My father was a tenured professor at a large southern university. His income provided a secure, middle class life for our family of four in the 1960s. But my father was not brilliant or ambitious and I am certain that were he a PhD job seeker in today’s academic “marketplace,” our family would have known neither security nor abundance. He would have been among the 73% of higher ed faculty with advanced degrees who survive by cobbling together a living teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions for part-time wages so low they often qualify for food stamps. As an adjunct professor, he would have received three weeks notice or less of appointment every semester, and no notice of classes being cancelled or changed. Instead of walking to work in a leafy college town, he would have spent many hours every day commuting to area colleges to teach enough classes to survive. Our family might have made ends meet by tapping Precaricorps, a nonprofit founded by adjuncts that provides money to professors to pay the bills when paychecks are delayed. The start of every semester could have meant a brutal regime of overwork, or the inability to make the rent or mortgage.
Everything about life in academia has changed since my father’s day. When instructors get together now, talk runs to side hustles, not sabbaticals. It’s a frenetic, unpredictable freelance existence that has more in common with an Uber driver’s life than with my father’s tweedy unhurried world. If you are an adjunct, you are contingent labor and your existence is defined by precarity and often penury.
In the 1970s, an “adjunct” professor was someone from an outside profession, like law or medicine, who taught a course not offered by traditional academic disciplines. Fast forward 40 years and adjuncts now teach most courses. This replacement of secure tenured positions by part-time faculty did not happen overnight. The adjunct crisis is a slow-moving tsunami situated in the transformation of work and everyday life that began with the ambitious projects of Thatcher and Reagan. The declaration of TINA – There is No Alternative – christened the neo-liberal age, defined memorably by Adolph Reed as “capitalism that has freed itself from working class opposition.” The decline of the labor movement tracks the rise of adjunctivization. Reagan’s dismantling of PATCO, the Air Traffic Controller’s Union, and Thatcher’s crushing of the Yorkshire Miner’s Union were defeats that defined the next 30 years; de-industrialization, financialization, and the ideological triumph of markets uber alles. The world shifted. And nowhere more so than within the hallowed walls of academe – universities that once birthed revolution are now job training centers filled with managers who speak in the corporate language of benchmarks, market metrics, and ROI (return on investment).
A student is a bundle of human capital who is encouraged to increase her value on the market by investing in a credential. The long-standing egalitarian and democratic ideal of a humanistic liberal arts education has been swept away, and in its place are food court cafeterias, corporate branded stadiums, and dorm rooms with saunas. As competition defines the corporate world, so too the business of education: most universities now have more administrators than full-time faculty. And those managers have balance sheets, they need to attract customers (students) and lower costs. As tuition escalates (rising 140% at public colleges over 30 years), student debt forecloses the future of a generation, and creates a securitized bonanza for Wall Street. It may be diabolical, but adjunctification is no conspiracy, whether its Walmart or Wellesley, the way to lower costs is to increase the rate of exploitation. We are all flexible workers now.
The adjunct crisis is part of a larger assault on the right to education, public funding and academic freedom. Faculty who express dissident opinions are everywhere under attack, and adjuncts, unprotected by tenure, are seen as easier to discipline and control in a managerial system. The attack on dissent is less overt with students, who are now disciplined not by police truncheons but by high and often unpayable debt.
The two-tier labor structure exemplified by adjunct/tenure status became a key weapon against worker organizing in the 1980s. The logic is fundamental to capitalism: in any setting, workers who can be divided and compelled to compete with each other make fewer demands. Also in the toolbox of capital are selective privileges that adhere to one class of workers in exchange for their acquiescence. Both dynamics are at work in the academy, where tenured and tenure-track faculty often cultivate their singular prestige and superiority to their “deskilled” colleagues who do exactly the same work. The result is a downward spiral in wages and degraded conditions of labor for everyone, not just the lower tier.
Intellectuals with advanced degrees are coming to terms with their proletarianization, and they are fighting back. Adjuncts who organize collectively are uniquely at-risk, they have no job protection, their contracts can be cancelled, and they can be fired at any time. The danger is worse in New York State where the Taylor Law makes public sector strikes illegal. Nonetheless, adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants are organizing and unionizing in unprecedented numbers. This trend, along with public teacher strikes, is a bright spot in otherwise dismal union participation numbers. While public university unions are still more common, the rapid rise in unionization comes from private colleges.
In a study published in 2017, the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy reports that “the growth in private sector faculty representation and bargaining constitutes a major new shift in higher education.” By far the largest group organized has been non-tenure track faculty. Most of this growth is through SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign with 53,000 faculty and graduate student workers on 60 campuses organized. As unionization brings serious gains across the sector, successive fights become easier to win: the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents faculty at CUNY campuses, mounted their demand for $7,000 per course for adjunct professors at the same time as major victories at Rutgers, Barnard and Fordham. Non-salary workplace issues are also important: reduction of workload, office space and time (many dedicated adjuncts advise students at Starbucks on their own time), paid research time, shared governance, and the right to sabbaticals. If tenure is a thing of the past, everything has to be in play.
International alliances are also critical and reflect the global scope of this trend. For years COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) has been a networking organization for contingent faculty in Canada, Mexico and the US, a place where adjuncts are able to transcend their isolation and experience being part of a larger, global movement. Learning about adjunct struggles in other cities and countries is empowering and shows how victories are won. The New Faculty Majority, an advocacy campaign for contingent academic labor, serves as a clearinghouse for resources on organizing and coalition-building, takes public stands on policy issues, and offers tool-kits for unionizing on campus.
Higher education is in crisis and adjuncts are the most visible symptom. Mainstream media outlets have discovered that stories about poverty-stricken professors forced to live in their cars have tabloid-worthy shock value. But so too should the wholesale closure of humanities departments, unsustainable student debt from ever-rising tuition, the replacement of faculty governance with corporate managers, the attack on student and faculty academic freedom, a dwindling commitment to public funding, and the poverty wages of janitorial and food service workers in institutions with billion dollar endowments. All of these abuses have the same root cause: the normal functioning of capitalism.
Working class life has always been defined by insecurity, stagnant wages, no benefit jobs and at will employment are the norm. Professors who are adjuncts are realizing that theirs is first and foremost a labor crisis and must be fought with the only tool workers have – our numbers, our right to withhold our labor, and the alliances that solidarity can bring. Contingent faculty are making common cause with students against tuition increases, our struggles are the same and we should refuse to be pitted against each other. Public universities are a key site of struggle, but without the weapon of the strike, unions are virtually powerless. In New York State, we cannot wait and hope that the Taylor Law will be ended legislatively; it must be challenged now by direct action. Within universities and colleges, the “ladder” faculty must recognize that devalued and degraded academic work hurts everyone, and their acquiescence to a two-tier system is both shameful and self-defeating. Sometimes the struggle begins inside the union: adjunct issues on CUNY campuses did not begin to be addressed until the progressive New Caucus of the PSC was elected in 2000. Unionization is necessary, but not sufficient. This is a struggle for the democratic university, not just the next contract. And inside or outside of unions, it is the militant minority, willing to risk all for the benefit of all, that can jump start a disruptive insurgency.
The university as a site of critical inquiry is more important than ever if we are to counter decades of neoliberal hegemony in a fight for ideas that the Right has been winning. Confronting fatalism means re-building the power to imagine alternatives.
Is the university destined to become just another “lean and agile” corporation in a race to the bottom? As Stanley Aronowitz writes in The Knowledge Factory: “the challenge is to become agents of a new educational imagination.
Elizabeth Oram is a nurse and adjunct lecturer at Hunter College. She is a member of the Professional Staff Congress.