Sanna Stanley / Rykoff Collection / Imran kadir photography / Getty / Frank Fiedler / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The Death of an Adjunct

Thea Hunter was a promising, brilliant scholar. And then she got trapped in academia’s permanent underclass.

A bald eagle in flight is elegance to behold. The sudden, violent flaps of its wings are broken by sublime extension as it locks onto a breeze and glides. Occasionally, 10 blocks north of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan, you can spot a bald eagle overhead in Fort Tryon Park. There, Thea Hunter could often be counted among the bird’s admirers—typically while walking her dog, Cooper, a black Labrador retriever.

Thea loved the park, a bastion of calm amid the city’s constant hum, and she reveled in the chance encounters she had with eagles there. Often, even in the middle of winter, she would wrestle out her phone to call a friend. Some birds flap, flap, dive, she would explain, while others catch a current and soar. It was remarkable, really, that bald eagles were there at all, as they had once been so close to extinction.

When her friends try to find a way to talk about why she’s not here anymore, they pause, and then they pause again. She, perhaps, would have explained it gracefully. We don’t know how to talk about death, she would have said. It’s a fact of life that we’re tense about. It’s a natural part of the cycle, one that can be hastened by circumstance. And those circumstances, her friends seethe, were the hardships Thea faced as an adjunct professor, as a member of academia’s underclass.

To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.

The position is often inaccurately described as akin to a form of slavery. Thea, a scholar of rights, slavery, and freedom, would have been the first to say that is not the case. It is more like the lowest rung in a caste system, the one that underrepresented minorities tend to call home.

“Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head,” a 2016 report on faculty diversity from the TIAA Institute, a nonprofit research center focused in part on higher education, reads. From 1993 to 2013, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in non-tenure-track part-time faculty positions in higher education grew by 230 percent. By contrast, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in full-time tenure-track positions grew by just 30 percent.

Nearly 80 percent of faculty members were tenured or tenure-track in 1969. Now roughly three-quarters of faculty are nontenured. The jobs that are available—as an adjunct, or a visiting professor—rest on shaky foundations, as those who occupy them try to balance work and life, often without benefits. And Thea wobbled for years.

She was on the tenure track, and then she wasn’t. She had a promising job lead, and then it wasn’t so promising. She was on her way to publishing, and then that fizzled. Meanwhile, her hopes and setbacks were compounded by an underlying reality that many adjuncts face: a lack of health insurance. She was a black woman in academia, and she was flying against a current. Some professors soar; adjuncts flap and dive and flap again—until they can’t flap anymore.

For years, Thea would return from those visits to the park to her apartment just a few blocks away in Washington Heights, at 183rd Street between Wadsworth and St. Nicholas Avenues. The highlight of the unit—with its two bedrooms, a living room, a separate eat-in kitchen, and a hallway that seemingly went on forever—was the office that she had fashioned out of one of the bedrooms, with its massive wooden desk, a lamppost, and bookshelves lining the wall.

Then there were her papers—notes, primary documents—archived in boxes. Most professors store these materials in their office at work, but she was an adjunct and, as an adjunct, she did not have one. Still, she was a historian, one who had earned her doctoral degree at one of the nation’s most illustrious institutions, Columbia University, and this was what she was trained to do.

On July 4, 1956, a storm battered the eastern United States, leaving New York City soaked through. The conditions were terrible for fireworks, but Thea’s parents, Herman and Grace, were otherwise occupied—their daughter was on her way.

Growing up in New York, Thea fell in love with the place. She spent countless hours riding her bike around the parking lot of her family’s home in the Bronx. In the summer, she headed to Buffalo with her brother, Eric, and her grandmother, Emma Wood. She earned undergraduate degrees in biology and art history at Barnard College and Columbia, and a master’s degree in art history at Hunter College.

But Thea had a greater love: she was captivated by history. She decided that there was no better way to explore that passion than by getting a doctorate. Her father was an academic—a mathematician—and so was her brother, so it seemed natural. She was accepted to Columbia’s graduate history program and began her studies in the fall of 1994.

