a parent, odds increase every year that your child will be taught by an adjunct – while the tuition at your child’s college or university rises. Debates continue over the quality of adjunct teaching but the fact remains that contingent instructors do not receive the same support and resources as their tenured colleagues. Most adjuncts are not the freeway fliers of legend but teach at only one campus, according to the 2012 report on part-timers from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. But whether they teach at one, or three, they struggle with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Even the most talented teachers would find their ability to perform challenged under such conditions. As Rebecca Schuman and others have noted, the percent of adjunct faculty should be included in any publication that ranks universities, as it is a leading indicator of a institution’s commitment to students.
It can be fixed. Like many industries, academia’s problem is not unemployment but poorly paid employees. While other university officials -- including college presidents and coaches – see their salaries rise, the adjunct’s wages remain stagnant or fall. Many universities could afford to pay adjuncts more but instead allocate funding toward administrative salaries and lavish infrastructure.
Reversing that trend means refusing to accept the adjunct crisis as an academic problem. It is a social problem, indicative of how labor exploitation is justified with the rhetoric of prestige. Supporting the adjuncts’ call for higher wages and job security means supporting a system in which tuition money goes to education instead of exploitation. If you are unsure what adjuncts are worth – or how pervasive the problem is - the February walkout will make it clear.