The Emergent Academic Proletariat and Its Shortchanged Students

(Courtesy Shimer College Recondite Staff, via Wikimedia Commons)

The phrase “corporatization of the university” captures the reorientation of colleges away from a primarily educational mission and toward one that resembles the financial bottom line. The evidence of this shift is myriad: the growth of for-profit degree-granting institutions, rising tuition and student debt, the pursuit of elevated rankings, disproportionate resources spent on athletic programs and sports facilities, the identification of students as “customers,” assessment of accomplishment in the classroom as that which can be quantified, a small number of highly compensated academic “superstars,” and a swelling cadre of overpaid administrators. According to Stephen Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University and an unapologetic pioneer of tuition inflation, success for colleges is measured by continuous new construction on campuses and substantial endowments. The achievement of this never-ending growth requires constantly greater revenue, which in turn, necessitates escalating tuition and fees. As Trachtenberg explained, “people equate price with the value of their education.”

Comparatively little of this money, however, is dedicated to supporting the educational mandate of colleges by, for example, reducing the teacher-to-student ratio or paying the majority of faculty a livable salary. Rather, the burden of these “business-like” endeavors has been borne on the backs of onerously indebted students and low-wage temporary faculty.

Most teachers in higher education across the country lack long-term job stability. Presently, close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people. The label “contingent academic labor” encompasses an array of arrangements, among them adjuncts paid on a per-course basis, one- or multi-year contract faculty, visiting professors, and post-docs. In general, these positions are characterized by low pay, no-to-little job security, and, frequently, no health or retirement benefits. According to the Adjunct Project, the national average remuneration for adjuncts is $2,987 for a 15-week, three-credit course, usually with a high student enrollment, and some teachers are paid as little as $1,000 per class. Currently, nearly 34,000 Ph.D. recipients receive food stamps to supplement their earnings. In an effort to cobble together a living, many adjuncts teach at multiple institutions, taking on a course load of six or more classes per semester and spending significant time traveling among campuses. Most recently, numerous university systems have reduced the number of courses adjuncts can teach in a single year to avoid the thirty-hour per week threshold established by the 2010 Affordable Care Act that would trigger access to employer healthcare benefits.

Though convenient to mark the economic contraction of 2008 as the turning point in this story, the achievement of a majority contingent faculty represents the culmination of a forty year trend. In 1970, almost 78 percent of faculty were classified as permanent, full-time. While four decades ago most adjuncts derived their main source of income from other full-time employment and taught an occasional course in their field of expertise, today more and more non-permanent faculty grind to support themselves and their families through teaching.

In addition to the financial hardships associated with contingency come the indignities of subservient status within the academy, as most adjuncts are not considered “full” members of their department. They are generally ineligible to apply for university funds to support professional development, conference travel, or research activities, often have no assigned office space, and are rarely given the opportunity to create specialized courses. Moreover, despite regularly teaching the largest number of students in a department, as well as their majority status on campus, they have either a minimal or no voice in faculty governance.

Contingent faculty constitute an academic proletariat, where a lack of workplace control, negligible job security, and prevailing low wages define the conditions of employment. As more students than ever attend institutions of higher learning and the corresponding demand for teachers grows, temporary professors comprise an abundant supply of qualified labor seeking too few decently paid, permanent jobs.

In response to these conditions, previously solitary academic laborers are joining together in an attempt to speak with a collective voice. Despite the logistical obstacles to organizing a scattered and temporary workforce, and unresolved questions about the legality of union membership for various categories of contract faculty (a result of the 1980 Supreme Court ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University), unionization campaigns have taken hold from Washington State to Washington, D.C., from Colorado to Ohio, and from California to Massachusetts, in private and public colleges, as well as in for-profit institutions. New associations have formed to advocate on behalf of adjunct and other temporary college teachers, among them the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and the New Faculty Majority. COCAL has forged alliances with contingent workers across national borders and occupations, while NFM has conducted research, including a 2012 report “Who is Professor ‘Staff’ and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?,” and launched educational and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the links between faculty working conditions and student learning conditions.

