Adjunctivitis Crisis: Higher Education’s Indentured Servitude

We’ve all been there – the 1000-level classes seating at least 30 people, if not closer to a hundred, studying the basic introduction to some subject we may not even need for our major. For some, it’s classes like Algebra, or Writing 1010. For me, it’s zoology. Two hundred underclassmen in one room? The noise of everyone turning a page sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Terrifying!

But, what’s really terrifying are the people teaching our introductory level courses, and how they get to live their lives. The teachers of these classes are representing a special breed of academia — the adjunct faculty.

Adjunct Faculty are professors who have completed master’s and doctorate level coursework in their field and are typically teaching introductory classes while working on a dissertation for their doctorate. That’s what you would think, and, according to many full and tenured professors, “that’s the way it should be.” Not so anymore.

Most adjuncts are people who have obtained a terminal degree in their field and simply cannot find better work. Some are hired, Ph.D. in hand, with the promise of advancement to full-time instructorship, eventually full professorship. Some, like Dusquene instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko, taught at their institutions for decades on semester-to-semester contracts before being “let go.” Vojtko died in September 2013, with no pension, no health insurance, and no home.  

Over the winter break, I sat down with two adjunct faculty members from Tech (who asked to remain nameless in fear of reprisals), as well as Dr. Troy Smith, the president of Tech’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The situation, as they describe it, is dire.

One adjunct formerly taught as a visiting professor at a private university in another state. While there, she taught three classes, a total of nine credit hours, and was compensated with a salary of $50,000 per year, plus benefits.

Then, she showed me her TTU paycheck for the year. In accordance with Tennessee Board of Regents policy, she receives $802 per credit hour: $700 in salary, $102 for a travel stipend. If you’re good at math or have your calculator handy, that means she earns $14,400 annually from Tech for the same three classes. She holds a terminal degree in her field, but subsists below the poverty line and must live with her parents.

The second adjunct taught 12 hours last semester between two school systems. She made a total of $7,500. The bulk of her income and attention has shifted from teaching to being a paralegal. Being part-time instructors, neither of them qualifies for health insurance at their primary employers.  

This isn’t just a problem at Tennessee Tech. According to NPR, adjuncts and other temporary faculty make up 75 percent of college instructors NATIONWIDE. The national average for their annual compensation flexes between $20,000 and $25,000.

For comparison, the average full-time, tenured professor teaching undergraduates makes $93,000 a year, according to AAUP. The average university administrator’s salary registers upwards of $150,000. Our own president, Phil Oldham earns more than $275,000 a year, according to the TBR database.    

As a consumer society, we have created a caste of highly educated indentured servants. Their pittance of a salary traps them in academia’s dirty work, unable to seek other worthwhile employment. Adjunct #1 commented to me that she could only afford the gas to and from Cookeville twice a week. That severely limits her ability to work with and guide her students. According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, distance from professors and lack of attention is a leading cause of dropouts.

If we really want to improve retention rates at Tennessee Tech, in the state of Tennessee, and nationwide, we should move our attention, and our money, from frivolous attractions like fancy new fitness centers and classes to “discover the successful you.” Put it into the teachers who teach freshmen, who make them understand firsthand the methods to academic success, and who first challenge them in a university setting. Restructure the money to reflect what’s really important here – a good education.

Recently, Tom Ashbrook’s radio program “On Point” discussed the fact that universities have enough money to pay the exorbitant salaries of university presidents and invisible administrators with degrees in “academic management” or some similarly vague subject.  They make more money and are typically less educated than the professors who taught you about 19th century German philosophy or the laws of thermodynamics. What has a faceless administrator taught you lately? I hope it was more than cynicism.