Adjunct professors are the lumpenproletariat of the academic world, a subordinate class of faculty that gets paid less and enjoys less job security than full-time instructors and tenure-track faculty. Their plight is so bad that they are beginning to organize unions at colleges and universities around the country.
Some adjunct faculty have full-time jobs and teach on the side. They teach because they want to, and no one feels sorry for them. But others try to make a living by stringing together up to five courses per semester paying on average about $3,000 each, the equivalent of minimum wage after factoring in time for class preparation, office hours, and grading.
“Adjuncts function as a financial pressure-relief valve for universities, allowing tuition dollars to flow to other priorities — administration, recruiting, athletics, student clubs and services — while keeping down the student-faculty ratio, heavily weighted in college rankings,” writes Paul H. Tice, an investment manager and adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in the Wall Street Journal.
Tice offers three suggestions for putting adjunct faculty on more equal terms with tenured faculty, who spend a small fraction of their time teaching and more of their time conducting research (some of which, in my observation, constitutes what most people think of as real research and some of which consists of churning out articles for obscure academic publications that nobody reads).
First, teacher compensation should be decoupled from tenure-related titles and status considerations — as in the typical investment bank, where vice presidents often get paid more than managing directors.
Second, all university instructors, tenured or not, should be forced to compete for students and curriculum airtime, then paid equally on a subscriber model based on student demand.
Third, 40% to 50% of every tuition dollar should be paid out in the form of teacher wages and benefits — the current figure is roughly 30% — with larger classes paying more given the incremental work involved.
I don’t know if I agree with these proposals, but I think they are a good place to start the conversation.
If the politics of higher-ed in Virginia in the 2018 session follows the playbook of the 2017 session, disgruntled lawmakers will proffer an array of bills that cap tuition increases, limit out-of-state enrollment or impose other heavy-handed measures that interfere with the ability of Virginia’s decentralized colleges and universities to govern themselves. Unfortunately, such across-the-board proposals to improve middle-class access to Virginia institutions — a laudable goal — fail to address the underlying problem of low productivity and runaway costs. At least Tice’s agenda addresses the cost issue head-on.
Tice provides a remarkable statistic — that only 30% of every tuition dollar goes to teacher wages and benefits. I don’t know where he gets it, and I don’t know if it applies to Virginia colleges and universities, but it is extraordinary if it is true. That shamefully low percentage suggests that higher-ed institutions are run for the benefit of administrative staff and tenured faculty, not the students.
Here are productivity data that should be reported to the Board of Trustees of every Virginia institution and made available to students, parents, lawmakers and the general public:
- What is the ratio of faculty to administrative staff?
- Within the faculty, what is the ratio of adjunct faculty, non-tenured instructors, graduate students, and tenure-track faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors)?
- How many classes per semester does each faculty category teach on average? How many students per semester does each faculty category teach on average?
Low teaching loads may be judged acceptable for professors who conduct research funded by outside organizations — typically by faculty in engineering, medicine and the hard sciences. Low teaching loads are less forgivable for professors in the social sciences and humanities whose salaries are funded entirely through tuition payments.
If legislators want to see lower costs and tuition at Virginia institutions, they should drop the blunt instruments of caps and mandates issued from Richmond. Instead, they should demand greater transparency. In particular, they should insist that colleges report, and boards discuss, the productivity of their administrative staff and faculty. If the data is made available, we should trust boards to do the right thing. Only if the boards consistently fail to act should politicians presume to impose arbitrary mandates.There are currently no comments highlighted.