Hunter with colleagues in Glasgow, Scotland in 2001. (Courtesy of Jessica Millward)

Graduate school can be a mix of those who are “completely anxious and neurotic” and those who are “backbiting and mean,” Jim Downs, a professor of history at Connecticut College, told me. But among that mix, he said, “Thea was a breath of fresh air.” The two met during graduate school and quickly became close. Her ease, her laugh, her presence drew him to her—as did her mind. “She had this ability to be extemporaneous and brilliant,” he said.

Eric Foner, a renowned American historian and Thea’s adviser, noticed this too. When she entered Columbia’s doctoral program, historians of the early Americas—covering the 15th through the 19th centuries—had been clamoring for something new. They were calling for the development of something known as the Atlantic perspective of early American history—an understanding of the interconnectedness of demographic, social, economic, and political ideas that shaped the Atlantic world from 1492 to the colonies to the end of the Civil War. Those scholars called; she answered.

Her research documented the history of the idea of freedom, or perhaps better put, the lack thereof. She studied the 1772 case of James Somerset, a black man who escaped slavery for a month and was then forcibly taken from England to the colonies. “It began with the taking of a person against his will on the late November-chilled London streets in 1771; the smell of river and rubbish, coalsmoke and damp filled the air,” she wrote in her dissertation. “He was one more to add to the toll of men, some of whom will be forever unnamed, whose capture would bring them to a steamy, treacherous world where the exigencies of the sugar crop and the lash ruled.”

But Somerset would not be like so many others among that toll; his case went to trial in England, and he won. Slavery was nowhere in England’s laws, nor was it supported by common law, Lord Mansfield, the judge presiding over the case, ruled. The state of slavery “is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law,” he decided. Thea, studying the case, noticed something significant: This same idea echoed throughout the following decades, as enslaved people in the United States argued for their freedom.

Her resulting work was an “original examination” of the Somerset case, Foner says, and how it influenced the American colonies. “She used the case to raise really basic questions about the concept of liberty and how it was affected by the debates of slavery,” he says. With her research, she forced historians to rethink narrow accounts of the evolution of abolitionist thought—the strains that helped make up the final idea that black people should not be enslaved—in the revolutionary era. But she also saw the consequences of the history she studied in the world around her.

Her work provided a new way of thinking about America’s past. And she had an ambition: to use an Atlantic understanding of history, of liberty, of freedom, to better grasp the present. It’s one thing to call for a new perspective on history, Foner says; it’s a completely different thing to be one of the “pioneering young scholars” to develop it.

Pioneering: a coveted designation to have when entering the academic job market, and one of the reasons Thea did not wait long before landing a position at Western Connecticut State University in 2004, soon after completing her dissertation.

The gig was ideal: It was tenure-track, it was in her field—her official title would be assistant professor of history and non-Western culture—and it was close to New York. She was wary of chasing a job outside of the New York area—in the Midwest or in the South—because those places weren’t home, and all of her family, including her mother, still lived in the Northeast. Besides, with her strong academic credentials, she figured, there shouldn’t have been any reason why she couldn’t get a job at any of the schools in the area, which was thick with academic institutions.

But the sheen of the job wore off quickly. Her friends told me that Hunter would wake up around 5 a.m. each day, eat her cereal, and make the hour commute from Washington Heights to Danbury, Connecticut. She would often arrive on campus early, around 7:30, for office hours. She would get settled into her office and sit down. She was a black woman in a largely empty building, and people would come by and inquire about whether she was the janitor. Then she would teach classes. Her students loved her, but their parents would call the school questioning whether she had a doctorate.

Waking up started to get more difficult. She would cry over her breakfast cereal before her commute in, her friends said. She loved her students, and her research, and teaching, but the slights built up until they became too much to handle. She knew that leaving the university and a tenure-track job meant leaving security, or at least a modestly defined path toward it. It also meant losing her health insurance. But she was principled; so, in 2006, she left.

