The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back

Can a budding labor movement improve the lives of non-tenured faculty—and, in the process, fix higher education?
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Representative Keith Ellison at a demonstration in support of an adjunct-professor union at Macalester College. (Jamie Long)

Mary-Faith Cerasoli has been reduced to “sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps,” The New York Times recently reported. Is she unemployed? No, in fact, she is a college professor— but an adjunct one, meaning she is hired on a short-term contract with no possibility of tenure. 

A spate of research about the contingent academic workforce  indicates that Cerasoli’s circumstances are not exceptional. This month, a report by the American Association of University Professors showed that adjuncts now constitute 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty across all institutional types, from liberal-arts colleges to research universities to community colleges. A study released by the U.S. House of Representatives in January reveals that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line.

Over spring break, Cerasoli publicly protested her working conditions on the steps of New York Department of Education wearing a vest emblazoned with the words “Homeless Prof” on it. Her efforts dovetail with a national labor movement in which thousands of adjuncts are fighting for change within the higher-education system. In the short-term, adjuncts are demanding a living wage, but they are also proposing long-term solutions to structural problems ailing universities. Many argue that the dependence on contingent labor is part of a larger pattern of corporatizing the university, which they believe is harming not just professors and students, but society more broadly.

 “While there are micro-tragedies in the lives of individual adjuncts, there is also a macro, systemic problem unfolding,” said Adrianna Kezar, co-founder of the Delphi Project which examines how the changing faculty affects student success. Her data consistently shows that students who take more classes with adjuncts are more likely to drop out.

Kezar told me that this high attrition rate has nothing to do with the quality of instruction adjuncts provide; it is entirely a function of the compromised working conditions adjuncts face. Tenure-track professors have a wealth of career-development tools at their disposal; in contrast, Kezar says, universities do not give adjuncts the basic resources they need to properly teach their courses, such as sample syllabi or learning objectives. Since most departments hire adjuncts at the last minute, they are often inadequately prepared to enter the classroom. Universities do not provide adjuncts with office space, making it difficult for them to meet with students outside class. To make matters worse, many adjuncts teach at several colleges to make ends meet: Commutingsometimes between great distancesfurther reduces the time they can devote to individual students.

Despite challenging working conditions, many adjuncts continue to meet with students and perform other time-consuming tasks they are not compensated for, such as writing recommendation letters or attending departmental meetings. “Students aren’t getting what they pay for or, if they are, it is because adjuncts themselves are subsidizing their education,” Maria Maisto, president of the adjunct activist group New Faculty Majority, told me. “Adjuncts are donating their time; they are providing it out of pocket.”

The presence of adjuncts also affects the quality of education in subtler ways. The tenure system was originally designed to foster academic freedom by allowing professors to voice unpopular opinions without the fear of being fired: in contrast, adjuncts can have their contracts terminated without a grievance process. Maisto told me that many adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students in class because poor student evaluations could cost them their jobs. “College is no longer creating a critically-thinking citizenry who can participate actively in a democracy,” she said.

Emily Van Duyne, an adjunct professor in New Jersey, told me she finds it uncomfortable to teach her students about issues like the American Civil Rights Movement when she feels unable to change her own unjust working conditions. “It feels very strange asking students to hone their critical thinking skills about an oppressive culture and the ways you can respond effectively, when you are teaching out of a broken system,” she told me.

The adjunct crisis also restricts the research output of American universities. For adjuncts scrambling between multiple short-term, poorly paid teaching jobs, producing scholarship is a luxury they cannot afford. “We have lost an entire generation of scholarship because of this,” Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct activist and documentary filmmaker, told me. “Adjunct contracts not only drive professors into poverty, it makes it next to impossible for them to do the kind of scholarship they have trained an average of ten years to do.” Scott suggests that the loss of academic scholarship has ripple effects throughout society, since fewer scholars are contributing to national discussions on issues like the ethics of business and the value of the humanities. “If you lose these expert voices then who is really left speaking?” she asks. “You get the pundits on either side, but there is not a lot of depth to the conversations being held. There has been a dumbing down of discourse across all platforms.”

How did it come to this? Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, argues that the shift towards contingent labor occurred because university administrators began to focus on enhancing the student experience outside—rather than inside—the classroom. “We moved away from a faculty-centric university to one focused on serving students,” he told me. “To attract students, universities need amenities to keep up in an arms race with other institutions,” he says. Instead of being an institution of public good, the university began to look more and more like a business in which the student was the customer.

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Elizabeth Segran

is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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