Part-time penury


Between 1981 and 1984, I worked as a part time instructor at a community college in northern California.  Like most part-timers, I dreamed of the tenure track.  I was lucky.  At one point during a faculty meeting, I looked at all the other hopefuls, did the math, and realized I was on, if not a sinking ship, one that was dead in the water.  I started building a lifeboat and made my escape.

According to a recent NPR story, a million part-time, or adjunct professors, have not been so fortunate.  That’s 75% percent of U.S. college teachers who are stuck in part time positions; like workers at McDonalds, many rely on food stamps to get by.  Current pay for adjuncts is $2,000 – $3,000 a class with no benefits of any kind.  “Freeway fliers” is what we called ourselves when I was in the ranks, zipping between nearby schools to pick up any available classes.

One adjunct interviewed in a parallel story on the PBS Newshour teaches six English classes at three Ohio universities.  With a family to support, he couldn’t afford to stay home when he had pneumonia last fall.

At the time, I assumed the dismal prospects were my fault; I only had an M.A. and taught at a small town, two year school.  The articles make clear that although the trend began at two year schools in the 1970’s, it soon spread to all types of colleges and universities.

Peter Brown, professor emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz says the average salary of adjuncts there is $12,000 a year – less than the custodial staff.  “Between 1970 and 2008, the adjunct pay has gone down 49 percent,” says Brown.  “The salary of college presidents has gone up 35 percent.” 

In the 80’s we talked of organizing, and finally, three decades later, some colleges are granting part timers collective bargaining rights.  Twenty-two percent of adjuncts now belong to a union.  The death last fall of an 83 year old Duquesne University adjunct, who had taught for 20 years with good reviews, only to die impoverished, served as a wake-up call, as did a January congressional report that found adjuncts are treated like “cheap labor.”

In general, we get what we pay for, and as college students go ever deeper into debt, it’s worth asking what their education dollars are buying.  Well-to-do college administrations.  Top notch football teams.  A lot of professors too sick or stressed or busy commuting to hold decent office hours.  Ever fewer real-world prospects.  And…?

If we don’t want to end up singing “Glory Days” when we think of the long-gone time when American education was the best in the world, something will have to change.

22 thoughts on “Part-time penury

  1. Depressing to know how little true education is valued where you are. There are signs that the same is happening in the UK education system too. As you say, something will have to change for the better or we’re all going to end up that proverbial creek without a paddle.


    • A few years back, there was a lot of hand wringing here about China surpassing us on the economic front. There’s nothing mysterious about it. I remember a film put out by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pointing to the need to fix much of our secondary education system. An interviewer asked a Chinese high school student to name the first five US presidents and she did so easily. They asked a US high school senior to name the first US president and he got it wrong (“Umm – Abraham Lincoln?”).

      The 21st century is no time to get sloppy about education, but I lately I guess the hand wringers have been to busy fussing about Obamacare. Besides, the banks are fine with our current level of student loan debt…


  2. Hi Morgan- I had a slightly different, but no less discouraging experience. Got an MFA in 1988, (took me a while to get through school!) then set off to paint and teach. In my case, this meant chasing the tenure track and moving every year for almost 5 years. Hard on a spouse’s career, and any kids older than preschool. When I landed in CO, with a 1 year, and then tenure track position I started to see the seamy side of academia, and when I could’ve gone up for tenure was so sick of the pettiness and lack of professionalism- I opted to leave. Ironically, after a few years had passed, I went back to just be an instructor a few times and liked the total lack of accountability and no meetings! Just the teaching. Unfortunately, it only works for supplemental income.


    • Hi Nancy. Your story reminds me of the experience of my sister in law, who has worked in HR in Los Angeles for several decades. She has worked for all kinds of companies but said that by far the most unpleasant and hostile environment was that of a private college.

      Here’s a footnote to the account I posted. This was in the art department too. One of my part time friends got a tenured position. He was a retired Marine Corp. officer who was not only a good sculptor, but had a tenacious and disciplined approach to everything he did. His military pension helped him wait things out too. A dozen years later, as I was passing through the area, I stopped by to visit his studio on the campus and found him worn out and tired from the dynamics you account suggests.

