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Straight Talk: The Adjunctification of American Higher Education

'Adjunct' faculty is an increasingly common feature across USA's university campuses. Dr. Pushkar analyses why this is a concern for academics and students in the US as well as all over the world.
BY Pushkar |   28-09-2015

BGM is currently doing a feature on why the US is the most popular destination for Indian students who wish to study abroad. Among other things, it boasts of some of the world’s best universities—18 of the top 50 according to the 2015 QS world university rankings—and there is also the prospect of staying on to work and live in the country which appeals to many young people.

The objective here, (and in a few other essays in the coming weeks and even after), however, is not to add more good reasons for studying in the US, but to raise select issues, which either get little or no space or time in our media, or attract unwarranted and exaggerated attention. Some of these issues are quite important for both current students in the US as well as those planning to head there. This time, we look at the problem of ‘adjunctification’ and why students should care about it.

‘Adjunctification’ at US universities

It is hard to disagree with the position that teachers and students are the heart and soul of higher education institutions. The rest, whether it is good infrastructure or governance and management, comes later. This is why the growing ‘adjunctification’ of faculty at US universities should be of concern to international students, including those from India.

Over the last three-four decades, there has been a steady decline in the numbers of tenured faculty at US universities and a steady, even sharp, increase in contingent or adjunct faculty, across all disciplines and at both public and private institutions. According to data collected by The Adjunct Project, approximately two-third of the total faculty today consists of adjuncts; in 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track.
 

Who are the adjuncts? 

In the past, the majority of adjunct faculty consisted of graduate students at the ABD (all but dissertation) stage in their PhD programmes. ABDs were happy with adjunct appointments for a semester or two, (and even more), since it provided them an opportunity to practice and improve their teaching skills, as well as draw a modest salary before they applied for tenure-track positions. Adjuncts were also drawn from industry, think tanks and other areas and this practice continues to date.

While ABDs and recent PhDs are still hired as adjuncts, with universities choosing to reduce the numbers of tenured faculty even though they charge higher tuition and other fees every year, departments now maintain a much larger pool of adjunct faculty than what ABDs can supply. More and more of adjunct faculty now include those who obtained their PhDs over five or more years ago and are still looking for that elusive tenure-track position in a higher education sector which has fewer of such positions.
 

Second-class citizens?

There would be nothing exceptionally wrong with adjunctification at American universities if adjunct faculty—whom the anthropologist Sarah Kendzior refers to as “indentured servants”—were paid fair wages and treated with dignity. They are denied both.

Salaries for adjuncts vary across universities and disciplines, but overall, they are poorly paid. Many can barely make ends meet. Nearly one-third or so of part-time faculty is found to be living near or below the poverty line.

The problems of adjunct faculty do not stop there. They have to put up with poor working conditions, (cramped and shared office space is one of the lesser problems), and job insecurity. They are often discriminated against by regular faculty, and treated as second-class, even though many are far-superior teachers than tenured faculty. Their sin is that they have been unable to compete in what is a tight job market in academia and even outside. Of course, they are also blamed for their failures to secure regular positions and many begin to believe it as well.

With every semester a fresh struggle to obtain insecure adjunct positions, and teach as many courses as possible in order to pay the bills, it is hardly surprising that despite their qualifications or merit, adjunct faculty are unable to deliver their best to students.
 

What prospective students should be doing

It is certainly a good idea for prospective students to find out the extent to which their destination universities have succumbed to the ‘adjunctification’ disease. Students should know in advance how many of their courses will be taught by stressed out instructors who are worried about their next meal or health expenses and therefore unable to do their best in the classroom. If more than half of the total number of courses taken by a student is taught by adjunct faculty, it certainly diminishes their educational experiences. It is also not fair on the part of universities to use more adjuncts over tenured faculty when students are asked to pay larger sums each year for tuition.

Ethical considerations should matter as well. Why should anyone study at a university in a First World country which exploits its faculty in such crude ways so as to not only pay them badly but also deny them health coverage? If in case you do not know, health insurance is obnoxiously expensive in the US.

Students should consult websites such as The Adjunct Projector the FACE (Faculty and College Excellence) campaign—an initiative of The American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—and ask hard questions about the status of adjunct faculty before choosing a university.
 

Pushkar(@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa

 
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