The Adjunct Affair: What no one tells you about university adjunct professors


Flyers from “Adjunct Action Day” almost exactly one year ago. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Flyers from “Adjunct Action Day” almost exactly one year ago. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Imagine investing in your future by pursuing a Ph.D. You spend countless hours in front of a computer, in classes, in dorm rooms that are subpar, eating meals of mostly ramen and working multiple jobs. All the while you’re motivated by the prospect that when you’re done, you’ll be able to share your passion with students as a university professor, pursue your intellectual endeavors, motivate others to follow in your path, and finally be able to quit that darn restaurant job. Then imagine that, after 10+ years of higher education, you find yourself living on government assistance and running between multiple jobs with little or no time for students. Imagine that just getting to the university is a struggle—do you pay to park? Can’t afford it. Pay to take the bus? That’s a stretch, too. Better go ask for your serving job back.

Sadly, this is becoming a “normal” experience for teachers as universities replace tenured positions with adjunct faculty. It’s no secret that the treatment of adjunct instructors is a major issue in America’s higher education system. Coverage on the issue is increasing and, thankfully, some schools are choosing to set a cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty hired or, like Hamline University, are raising wages for the first time in over a decade as a result of unionizing efforts.

Who are adjunct instructors? These faculty members are brought in to teach classes that cannot be filled by existing tenure and tenure-track staff. Adjunct instructors are usually hired on a semester-to-semester basis, with no commitment from the university for future employment. Even if an adjunct instructor stays at a university long term, they cannot earn tenure if they remain at the school for the six to seven years necessary, and they are rarely considered when tenure-track positions open up.

Universities also hire contingent instructors who can be part-time, adjunct, or even full-time instructors but still don’t receive the level of benefits, job security, or academic freedom that comes with a tenure-track position.

Why the increase in adjuncts? The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported last year that, while tenured faculty used to be the norm, over two-thirds of professors in colleges and universities are no longer on the tenure-track. While adjunct instructors were first hired for their specialized knowledge, they are now becoming increasingly common in universities for financial reasons. Adjuncts are paid a fraction of what tenure-track professors are paid per class for the same amount of work, are rarely offered benefits and have little to no job security.

Not only are they working for a fraction of what tenure-track professors are earning, they also have to pay for anything that furthers their scholarly work, such as conferences, and usually have to look outside of the university to find support for their research and writing. Because there is no commitment from the university, adjunct and contingent instructors’ academic freedom is greatly limited compared to tenured professors and universities often lose the expertise of these instructors. At St. Kate’s adjuncts aren’t offered any benefits, while tenure-track professors receive health care, retirement funds and support for their research and writing. Adjunct instructors’ participation in anything outside of their class, including department meetings, collaboration with students and research, is unpaid—a donation of their time.

Why is this important for students? Besides being an issue of institutional oppression, which we are taught to fight against at St. Kate’s, the treatment of adjunct faculty impacts every aspect of our education. Because many adjunct instructors are spread so thin, often teaching multiple classes at different institutions just to make ends meet, they aren’t afforded the same opportunity to invest in students. When adjunct members are able to form relationships with students, the chance that they’ll be around to help with continued guidance, letters of recommendation or future collaboration is slim. Because universities don’t usually have lasting relationships with adjunct instructors, there can be inconsistency between the university’s mission and the instructor’s. Furthermore, as secure, tenure-track positions diminish, students are being discouraged from pursuing further graduate studies, which affects the entire education system.

Where does St. Kate’s factor into this? I was able to speak with Dr. Kim Heikkila who has been working as an adjunct at St. Kate’s since 2004, steadily teaching about three classes per year since 2006-07. As she began sharing her journey at St. Kate’s, she made sure to express her appreciation of her time at St. Kate’s. “There is a lot I like about St. Kate’s, and I have been afforded opportunities here I may not have gotten as an adjunct at another university . . . my colleagues have also been very supportive and the students have been fantastic.”

However, as her story continued the frustration and defeat were palpable in her voice as she described the many experiences of feeling “lesser than” tenured professors at St. Kate’s, as well as her decision to leave the university. “I have not received retirement or any kind of benefit since teaching at St. Kate’s, limited support for my career development, and I still struggle to maintain any semblance of an institutional presence . . . as much as I love the work, I can’t do it anymore.”

I contacted the Faculty Recruitment and Contracts Office two weeks ago to get more information about adjunct instructors at St. Kate’s. I asked whether St. Kate’s has a cap on how many adjunct instructors the university can hire as well as what percent of adjunct and contingent faculty members are women compared to how many women are tenured at St. Kate’s. The new employee I reached sounded delighted to help me. She assured me that she would find the information and encouraged me to remind her before the deadline of my article if I did not heard back. I have reminded her three times and haven’t received a response. I also contacted the presidential search committee over two months ago to ask if the institutional oppression of adjunct and contingent faculty would be brought up during the search for St. Kate’s new president and am still waiting for a response.

More information about St. Kate’s adjunct and contingent faculty, as well as what we, as students, can do will be presented in my next article: “Is St. Kate’s choosing economic advantages over fair treatment of adjunct instructors?”

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2 thoughts on “The Adjunct Affair: What no one tells you about university adjunct professors

  1. Many problems but one practical one comes to mind. Candidates could be pursuing a doctorate while teaching as an adjunct. They teach all day, maybe wait tables at night, get home at midnight and grade papers until two or three a.m. And then have to show up to teach an eight a.m. class. Anyone who doesn’t think the quality of presentation is compromised is in a fantasy world. Those running the university don’t care. Most students won’t care. The ones who should care are the parents, especially if they’re paying the tuition.

  2. Pingback: Is St. Kate’s choosing economic advantages over fair wages for adjunct instructors? | The Wheel