Why your college professor may be on the edge of poverty

Seattle University Of Washington Classroom

This month, university students across the state will begin their latest academic year. But even though they’ll be paying a lot of money to attend a college or university, many will sit in classes with teachers who are not paid a living wage and are given few benefits.

This teaching staff will have no reason to be loyal to their school’s mission, dash between several institutions to pay bills, and are often denied backing to conduct research or apply for grants. They also have no opportunity to receive teaching awards and other recognition for academic achievements.

This is the world of adjunct professors like me, contracted teachers hired only when main faculty members are away or the census expands at the last minute. We constitute more than half of post-secondary faculties nationwide, according to the American Association of University Professors.

But we can be discarded just as quickly as we are hired, the intellectual Kleenex of academia.

Most adjuncts receive no benefits or health insurance, and only limited access to the services accorded full-time faculty, if that. We are often assigned classes at the last minute, paid by the course or credit hour, but are not compensated for holding office hours, grading, or course prep.

Nevertheless, departments expect us to keep up with research in our field, publish, and receive excellent student evaluations.

When was the last time you ever heard of university administrators taking a cut in pay? As institutions reduce the number of full-time faculty and starve their adjuncts, they bloat higher-ups’ compensation and numbers. All this, despite the outcry from citizens and politicians that higher ed is too expensive.

So why don’t I apply for a full-time position, get a job in the private sector, or join a union? I’ve tried all three paths. To begin, tenure-track jobs in academia are becoming as rare as a Sizzler steak. I’ve worked in the private sector, but have spent a lot of years developing my knowledge base and refining my teaching skills. Why should I be compelled to give up my passion to sell futures at Goldman Sachs because of a system that takes advantage of an overcrowded market for teaching staff?

As for unions, some adjuncts have unionized, but it is a tough slog. Resistance from administrations is ferocious, as they stand to lose a lot of money to pay us a decent wage and provide job security, a cost that would certainly be dumped on parents and students.

Adjuncts receive scant comity from departmental colleagues, rarely a permanent desk or dedicated computer, yet we are expected to do everything a tenure-track employee would. We are rarely consulted about class syllabus or departmental decisions. We are notified—sometimes only days in advance—when we are needed, and then have texts and class lists shoved at us. We do our best to cope and shine for our students.

Pupils may never see me again after the course ends, never mind if they need a recommendation or just talk about their grade or receive career guidance, because I can’t afford to stay on campus when I’m not teaching. That fact frustrates me to no end, since consulting with students is rewarding for both them and me. In the end, we all get cheated.

Yes, teaching at the university level is a career choice, but even more important, it’s also the education that will prepare students for their careers to come. If you or your child will set sail on the U.S.S. University this fall, you’d do well to find out who’s actually pulling the oars.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Nancy Burkhalter

Nancy Burkhalter

Nancy Burkhalter is an adjunct professor at Seattle University, in the school's English Language and Culture Bridge Program.