Adjunct professors and their struggles seem to have made the big time.
The New York Times has issued editorial alarm about the “college faculty crisis,” pointing to increased reliance on “abysmally paid” adjuncts, and carried a news story featuring a dedicated instructor – a PSC member – who sometimes “lies sleepless in the dark, wondering how long he will be able to afford the academic life.”
Adjuncts were described as leading lives of “Dickensian misery” in the Los Angeles Times, and as “an undervalued, invisible population,” in the Boston Globe. The Atlantic reported on adjunct faculty members’ determination to challenge their “unjust working conditions.”
A profile by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Maura Lerner of an adjunct with “no benefits, no job security or even a desk to call her own,” was reprinted under headlines from “Teaching College Courses for a Barista’s Pay,” to “Part-Time Professors Revolt.”
Disgruntled adjuncts talked about living on food stamps or leaving teaching altogether in a PBS NewsHour segment on the issue the show’s correspondent insisted on labeling “the adjunctivitis epidemic.”
As the precarious situation of adjuncts is not new, one might wonder what has prompted this recent groundswell of media attention. It appears to be due to a confluence of union activism on campuses and official pronouncements on the issue, like a January report from House Committee staff, thrown into relief by “human interest” stories like that of Mary Margaret Vojtko, who died destitute in 2013 after being dismissed without pension or severance from the university where she’d taught French part-time for 25 years.
Vojtko’s story “resonated for a lot of people,” as Maria Maisto of adjunct advocates New Faculty Majority told The New York Times, “as a symbol of how they could end up themselves.’’
But if big media are reporting on adjuncts – for the moment – is this the sort of coverage that can inspire real-world change?
With a few exceptions (like the Denver Post editorial arguing that while area adjuncts’ pay is “anything but lavish,” efforts to rectify that would damage “the ability of college officials to manage their workforce intelligently”), most media coverage certainly seems sympathetic to adjuncts’ struggles, including their moves to unionize.
Indeed, numerous stories are cast in what might be called “plight” mode, highlighting the difficulties of working out of cars, unpaid class preparation time, classes canceled at the last minute – and the love of the job that drives teachers nonetheless.
As with many other labor stories, the media falls short not so much by failing to show the humanity of struggling actors, but by largely sidestepping the corollary interrogation of the powerful forces driving the plot.
Against the backdrop of undeniably growing inequality, one reason elite journalists may have picked up on this story is that, while they likely don’t know any fast-food workers, they do know a PhD or two who are hoping, or struggling, to make a living teaching college. That these workers should be treated like...like workers!...may have some particular resonance for reporters in downsizing corporate media.
Much of the coverage, though, frames adjuncts’ stories as unique or somehow “ironic,” not part of the broader story of what columnist Jim Hightower called “the corporate culture of a contingent workforce” that’s seeing “highly educated, fully credentialed professors...become part of America’s fast-growing army of the working poor.” This idea – that adjuncts’ fates are tied to broader class and political conflicts, or to universities’ adoption of a corporate model, too often goes unmentioned.
Most articles note adjuncts’ low pay, for example, but few note it alongside the multimillion dollar paychecks and perks given to college presidents, as history professor Lawrence Wittner did at Huffington Post, or point out, as law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds did in an op-ed in Alabama’s Montgomery Advertiser, that colleges’ outsourcing philosophy is selectively employed: “Who ever heard of an ‘adjunct administrator’?”
Outlets like USA Today point to an ongoing nationwide “push for better pay, greater job security and access to health insurance,” but few make clear, as did Baltimore’s City Paper, that the crisis is “not a product of the economic crash,” but dates back at least “three decades,” or that it’s “not limited to those who teach commonly denigrated subjects like art and literature,” but extends to “engineering – a field for which industry hacks are constantly claiming they can’t find qualified workers.”
In fact, the growth in universities’ reliance on exploiting adjunct labor parallels the dramatic decline in state support for higher education from coast to coast. State funding for public higher education stood at $10.58 per $1,000 of state personal income in fiscal 1976. By fiscal 2011, that figure had dropped to $6.30 per $1,000, adding up to a 40% decline.
“Disinvestment...led to radical changes in the academic workforce,” noted a 2012 report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with “colleges...increasingly relying on contingent faculty to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching.” In 1971, more the three-quarters of US university faculty were still full-time – but by 2011, it was just 50%, according to The Century Fund. And many of the full-timers also lack job security: contingent faculty, both part-time and full-time, “now comprise more than 70% of the instructional corps,” the AFT reports.
With three-quarters of US college students enrolled in public colleges and universities, winning equity for adjuncts will require a restoration of the billions that have been cut from public institutions’ budgets. That in turn means reversing the wave of tax cuts favoring the rich, which swept the US in the years after the victory of California’s anti-tax Proposition 13 in 1978.
“The decline in funding for higher education is not simply a matter of not enough money; it is a matter of political will,” argues the AFT. “Decision-makers have been unwilling to make the funding of higher education a priority in their states.”
Mainstream outlets rarely put things so bluntly, or ask decision-makers directly about these bigger choices. The NewsHour segment did include some Q&A with a representative of the American Council of Education, Terry Hartle. But rather than question Hartle’s line that more than 70% of college teachers are contingent because colleges are “economic enterprises that need to stay in business,” or challenge remarks like, “Nobody forces someone to become an adjunct,” the PBS correspondent simply paraphrased them: “Look, says Hartle, bottom line, schools have no choice.”
This is just a 21st century version of Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “There is no alternative” to the requirements of austerity. And without a willingness to challenge that easy assumption, all the human interest stories in the world will do little to challenge the structures of adjunct exploitation.
It is undeniably refreshing to see some overdue press attention to the injustices that have confronted adjunct faculty for more than a generation. But it is also striking to see so many articles that connect so few of the dots.
Janine Jackson is program director at Fairness Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR).