By Robert Weissberg
Some two-thirds of America's college students are taught by adjuncts, and now the battle is on over whether these low-paid, low-status workers should be unionized. Adjuncts, also called contingent faculty, are teachers hired without tenure, paid a small fraction of those on tenure-track positions, (typically $2700 per course, with minimal benefits). All three college faculty unions--the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association--have recently ramped up unionization campaigns while non-academic unions like the United Auto Workers have likewise entered the battle. The stakes are high both for institutions and for individuals.
One does not have to be a Marxist to yell, "Exploitation!" Endless tales of "Gypsy Scholars" abound--young men and women struggling with no job security to teach as many as six courses per semester, occasionally at multiple schools, lacking any health or pension plan at a salary comparable to working at McDonalds. Meanwhile tenure-track colleagues, some of whom may be brain dead, enjoy a princely wage (with generous benefits) for teaching identical courses. So, what better way to eliminate this blatant unfairness than unionization?
A vision of exploited academic proletarians aside, however, unionization is a bad idea. And I say this as one who is currently an adjunct earning a tiny fraction of my salary when I retired as a tenured full professor. Paying adjuncts tenure-track wages, including benefits will surely make thousands happy, but this new generosity will not improve higher education.
Some simple facts. Adjuncts and those on tenure-track positions, unlike industrial workers, are generally not interchangeable. Especially at top schools, tenure-track faculty are closely scrutinized when hired and considered for tenure (and often even beyond tenure). Those hired have usually competed against hundreds of applicants. Adjuncts by comparison are typically hired with minimal scrutiny and often lack a Ph.D. The academic difference is well-known to those who make these decisions but they consider it too awkward to express publicly. Treating current adjuncts as academically equivalent to regular faculty is in essence just a back door route to becoming a full-fledged professor for thousands of aspiring academics who cannot survive the normal grueling recruitment process.
Are They Getting What They Deserve?
Second, nobody is coerced into poverty by becoming an adjunct. For some it's a welcome opportunity, not exploitation. I would include retired faculty who (like myself) still enjoy occasional teaching and regular access to university life. Also include professionals (especially lawyers and business people) who desire the prestige awarded by a university affiliation. In both instances, pay and benefits are largely irrelevant. Further, add those who cannot satisfy the Ph.D. requirement (ABD's--All But Dissertations) but still wanting stimulating part-time work with flexible hours and impecunious graduate students still completing degrees. And don't forget those who prefer life-long adjunct status in New York City versus a tenure-track position in rural Iowa.
Back to the allegedly exploited proletarian academics. Let's be blunt: I strongly suspect that the vast majority who willingly accept this supposedly rotten deal are getting what they deserve given their choice of specialization, academic records, credentials, work habits, stamina and other professionally relevant criteria. They have made their own bed, albeit an uncomfortable one. My advice to these under-paid malcontents is to change vocations or re-energize one's stalled career, not seek equality via unionization. Imagine if violinists in a second tier symphony orchestra demanded near pay equal to that of a world-famous virtuoso since they were 85% as good and most concert listeners could hardly tell the difference? Yes, universities irresponsibly produce this surplus labor, but nobody is drafted into a Ph.D. program and it's been my experience that by their second or third year most graduate students accurately know their fate in the professional hierarchy. If they do not like the prospect of being a starving adjunct, they should get out early. It is bizarre to insist that today's struggling adjunct suddenly discovered his or her plight only after completing the Ph.D. and going a few years without an offer of a tenure-track position.
But, for the sake of argument, imagine that a university acceded to the demands of gigantic pay boosts and full benefits (this would be even larger if, as some argue, teaching and research assistants, graders and post-doctoral fellows were included with adjuncts). What now? Obviously these pay increases have to come from someplace, and I doubt that administrative bloat--the best place to cut--will be touched. Nor will salaries of regular faculty be trimmed since cutbacks here guarantee a loss of academic prestige. And forget about shutting money-losing athletic programs, let alone phasing out all the university's commitment to multiculturalism, diversity and the like. This non-academic budgetary fat is sacrosanct.
Where Will The Extra Money Come From?
My own guess is that the necessary funding will come from yet one more increase in tuition or, for public universities, yet more taxpayer money. Less visible, but ultimately more relevant to the university's intellectual mission, will be barely noticed cutbacks in research infrastructure--fewer journal (including electronic subscriptions) and costly book acquisitions, fewer specialized librarians, downsized technical support services, less seed money for research, a smaller number of grants for travel among many other cuts in services and amenities absolutely essential to first-rate scholarship. In a word, the university's research mission will be cannibalized ("eating the seed corn," as the old expression goes) to fund academics with shaky qualifications who made unwise career choices.
From the larger ideological perspective, upgrading lowly paid adjuncts is just part of today's broader egalitarian project. Those unable to gain employment via the usual merit standards or having made ill-advised career choices or just lack the wherewithal to complete the degree or conduct serious research will now achieve their aims via collective action and perhaps even threats of disruption. How au courant. In principle indistinguishable from those unable to get past 8th grade becoming "high school graduates" thanks to political pressure to lower standards.
In fact, a little thought will show the closeness of the campaign to upgrade adjuncts and the egalitarian political agenda. It is an open secret, especially in many urban areas, that pushing unqualified minority students into college is a boon for an army of adjuncts who will teach all the remedial and watered-down introductory courses. Yet again, achieving "social justice" means more middle class jobs, in this case would-be university professors.
Can all these underpaid, often overworked, exploited adjuncts be rescued from near poverty without pushing universities into bankruptcy? The solution is obvious--thin out the herd. The economics of supply and demand are far superior to costly politically driven union organizing efforts. Today's exploited adjuncts only need explain to the next generation of adjuncts what awaits them if they cannot gain regular tenure track employment. And with the once endless supply of warm bodies willing to teach English 101 for a pittance gone, salaries will rise and everyone will be happy.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.