Migrant Professors


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(Photo credit: Dorothea Lange)

Many years ago I was running with a friend of mine who is also a professor. We were talking about the fact that university faculty in the Florida state system generally have nine month contracts and hence are effectively unemployed in the summer. We also talked about how the adjunct faculty had it far worse: they tend to work on a course by course basis and have no job security beyond the need to have them teach classes. My friend said that this was somewhat like being migrant workers— working part time and moving from job to job without any security and with terrible pay. Naturally, the migrant professors, as my friend called them, have it somewhat better than migrant laborers who pick crops and do other such backbreaking work for pitiful wages. However, the comparison seemed apt.

At my mother’s suggestion I did try my hand once at picking blueberries for extra money. When she was a kid, this was something commonly done by the Maine kids. But this was apparently before the days of cheap migrant labor and, as we found out, things had changed. My sister, her friend and I gave it a shot, but we did not make it through a full day and ended up in the hole because someone stole our rakes and baskets. It was the worst job I ever tried.

Years later, I started my academic career as an adjunct professor. I taught four classes each semester for $2,000 per class and had no benefits or job security. The next year I was hired as a visiting professor and made $30,000 for the year—plus benefits. After three years of that, I was finally hired into a tenure track line. Though I am a tenured full professor, I certainly have not forgotten those adjunct days. It was not as bad as raking blueberries, but it was a lot of work for very little money and it felt a lot like that blueberry day, although it lasted for an academic year.

During this time, it was common for my university to rely heavily on adjuncts. There was, however, an effort made to hire full time faculty and this met with some success. However, there are still many classes taught by adjuncts and other universities rely very heavily on adjunct instructors who are treated as migrant laborers in the academy.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors are poorly paid. Back in 1993 I was paid $2,000 per class, making $16,000 for the eight classes I taught over the school year.  In 2010, the median salary for adjuncts was $2,700 per three credit hour class. The low was $2,235 and the high was $3,400.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors generally have no benefits. While there might be some exceptions, adjunct (or part time, although “part time” might actually mean teaching what would be a full time number of classes) faculty typically do not get health coverage from their employers or other benefits. When I was an adjunct, I was fortunate to be young and healthy, but a major medical problem would have ruined me financially. The same is no doubt true of other adjuncts.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors typically have to travel from workplace to workplace to make their living. One of my colleagues, who has a doctorate and years of experience, typically teaches at my university, Florida State, and Tallahassee Community College. He has to rush between classes to get from school to school. His situation is not uncommon—other adjuncts I know teach at both universities in Tallahassee, the community college and other colleges in town just to make enough to live on. Some even travel about the county from job to job, literally acting as migrant laborers. While regular faculty have offices, phones and computers, adjuncts sometimes do not. They might, for example, be assigned a room for office hours and have to get the department office manager to open the door for them because they are not given a key.

Unlike migrant laborers, the migrant professors are highly educated professionals who are doing jobs that normally pay full time employees reasonably well. To use an analogy, the situation of adjuncts in higher education is comparable to what it would be like if hospitals employed adjunct doctors. The adjuncts doctors would have their medical doctorates, perform surgery, treat patients and so on. That is, they would be just like the regular doctors except that their pay would be a fraction of what the doctors received and they would have little or no benefits or job security.

As might be imagined, this terrible disparity in pay is rather unjust. After all, the adjuncts are being paid far less for doing the same work and they are generally just as qualified as regular faculty. It would, of course, be another matter if adjuncts were far less educated or did work proportional to their pay. However, this is not the case. As such, the treatment of adjuncts is clearly wrong.

Naturally, those employing adjuncts have a good reason to use them: they do professional work at a fraction of the cost of hiring regular faculty and they can be terminated simply by not re-hiring them next semester. It is also not uncommon for universities to hold off providing an adjunct with a contract until two or more weeks into a semester—that way they can be sure that the class with fill and that the money is available. An adjunct without a contract can typically and unfortunately just be let go. I have seen this happen—people working for two weeks, then being told to not come back for week three. This is unfair as it hardly seems unreasonable to be able to tell a person in advance whether or not they will be teaching that semester. Obviously enough, the failure to pay an adjunct for the time worked would be theft, although this does happen.

One irony of the plight of adjuncts is that the students they are teaching will generally increase their earning potential significantly by getting a college degree. In fact, the college graduates will most likely end up making more per year than the adjuncts who taught them.

One rather obvious question is why adjuncts put up with the terrible conditions rather than simply getting a job elsewhere. While in some cases people do admit that they have been unable to get a job elsewhere, the majority of adjuncts I have spoken with (and I have met many over the years) make it clear that they love teaching and that they are willing to live with horrible salaries to do what they love to do.

Naturally, this claim might be doubted. However, this sort of attitude holds all through teaching, from K through the graduate level. After all, people who have the degrees needed to teach could make much more money working in other professions, yet they choose to remain in academics. While they might have some other reasons, it is most often because they believe in what they are doing and like teaching.

