College trend: Cut-rate faculty

Among U.S. colleges and universities, tenure-track positions decreasingly represent the norm. “Adjuncts who teach part time are now about half of the professoriate,” according to a series of articles in the Oct. 23 Chronicle of Higher Education. Non-tenure-track faculty may be offered full-time slots and benefits, but with embarrassing paychecks.

There was a time when society revered the full-time profs hired to instill truths, a sense of wonder and boatloads of knowledge into students who decided high school wasn’t the pinnacle of learning. But tenured, full-time profs draw decent salaries, health-care benefits, 403b retirement accounts and often the security of guaranteed work through retirement age. With diminishing endowments, increasing costs, and already sky-high tuition, many schools of higher learning have been replacing their tenured faculty with adjuncts — essentially freelance professors who, on a contractual basis, teach one or more classes for no benefits, no long-term security and less-than-lofty pay.

To investigate why so many teachers settle for this year-to-year contract work, the Chronicle surveyed more than 600 Chicago-area adjuncts teaching at 90 schools. It found most lack doctorates and typically accept annual salaries of $20,000 or less. And while many hang on to the dream of eventually landing full-time work, others expressed satisfaction with the flexibility that part-time teaching can offer — especially for parents of young children.

Adjunct faculty face precarious financial security despite their playing an increasingly pivotal role in many schools. A third of those polled taught introductory courses, the Chronicle found, more than a quarter taught courses in a “major,” and 21 percent taught upper-level advanced classes in their field. Forty-five percent also helped develop courses, roughly one-quarter served on faculty committees and almost half were expected to attend faculty departmental meetings. 

Some shuttle between colleges to assemble a near-full-time teaching load. Still, the Chronicle survey found, only 18 percent of these part-timers earned more than $20,000 a year collectively from all of their adjunct responsibilities.

Another developing trend: Eliminating the tenure track for full-time faculty.

One of the Chronicle stories, by Audrey W. June, quotes a University of Illinois (at Chicago) English department professor who estimates that she racks up “a minimum of 356 hours on basic teaching duties” per semester. Her very-full-time employment also includes attending conferences, helping students outside of class and more. “I don’t know anybody who hasn’t done the math,” she says: This work amounts to pay that approaches $8 an hour, which is her state’s minimum wage.

Who accepts these jobs? Perhaps anybody who’s young and hoping to break into academia. Or faculty who want to spend time with their newborns to elementary-school children. The pricey and toney Northwestern University employed 35 of the 625 adjuncts who responded to the Chronicle’s survey. The 123-year-old National-Louis University in Chicago hired the most: 92.

As someone who pays college tuition each semester, I understand why universities have been taking this tack. It helps us keep our kids in good schools by ensuring that tuition bills don’t escalate even higher into the stratosphere. Moreover, adjuncts and year-to-year full-time hires offer schools much-valued flexibility in this iffy economic climate. If student enrollment falls, colleges can eliminate a staff position or two — or 25.

Still, a Ph.D-toting chemistry prof shouldn’t have to earn less than a newly minted master’s recipient picked up by the local middle school. How do we recruit and keep good faculty in research-intensive fields if the pay is equivalent to what day-care workers and shopping-mall cashiers earn? If we value a college education, then let’s figure out a way to pay these educators what their investment in at least six to 10 years of university training should be worth.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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