Recently, the major teacher unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have ramped up their commitment to organizing adjuncts, while the Service Employees International Union, following successful campaigns in the Washington, D.C. region, has expanded its work among nonpermanent faculty nationally. Following the “metro-organizing strategy,” SEIU seeks to unionize the majority of adjuncts in a given metropolitan area in order to secure greater bargaining leverage, with a long term goal of securing equal pay for equal work, thus eliminating the financial incentive for employing contingent labor. While the implementation will vary according to locality, elements may include the negotiation of a shared contract for a given region, establishment of a hiring hall that would also offer workspace for members and opportunities for professional development, and additional programs and resources to alleviate the isolation often felt by adjuncts. In this manner, the success of the metro-organizing plan depends on strengthening the relationship between the union and its members, thus imagining it as not merely a bargaining agent, but as an institution that embraces and fulfills a social need in the community.

As contingent faculty endeavor to improve their working conditions and pay, students have become important allies. For, while the majority of university teachers struggle to earn a living, tuition rates and student indebtedness continue to soar, a circumstance that belies administrative claims that improved salaries for adjunct faculty require increased tuition. Rather than accede to such divide-and-conquer tactics, students have begun to ask how their tuition dollars are being spent, if not to pay their teachers a livable wage, and have demanded more input in university governance, where boards of trustees are largely comprised of representatives of the banking and financial industries.

In the United States, student debt now totals over one trillion dollars, exceeding that of credit cards. By 2012, the average student loan debt had reached $27,000, and well over 60 percent of students attending college are expected to secure a loan to pay for their education (the number approaches 96 percent for those enrolled in private, for-profit schools). And, under current regulations student loan and consumer debt differ in regard to the lack of protections afforded debtors and the greater collection powers granted creditors. Personal bankruptcy offers no relief from the obligation of student loans and creditors can garnish not only wages, but also tax returns, Social Security payments, and disability income. Beyond this, there is a lucrative business in defaulted student loans. In this case, 20 percent of all payments can be appropriated by the creditor for processing costs before any money is applied to the loan principal or interest, and borrowers are compelled to participate in “loan rehabilitation” programs that involve significant fees and that extend the length of payments and, hence, increase the overall debt. Guaranty agencies derive approximately 60 percent of their income from fees alone. Among those subject to these predatory practices, it is worth noting, are many adjuncts who carry the burden of substantial student debt.


Beyond the detrimental effects these developments have on those seeking to earn a living wage as college teachers and on students weighed down by loans, this growing reliance on contingent faculty raises crucial questions about the nature of education. The traditional value of a liberal arts education rests not on a transactional arrangement dedicated to specific job training or the memorization of information, but on being taught methods for interpreting the meaning of that information to foster a community of critical thinkers. This requires a working and learning environment that supports engagement with the complexity and plurality of ideas and one that provides for spontaneous and sustained interactions between teachers and students. But this model of education is undermined when the majority of faculty occupy precarious and low-wage jobs, lack adequate time and resources to respond fully to student needs, and whose uncertain employment precludes the development of long-term relationships with students or colleagues. And it is additionally compromised by the expanded influence of administrators and a corporate-like preoccupation with revenue, enrollment numbers, facility construction, and suspect national rankings.

Though often cloaked with the mantle of financial stress, the desire for a flexible pool of academic workers echoes the efforts of Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th century, in the name of efficiency, to diminish workers’ power in pursuit of greater managerial control. Contingency creates not only a less costly, but a more compliant workforce. Faculty governance loses meaning when the majority of faculty is excluded from its prerogatives and when it consists mostly of responding to administrative directives. In these respects trends in the academy mirror those of the general labor market, where the number of temporary workers across professions is on the rise.

But while sharing a great deal with other contingent workers, academic labor is distinct in important ways and with particular political implications: tenure and academic freedom.

