As a department chair at Columbia University, I am compelled to hire many people on a part-time basis, although they want and deserve full-time jobs. These adjuncts are among the finest, longest-serving instructors in many universities, and it’s well known that their lasting contributions can transform the lives of their students.
It’s also no secret that they are getting a raw deal. Overworked and underpaid, they often struggle to get by and, when taken to an extreme, the consequences can be tragic.
With each passing year, it becomes clearer that cheap labor has become the hidden foundation of American higher education. According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 50 percent of all faculty hold part-time appointments. A vast workforce of mostly non-unionized adjunct instructors—the so-called “contingent faculty”—now comprises the core of the teaching faculty. They often teach as many courses as full-time instructors, but because they are considered part-time, they have no voting power in departments or universities, no benefits, no job security and no office in which to meet with their students.
The short-term benefits to a university’s bottom line are obvious. It is fiscally advantageous for institutions to hire adjuncts instead of creating more full-time positions with benefits, and the seemingly unlimited availability of part-time instructors makes it relatively easy to offer a large number of courses. And, as noted in the 2010 report of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, while adjunct instructors are long-time (albeit part-time) faculty and shoulder a substantial portion of the curriculum, institutional policies often treat them as if they are short-term workers with minimum involvement in academic life. More than once, adjuncts have been called “the fast-food workers of the academic world.”
One could argue that the chair should just say no, I’m not hiring those people. I’m not sure what would happen. Quite possibly the chair would simply be replaced and the dean’s office would hire the adjuncts. Maybe it would do some good.