Adjunct Faculty: Higher Ed’s Lumpenproletariat

Heide Trepanier at her studio. Photo credit: Style Weekly. Her artwork hangs in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts but as a VCU adjunct faculty member, she would get paid only $3,000 for teaching an art course next spring.

I have a pet theory. One of the reasons that employees of colleges and universities are so politically liberal and obsessed with inequality and privilege is that colleges and universities themselves are such unequal and hierarchical places. Those on the lower rungs feel oppressed. Those on the upper rungs feel guilty.

A case in point: A group of adjunct art faculty members at Virginia Commonwealth University has circulated a petition calling for a pay increase. The part-time instructors, who are hired on a contractual basis and are not on the tenure track, currently are paid $800 per credit, a sum that is scheduled to rise to $1,000 per credit this spring. But adjunct faculty members are calling for pay of $2,000 per credit.

“A lot of people feel exploited,” artist Heide Trepanier, who has worked as an adjunct at VCU, told Style Weekly. “Things like the School of the Arts don’t pull in big funding,” she says, “so their big way of [making] money is pulling in more students and cutting costs. You have these upper-level administrators earning hundreds of thousands of dollars and most of the people there teaching, who are in direct contact with the students, [have no chance] for full tenure track positions.”

Adjuncts receive no benefits or no free parking, the cost of which Trepanier says translates to teaching one day a week free. “Adjuncts don’t have any say in the process. VCU is using a successful business model that is not working in higher education. Now they’ve got a problem because the majority is starting to organize.”

The inequality is national in scope, not limited to VCU. There are wide disparities in universities between similarly educated and qualified individuals and the pay and privileges (like paid sabbaticals) they enjoy. Adjunct faculty are the lumpenproletariat of the academic world. Above them, the petite bourgeoisie, are “instructors” who, though they may not be on a tenure track, do enjoy the benefits of full-time employment. Then come the gentry and aristocracy: the assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors. Within the ranks of full professors, there are innumerable gradations of pay and status. The elite occupy endowed chairs, with endowment-funded supplements to their salaries, and are assigned a complement of graduate students. And, unless they violate the code of politically incorrect behavior and discourse, they enjoy virtually life-time job security.

Granted, not all adjuncts, instructors, and professors are equally accomplished. Some contribute more intellectually to their fields — through research and writing — than others. The irony for institutions whose primary mission is to educate people is that the most accomplished professors — those who have reached tenure — do the least teaching. They get the lightest teaching loads so they can devote more time to pursue research and writing. The system is captive to the publish-or-perish phenomenon in which those who create knowledge (much of it of dubious value) are valued far more highly that those who disseminate it.

I have two close friends who are, or have been, adjunct faculty members of Richmond-area universities. One has a law degree, the other has a Ph.D. in psychology — the same educational credentials as those who occupy much loftier positions in the academic hierarchy. Both have intense and/or engaging personalities and both, I would wager (although I have not seen them in a classroom setting) are engaging teachers. As it happens, both are women, which may or may not be typical of adjunct faculty generally. And both either are, or have been, frustrated or embittered by their treatment.

Universities respond that they would love to increase pay for adjunct faculty but they just can’t. Cutbacks in state support for higher education, you know.

Here’s how Shawn Brixey, dean of VCU’s School of the Arts, justifies the pay disparities, as summarized by Style:

He notes the fiscal reality that budget cuts occurred last year, which leaves little discretion “beyond meeting unavoidable costs.” Throughout the years, tuition increases have, for the most part, replaced state funding cuts. He adds that the university’s administrative costs are “very low compared to like institutions” and that he’s working on generating new revenue streams to ease the tuition burden.

“We know that faculty compensation at VCU of all types – including for our teaching and research faculty and administrative and professional faculty – is below the average of that of our peers and fellow state tier 3 institutions,” Brixey explains via email. “The administration is working to improve that. They have made adjunct faculty compensation a top priority for the FY19 budget.”

Brixey has a point… assuming you accept the hierarchical nature of the faculty as an immutable feature of higher education at VCU and nearly every other nonprofit college and university in the country.

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20 responses to “Adjunct Faculty: Higher Ed’s Lumpenproletariat

  1. Government-supported colleges are non-profit in name only. The government subsidy results in large profits for the faculty and staff. They are over-paid. The subsidy causes private colleges to charge a high tuition so they can pay competitive faculty salaries. Government support results in unfair competition. Give the government support to worthy students, not to colleges.

  2. This is a huge problem with many adverse impacts, and much injustice. It deserves to be a huge story honestly and forthrightly told, or it will only get much worse, and poison ever more people.

