The Adjunct Crisis and the Free Market

Margaret Mary Vojtko, a veteran instructor of French at Duquesne University, died broke and humiliated on her front lawn this month. Last week her friend Daniel Kovalik memorialized her in a wrenching op-ed essay, and for the first time Americans outside academe began to notice, en masse, adjunct faculty in the United States, who now make up a majority of college instructors.

Margaret Mary’s story put a face on labor practices that should be the collective shame of  American academe. They should, but instead colleges are allowed to hire adjuncts at $3,500, $1,500, even $700 a course. The plight of adjuncts receives little sympathy outside the campus.

Her harrowing tale—of prepping at an Eat’n Park and sleeping in her office, and now of being buried in a cardboard casket—did receive an outpouring of grief, as well as disgust at the Roman Catholic institution that paid her $24,000 a year at  best. In equal parts, though, Margaret Mary’s story has received the vitriolic, smug, free-market rejoinders endemic to any critique of the academic labor market (or any labor market): Nobody forced her to work there. If she had a skill anyone cared about, she would have made enough money to keep her furnace on.

If we don’t like it, then just like those lazy, entitled Wal-Mart greeters, we should go find another job.

It is this attitude that allows Duquesne’s provost, Timothy Austin, to snipe to NPR, in utter seriousness, that his institution pays adjuncts a pittance not to save money, but because it can. And Austin’s opinion is the prevailing one: Ask your mom’s best friend if college professors are over- or underpaid. Ask your pharmacist if tenure should exist. Ask any of your students how many hours a week they think you work. As William Pannapacker has put it, the problem, to the general public, isn’t that a majority of college instructors in the United States make poverty-level wages; it’s that the rest don’t.

If we want to honor Margaret Mary’s legacy, we simply won’t get anywhere arguing that professors, like all humans, are entitled to a living wage.

Instead, any appeal to end the large-scale exploitation of academic labor is going to have to bow appropriately to the free market. We must provide tangible, capitalism-friendly reasons that college “consumers” are getting a very raw deal. The first step: not to bang our heads against the wall when referring to our students as “consumers.” The second: to examine the adjunct crisis from the perspective of the two industries in which the vast majority of today’s college graduates will find employment, if they ever do: service and retail. If that seems cynical, keep in mind that people who think language and literature professors are useless often have a hard time detecting cynicism.

So hear me out: College is almost 500 percent more expensive than it was in the 1980s. It is perhaps the most expensive single purchase this generation of students will ever make, as home ownership now seems to be the provenance of wealthy developers from overseas. So it is not a stretch to say that it is a luxury commodity, albeit one that even the president insists is all but required for entree into the middle class. But what kind of luxury commodity is it?

If we consider a college degree a high-end product, then there is no chance that adjunct pay will ever improve. Look at the consumer goods over which we now fawn: see-through yoga pants from Lululemon cost about $100, but they’re manufactured in Asian sweatshops. If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that Americans care little that a high-end product says “Made in China” on one side of the label, so long as it says “Marc Jacobs” on the other. So as long as college is viewed as a brand-name product, its workers’ wages will only get lower as  management wages soar. And as long as that diploma continues to confer what little status it still does, nobody will care.

What we need is to show that higher education is not a high-end product, but a high-end service. Or, rather, it should be, for the outrageous prices that students pay. The vast majority of colleges, even non-“prestige” universities, should be viewed as such, simply because of how mind-bogglingly expensive they are to attend.

Not that I would ever experience this—I’m an adjunct—but judging from the menu prices, diners will usually wind up tipping their server at Per Se over $100 (tips are included in the check). Customers shell out that kind of money because they are getting a premium service. Again, not that I have personal experience (I get my hair done at a cosmetology school), but a stylist at a luxury salon like Bumble and Bumble takes in  50 to 70 percent of the price of a $250 haircut.

Servers at Denny’s, meanwhile, make $4 tips, and barbers at Great Clips probably make jack squat. We are all right with this because our meal at Denny’s doesn’t cost $750, and our haircut at Great Clips is less than $10. But in today’s college model, even Denny’s-level colleges charge Per Se-level tuition. Consumers pay a ton; ergo, they deserve premium service—which includes, say, an office in which to meet with their professor instead of a 1998 Subaru, and a professor who is rested and showered because her home has heat and hot water.

If, instead of viewing a diploma like a $500 purse (one we don’t care was made by Vietnamese 4-year-olds), we view the college experience as, say, CrossFit or a Brazilian bikini wax, but for the mind, then tuition payers might actually start getting up in arms that so little of their tuition goes to instruction.

Between the ascendance of the MOOC and the continuing free pass that administrations get to pay adjuncts as little as possible, American higher education is hurtling toward the sweatshop model largely unabated. But if we can appeal to the gymgoers, the spa patrons, and the $100 haircut-getters, and show them that college instruction deserves to be a similar luxury service considering its insane price, then perhaps we can begin to earn something resembling a living wage.

Perhaps this desperate plea to our capitalist overlords will allow us to do right by Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Rebecca Schuman, who holds a Ph.D. in German from the University of California at Irvine, is a adjunct instructor of world literature at the Pierre Laclede Honors College of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She blogs at and tweets at @pankisseskafka.


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