      That was an eye-opener for me, a huge “be careful what you wish for” lesson!


  3. I was part-time faculty, too, when my kids were little. It was a great job for me because I wanted part-time work. But for all those PhD’s out there hoping to get a tenure-track gig, it’s a terrible situation.

    First, as you point out, where is all that tuition money going as student costs rise and more classes are taught by part-timers? It’s not being spent on educating people, that’s for sure.

    Second, the lecturing and grading I did as a part-timer I could just as easily have done on my own in a rented room (a much nicer room than the overcrowded, windowless cellar I was assigned to on campus). I could have charged students a fraction of what they were paying per class, and earned multiple times as much money all the while. Another argument for “unbundling” the functions of a university?

    (Those massive, open online courses aren’t dead yet. The model is still evolving.)


    • It’s hard to know much beyond the fact that our current situation is unsustainable. Your comments brought to mind a paragraph from my review last summer of George Packer’s, The Unwinding, one of the most important books published last year.

      Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal and helped bankroll Facebook as a startup…put it like this: “…the deep secret is there’s nobody at the steering wheel at all…People pretend to be in control, but the deep secret is there is no one.” Thiel now looks for unusual entrepreneurial projects to fund. Claiming that education is “the latest U.S. economic bubble,” he compares university administrators to sub-prime mortgage lenders. In response, he began awarding Thiel Fellowships, two year grants of $100,000 each, to 20 people a year under the age of 20, willing to leave school to work on projects that “could make the world a better place.”

      I don’t think this example necessarily represents any final solution, but it does suggest that we cannot expect meaningful change from our current fox/henhouse structure.


  4. Chilling comments – and necessary wake-up calls. US Education as the a sub-prime bubble. And as always with bubbles that burst their splash goes everywhere.
    And there was me toying with getting into mining this seam as well!


  5. yes my friend, education and health care (especially mental health care), can you think of two lower priorities for our national policy makers?!


    • I agree, mental health care is at the bottom of our society’s priority list. The sad irony is education is quite a high priority, both in what we say and what we do. Look how much money is spent on university tuition. What value are we getting for our dollars?


    • Infrastructure, like roads and bridges come right to mind. How about our internet and credit card technologies which lag even some developing nations? To say nothing of climate change, which no one in power publicly challenges anymore but all in power seem to ignore. I could go on…


  6. Such an interesting discussion. One of my good writing friends just got a tenure-track full-time position at a junior college. I was so happy for her. Now, maybe not so much. Much to digest here.


    • Rosi- so much can depend on the population in the department- how evolved they are, what systems are in place for evaluating junior faculty, how much real mentoring goes on. If she has a good support system, and a strong stomach it could be a good thing. All the best to her.


  7. The academic field is one that I briefly considered and then ran from and ran fast and far away. well, not really far away. I started my own research foundation and do things my way. but without the big bucks, one doesn’t get readily published. Did you hear of how some states are getting rid of the tenure system? There are pluses and minuses to that, I suppose. I wonder how technology will play into all this in the near future


    • I’m for that. No more tenure, AND a percentage of the vote to renew should come from students in the classes of any academic. They know what they are getting or not getting. Half the time, the other “senior” faculty are clueless and outdated…. ie: 30 years into being tenured


      • so true! I know of a tenured professor that all she cared about was herself. she got her grad students (i.e.minions) to do all her research and then would cheat them out of authorship. Totally demoralizing and she was not moving from there. And don’t get me started on the “tenure clock” 🙂


    • This week’s Time magazine just came in the mail and one of the key stories involves a seemingly innovative high school approach that takes six years but allows students to graduate with an A.S. degree. It’s a rethinking of the older HS “vocational track,” and I think in our time it makes a lot of sense.

      I think any attempt to predict the specifics of future technological impacts will prove as silly as those Buck Rogers type shorts on “the future” they used to show in movie theaters. The one thing I think we can count on will be the need to re-invent ourselves as individuals and institutions, ever more often as this century progresses.


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