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Congressional Report Highlights Academe's 'Working Poor'

Credit: G. Grullón

"While the occupation of 'college professor' still retains a reputation as a middle-class job, the reality is that a growing number of people working in this profession fill positions not intended to provide the stability, pay, or benefits necessary for a family's long-term economic security. Whether some adjunct professors piece together a living from their teaching job or only use it to supplement a more stable primary career elsewhere, many contingent faculty might be best classified as working poor." In fact, "adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country."

That is how a report issued on 24 January by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce summarizes the situation of the majority of those providing undergraduate instruction on U.S. campuses. The Just-In-Time Professor is not a scientific study, but rather a distillation of 854 comments made by adjuncts from 41 states over a period of 6 weeks on an e-forum established last November.

"Many contingent faculty take part-time employment because it is the only job available in their desired field, hoping it will be a temporary detour on the way to full-time status … ." —The Just-In-Time Professor

The report's "snapshot of life as contingent faculty" is grim. It illustrates the "growing, visible trend" toward hiring adjuncts rather than tenure-track faculty at nearly all universities and colleges, a practice that, the report states, "dims many workers' prospects for stable, full-time employment." As we noted not long ago, a substantial number of these contingent academics teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. As Tressie McMillan Cottom notes at Slate, African American academics are likelier to be contingent than are whites.

Along with low pay, long hours, little job security, and lack of benefits—only a quarter of respondents report receiving any—one of the most disheartening aspects of the adjunct life may be the absence of any real prospects for professional improvement. "Many contingent faculty take part-time employment because it is the only job available in their desired field, hoping it will be a temporary detour on the way to full-time status," the report states. The reality is different. "The 2010 CAW [Coalition on the Academic Workforce] survey found that more than 80 percent of part-time faculty had taught for three or more years. Despite the desire to teach full-time, many professors find it difficult to move into a full-time position."

The "obstacles to career growth" that adjuncts face are "systemic"—which is to say they come with the territory. Doing the research and publishing expected of tenure-track faculty requires institutional support of various kinds. Only 11% of adjuncts report receiving any institutional support at all, the report notes. Many even lack basic elements needed to do a decent job teaching, such as "administrative staff support, copies of required textbooks, access to students' email addresses for communicating with their classes, access to professional development courses provided to other faculty, or opportunities to participate in departmental meetings with their colleagues."

Nothing in this report will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the recent spate of reporting on adjuncts' plight that was inspired by the 1 September death of longtime Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko. The likelihood that Congress will do anything to improve a situation that threatens not only the wellbeing of so many hard-working academics but the integrity of college teaching across America is probably no greater than that of an adjunct getting a tenure-track offer at a research university. Nonetheless, the more attention paid to the issue, the better. In a country ostensibly obsessed with the need to improve education, the plight of so many educators—and its meaning for the quality of instruction—seems an obvious place to start.