Jim Downs, her friend from graduate school, suggested that she join him at Princeton, where he was working on a three-year teaching appointment. The school had an opening for a professor to replace Colin Palmer, an acclaimed historian of slavery and the colonization of Africa, while he was on medical leave. The position was a perfect fit for Thea, who was hired to teach his classes. She had a “one-one” teaching load—one class in the fall, one class in the spring—and was able to devote her outside time to reading, research, and writing. It was her dream job, but it lasted only a year, until Palmer returned from leave. She began teaching five to seven discussion sections a semester as a teaching assistant, Downs said. The time she had for research grew scarce.

Her life needed steadying, and she needed companionship. It was time: She was going to get a dog. She had always wanted to get one, she told her friends in an email. “I’ve kept thinking I should wait until ‘things settle down,’ but it is clear that they aren’t going to ‘settle down’ to the point that life is uneventful,” she wrote. “So, without further ado, I’m announcing the arrival of Cooper — a black Labrador-Retriever (mix).”

Cooper was roughly eight months old, a rescue fostered in Connecticut. Thea asked her friends for help getting started with Cooper, perhaps a gift certificate to cover some of the costs of basic obedience training or supplies such as food from the Petco on 92nd and Broadway. She did caution, in all caps, however, “AS CUTE AS I THINK CERTAIN CLOTHING CAN BE ON CERTAIN DOGS, I’M NOT A DOG CLOTHING PERSON. SO, PLEASE RESIST THE URGE TO GET COOPER A CUTE TEE-SHIRT.”

By 2009, her contract at Princeton had run out. The recession had set in, and faculty jobs in and around New York City were even harder to find than before. Thea, who did not have time to adapt her dissertation into a book, had not published in a while. On top of that, her résumé began to look scattershot, depicting an odd trajectory that most academic hiring committees wouldn’t recognize: a job on the tenure track to a visiting position to a glorified teaching assistantship to a series of brief adjunct appointments.

She taught at the New School, where she was nominated for a distinguished teaching award. She taught at NYU. She taught art history at Montclair State University. She taught at Manhattan College. She even went to teach at a private high school. As the temporary positions piled up, she was still angling for another tenure-track position, a place where she could thrive. “There are people who go and get these advanced degrees, and they’re not doing it because they want to do it,” Ruth Henderson, a friend of Thea’s who was also an adjunct professor, told me. “Thea had the purest desire for learning and teaching.” So she kept pushing.

Henderson had known Thea for roughly a decade at this point, but the two grew closer after she got Cooper. Thea’s respite was often in the park with Cooper, on the phone talking with friends, including Henderson, about simple, good things. The sun had finally come out and warmed the park. The eagles were flying. Cooper had just gotten some new dog biscuits. But their conversations would turn, and they would talk about the perils of being an adjunct.

Sometimes trouble and pressure and sadness and pain bond together and beat you down before you can shake them. Thea’s apartment began to reflect the tumult in her life. Her mail piled up; so did copies of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, papers, and other magazines she enjoyed reading.

She had a number of ailments that bothered her—her asthma, her heart—and the rigors of being an adjunct added to them. Had she been tenured, she would have experienced a sort of security that tenure is designed to provide: a campus office of her own, health insurance, authority and respect with which to navigate campus bureaucracy, greater financial stability. Without tenure, she was unprotected, at the whim of her body’s failings, working long hours for little pay, teaching large survey classes outside of her area of special expertise. As Terry McGlynn, a biology professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Full professors benefit from the exploitation of non-tenure-track instructors.” Adjuncts often do the work that other professors don’t want.

Thea and Henderson would message back and forth about the toll that work and life had been taking on Thea. “I have been saying I am done, emotionally drained and without reserves. There has just been too much going on in my life that has been drawing upon whatever emotional reserves I have,” she told Henderson in an email. “That plus the constant financial crisis that has been my life for years takes its toll.”

