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?

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.

Selingo points out that university administration costs have ballooned over the last two decades, as universities hired non-faculty staff to run the growing list of campus amenities. Given these skyrocketing expenses, administrators felt pressure to cut costs. “As professors started to retire, administrators realized that if they did not hire tenure-track professors, they could have more flexibility with their workforce,” explains Selingo. At the same time, graduate schools were churning out large numbers of Ph.D.s willing to teach single courses for a few thousand dollars, so hiring adjuncts seemed like a simple solution.

Maisto argues that in the midst of these changes administrators lost sight of the university’s mission. “This adjunct crisis did not happen because of some grand, nefarious plot,” she told me. “It has to do with the reactive character of university leadership who got caught up in short-term thinking rather than intentional, long-term strategic planning.” Yet, Maisto and other activists believe that it is not too late to change the system.

For many adjuncts, the first step is to fight for better compensation and benefits. Apart from improving their quality of life, adjuncts believe increased wages will more accurately reflect their value and give them more influence within the university. 

Adjuncts have been increasingly turning to labor unions for guidance on how to deploy collective bargaining strategies to exert force on the administration. Marie Dormuth, an adjunct at The New School, told me that seeking help from the United Auto Workers was crucial to her union’s success in the face of an administration that forcefully fought back. However, since adjuncts are transient members of the campus, it is often hard for them to find one another, let alone organize. Organizations like Adjunct Action, a project of the Service Employees International Union, are developing strategies to help adjuncts organize regionally. “So many adjuncts are traveling from campus to campus, so it makes sense to think of the whole metropolitan area as a place of organizing rather than just one university,” Malini Cadambi, an Adjunct Action campaign director, told me.

As they fight for change, Kezar recommends that unions suggest alternative hiring models rather than pushing for more tenured positions. She believes that there is a middle ground between the tenured and adjunct roles, such as longer-term salaried contracts with benefits—a norm in many other industries. “Many administrators cannot see an alternative that is viable for institutions in financial difficulties, especially in the context of no public support for higher education,” she said. Kezar also advocates for universities to do more to equip non-tenure track faculty to do their jobs better by providing more professional development resources.

Some activists argue that part of the solution involves more government funding for higher education. “We need to re-establish the model of free or very inexpensive public universities,” Scott said. By turning the university back into an institution of public good, she believes it will be possible to focus on teaching and cut unnecessary expenditure. “We can discuss how to create faculty ownership and faculty governance again,” she said. Selingo agrees that public funding is a good idea but asserts that it will come with expectations. “States that give more money are going to demand something in return: It is not just a blank check,” he told me. “They will want to enroll students that represent the state and expect that these universities retain these students, graduate them within four years and give them high quality degrees.” That may not sound so bad, but it does represent a loss of freedom for the universities.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says that tackling the adjunct crisis requires the support of middle administrators.*  Through her work with the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a collective of higher education associations that addresses deteriorating faculty working conditions, Feal and others seek to educate administrators, legislators and boards of trustees about working conditions on campuses. “We need to show them that adjunctification is a problem and not a solution,” Feal told me. “They need to choose not to be complicit in a system that abuses adjuncts.” She also argues that we must educate accreditors about how adjunctification lowers the quality of higher education by making it hard for adjuncts—who can be among the best teachers on campus—to engage with students effectively. If administrators are faced with the possibility of lower rankings because of the proportion of adjuncts on their faculty, Feal believes they will change their hiring practices. “Accreditors could change this game overnight,” Feal said.

* This post originally identified Rosemary Feal as the president of the Modern Language Association. We regret the error.