Part-time and poorly paid on campus

April 6, 2016

Corporate America's favorite paper is scaremongering about adjuncts unionizing, writes Tyler Zimmer, a philosophy instructor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

IF THE Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the adjunct faculty at Duke University who voted overwhelmingly to unionize simply don't understand what's good for them.

According to an article by Douglas Belkin, unionizing adjuncts "could radically shrink the jobs available to low-level professors."

According to a study quoted in the article, "U.S. universities' costs could increase to a total of $24 billion from $4.3 billion for courses taught by adjuncts if union targets for higher pay are met." This increased cost, we're told, would threaten students and other faculty workers by necessitating tuition hikes, layoffs and wage cuts. As Jason Brennan, an author of the study, puts it, "The money is going to have to come from somewhere, and there will be some uncomfortable trade-offs."

That all sounds plenty frightening. The trouble, however, is that it has virtually nothing to do with reality.


THE NARRATIVE painted by the Wall Street Journal is striking for what it omits: the soaring cost of tuition and the massive bloat in university administration that has occurred over the last several decades.

Demanding justice for academic workers in Boston
Demanding justice for academic workers in Boston

Since 1980, inflation-adjusted tuition at public universities has tripled; at private universities, it has more than doubled. As sociologist Benjamin Ginsberg wrote, "Compared to all other goods and services in the American economy, including medical care, only cigarettes and other tobacco products have seen prices rise faster than the cost of going to college."

At the same time, university endowments have soared in value over the last 40 years. Brennan's figure of a $19.7 billion wage bill increase for all adjuncts everywhere in the U.S. sounds like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the endowments of the biggest universities: Harvard ($36 billion), Yale ($23 billion), Stanford ($21 billion), University of Michigan ($9 billion) or Texas A&M ($10 billion), just to name a few.

Let's make things even more concrete. A few years back, I taught a summer course in philosophy as an adjunct at Northwestern University, for which I was paid about $3,000 total. I had about 20 students, each of whom probably paid at least $1,000 each for the course. Do the math--of the $20,000 collected from students enrolled in the course, only about 15 percent went to pay for instruction. Where did the rest of the money go?

The Journal makes it sound like for me to have been paid more for teaching this course, students would have had to pay higher tuition, or else other necessities--the cost of paying workers to maintain the facilities, the power bill and so on--would have to be cut.

But this ignores the pink elephant in the room: If students are paying more and more in tuition, and faculty are getting paid less and less, where is all of the money going? The one-word answer to this question--administration--doesn't appear at all in the Journal article.

Over the course of the last 40 years, the ratio of administrators to faculty and students has grown enormously.

It used to be that administrative roles were filled by faculty who temporarily took on positions like, say, dean or provost, with the understanding that they would vacate the position and return to research and teaching in the near future. The number of faculty outnumbered the number of administrators.

Today, the opposite is true. The number of high-level administrator hires is up 85 percent compared to 1980, and the number of administrative staff overall is up 240 percent. By comparison, the number of faculty has only increased 50 percent--about the same amount as the increase in student enrollment over the same period.


THESE TRENDS aren't specific to academia. The entire character of work life in the U.S. has changed over the last 40 years, much of it for the worse. Workers in the 1950s and '60s used to have slogans like "they can't replace you" emblazoned on the walls of their union halls. Today, few of us enjoy the luxury of collective bargaining, and we increasingly use words like precarious, insecure, contingent or temp to describe our jobs.

Whereas real wages kept pace with productivity gains from 1945 to 1973, the story since then has been one of stagnant wages and soaring rates of exploitation. U.S. workers work harder, for longer and for lower pay than two generations ago.

In academia, too, there has been a sharp increase in the percentage of faculty who could be described as contingent, vulnerable and part-time--in a word, as adjuncts.

In 1975, 56 percent of college faculty were full-time tenured or tenure-track employees. Today, the figure is 29.1 percent. And among the contingent, adjunct instructors who make up 70 percent of college faculty in the U.S. today, a whopping 41.5 percent are part time. Compare that to the situation in 1975, when part-time faculty made up 25 percent of all faculty.

The national average pay for adjuncts is $2,700 for a semester-long course, so teaching a heavy "four/four" load of four courses per semester would net about $22,000 a year before taxes.

Of course, this scanty pay per course is only available if adjuncts can find enough courses to teach. And even when adjuncts are assigned, courses can be cancelled on short notice if enrollment isn't as high as administrators want.

