Usually, sometime during the first week of classes, I end up talking about the situation of labor in higher education with my students. They think I’m a professor because I teach at a university (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), an understandable mistake. I’m not a professor. So, I explain what I am (a graduate instructor) in relation to what their other teachers are. I explain that I make way less and have way less power than their “professors.” Then, we talk about adjuncts and we all get a little angry.
The situation related to adjunct teaching has developed in higher education over the last few decades. During that time, universities have shifted toward less expensive labor, while some adjuncts experience lives of financial insecurity, professional disappointment and constant stress.
Though I am not an adjunct, I am a former Bearcat and university teacher. So, of course, the issue of adjunct labor at Northwest interests me.
In an article in last week’s Missourian, Provost Timothy Mottet indicated that the situation at Northwest is different than most places with regards to adjunct labor, and that he sympathized with those adjuncts dealing with poor working situations. That was encouraging to hear, and in my experience at Northwest, it seems accurate. Northwest doesn’t seem to utilize adjunct labor as much as some universities, either on principle or due to other circumstances, and I know a number of Northwest faculty members who are opposed to the labor situation that has formed around adjunct teaching.
Still, others like Elizabeth Dunning who was interviewed in the article, see adjuncting as a great experience. That’s the difficulty with understanding the adjunct labor issue; it’s complicated. Some adjuncts are happy with their working conditions; some do it just to pick up extra cash on top of another job; some do it because they don’t need to be the primary source of income for a family; some are happy to spend time adjuncting while they wait for a more permanent position; some actually make good money (see Harvard’s pay rates per course).
Others, though, are trying to earn a living doing this at schools that don’t pay like Harvard, as I’m sure Northwest doesn’t. Pay for adjuncts differs greatly based on institution and discipline, but two years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education found that roughly $3,000 is the average pay per course for adjuncts surveyed as part of the Adjunct Project. That means a full course load (four classes per semester) pays $24,000. Of course, some adjuncts make less than that and most do not receive benefits. Adjuncts who teach writing often make as little as $2,000 per course, and of course, no adjunct is guaranteed courses. That’s $16,000 a year, if they can get eight courses.
For many adjuncts in this country, and perhaps even some at Northwest, the math just isn’t adding up. As Mottet indicated, the labor market is shifting. Because of shrinking or stagnant resources, universities are allowing tenured faculty to retire and replacing them with adjuncts. With enrollments increasing and diminishing resources, universities are turning to adjunct labor as the solution to an impossible problem.
And right now, there’s no end in sight to this shift. While Northwest may utilize adjunct labor less than most universities, I would be shocked if its use hasn’t increased in the last 20 years.It may stand to increase even more moving forward, not because the people who run Northwest want it to but because through a system of circumstances this is what happens.
As the editorial in last week’s Missourian pointed out, it’s important for the students and faculty of Northwest to pay attention to this issue. Yes, as an ethical issue, but also because shifts like the one affecting the labor of higher education have a way of spreading everywhere. Until something changes, this shift will threaten the integrity of the education being offered at American colleges and universities.