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Adjunct faculty deserve more

Over the past 40 years, the number of non-tenure track faculty has grown from 25 percent of the professorial labor force at institutions of higher education to a little over 75 percent. The absolute numbers of adjunct faculty show an even more drastic growth, as the last 40 years have also seen an increase in the number of students attending post-secondary schools. Now, around 700,000 faculty members are part-time, non-tenure track faculty, with another 600,000 faculty taking full-time non-tenure track positions. This means that 1.3 million of 1.8 million higher education faculty do not have access to the same benefits as their often equally educated counterparts on the tenure track.

Benefits provided by tenured, or even just tenure-track, contracts include an income better adjusted to increasing costs of living, consistent health and retirement benefits, job security, and academic freedom. Non-tenure track professors see little of these benefits. Their pay increases more slowly. They often have no health or retirement benefits. Most of the time, adjuncts are not aware of whether their current class will be taught the following semester, and non-tenure track faculty are always at the mercy of administrative politics.

The phenomenon of adjunctification is widespread across higher education and it’s dangerously apparent, especially at Carnegie Mellon. After an interview with an adjunct in the English department, a few things were clear. Adjunct professors choose to teach a class because they love the idea of teaching, not because it pays well. Adjuncts at Carnegie Mellon, while paid more than other adjuncts in the Pittsburgh area, are not paid well. The adjunct from the English department sees their income as supplemental. Because of the part-time nature of their work, adjuncts are not given health or retirement benefits. And in spite of years of experience as an adjunct — as much as 10 to 15 years or more — adjuncts receive a relatively flat rate of pay per class.

Beyond the personal economy, adjuncts at Carnegie Mellon tend to have little say in the future development of their department. These part-time educators are forced to deal with the economic and personal political whims of departments and administrations that can fire an adjunct professor at will, so the liberal arts ideal of a wide educational experience can be eliminated by a strong-willed department chair or the vagaries of administrative economics. A lack of influence in the future of the department decreases job security, thereby decreasing the economic security of adjuncts.

No matter where you go, adjunct professors are making up an increasing amount of the teaching faculty, and their economic insecurity and lack of academic freedom are both dangerous to the proper functioning of educational institutions. There are no protections for the majority of the educational labor force. An administration, a department, or a single person with power in either of those institutions could take advantage of an adjunct professor in a way that harms not only the economic standing of an adjunct but the educational value provided to students. As students who want the best value from our education, is it not our responsibility to fight for adjunct professors?

But the issue doesn’t just stop at adjuncts. Carnegie Mellon is an R1 research institution, and R1 institutions have seen a smaller increase in adjuncts than other post-secondary schools, like community colleges. At schools like Carnegie Mellon, the actual labor of teaching has been moved down the educational ladder to graduate students, and in some cases, even undergraduate students.

In many departments, recitations for introductory classes are taught by grad students. In the English department, a significant number of Interpretation and Argument sections are taught by graduate students. On the other side of campus, there are undergraduate students teaching recitations in the Computer Science department. This is a symptom of departments and administration not spending as much money on the reason we are attending an institution of higher education: instruction and education. They’re dependent on students, who pay to attend the institution, to provide educational labor. For grad students, their research is supposed to pay for their cost of attendance, not their educational labor. Not only is it hard being an adjunct professor providing educational labor, but it’s also hard being a grad student. And an undergrad.

A doctoral candidate in computer science wrote to The Tartan describing their experience in attaining value for their labor. They expressed that Carnegie Mellon has removed the laborers from being able to decide their value. Not only have doctoral candidates been limited in their power over the future of a department, professors and researchers working with doctoral candidates usually don’t have the power to assign a value to instructional labor. The compensation for a computer science graduate student is generally enough to scrape by during their time here, but it can be harder for students who don’t receive the generous stipend that computer science students receive. I don’t believe it would be too much of a stretch to suggest that grad students and adjuncts exist on the same plane, with their economic security dependent on administration. However, there are a few important differences between adjuncts and grad students; namely, adjuncts tend to have the terminal degree in their field, while grad students are working towards it. Grad students are suggested potential value from their degree, but potential value is not adequate compensation, considering the recent intake of grads to the adjunct pipeline.

Undergraduate teaching assistants receive even less immediate compensation for the promise of future value. Currently, a computer science undergraduate teaching assistant makes around 12 dollars an hour for teaching recitations, holding office hours, grading assignments, and creating assignments. In other words, doing the valuable work of an instructional laborer. It’s not hard to say that undergrad TA’s are not adequately compensated for the work they’re providing to the computer science department.

All of these issues revolve around administration cutting down the budget for instruction, as other administrative costs have continued to rise. To pay for these administrative costs, educational labor is devalued. This makes a student’s value in their education decrease, and administrations continue to do it. But at what cost? In 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct professor at Duquesne University passed away from a heart attack. At the time, she was getting radiation therapy for cancer, her house was falling in on itself, and Adult Protective Services were called to open a case into her situation. She couldn’t afford anything on her wage as an adjunct. In April of this year, Thea Hunter, a 63-year-old adjunct in New York City, passed away. After not seeing a doctor due to a lack of health care and a lack of economic ability, Thea Hunter was rushed to the hospital, where she died a short time later. The lack of support for adjunct faculty can cost lives. It is Carnegie Mellon's responsibility to set the precedent for fair compensation for all faculty and staff.