Designed to protect intellectual diversity, tenure promotes a freedom of inquiry that requires abandoning attachments to an inviolate set of ideas and that often rewards challenges to conventional wisdom. This makes education an inherently political act and, further, because of its tendency to question received truths, one that encourages progressive thought. Following the successful efforts in the mid-twentieth century to solidify the protections of tenure, and with it academic freedom, universities have fostered the exploration of ideas essential to the political left, most influentially in the realm of multiculturalism. This connection between a more egalitarian politics and a liberal arts education that disrupts the status quo animates the continued assault by conservative forces against higher education, one manifested in reduced public funding for universities, a business-like insistence on quantifiable outcomes, and greater numbers of contingent faculty.

It is broadly acknowledged that the substantial influence of neoliberal advocates on national politics stems from their ability to frame public and policy debates about domestic, economic, and foreign affairs through the establishment of think tanks and affiliation with academic departments, a political effort being shouldered by irregularly employed, low-paid teachers and indebted students. Ideas matter, and a majority of temporary academic workers jeopardizes tenure, academic freedom, and the intrinsically progressive methods associated with open intellectual exploration, thus narrowing a crucial intellectual space in which the political left can develop more compelling and alternative visions of the future than those offered by an established corporate-infused perspective.


A shared economic precariousness links contingent faculty and students. For the vast majority of people affiliated with them, universities no longer provide a pathway to the middle-class, but instead perpetuate continual fiscal anxiety and give rise to a class defined by its financial insecurity. And this economic uncertainty shapes political behavior. A robust American tradition couples economic stability with independent politics. A view that dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s ward republics, the nineteenth century free labor movement, and the student activism of the 1960s, its proponents contend that economic dependence limits one’s ability to freely engage in politics. Indeed, a lack of monetary independence leads to political timidity. Academic freedom itself is grounded in the notion that meaningful scholarly exploration requires autonomy from financial reprisal by donors, administrators, or others.

Historically, a more egalitarian politics has often emerged from improved material abundance, not from cumulative deprivation. A fundamental political question in the United States centers on the distribution of the nation’s enormous and growing wealth: either dispersed in the hands of the many or aggrandized in the hands of the few. In the late-nineteenth century, as the country transitioned to a staggeringly productive industrial economy American Federation of Labor co-founder Samuel Gompers answered “more” when asked what workers wanted. His response effectively summarized the persistent demand for higher wages as that which would establish the economic security necessary for organized labor to wield greater political influence, and joined calls for a minimum wage and guaranteed employment.

Six decades later, amid the sustained economic and social benefits of the “New Deal Order” that successfully coupled business, labor, and the state to create and stabilize a broad middle-class, the authors of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, which marked the founding of Students for a Democratic Society, acknowledged the relationship between their financial security and their developing political outlook: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” Here, a generation of college students critically assessed social arrangements—from civil rights and military adventurism to questioning the reach of corporate influence—with an assurance that they possessed the power to challenge them without jeopardizing their own economic status. Today, however, financial uncertainty defines the circumstances of most college students and faculty.

The monetary insecurity that typifies the working conditions for contingent faculty shapes their choices both inside and outside of the classroom. Anxiety about contract renewal affects the substance of teaching. Adjuncts may make classes less demanding to mitigate low student evaluations, self-censor to avoid contentious topics, or choose not to assign controversial readings to head-off potential complaints. Such decisions subvert precisely that which academic freedom and tenure are meant to safeguard—the advancement of analytical and questioning scholarship that is passed along to students in order to nurture an analytical and questioning citizenry. As well, contingent status affects faculty behavior outside of the classroom, which also constitutes part of a student’s education. Economically vulnerable teachers are less likely to oppose administrative policies or to support student organizations involved in political actions on campus, and may be reluctant to publicly aid unionization efforts for either themselves or other university workers for fear of retribution.

While financial precariousness for the majority of faculty is embedded in their status as an academic proletariat, for students the costs of a college education are producing a generation bound from their early twenties to decades of debt and who then embark on a post-graduation work life where real wages are stagnant, where temporary employment is becoming less exceptional, and for whom the achievement of economic solvency seems unlikely. The circumstances of contingent faculty and indebted students are simultaneously emblematic of national trends toward precarious employment and long term financial anxiety amid enormous national wealth, and more deeply implicated because of the power of education to act as an egalitarian social force.


Claire Goldstene has taught United States labor history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University. Her book, The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital, will appear in early 2014.

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