A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject of the adjunct crisis in academia. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it refers to the explosive growth in the use of adjunct faculty to teach courses at colleges and universities in the United States. These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.
Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the perceived fundamental unfairness of employing highly educated professionals in such an absurd fashion, or on the pyramid scheme-y aspects of graduate programs that chew up students and spit them into this cesspool of underemployment. In the comments sections of these pieces, there is an ever-present retort, presumably emanating from those free market-loving capitalists among us, that if adjunct faculty hate their plight so much, they should change career paths.
In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.
A few weeks ago we highlighted a very concerning event at an institution several of us here at NiBMS attended, the University of Idaho. It turns out that this semester they hired a young-earth creationist from a local fundamentalist church/Christian college to teach introductory microbiology. This fellow is vociferous in his disbelief of evolution, has advocated that creationists take over the academy to advance their agenda, and is in any case not actually qualified to teach microbiology (though UI has actually hired him before, several years ago). Needless to say, evolution is central to all biology, micro and otherwise, and he as much as admitted to evangelizing students in his previous stint.
But how could this happen? It seems likely that rather than our creationist nut actually participating in a shadowy conspiracy, more humdrum economic forces were at work. We found the job announcement at www.jobsinminneapolis.com [since removed, but a copy is linked to here], which lists the pay as $6-8,000 for the semester. So what probably happened is upon the opening of the position (at the last minute, no doubt, because zero job security works both ways), UI conducted a “national” search for candidates. While they are actually offering well above the mean per-course pay found in the American Association of University Professors survey linked to above, the notion that somebody would move to Moscow, Idaho (a lovely town surrounded by incredible recreational opportunities, by the way) for $6-8000 dollars payed over four months, no offer of other compensation and no guarantee of future employment is farcical.
So upon their predictable failure (in the free national labor market!) to turn up a qualified candidate, they wound up with a man whose views on issues relevant to the course are not only outside the scientific mainstream, but are demonstrably, factually incorrect and who likely has in the past abused such a position to advance his agenda. So while the position is technically filled, the hundred or so students who are taking this course will have been done a serious disservice.
None of this is meant to disparage adjunct faculty as a class of people. Many of us at the blog have known excellent adjuncts over the years who have done wonderful jobs as instructors. Some of them regard teaching as a calling and are essentially being exploited because of it. Others are PhD spouses of tenure track professors in small college towns with few other employment options. They are often fascinated by the subjects they teach, and many were set on this path by a teacher who inspired them. The fact remains, however, that the wonderful adjuncts we’ve known mostly came up in our generation (or before)–a generation taught largely by tenure track professors who were compensated reasonably. Many of them thought their careers might be like that and are finding the new reality to be violently at odds with that expectation.
So, in response to our Capitalist in the Comments, I think people are going to change career paths, a lot of the good ones anyway. By driving away talented people we’re setting the system up to fail students. We may not see the results immediately, but this will certainly result in an inexorable downward spiral in the quality of instruction as potential new teachers both fail to be inspired by an increasingly substandard teaching corps and refuse to subject themselves to the penurious lifestyle of the adjunct. I think it bears keeping this all in mind while reading reports on higher education in the media, from the cost of college, to lagging educational metrics in the US compared to other countries, to the buzzy reports of MOOCs replacing traditional instruction.