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.