The University Is a Ticking Time Bomb
Treating nearly 75 percent of the professoriate as disposable is not sustainable
News of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, went viral in 2013. The circumstances of her final months painted a jarring picture of how dire a professor’s living conditions could be. Before Vojtko learned her semester-to-semester contract would not be renewed, she was earning less than $25,000 per year for teaching eight courses, without health insurance or retirement benefits, and living on the edge of homelessness. Just as Duquesne told her to clear out her office, she learned from her doctor that she had six months to live, as the cancer she’d been battling got worse. Shortly after losing her job, she suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital two weeks later, at age 83. “For a proud professional like Margaret Mary,” wrote Vojtko’s lawyer, the termination of her tenuous contract
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News of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, went viral in 2013. The circumstances of her final months painted a jarring picture of how dire a professor’s living conditions could be. Before Vojtko learned her semester-to-semester contract would not be renewed, she was earning less than $25,000 per year for teaching eight courses, without health insurance or retirement benefits, and living on the edge of homelessness. Just as Duquesne told her to clear out her office, she learned from her doctor that she had six months to live, as the cancer she’d been battling got worse. Shortly after losing her job, she suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital two weeks later, at age 83. “For a proud professional like Margaret Mary,” wrote Vojtko’s lawyer, the termination of her tenuous contract “was the last straw.”
Even as obscene tales of adjunct woe lay bare the cruelty of adjunctification, the percentage of contingent faculty members continues to rise. At the time of Vojtko’s death, those working without the possibility of tenure — and in many cases on a course-by-course, semester-to-semester basis, without salary or benefits — made up about two-thirds of all college instructors in America. Today, that figure is closer to three-fourths. Depending on the type of institution, one- to two-thirds of the vast faculty majority working without the prospect of permanent employment can’t count on having a job for more than a year at a time.
Appeals to empathy and outrage gin up so much hot, concentrated concern — witness the outrage after Vojtko’s death, and the more recent death of Thea Hunter, an adjunct professor of history — but inevitably, like the smallest of stars, such concentrated concern ends up dying a quiet death. We need to fundamentally reconceptualize the battle against adjunctification, shifting away from pity or outrage and toward arguments that universities themselves deny at their own peril.
Last year saw a wave of K-12 teacher strikes across the country: in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. And now postsecondary faculty members have joined in, with recent strikes at Virginia Commonwealth University and at Wright State University over a range of issues, including health care, increased reliance on contingent labor, and low pay.
Meanwhile, Ph.D. students are facing an academic labor market in which, as of 2016, postsecondary institutions hired 30,865 contingent faculty members, compared with 21,511 tenure-track professors. Many of our Ph.D. students are exiting the profession, and not just in humanities disciplines. The current arrangement, in which a vast share of the professoriate is working a job that, by definition, has no future, is likely to provoke further strikes and unionization efforts. As the Wright State strike demonstrated, a desperate attempt to replace highly trained faculty members with anyone willing to show up and teach a course will never work. For all the public vitriol directed at professors, comically portrayed as radical, useless, and out of touch, it’s the students — as at Wright State, where they backed the faculty — who get the angriest when their professors are mistreated, because it’s the students who are in the best position to affirm the value of the people teaching them.
A purportedly world-leading American higher-education system that nevertheless relies on faculty members with no claim to stable employment, health insurance, retirement benefits, or even their own office is simply unsustainable. Even a society that doesn’t care about the feelings of adjunct professors, nor about their quality of life or health, should recognize that a system operating as if it has no future is not a good thing. Not for universities, not for the economy, and not for civic life.
When I say institutions of higher education today operate as if they have no future, I mean two things. First, a professoriate that can count on a job for only a year at a time is not well positioned to build, or even to consider, the future of knowledge. What is the future of plant science? What is the future of literary studies? What is the future of pedagogy, of rhetoric, of media, of communication? People with tenure and job security are now working on those things, in many cases in partnership with people outside the university, but if such people cease to exist in a professional capacity, what will become of their fields?
Second, if Ph.D. students are training for but then leaving the profession, and if the humane, short-term solution to adjunctification is to close down or drastically shrink Ph.D. programs, then universities are effectively admitting that there is no future for those fields.
This is what I mean when I say that the current scenario is unsustainable. I don’t mean that it’s morally or emotionally unsustainable — though it’s those too — but that it’s a recipe for the implosion of the university itself. If the professoriate is the past, and something else is the future, then the obvious question for anyone running a university right now should be: Are you content to usher in your own obsolescence?
This is not a rhetorical question. Studies have shown that the cost reductions associated with reliance on contingent faculty members do not translate to greater savings or tuition decreases, but that instead more money is spent elsewhere: on recruitment, admissions, athletics, nonacademic student programming, and so on. In other words, the hollowing out of the professoriate is not a viable strategy for making the university cheaper, better, or more nimble; it’s devastating the core functions of the university itself.
What’s the way forward? Treating nearly 75 percent of the professoriate as disposable, ancillary to the mission of higher education, has become the norm. Our objective should be to push this corrosive norm back outside the bounds of acceptability, and to introduce new norms at every opportunity.
Faculty members at Wright State have shown that one path is to organize and strike. I expect to see more such strikes in the near future, as tenure-track hiring continues to decline. But a strike needs a strategy, including a set of justifications and proposals. The way to achieve a shared sense of what must be done and why is not simply to antagonize our administrations, to complain about cruelty, or to rail against the tenure system. It will take, on the one hand, unionization across all ranks of faculty members, and on the other a vigorous campaign to make clear that adjunctification weakens every institution that relies on it — that it is the accelerant in the self-immolation of the university. Not because contingent faculty members themselves are weak, but because the conditions under which they work — and I’ve been there myself — prevent them from building the future of knowledge.
Without committing to a professoriate with a future, tenured faculty members and administrators are guaranteeing the obsolescence of their own institutions and the eventual erasure of their own careers and legacies. A professor who’s forced to leave after one semester or one year can’t be there to write recommendation letters, advise students on the job market, or just listen to what students have on their minds. Every student and parent needs to know this.
In addition to striking, faculty members should audit course offerings and enrollments, and recalculate average course sizes and student-to-faculty ratios based on full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members. Influential rankings, like U.S. News & World Report, are frequently based on flattened faculty-labor categories. For highly selective institutions, those metrics matter; and for more open institutions, faculty attention and stability offer a competitive edge in student recruitment.
A more realistic calculation of student-to-faculty ratio — that is, student-to-permanent-faculty ratio — can also allow for more honest comparisons with peer institutions. In short, we need to make faculty stability a visible and influential metric that signals a higher-quality education. This will require exposing all the ways colleges juke the stats to make it seem as if your contingent writing instructor who’s teaching six courses per semester at three different colleges is the same kind of resource as your tenured English professor teaching two or three courses with a stable office and a research budget.
Finally, we need to determine how many routinely offered courses are taught by contingent faculty members. If your department regularly demonstrates a need for first-year writing or social-science statistics over a 10-year period, but that need isn’t staffed by a permanent faculty position, there’s a clear mismatch between stated institutional mission and provisions for achieving that mission. These kinds of findings can be publicized to (if not through) admissions offices, in public writing aimed at prospective students and their parents, in departmental and institutional audits and external reviews, and in every single meeting at your institution for which the problem of adjunctification is applicable.
We need to call a lie a lie. The point of pushing this kind of corrective information at every turn is not to antagonize tenured faculty members and administrators, but to help them — and the wider public — see with clarity the extent to which we are all, together, marching toward the cliff’s edge.