    • Actually, to focus on “adjunct” professors only is misleading.

      The real story and scandal here lies in the massive hiring of large groups of non tenured contract faculty of all kinds to replace former tenured professors, and/or to teach and/or do research and teaching duties for existing tenured professors.

      This rapidly expanding low wage, low security group of instructors, teachers, professors, and researchers are increasing doing most of the work at major universities having to do with teaching (managing students) and research.

      Typically, teachers and researchers are doctorate graduate students acting as instructors and researchers, post doctorate instructors acting as instructors and researchers, or non tenured professors as instructors and researchers, all hired at very low wages, with few benefits, to do jobs with little status or security, typically to do work for a short term.

      Relatively speaking very few tenured professors teach. And far fewer than you would imagine actually do research. Instead they manage, and administer those who do the work that they far too often claim as their own, and take advantage of, while they promote their own private self interests, as if running sole proprietorships.

      To see how this works look at the job openings typically at UVA, particularly when approaching a new school year. From April to Sept of this year I saw roughly but typically:

      175 openings for graduate and post graduate pure research assistants, offered jobs to work for tenured professors, or their centers, for one year or on year to year basis thereafter, at best.

      Roughly 300 open faculty positions were open. The vast majority of these faculty positions were non tenured track, year to year contract teaching and/or research positions, hired short term research or teaching projects with little or no security.

      In stark contrast, the majority of tenured positions open were for refilling vacated endowed chairs (usually by reason of death or retirements) or for opening up some new “non profit” center for new kinds of STEM studies and research (think here grant getting scheme), or new kinds of post modern studies of and into more trendy grievance groups in America, or some global studies having little to do with any traditional courses for teaching, like English Literature, history, or the like.

      And of course the biggest groups of openings was always for Administrators.
      Here you would see roughly 415 Administrative positions of every sort and task imaginable, often with little or nothing to do with supporting teaching.

      Plus, your would find a special category of exclusive listings for new high ranking Administrators with grandiose job descriptions and presumably high salaries to match.

      The fact is that the people with the least status, the least pay, the least security, and the least respect in today’s university are those who teach.

  3. I call BS! Sounds similar to the whiners complaining about the minimum wage. Adjuncts were never meant to be a career path option. It’s something you do to supplement your day job and beef-up the CV; not unlike a teaching assistant. Case in point, my quantitative analysis chemistry teacher at VCU back in the 80s. Granted, it was a night class, but he came directly to campus from his Richmond corporate lab where he did….drum roll…..actual analytical chemistry for a living. Aside from the mundane theoretical points of the class, we were treated to hearing about what it was really like to do this stuff day-in-and-out. If you don’t want to be an adjunct, then work your ass off for a tenure track. And I wouldn’t be too concerned about free parking.

  4. Yep. Adjuncts are at least two things… 1. An attempt by the institution to keep down costs both operational and longer term pension and health care costs – and the private sector and Community Colleges does this also.

    2. Adjuncts can be a lot of things but chances are they’re not Ivory Tower types.. they probably do teach relevant real-world stuff and… as a group – they may well represent a more balanced political perspective more typical of society.

    chances are that institutions that move into online – will need and use adjuncts – cheaper and more tuned to what kind of labor is needed in the economy.

    Of course this undermines classical Liberal Arts even more.

    I tend to think adjuncts are here to stay- – and it’s not really “exploitive”. People do have a choice as to whether they want to be adjuncts or go for the tougher tenured job.

    You make that choice yourself when you do your own education… right?
    Some folks are going to go for the PHD route and others not.

  5. “The fact is that the people with the least status, the least pay, the least security, and the least respect in today’s university are those who teach.”

    Reed, I have a gnawing suspicion that you just might be right about that. Isn’t that depressing.

    BTW my wife is over at VCU right now teaching her adjunct class (exam, actually). She has 39 years of classroom experience, elementary and middle school, and she is teaching them math they either didn’t get before or forgot right after they got it. These are future classroom teachers and I bet my wife will give them some of the best prep for life in the classroom they get at VCU. My son’s favorite engineering teachers at ODU were the adjuncts who had private careers. That is the proper role for adjuncts – practitioners sharing their wisdom. Those who can do and teach. It shouldn’t be your real job.

  6. A lot of my “learning” after high school was from Adjuncts since I was going to night school at a Community College. Later when I did end up at a 4 yr , I found some professors pretty normal and connected to the real world and others not so much.. I generally preferred the adjuncts because what they were teaching was very relevant to the work I was doing. Some professors actually were well connected to the real world and they were even better than the adjuncts… because they were further evolved in the fields.. oh and they often had one or more of those “assistants: to do the grunt work!

