Bacon's Rebellion

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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