Sarah Kendzior, Aljazeera, April 11, 2013– On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors – an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits.
Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse.
No one forces a scholar to work as an adjunct. So why do some of America’s brightest PhDs – many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice – accept such terrible conditions?
“Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces,” speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled “The Adjunct Mystery“. In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal – even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like “second-class citizens”. (He later downgraded this to “third-class citizens”.)
With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs – and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive. Many job candidates must shell out thousands of dollars for a chance to interview at their discipline’s annual meeting, usually held in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In some fields, candidates must pay to even see the job listings.
Given the need for personal wealth as a means to entry, one would assume that adjuncts would be even more outraged about their plight. After all, their paltry salaries and lack of departmental funding make their job hunt a far greater sacrifice than for those with means. But this is not the case. While efforts at labour organisation are emerging, the adjunct rate continues to soar – from 68 percent in 2008, the year of the economic crash, to 76 percent just five years later.
Contingency has become permanent, a rite of passage to nowhere….
Is academia a cult? That is debatable, but it is certainly a caste system. Outspoken academics like Pannapacker are rare: most tenured faculty have stayed silent about the adjunct crisis. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it,” wrote Upton Sinclair, the American author famous for his essays on labour exploitation. Somewhere in America, a tenured professor may be teaching his work, as a nearby adjunct holds office hours out of her car. On Twitter, I wondered why so many professors who study injustice ignore the plight of their peers. “They don’t consider us their peers,” the adjuncts wrote back. Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – which it is not – and those who have tenured jobs like to think they deserved them. They probably do – but with hundreds of applications per available position, an awful lot of deserving candidates have defaulted to the adjunct track.
Read More: Aljazeera