Don’t Forget The Academic Underclass on Independence Day

A friend at one large university told me he’s been watching the eerie spread of administrators at his school: they’ve been taking over office space and even parking spaces like something out of a horror movie. Meanwhile, just like most other colleges and universities around the country, his school spends less money every year on tenure-track faculty, hiring adjuncts who do the same work at much less than half the pay.

More than 50% of the faculty at many schools are adjuncts. At some, it’s closer to two thirds, and without them, colleges and universities wouldn’t function. As NPR has reported, “to get a full course load, many adjuncts have to teach on multiple campuses, miles apart. Like academic nomads, their cars are their offices, and their backpacks are their filing cabinets.”

These “contingent” faculty form a vast underclass. Without real offices, many end up having to meet their students in lounges or cafeterias. Not only do they have piss-poor working conditions and health insurance, but they lack respect. That might seem low on the list, but it’s actually very important. Tenured faculty and department chairs often treat them like servants–or worse.

One adjunct I know was rudely dismissed from a one-on-one meeting with the department chair as if she was a Victorian-era maid who had begged her haughty mistress for an extra day off to take care of her sick mother. Her sin? She’d inquired about teaching a certain course she was actually over-qualified for.

Another reported being lied to about being reassigned from upper level courses and finding out later that the real reason was resentment from tenure-track “colleagues.” The psychological atmosphere is consistently draining, but too many adjuncts can’t quit because they need the jobs and have to swallow the insults—and teaching is their passion.

Day to day, adjuncts don’t just deal with arrogant and inflexible administrators. Sometimes even support staff treat them badly, because they know they can, and not enough campuses have fixed-term faculty unions that will stand up for them. And when there are unions, if tenure-stream faculty aren’t unionized, those faculty can regard the adjuncts’ unions with contempt, and may even feel threatened.

Adjuncts can have just as many credentials and publications as their tenured colleagues—but that doesn’t matter. The magical word “tenure” bestows an exalted status that they lack and reduces them to second-class citizens or worse in the madly hierarchical academic world.

College and universities profit obscenely from this cheap labor source. The system is arbitrary, corrupt, and unjust, nestled in the heart of an institution which supposedly enshrines humanistic values.

Are you an adjunct?  Have you been mistreated or discriminated against?  Feel free to share your story in the comments section below.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are set at the fictional State University of Michigan and have been praised by the New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers and magazines.  A veteran of university teaching, he now teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  Registration for his memoir workshop closes very soon.

The Shocking Truth About Universities

When I was in graduate school, my wonderful dissertation advisor told me that he was determined to do a good, humane job getting me through without delays.  Why? Because his own advisor had been a hyper-critical nightmare.  My advisor kept his word: thanks to him, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it successfully in under a year.

campus-photoHorror stories about abusive dissertation advisors and feuding dissertation committees are common in graduate schools across the country–you don’t have to look hard to find them.  Even casual cruelty makes the life of graduate students miserable.  Because I write an academic mysteries series, people share these stories with me from around the country.

Just recently I heard of a PhD candidate whose rigid advisor refused to let the student show ongoing work to anyone else on the dissertation committee.  That left this student feeling isolated and extremely anxious.  Talking about  mistreatment to other graduate students in the program felt impossible–that’s how strong the professor’s grip was.

sad-writer-2Then there are the adjuncts or “contingent faculty”: overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and treated at some schools almost like pariahs.  Sometimes they don’t even have office space, or too many of them share a tiny office.  Tenure-track faculty belittle them unconsciously or even openly, no matter what they might have accomplished in their field.  Department chairs treats them like cannon fodder.

I know of one university where an adjunct who had the same degrees and had published far more than tenure-track peers was shut out of teaching upper level courses because of faculty jealousy.  Qualifications and experience didn’t matter–it was all about people protecting their tiny fiefdoms.

medieval-knightAnd students probably suffer more than anyone.  Stories reach me about how they’re bullied and put down publicly by their tenured professors.  I’ve been told about students reduced to trembling and even tears in the classroom.  Sometimes the mistreatment is more subtle: a professor will only call on favorite students, or might ignore something one student says but praise another student for making the identical observation.  Do students complain?  Rarely, because they’re afraid to, despite flashy news stories about campus protests.

None of this brutality is like the sexual violence on campus we read about, or the bigotry targeting various minorities–but it’s part of the atmosphere all the same. No matter how scenic the campus, colleges and universities can be surprisingly toxic for more people than outsiders imagine.  So when people at my book readings ask me, “Aren’t you exaggerating?  Are colleges really that bad?”  I don’t hesitate saying “No.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Little Miss Evil and seven other Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the dangerous world of academia.