OpinionOp-Ed

The highly educated, badly paid, often abused adjunct professors

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On Nov. 20, just two weeks before their final exam for the semester, students enrolled in a night class in political science at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga received a rude surprise. They were told by a dean that their professor, Stefan Veldhuis, who had been teaching at the public community college in San Bernardino County for nearly a decade, had been abruptly fired the day before.

The students don't know why they lost their instructor because Chaffey has refused to comment on the matter. Veldhuis told a reporter for the online trade paper Inside Higher Ed that a Chaffey administrator simply phoned him and told him he was no longer a "good fit." He speculates that the firing might be related to his informing the college that another Chaffey employee was having sex in a classroom, and that the employee might have retaliated by falsely accusing Veldhuis of something.

In any event, Veldhuis was a popular instructor at Chaffey, with a 4.8 (out of 5) rating on RateMyProfessor, and many of his students have rallied to his defense, setting up a support page for him on Facebook. The online magazine Slate took up the cry, declaring that "terminating professors midsemester with no reason and no due process is abhorrent."

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Welcome to the perilous, humiliating and distinctly un-remunerative world of the "adjunct professor." Although adjuncts generally have the same kind of advanced degrees as faculty members who have tenure or are on a track to get it, and often teach the same classes as their tenured or tenure-track brethren, they are treated very differently. In fact, Veldhuis, who has a master's degree, didn't even teach at Chaffey full time. Instead, he had to cobble together full-time work by teaching three classes a semester at Chaffey and two at another college.

According to the American Assn. of University Professors, the median pay for an adjunct is $2,700 per three-credit-hour course. At that median rate, and by teaching more courses per semester than the two to four that tenure-line faculty are required to teach, Chaffey might have been earning $27,000 a year from his two part-time jobs, maybe more if he taught summer school.

That's just a little above barista level, except that baristas, as full-time employees, often get health insurance, paid vacations and other benefits. The overwhelming majority of adjuncts don't.

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By contrast, even though faculty salaries at community colleges are notoriously penurious, the median for the lowliest assistant professor on the tenure track is about $53,000, nearly twice what adjuncts earn on average. And full professors at private universities earn way more, up to a median of $135,000, with the sky the limit for academic superstars on elite research campuses.

Consequently, the lives of many adjunct professors are ones of Dickensian misery. They usually don't have offices, and they often don't even have full access to libraries and copying facilities. They certainly don't have respect. Their departmental colleagues in tenure-line positions may express compassion for their plight, but because pecking orders in academia are as vicious as anywhere else, they secretly regard adjuncts as losers who couldn't make it in the world of tenure.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an interview with an adjunct French professor in suburban New York City who piloted her ancient, clattering car that doubled as her office 300 miles a week from campus to campus, sleeping in friends' homes because she couldn't afford to pay rent.

So why do colleges and universities, supposed bastions of liberal compassion for the downtrodden, viciously exploit the labor of the underpaid and the overworked? Because they can. U.S. universities currently churn out more than twice as many PhDs, especially in the humanities, as there are tenure-track job openings. Universities love graduate-level programs because they are prestigious, and university professors love graduate students because they are highly motivated. (They tend to do the reading and not show up in class with hangovers.) They make useful research and teaching assistants, and graduate classes are typically tiny seminars, not huge lectures with hundreds of papers to grade.

Thus, we have hordes of surplus PhDs who, perhaps because they have invested so much of their lives in schooling, insist on clinging to the fringes of academia — because they "love to teach" or because "this is what I was trained to do" or because they dream that a tenure-track job lies just around the corner.

It's easy to see why the colleges might prefer cheap and eager adjuncts to expensive, finicky, hard-to-get-rid-of tenure-trackers. New Faculty Majority, an adjuncts advocacy group, says that more than two-thirds of all college faculty these days are "contingent" employees, most of them working part time. This may come as a surprise to parents who are shelling out — or borrowing — $50,000 a year for their offspring's education, thinking that young Jayden and Sophia will actually be taught by the Nobel Prize winners on their colleges' faculty.

So far the main fighting-back tactic of adjuncts has been to unionize. This has usually resulted in a few hundred dollars more per course, plus relegation to permanent second-tier faculty status on campus.

But I have a better suggestion for Stefan Veldhuis and other ill-treated part-time faculty: Just say no. Don't be an adjunct. Or rather, be an adjunct only if you have a day job, or you're retired, or if you have a family to raise and a breadwinning spouse. If you love to teach, teach high school. Or get some other kind of real job. Let the law of supply and demand do its work, because drastically reducing the supply of academic victims is the only way colleges will stop victimizing them.

Charlotte Allen, a Washington-based writer, has a PhD but has never been an adjunct professor.

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