Unfortunately, this love is being unfairly exploited and little is being done to address it. In fact, the current trend in public education has been towards cutting budgets and for educators’ unions to be subject to concerted attacks. As such, it seems likely that the situation in higher education will worsen. This suggests that there will be an increase in the number of adjuncts (some universities are 33-55% adjunct faculty). Oddly enough, education costs continue to increase—but you can be sure that this money is not going to paying adjuncts properly.

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  1. Respectfully, it is lazy and disrespectful to credit a photograph to “Wikipedia” rather than to the photographer who created it. The photo that accompanies this essay is the work of the well-known photographer Dorothea Lange, who documented the Great Depression for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.

  2. Mike, Here you have an opportunity to gain deep insights into the reality of economics rather than the assertions of old and unenlightening tropes about “fairness”.

  3. Roger,

    Your accusation of laziness is accurate: I use Zemanta to find and insert images. However, I meant no disrespect to the artist-clicking the image goes to the Wikipedia page for the image which has the background information for the image. Zemanta credits where it finds the image rather than the specific artist, unless that is included in the data it uses to search. So, I am lazy, but at worst only unintentionally disrespectful.

  4. Mike, Here you have an opportunity to gain deep insights into the reality of economics rather than the assertions of old and unenlightening tropes about “fairness”.

    That’s interesting, because (when I am in some moods) this proposal seems backwards to me. Arguably, prudence and morality are to social science what metaphysics is to physics.

    I doubt there’s much to be said in favor of the high-fidelity 20th century cyberpunk style of thinking about economic theory — you know, the sort of stuff that avoids or downplays discussions of economic injustice. To the extent that we avoid and ignore issues in political economy and substantive theories of value, we’re just playing with toy mathematical models.

  5. Allow me to suggest that ‘minor vs. major league baseball’ is a better metaphor for the ‘Adjunct Professor situation”. And some numbers might help frame the problem.

    What is the profit potential of the Adjunct? Try this: say a class of 25 w/ tuition of $1,000 per course and stipend of $3,000 per course. So, a gross profit of $22,000 per course; or $176.000 for eight courses. Is that number in the ballpark?

    Another interesting statistic would be ‘PhDs entering the job market vs. tenure-track new hires year over year’. Perhaps the big leaguers are putting too many minor leaguers into the field; or no?

  6. Thanks for writing about adjuncts, Mike. It’s good to have support from a tenured professor. Are you familiar with the Adjunct Project?

  7. BLS Nelson, My point is not that we should not be guided by a desire for things to get better. It is simply that we should not assume a failure to resort to magical thinking is primitivism. Economics is to human effort what thermodynamics is to measurements of work in Physics. Examining the way the “power” really flows will often reveal economic transactions that are invisible when the world is being viewed through the lens of fairness or even of money.

  8. Josh,

    Having lived the life of an adjunct, I’ll always be a supporter.

    Thanks for the link to the adjunct project.

  9. Boreas,

    Adjuncts would certainly seem to be money makers in that they are paid far less than the value they generate for universities and colleges. Even regular faculty tend to be money makers in terms of the cost per credit hour and what faculty are paid. The profit generated by educators is, however, quickly devoured by administrative costs. At many schools, the administrative side consumes the majority of the budget (the good money is, of course, in the upper administrative positions-although “star positions” for faculty can be sweet deals).

    While there are more job seekers than positions, this seems to be a matter of budget priorities rather than a matter of demand. One tactic employed by schools is to overload classes which allows the handling of large numbers of students with low numbers of faculty. For example, I have 170 students of my own this semester (4 classes). My classes are “supposed” to cap at 35,but that is obviously not the case. If we take 25 per class to be reasonable, I have enough students for almost seven classes, which would allow the hiring of at least one adjunct. At some universities, faculty teach 1 or 2 classes a semester. Interestingly, on top of my 4 classes I am also the unit facilitator (basically a chair), the web master for the department, an academic adviser, and the program review coordinator. I also serve on two permanent committees plus two other committees. Plus I am expected to publish, do community service as well as professional service. All this for $57,000 a year. So I am definitely minor league in pay (the average for full professors in philosophy at 4 year schools is $85,000), but pitching in the majors. 🙂 But, as we employed folks are always told by the job creators, I am lucky to be employed.

  10. Hi Lee, thanks for the clarification. You can see, I hope, why I read your initial remarks another way, which had a different emphasis.

    I’m much inclined to agree that it is difficult to make any sense of claims about fairness and distributive justice without making some remarks about the power-setup. (Though of course I do not believe that those sorts of discussions will necessarily tell us everything we need to know about what is fair and what is not.)

    Still, I’d like to say that there’s nothing wrong in pointing out one’s intuitions about fairness and treat that as a launching point for discussion. Even now — after reading my Marcuse and Rawls and Geuss and Nozick and Marx and all the rest — it isn’t clear to me what a compelling realistic and moral theory of distributive justice will look like. I only have the vaguest outlines. For that reason, I’m grateful whenever I see someone provide even just the venue to talk about it seriously.

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