She had been teaching at the City College of New York, where she worked part-time in the black-studies department and part-time in the history department. The course enrollments were too high. She had been providing support to students who were “woefully unprepared” for college, “and I am drained in all sorts of ways because of it,” Thea said in a message to Henderson—and that was just the teaching part. Two deaths occurred back to back. First, Cooper, her companion. Then, a few months later, her mother, Grace.

Thea was changing, her friends said. She began retreating from them. But she was still working, still teaching. She kept more and more to herself, and she especially didn’t say much about her mounting health issues with anyone, friends and family alike.

On December 17, Jim Downs received an anonymous call on his cellphone. He reluctantly answered to hear the voice of a social worker from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital on the other end of the line. Thea had been brought to the hospital by an ambulance a few hours prior, the social worker told him. She was in intensive care.

Over the weekend, she had thought her asthma was acting up. A neighbor of hers said that she had gone through an entire can of albuterol trying to suppress the flare-up. She didn’t have the insurance to go and get regular checkups, so she might not have known that her condition was so severe.

The social worker was trying to find Thea’s next of kin, and Downs responded that he was. The social worker was looking for a blood relative. The two went back and forth, with Downs repeating that he was her next of kin, before the social worker relented: Thea Hunter had died.

An emergency-room doctor later explained to Downs what had happened to her. “She had arrived to the hospital out of breath,” Downs recalled the doctor saying. “Her lungs were full of fluid; her body was full of fluid.” The doctors ran tests and her bloodwork showed that she had multi-organ damage. They tried to help facilitate her breathing, but her heart rate began to increase and her blood pressure fluctuated. The doctors put her on a ventilator, but her heart rate spiked until she went into cardiac arrest. The doctors worked on her for 45 minutes and saw signs that she was trying to breathe, but after a while it became too much work for her body to handle.

Before she passed, Thea wrote Downs’ number on a piece of paper—that’s how the doctors knew to call him. Downs started calling friends, classmates, colleagues, anyone he could remember her talking about over their past nearly two decades of friendship. They needed to find her brother, but they didn’t have contact information for him. They needed to raise funds for her memorial service. But first they needed to pay to get her body from the morgue, which took three weeks.

Thea’s mother’s death just months prior, coupled with Thea’s scattered employment history, had left her in a difficult financial situation. Her friends started a GoFundMe to help cover the costs of the cremation, the memorial, and getting her estate in order. Her memorial service was held in the city she loved and at her academic home: New York City’s Columbia University.

On January 25, the air seemed to whistle in the New York winter outside of Columbia’s Teachers College. Inside Milbank Chapel, an ornate if understated auditorium with wooden walls, Thea’s friends and colleagues gathered to memorialize their friend with the model laugh. But the service was laced with other feelings, too. There was longing for times that friends wished they could do over. There was anger at the failing structures in higher education and America’s health-care system. If Thea had a tenure-track job and access to proper health insurance to be appropriately diagnosed, she might still be alive, they said. And there was a raging desire to understand. As Thea would say, We don’t know how to talk about death.

Thea, right, with the co-editors of the forthcoming edited volume—Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Jim Downs, and Erica Dunbar—in 2017. (Courtesy of Timothy Patrick McCarthy)

In Japan, they do. As Henderson stood at the lectern remembering her friend, she invoked the Japanese idea of karōshi: worked to death. “Thea was exploited by a system that consumes thoughtful, committed academics like our beloved friend, even as it is reluctant to admit it—color compounding the oppression one-hundredfold.” Academia is not an easy road for anyone to take, but especially not for women of color, and especially not for those who have been consigned to the adjunct underclass.

Her friends have memorialized her; now they want to memorialize her work. Thea’s papers are being reviewed by the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, to be included in their collections. She will be a co-author on a forthcoming edited volume from Columbia University Press.

If adjuncts were birds, they would be fighting the drag of the air, exerting bursts of energy again and again and again. Thea’s friends said she admired eagles, delighting in how they soared. But she also admired the scrappy birds that would flap and dive and flap until they just couldn’t flap anymore.