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Adjuncts’ Livelihood: Let’s Make It a Political Issue

Last week there was a small piece of hopeful news: a key Congressional panel’s report calling attention to the destructive effects of poor working conditions on an increasingly adjunctified faculty base in higher education.

The report was the result of sustained advocacy by Maria C. Maisto, a former adjunct professor of English from Ohio, and her organization, New Faculty Majority. Since its founding, in 2009, the group has shone a spotlight on the changing demographics of the professoriate. More than two-thirds of college faculty members today, it notes, are contingent—meaning not on the tenure track—and of those, most are part-timers who earn substantially less per course than their full-time counterparts do. What’s more, adjuncts are hired on a per-semester basis and do not enjoy basic benefits like health care.

Maisto’s group has been able to bring the struggles of contingent faculty members to the attention of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce by emphasizing the threat to the quality of education nationwide. Rep. George Miller, a Democrat of California, who is the panel’s ranking member, invited Maisto to testify in November about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on education. After listening to her description of the increasingly precarious working conditions for adjuncts, Miller was moved to set up an online forum where adjuncts could share their experiences with the committee.

One respondent described life below the poverty line: “My university pays [$]2100 per class which means even if I work at 100%, 10 classes per academic year, I would only make [$]21,000.” Another respondent articulated the consequences of professors’ low wages for students: “When you pay an adjunct only for the contact hours they spend in the classroom, it doesn’t give adjuncts a lot of motivation to spend extra time outside of class working on projects for students or scheduling extra time to help those who come to class unprepared to study or write at college level.”

Those stories and others helped convince Miller that increasing adjunctification should be “a concern to policy makers both because of what it means for the living standards and the work lives of those individuals [who] we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”

Maistro’s work is inspiring because it highlights the political dimension of the challenges facing today’s universities. While some pundits would like us to believe that the privatization of higher education is as inevitable as natural disasters (remember “An Avalanche is Coming”?), the slashing of federal and state funding has hardly been an act of God.

Public funding of education was cut back not only in response to the economic recession but also by misguided policy choices on the state level, which emphasized spending cuts to the exclusion of raising revenue. States spent, on average, 28 percent less per student in 2013 than they did before the recession hit, in 2008, resulting in increased tuition and decreased quality. While the cost of college is spiraling out of control, teacher pay is not to blame: In addition to the shift toward predominantly part-time faculty, the average salary for full-time professors, when adjusted for inflation, actually decreased from 2000 to 2012.

This just doesn’t make sense. While there are innumerable social and cultural reasons to direct public funds towards education, such investment also makes sense in financial terms. According to The New York Times, citing the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, governments at all levels spend $9,200 per college student a year, yet “make a profit of $231,000 on each American who graduates from college—mostly through higher income taxes and lower unemployment payments.”

Let’s take a cue from Maisto and acknowledge that the fate of #FutureEd is a political question. If universities and state legislatures insist on undervaluing teaching, let’s start convincing policy makers and the public that institutions that rely on unfairly paid contingent faculty members are overvalued.

Let’s support campaigns to inform parents about how adjuncts’ labor conditions hurt education and tell them to ask, during college visits, about whether their children will be taught by adjuncts or full-time professors. Let’s demand that the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” lists accentuate reliance on part-time faculty. Let’s join or support one of the many adjunct unions that are gaining strength around the country.

And call your representatives. Let them know that you exist—and vote. This is particularly important because Representative Miller recently announced his retirement from office at the end of this term, making it crucial to cultivate more relationships with other lawmakers. As Maisto says: “We should never forget that as constituents and citizens, we have a right and even responsibility to communicate with lawmakers—and they have a responsibility to listen!”

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