We need to talk about adjunct professor treatment

‘Adjunct professors are being exploited, but our university doesn’t want us to know about it’

Washington University in St. Louis is a private American university where adjunct faculty occupy roughy 30% of all teaching positions. At most American colleges, adjuncts are overworked and underpaid, and may even be denied important benefits like healthcare and job security. Curious to see what college students think about adjuncts?

Alexandra Zdonczyk, junior, Spanish and Biology

 “I’m not really sure who’s an adjunct and who’s not. The fact that some professors are fulfilling the same purpose of teaching students but being treated so unfairly is confusing to me, especially when so much of their compensation is tied to research.”

Jeremy Smith, junior, American Culture Studies

“My general perception is that adjuncts are underpaid and underrepresented, but generally invested in students (compared to tenured professors). Based on popular perception, equal representation for adjuncts at the university would make the biggest difference.”

Manuela Araque, sophomore, Romance Languages and Pre-Med

“Adjuncts are very qualified. They’ve studied enough to get paid well, considering most of them have PhD’s. I had an adjunct professor teach my organic chemistry class over the summer. The adjunct I had over the summer was pretty open about adjunct issues, in a sarcastic way. But, I don’t think most adjunct professors would joke or be very open about their situation.”

Amy Chen, freshman, Art and Political Science

“I don’t know how much the university is listening to adjuncts, but I think they should actually listen more and raise adjuncts wages.”

Julian Weinstein, junior, Biology and Education Studies

“I’m aware that a good proportion of my professors are adjuncts. Since a few of my friends are involved in a campaign to increase adjunct wages, I’m also familiar with the really unfair pay they receive. I’m sure that at least some of my professors have been adjuncts, and I hope students can do something about it.

I would like to know the actual status of adjuncts’ contracts, their benefits — if they have any — and opportunities for them to have their wages increased. And I don’t know what proportion of our professors are adjuncts. In fact, a lot of Wash U students don’t even know what an adjunct professor is.”

Saran Sundaram, junior, Biology and Neuroscience

“I’ve had a lot of adjunct professors because I’ve taken a lot of writing classes, and I knew one of the professors really well. She seemed very frustrated with how much she’s able to move up in her department. It seems like so much rests on student evaluations, the number of years an adjunct has been teaching… and it doesn’t even seem to matter, because she’s been teaching for about 10 years and hasn’t been able to get a track to tenure.”

Now to bring in some student experts

Washington University in St. Louis has one particular student group that actively campaigns for the rights of low-wage workers and adjunct professors. I decided to interview some of these student activists to see what more informed opinions sound like.

Christian Ralph, junior, Biomedical Engineering

“I think that the first thing students should recognize is the basic fact that adjuncts are professors, and they’re a part of the university community. They may be part of administration, but they still are here to teach us and help us grow as individuals.

Grant a fair contract, since it appears that the administration isn’t respecting adjuncts or treating them with dignity. In order for adjuncts to be better integrated into the Wash U community, they need contracts that include higher wages, health benefits, and job security.”

Danielle Blocker, senior, Political Science and Education Studies

“I’d like other students to know that adjunct professors are being exploited, but our university doesn’t want us to know about it, because they want to maintain the illusion that the university is a magical wonderland, and nothing bad ever happens. The fact is that a lot of university practices… let’s just say our actions could match our rhetoric a lot more than they currently do.

The most important thing the university could do is something they already know: they could negotiate a fair contract for adjuncts. A contract could give adjuncts a fair amount of job security. Adjuncts who’ve been working for over ten years, could use a contract that provides two years of guaranteed job security. Two years! It isn’t that much, but for people who’ve already been working here a while, struggling to find jobs every semester, it would go a long way.”

Matt Drew, junior, Psychology and Religious Studies

“I’d like others to know that adjuncts are employed on a semesterly basis, no matter how long they’ve been teaching. We have a very large number who’ve been teaching for over ten years, and they still don’t know until a few weeks before the semester begins whether they’ll have a job. They can’t be a thesis advisor for a full year or do other things for the university if they don’t have job security, or have to teach at multiple universities.”

Natalie Martinez, senior, Film and Media Studies and American Culture Studies

“I think for most students at Wash U, it’s really hard to imagine what not having a living wage looks like. When someone lives in an environment like this, with all these beautiful, clean things at their university, it’s hard to imagine not having food on the table for your family. I think the reason that a lot of students don’t take action is because they can’t grasp that.”

Finally, here’s what some adjunct professors have to say about the issue

Dustin Iler, adjunct professor, English and Writing

“I’m a member of the bargaining committee here for an adjunct union. The university should give us a fair contract that takes into account more than semester-long appointments. One of the slogans of our movement is that our working conditions improves our students’ learning conditions.”

Nick Miller, post-doc and former adjunct in the English Department

“Students should recognize just how poor their professors are. If they knew I was taking public transport around the city, skipping meals, and teaching classes at three universities just to make ends meet… Students who can afford to be here should be more aware of their own privilege as students. But as an adjunct, the economic question is first and foremost.

And a second thing — I would like students to know how many things adjuncts do that they’re not compensated for: being on a committee, advising a thesis, etc. These are all being done without compensation.

Considering the university isn’t paying us much, they could at least give us things like affordable parking. Not perpetuating false narratives about adjuncts being mostly part-time or teaching for fun would also be lovely.

Finally, the question of status: an adjunct is treated as sort of a second class citizen at the university. You’re expected to do an amount of work similar to faculty, but you have no access to decisions that affect you.”

The days when universities were occupied by mostly tenured-track faculty are slipping away. Many adjunct professors continue to struggle to make ends meet, and it’s never too late to get involved or raise visibility about adjunct issues at your own university.

Washington University in St Louis