The Chronicle issue on adjuncts and part-timers quotes a number of people who have reconciled themselves to life with a heavy but uncertain teaching load, low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest level of status that you can occupy and still be called a professional. Some of these folks appear resigned, some seem embittered, some seem content with the tradeoffs, and some even appear to enjoy the life or at least see its advantages. Those who accept the life seem to choose it for the freedom to come and go, maintain a flexible schedule, and continue to work with students, which they love and which provides meaning and purpose; these benefits, to them, outweigh the inequities and insecurity. For them, apparently, it all comes down to balance.
I applaud everyone who aspires to a balanced life and chooses accordingly, but at the same time it’s hard to stomach the inequities and injustices perpetrated by the adjunct and part-time system. And I’m not talking just about faculty, but about students and their parents as well. Ask me, a parent of college students, what sort of people I want teaching my daughters, and I will say smart, empathic scholars of good character who embody the virtues of creativity, knowledge, wisdom, and intellect, who teach with love and care about their students. I want people who will care about my daughters, who will nurture their development as whole persons; I want people my daughters can get to know and who will inspire them to learn. I want to entrust their education to institutions that devote themselves to promoting and nurturing such values.
What am I to think of a university that staffs two thirds of its undergrad credit hours with adjuncts and part-timers? No doubt many, perhaps even all, of these people are dedicated and competent teachers, but what is the institution telling me when it pays them so miserably and gives them no stake in the institution? It tells me just what it thinks their work is worth, which is 75% less than that of the regular faculty. It tells me, further, that it is perfectly willing to exploit them but does not want to be held accountable for their performance. If they don’t do a good job, they can simply be fired – for that matter, they can be fired for any reason at all – and that’s the end of it as far as the institution is concerned. But what about the students who have taken their courses? You guessed it: they are on their own; we wash our hands of them.
No institution can afford to admit that it exploits its own students or, more accurately, their parents and the state taxpayers, who are the actual customers. Yet they charge the same tuition regardless of who does the teaching. How many administrators or trustees would want their own kids to attend a school that takes no ongoing responsibility for its faculty, where teachers come and go, where most feel no sense of belonging or ownership of either the program or the community? Sadly, these economic and professional realities undercut the institution’s claims to put students first. Too often, it seems, the business of the university is not education, but simiply staying in business.