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Today is National Respect Day: How About Some Respect for the Adjunct Professor

Maybe choose a different profession?

Published in ChicagoNow, September 18, 2014

An award-winning professor, beloved by students at a prestigious private university, has no contract, no insurance, no office, no parking space, and no respect. The Dean of the professor’s department is indifferent to the professor’s excellent teaching skills and the inconvenience for all parties when student meetings take place in hallways and at Starbucks.

Then there are the economic issues. The professor would have to teach two classes per semester to earn poverty level wages of $25,000 – $30,000 a year for a family of four. Students in the professor’s classes are paying $65,000 per year to attend the university. Something is very wrong with this picture.

September 18 is National Respect Day. There are so many people out there who deserve more respect that they receive, but I am going to focus on the backbone of today’s college education — the adjunct professor. Like Aretha Franklin, these folks aren’t asking for “all your money” — just a living wage and a bit of respect.

What is an adjunct professor? Well, to become one, you have to earn a Ph.D., which is neither cheap nor an easy feat. It can take a minimum of 3-4 years beyond earning a Master’s degree, and you have to write a dissertation and defend it. Once that’s done, you are set forever in an idyllic university setting, right?

But wait. That’s not what happens for most newly minted professors. Tenured positions are really hard to come by. Many end up teaching at universities abroad or they become adjunct faculty. That may not sound so bad, but believe me, it is.

There is a great piece on this topic in Alternet, How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps. If you have kids who are or will be attending college or if you are struggling to repay college loans or if your alma mater keeps hitting you up for contributions, you need to read it.

You may be shocked to learn that the rising cost of a college education has nothing to do with paying the professors who actually deliver that education. In her post about what is destroying our universities, Debra Leigh Scott describes The Plight of the Adjunct Professor, step two of the process:

“At latest count, we have 1.5 million university professors in this country, 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever – which means that they have no idea how much work they will have in any given semester, and that they are often completely unemployed over summer months when work is nearly impossible to find (and many of the unemployed adjuncts do not qualify for unemployment payments). So, one million American university professors are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work. Keep in mind, too, that many of the more recent Ph.Ds have entered this field often with the burden of six figure student loan debt on their backs.”

In a Huffington Post piece by Sophie-Claire Holler, 5 College Amenities So Insane You’ll Want to Go Back to School, we learn about the resort-like amenities some colleges are providing to lure students into attending. The examples she gives include huge recreational pools; ski lifts; dairy bars with 60 ice cream flavors; a huge $50 million gym that includes a river with a waterfall, over 100 cardio machines, a whirlpool, a sauna, and hot tub; a private steak house; and a first-run movie house with “free” snacks.

I guess there isn’t much money left in those college budgets to pay decent wages to the professors who teach their students. No one seems to care if the good adjunct faculty members leave. Someone else looking for work easily replaces them. It’s the facilities, sports teams, and fancy extras that matter.

So, on National Respect Day, I will be respecting those hard-working adjuncts who educate our college students. But I won’t be respecting the universities that exploit them. In fact, I won’t be giving my college alumni association more money to build an even bigger football stadium.


by Laurie Levy
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