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Is academia suffering from ‘adjunctivitis’? Low-paid adjunct professors struggle to make ends meet

February 6, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Juggling multiple part-time jobs, earning little-to-no benefits, depending on public assistance: This is the financial reality for many adjunct professors across the nation. Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks for the origins of this growing employment trend at colleges and universities.

GWEN IFILL: Now a look at a growing trend at colleges and universities across the country, which increasingly rely on part-time adjunct instructors, and the financial struggles these professors face.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: Life in academia turns out to be different than what French professor and single mother Nicole Beth Wallenbrock had in mind.

NICOLE BETH WALLENBROCK, Adjunct Professor: I have been on food stamps for, I think, about six months.

PAUL SOLMAN: Arik Greenberg teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University.

ARIK GREENBERG, Adjunct Professor: We are not given any kind of benefits, no medical, no dental, no vision, no retirements, no family leave, no sick leave, nothing.

PAUL SOLMAN: To support his family, Rob Balla drives to three different Ohio universities to teach six English classes and tutors on the side. He had pneumonia last fall, worked anyway.

ROB BALLA, Adjunct Professor: We go to school under any circumstances, really, because you can’t afford to have your pay docked.

PAUL SOLMAN: These are adjuncts, part-time professors paid an average of $2,000 to $3,000 per class with few to no benefits who now make up half of college faculties, a drastic change from just a few decades ago.

ADRIANNA KEZAR, University of Southern California: In 1970, about 80 percent of the faculty were on the tenure track.

PAUL SOLMAN: But non-tenured faculty have become the rule, says education professor Adrianna Kezar.

ADRIANNA KEZAR: This trajectory started in community colleges. It spread across four-year institutions and research universities, and it’s public and private.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nicole Beth Wallenbrock got a Ph.D. in French lit to become a full-time professor anywhere.

NICOLE BETH WALLENBROCK: I had this idea that I could get a job so that I could have a good income to support my son, and it didn’t work out that way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Since graduating in 2012, she’s worked part-time and is now teaching just two courses at the City University of New York, making $2,800 a class, though she’s more highly-rated than almost all of her peers.

She’s moved to the cheapest place she could find on the outskirts of the city, a three-hour-a-day commute. But she can’t make it without public assistance and help from her family.

NICOLE BETH WALLENBROCK: I’m a precarious worker. I have no job security. So I have to accept whatever I can get. It’s depressing. It makes me feel like a failure in a lot of ways.

ARIK GREENBERG: It has gone in the direction of big business, of hiring more and more part-timers to do the work of full-timers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Arik Greenberg has been an adjunct for more than a decade. He brings in $20,000 a year.

ARIK GREENBERG: If I’m not teaching during the summer, I go on unemployment. It keeps us going for a while. It puts food on the table.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you have now met barely a handful few examples of what might be called the adjunctivitis epidemic, adding these part-timers, who are half of all faculty, to full-time professors without tenure and much lower pay. More than 70 percent of America’s college teachers are so-called contingent.

Many are unavailable to their myriad students, given their necessarily shorter office hours, says longtime adjunct Joe Fruscione, less energy in the classroom, fewer comments when grading papers or tests.

JOE FRUSCIONE, Adjunct Professor: You can race through them, but to give meaningful, concrete, detailed feedback that a lot of these students need, it’s virtually impossible.

PAUL SOLMAN: But are students really getting short shrift?

Terry Hartle is with the American Council on Education.

TERRY HARTLE, American Council on Education: In some disciplines, particularly occupationally-oriented fields, you may be ahead by having an adjunct faculty member who’s got extraordinary levels of real-world experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: But don’t adjuncts teach in all disciplines?  Look, says Hartle, bottom line, schools have no choice.

TERRY HARTLE: The pressures on colleges and universities to maintain tuition, to prevent tuition hikes are extraordinarily high.

Does the use of contingent faculty like adjuncts provide more flexibility to colleges and universities as economic enterprises that need to stay in business?  Yes, it certainly does that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Would you be happy if your members were paying a little more to adjuncts?

TERRY HARTLE: Nobody forces someone to become an adjunct. It is a very difficult way to make a full-time living.

PAUL SOLMAN: Peter Brown, professor emeritus at the State University of New York, New Paltz, believes colleges are exploiting adjuncts so they can spend more on non-academic niceties.

PETER BROWN, State University of New York, New Paltz: A lot of money is spent not just on coaches, on athletics, on stadiums, on fancy facilities, on climbing walls. The tuition dollars ought to go towards the instruction in the classroom, and not what happens outside.

PROTESTER: What’s outrageous?

PROTESTERS: Adjunct wages!

PAUL SOLMAN: Students and faculty across the country are now rallying for higher adjunct pay and the right to unionize.

PETER BROWN: Adjuncts are the lowest paid people on campus. They get paid less than the folks who come in at night to clean the classrooms.

PAUL SOLMAN: Brown is campaigning to up adjunct compensation at New Paltz, where the average part-timer makes just $12,000 a year.

PETER BROWN: On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars as provosts, as presidents, as chancellors. And between 1970 and 2008, the adjunct pay has gone down 49 percent. The salary of college presidents has gone up 35 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Brown and others throughout academia were galvanized by the death last fall of 83-year-old Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko.

PETER BROWN: She had been teaching there for over 20 years and getting good evaluations. She was suddenly non-renewed. She was impoverished and basically died so poor that she had to be buried in a cardboard box.

PAUL SOLMAN: Duquesne’s response?  They tried to help with shelter and other assistance in the months before her death.

But if poverty is what half of college faculty might be facing, why do schools continue to offer graduate degrees to the likes of Nicole Beth Wallenbrock?

NICOLE BETH WALLENBROCK: They keep accepting more and more Ph.D. students at American universities because they need to keep their own classes full.

PAUL SOLMAN: I put the question to college spokesman Terry Hartle.

Are universities arguably being irresponsible by turning out as many Ph.D.s into a job market where some people wind up going on food stamps?

TERRY HARTLE: People who get Ph.D.s owe it to themselves to think long and hard about the labor market that they’re entering.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg goes further.

STEPHEN TRACHTENBERG, President Emeritus, The George Washington University: I have counseled adjunct faculty at some point, if they are not earning enough to support themselves, to not do that and go do something else with their lives. Merely because you have earned a Ph.D. doesn’t oblige you to take on a life of penury.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though he wasn’t personally counseled by Trachtenberg, adjunct Joe Fruscione is taking that advice, after 14 years teaching English at George Washington and elsewhere.

JOE FRUSCIONE: All of the experience I have gained hasn’t gotten me and won’t get me any kind of meaningful tenure track position. I have decided that my way of fixing all that is leaving the system.

PAUL SOLMAN: Entirely?

JOE FRUSCIONE: Entirely. Yes, I’m going to be doing some freelance editing and writing.

PAUL SOLMAN: We first met Fruscione last year while reporting on the graying work force in academia. He was working part-time jobs at multiple schools and leading workshops at a bookstore on the side. Since then, he’s lost one of the college gigs and says he’s had enough.

JOE FRUSCIONE: I am very, very fortunate that my wife is the breadwinner.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nicole Beth Wallenbrock says she can’t give up teaching and doesn’t want to.

NICOLE BETH WALLENBROCK: I don’t know what other place in society there is for me. I love teaching and I love researching and writing, so I haven’t given up on this dream yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: And considering all the resources she and our society have put into her education, there’s arguably an economic reason to keep on dreaming.