    My biggest failure was trying to learn Differential Equations from a grad student with an accent so thick I could only pick up every other word and he had no clue how those critters were actually used in weapon system modelling… whereas the adjuncts KNEW… because that’s exactly what they actually did in their “day” jobs and they were cost-effective as instructors!

    One of my more interesting courses taught by an Ex-Marine officer with a booming voice was logic…

    this kind:

    • I took symbolic logic senior year as a schedule fill-in and just loved it. This is geometry with words, I thought. If everybody took that class, fallacy and sophistry would be so much harder for others to peddle.

  7. We really are creating an entire class of folks who do not really understand math and formal logic nor trust science.. because they do not have a solid foundation of math and science educationally – and often base their views on what they believe or want to believe, what they read on social media .. and it has now infested our politics…

    There are now innumerable “studies” from folks without any math/science formal training who make fundamental errors in logic asserting correlation is causation or worse that uncertainty in the data means the science associated with that data is wrong and lying.

    These are NOT the folks who design autonomous cars – thank Gawd because that whole world is about how to navigate safely when there actually IS uncertainty and it’s very much an environment requiring math and logic rather than gambling on what you don’t know and that’s exactly why those who don’t have a basic understanding of math, formal logic and science don’t do that kind of work or really are not suited to even USING that kind of technology… i.e. you’d not provide “controls” in autonomous cars because it would result in mayhem.

    • Let’s hear a cheer (Bronx style) for “folks without any math/science formal training who make fundamental errors in logic asserting correlation is causation . . . and often base their views on what they believe or want to believe, what they read on social media.” One can hope that 2018 brings the political dominance of their illogic to an end . . . .

  8. As a college professor of 35 years, here are some thoughts:
    1. Tenure is part of the institutional process that allows the U.S. to be a world leader in discovery. Tenure allows faculty to pursue the truth wherever it leads, regardless of what is politically correct or expedient according to administrators. Case in point: in 1995 I had a sabbatical and wanted to pursue a line of inquiry regarding X. My dean took me aside and snidely said, “Why are you wasting your time on X? That’s ridiculous.” Luckily I had tenure and could tell my dean to go away and not bother me. Three years later that same dean was patting me on the back to outside groups saying, “See, we study X here. We’re cutting edge.” Tenure is essential to free inquiry and U.S. leadership in discovery and innovation.
    2. Tenure is expensive. Some people free-ride and much of what is discovered isn’t worth much. But the system as a whole works. However, we now have a two-class system. Those with tenure do research, and need to be paid according to the market system that rewards research. Those without tenure are paid piecemeal per class, and are perhaps like sweatshop workers in a Bangladeshi garment factory.
    3. Milton Friedman’s mother worked in a sweatshop garment factory in New York, and he credits her job with his future success. So, it could be a stepping stone to something better. But it’s hard to see that and accept it when tenured jobs are disappearing rapidly.
    4. Unfortunately, a lot of the emphasis on publishing that drives the move away from teaching is misguided. Liberal arts and undergrad students need a good grounding, but don’t necessarily need a research maven to teach them. But accreditation bodies often require faculty to publish in order for their schools to keep accreditation. Dog chasing tail and all that.
    5. When I started my career I emphasized teaching, which I love. As time went on, I got more involved with research. The process of researching has kept what I do fresh, and new discoveries are important for students. I’m grateful I’m at a school (U of R) that emphasizes teaching but also supports a research agenda.
    6. We are probably at the cusp of a major shake-out in higher education. Who knows where we’ll be in 20 years?

    • Agreed, there are good reasons for having tenure. And the system worked well for a long time. But the system seems to be breaking down now.

    • While I respect Mr. Wright I must disagree with his premises.

      For example:

      “Those with tenure do research, and need to be paid according to the market system that rewards research.”

      No, there is no legitimate market system at work here. This system is rigged. It has little to do with risk v. productivity = reward system at work in a free, open, and legitimate market.

      No, the market system here is broken. Tenure and peer review as operated today is precisely the opposite of a free and open market. Here under the current system Privilege rules worth and productively as this corrupted market is funded by taxpayer and student dollars irrespective of production and/or education. What is at work here is a basic fraud. One that destroys the primary mission of institutions of higher learning which is to teach the students placed in their trust.

      Professors, do your research on your own time, not in the disguise of teaching to get money from students and taxpayers. Do not force students and their parents to pay for your research under the false claim that you are teaching your students, because the vast majority of you are not fulfilling your end of the bargain, and being truthful about it.