Then there's the additional problem of needing to work simultaneously at as many as three or four different colleges or universities to get a full-time teaching load of four courses per semester. Many schools in big cities that rely heavily on adjunct labor refuse to give individuals more than two courses a semester, so it's common for adjuncts to work for three or four schools at once to make ends meet.

As an employer once told me, "We'd love to give you more than two courses per semester, but the administration won't allow it since we'd have to, god forbid, pay you health benefits."

There's no question that this state of affairs benefits administrators. As employers of all kinds realized long ago, the more vulnerable and precarious workers are, the cheaper the cost to hire them.

Most adjuncts don't get raises, benefits or pensions. They are paid less than a quarter of the national average for full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty. Many are denied access to the basic resources they need to do their jobs: offices, computers, printers, library access and so on.

I once worked a job as an adjunct at a Chicago-area college where contingent faculty make up more than 70 percent of the hundreds of instructors who work there. For all of the adjuncts on campus, the university provided just a single office--only only large enough for seven or eight people to occupy at once. This appears to be standard practice.


WHY IS this the new normal in higher education. Whose interests does this state of affairs serve?

The answer to this question comes into focus when we recognize that the problems afflicting academic workers are one aspect of larger, economy-wide shifts that have occurred over the last 40 years.

In the early 1970s, the post-Second World War economic expansion came to an end, and with it, the previous three decades of expanding investment, rising wages and high profit rates for U.S. corporations.

To cope with declining profit margins, the U.S. ruling class went on the offensive, embarking on a long-term campaign to break the bargaining power of unions, and thereby speed up the pace of work and reduce wages.

Corporate America laid waste to the industrial Northeast and Midwest, and moved production to areas with much lower wages (and no unions). Businesses lobbied for deregulation, tax breaks, favorable trade policies and privatization. They invested huge sums in propaganda promoting the wonders of the "free market," and they pushed for a reduction in the "social wage"--the public provision of goods and services such as transportation, housing or health care--in order to increase the vulnerability of workers rising exploitation.

The results have had a far-reaching impact. Workers today have jobs--if they have them--that pay the same or less once inflation is taken into account, provide fewer benefits and are less secure than a generation or two ago.

The variety of precarious positions on offer are often sold as being more flexible, more casual, more tailored to people's individual lifestyle quirks, whatever they might be. But the reality is less empowering: workers are doing more for less because of long-term structural changes aimed at restoring corporate profitability to an ailing U.S. capitalism.

This decades-long project, often called "neoliberalism," has shaped the university system in profound ways.

It has led to the ascendance of "lean production" labor management strategies in academia, just as in manufacturing--as well as the rise of an unaccountable administration that mirrors the greater power private-sector managers have over workers today, compared to 40 years ago. Likewise, the ideology that "the market always knows best" shapes the way higher education is run today, as evidenced by the fact that more and more university administrators come from the for-profit sector.

This is why the humanities are under sustained attack. After all, if corporate profitability is the only metric of success, why invest university resources in disciplines aimed at getting people to think critically about their lives and the society they live in?


HISTORY IS useful here not just for explaining how we got into this mess--it also points a potential way out of the impasse.

During the 1930s, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism, workers stood up and fought back on a mass scale. There was a huge increase in the number of strikes, most of which were illegal. In 1934, there were three successful general strikes in major U.S. cities.

Then, in 1937, autoworkers did what most people thought could never be done--they took on General Motors and the heavily armed National Guard, and succeeded in forcing the company to recognize the newly formed United Auto Workers union. More workers joined unions during the 1930s than in all previous decades combined.

Fearful of this increase in class struggle, some sections of the ruling class--and the politicians who served them--were willing to grant huge concessions to the rising movement in order to head off the threat of even greater change. The result were the New Deal reforms of the 1930s: Social Security, unemployment benefits, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining rights and so on.

The lesson is clear: strikes and mass struggle get the goods.

Adjuncts today find themselves in the same sink-or-swim predicament as a previous generation of workers that confronted the Great Depression. Either we organize collectively to demand that things change, or we will be at the mercy of university administrators would like nothing better than to play us off against one another and drive our living standards down even further.

Either we find a way to use the strike weapon, or administrators will continue to pay us poverty wages and keep us on the margins.

History proves that strikes and collective militancy can, in a very brief period of time, change living standards and working conditions from abysmal to relatively decent. For this reason, we should celebrate the unionization success at Duke and seek to emulate it elsewhere--and not succumb to the scare tactics of the very people responsible for driving down our living standards.

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