Reasons for Not Teaching in Higher Education

Photo Credit: Paul Rehg,
Photo Credit: Paul Rehg,

When I was in undergrad, I was sometimes taught by adjunct faculty. At the time, the personal story of one of my adjunct professors had really intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about it even more recently. For the sake of privacy, I’ll refer to this person as Professor X.

Professor X is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met, and X is well respected for his/her playing abilities around the nation. X attended prestigious music schools around the country, including UCLA (and Berkley, I think). Failing to find a job after obtaining a PhD, X worked for several years in construction, playing music on the side and waiting for an opportunity to teach at an academic institution. Around 2009, an adjunct position finally opened at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, leading Professor X to St. Louis to teach. Since X was an adjunct, he/she was forced to find employment at many universities around the area to make ends meet, constantly struggling to find classes to teach and students to work with for private lessons. I honestly don’t know how many schools X taught at, but it was at least four or five, including mine.

For the 2010-2011 academic year, Professor X earned a full time spot at my undergrad institute, which made me very happy at the time, as I felt that the position was well earned. Unfortunately, Professor X later came to the realization that teaching full time was not what he/she wanted to do, and Professor X is now gone. I have no idea where X is now, but I wish him/her the best.

At the time, I believed that X’s status as an adjunct was something of an anomaly. Most academic students who desire to teach at the college level, I believed, were able to do so, even though they may have to move to middle-of-nowhere, USA. Some were forced to be adjuncts, but most eventually got that full time position that they so earnestly desired. If you worked hard, showed a lot of passion, and made a difference in the classroom, things would go your way.

Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out the picture is way more complex than I understood it as a young undergrad. It turns out that many who desire to teach at the college level never get the chance to teach full time, regardless of subject. Professor X’s story is probably really mild compared to others who have tried to break into the field. Some tenured academics like William Pannapacker have even suggested that getting a PhD–especially in the humanities–is a mistake. Another article I recently read presents some facts that I find absolutely shocking. To wit:

  • At some Washington DC universities, only 4% of the budget goes towards faculty pay and instruction. At many schools across the country, state support is getting cut, leading to a reliance on private donations and student tuition to meet budgetary requirements. Most of these funds are going towards the salaries of a rising number of administrators, tech support, people involved with athletics, and fundraising staff. Lots of that money also goes towards fancy new stadiums and campus amenities like cafeterias and dorms.
  • Most adjuncts make between $2,000-$3,000 per course they teach, without benefits. Many are on food stamps.
  • 75% of the faculty workforce in higher ed is composed of adjuncts.

Higher Education, despite what you may hear on daytime television commercials or internet ads, is a business. Whether a public or private institution, it’s a business, and I think we are starting to see how badly we need to restructure things. I am glad to see that more adjuncts are using their voices in protest against this immoral system. Some have also decided to leave for good, and it’s hard to blame them. Consider this letter from Professor M. I am going to quote the letter in full here, but make sure to check the link to see the article, its comments, and a collection of other stories about life as an adjunct. Here we go:

Dear College and University Presidents and Boards:

I can’t claim I did not know what I was getting myself into; I had been an adjunct for over fifteen years when I decided to become one full-time. That was five years ago and as I face one class each per two schools where there used to be three or four, and as my husband and I face foreclosure on our home of ten years, I realize that my assumption that I could become full-time faculty (or at least make a decent living wage) was wrong.

My students like me, my full-time faculty adjunct schedulers like me, the dean likes me when he needs a special favor (like a last minute assignment, or an independent study for the boyfriend of the daughter of a college VP) but no one likes me enough to give me the wage, respect and resources I deserve.

Adjuncts, or contingent faculty, are carrying the education system in this country. The colleges and universities have been surviving and profiting on the backs of people like me for too long. I have decided I am through. I don’t know what that means for me or what will happen, but I can’t do it anymore. Unpaid summers are too long and life is too short. I know I am a good teacher; I also know I can’t give all that I should when I have so much resentment against the institutions.

I have been asked to participate in an accreditation self-study, for free naturally, but I feel no obligation to help them out. Do I care if they lose accreditation? No, they do not care that I lost my home. We are not working together to enrich and enhance our student’s experiences and give them the best education we can – admin wants to bleed me dry for as little as possible and I want them to break their metaphorical arms patting themselves on the back for that new building, office wing, stadium, or at their conferences, or “team building” retreats. I share an office with I don’t know how many people, I can’t afford to attend conferences, I buy my own computers, my own printer ink, my own flash drives, my own gas driving from one campus to another, etc.

I’m done; you win – on to your next victim. You got five full-time years and fifteen part-time, all while someone else paid for my health insurance and a salary I could live off of. Good luck with that accreditation or the next one, your house of cards is wobbling and will topple because you have built no foundation for your institution.

What does it matter, you don’t know my name anyway.

Is this the best we can do at our institutions of higher learning?