      “Those without tenure are paid piecemeal per class, and are perhaps like sweatshop workers in a Bangladeshi garment factory … Milton Friedman’s mother worked in a sweatshop garment factory in New York, and he credits her job with his future success. So, it could be a stepping stone to something better …”

      Oh please, really. Tell that to the man or women working in the sweatshop, that he does it to support the tenured professor in his Ivory Tower. “Let them eat cake,” she said. And we know what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette.

    • Paragraph 6!

      Meanwhile, I hate to think JB has gone soft on us here and fallen for all that “living wage” rhetoric. Markets are supposed to sort out the availability of supply and demand by, among other things, paying people less and less to do any job until the quality or quantity falls off unacceptably. Why is this situation any different?

  9. Acbar, I haven’t gone soft, and I haven’t fallen for the “living wage” argument. The intent of my blog post was to give a description of sociological reality, the fact that higher-ed institutions are incredibly hierarchical and unequal — in marked contrast to the rhetoric emanating from those same institutions regarding the country as a whole.

    There are many reasons for inequality, some justified, some not. I don’t address those issues here.

  10. Let’s hear a cheer (Bronx style) for “folks without any math/science formal training who make fundamental errors in logic asserting correlation is causation . . . and often base their views on what they believe or want to believe, what they read on social media.” Let’s hope 2018 brings the political dominance of their illogic to an end . . . .

  11. The “inequality” in academe is just as great in the corporate and political worlds. It seems your original argument boiled down to: this particular example of inequality of pay, benefits and privileges is beyond the pale, over the top, “incredible,” and therefore the unionization reaction by these art teachers is to be expected, a judgment of sorts I can understand criticisms such as self destructive, obsolete, archaic, inefficient, even politically incorrect — but now you say you’re merely describing not criticizing, not addressing reasons.

    I think calling these institutions hypocritical implies criticism. What is wrong with paying adjunct profs as little as you can get away with? Reed suggests it’s a “fraud” to use adjuncts and grad students for research the prof ends up taking credit for. But the laws of supply and demand in themselves are amoral.

    • Acbar –

      What is happening here is a fraud going on – namely, taking money from other people and groups under false pretenses, thus depriving generations of young people of the education that they deserve and pay off, while foisting off all the hard work to others without paying those others fair compensation. For example, people like Steve’s wife who get the mess to clean up, a mess created by others who typically don’t even give them the respect they deserve, likely by reason of their own guilt and self loathing, much less the pay these other people what they have fairly earned in spades for all the benefits they bring to society. This is the most basic kind of injustice, that harms all of us every day.

      This nation cannot survive without strong and well paid and respected teachers of student everywhere. The prove of this is everywhere. Start with August in C’ville for example.

    • Acbar –

      Your comments above are important ones. The issue here is not research versus education. The question is how they are being apportioned and paid for and performed under the current system of many big universities today. And how these issues and many others are destroying education is this country. It is a complex play of many forces at work here, many subjective.

      To better understand and judge all of this complexity and nuance, and to help to put it into the best perspective that is readily available, one needs of course the best base line of understanding and knowledge one can find.

      Fortunately, there is a great deal good of highly informed and balanced literature on these subjects. If you, or any one interested on this blog, have not already read them, for starters, I would highly recommend two books:

      1/ Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Dec. 28, 2010 by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, both professors, one from UVa.

      2/ Higher Education in America, March 22, 2015 by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University.

      These are serious books by serious people who greatly illuminate the topic. They require and deserve close reading.

  12. I’m familiar with Bok’s challenging book. Here is one “take” on the effect of the pending tax bill on the fraud about which you write:

    “Most of the provisions in the House bill that I have mentioned primarily affect undergraduate students, but one other provision primarily hits graduate students. It calls for taxing tuition waivers, which comprise a substantial portion of the financial aid that graduate students receive. Some 145,000 graduate students and about 27,000 undergraduates receive such waivers—the undergraduates typically for serving as resident assistants.

    Though this provision of the tax reform touches a small fraction of the number of students affected by the other provisions, it has aroused disproportionate fury within the world of higher education. That’s because it potentially disrupts the indentured-labor system through which universities cover a substantial portion of their instructional costs. The graduate students who receive tuition remission are typically expected to serve as teaching assistants or in similar roles for which they receive no direct compensation. It is an interesting arrangement, given that the university with one hand sets the rate of tuition, and with the other hand makes the tuition vanish, and the graduate student in gratitude for this generosity works for free.”

    And so forth. I recommend reading the entire essay at:

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