The Tragic Death of an Adjunct Professor

I’ve written about being an adjunct professor before. While I’m grateful for the three schools who currently employ me as an adjunct prof (St. Cloud State University, United Theological Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary) and those who have done so in the past (Rochester College, Andover Newton Theological School), one cannot help be see that the crisis in academia is coming to a head. Adjuncts currently make up over half of all teaching positions in the U.S. — we work without tenure, without insurance, without benefits.

The class I’m currently teaching pays me $267 to teach a 2-hour class — that does not include prep time.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carries this story that backs up the meta-trends, about a long-time adjunct professor at Duquesne University who died in her front yard of a heart attack, penniless and without insurance (HT: JR Rozko). The writer, an attorney for the union that has tried to organize Duquesne adjuncts, writes,

I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, “She was a professor?” I said yes. The case- worker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.

Of course, what the case-worker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.

He continues,

While adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption. Duquesne has claimed that the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.

I’ve got it better than Margaret Mary did. I’ve got other jobs (JoPa, sparkhouse) and other writing gigs. Nevertheless, adjuncting is a band-aid that many schools have been using, but it will not cure the deeper ailment in higher ed.

Here’s a related infographic that’s been going around:

Adjuncts out there, are you in a union? Why or why not?

Regular profs, do you support adjunct unionization? 

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  • Thursday1

    Never, EVER, do a PhD unless the university is giving you a full ticket ticket to ride. Never do any other graduate degree either unless there is clear remuneration for you at the end.

    • Unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy and simply want the doctorate to increase your knowledge base. 🙂

    • Thorsten Moritz

      Unless you do a British style PhD (while based in the US), pay the cost yourself (it’s much lower than in the States) and be done in three years. Generate income income two years earlier and come out ahead of a fully funded US PhD that takes you 5+ years to complete.

  • Greg Carey

    Tony, this piece is too misleading. Some adjuncts are aspiring professors, and they’re indeed victims of injustice. On the other hand, many adjuncts are professionals with other jobs. They might be yoga or guitar instructors, social workers who teach a community college psych course here and there, and so forth.

    Adjuncts are indeed paid as poorly as the piece suggests, but let’s get real about residential faculty. Very few tenure-track people are making the $120,000 in the chart — you can look it up. First, very few are actually full professors. And second, only at very few schools do tenured full professors (minimum: 10 years experience) average over $100,000.

    In short, I think the problem happens not so much in the hiring of adjuncts as in the production of PhDs who want academic positions.

    • I think you’re right. The infographic is less than perfect. But the acute rise in adjuncts at virtually every school is clearly a cost-saving measure — at the expense of real people. Maybe supply and demand will eventually level things out, like is happening now with lawyers.

      • Greg Carey


    • Nick

      If you look at salary averages, Tenured assistant professors at doctoral granting schools median at about 85k, and associate and full professors are far above that. The CCCU publishes its faculty salary survey, and their median is down around 55, and that is in the bottom quintile. The only tenured profs making less than about 70 are those at very small schools. And a full professor at any school that at least a grants an MA is almost certainly over 100k, based on the chronicle of higher education salary posts.

      That said, the diff between a 45k job with benefits and some security is radically different than a 2500 contract job. And the worst part of it all is that the “foot in the door” approach to getting a TT job works less than 20% of the time. Being an adjunct at a school is not even sort of a stepping stone to a tenured job.

      • Greg Carey

        What’s missing in this post? Very few academic jobs are the ones you’re talking about. By far, most jobs are in small state universities (which are not “very small”) and liberal arts colleges. Example: My second job was at a state university, and I started at $34K in 1997. My best friend there had just been promoted to associate, and he’d earned the outstanding junior faculty member award the year before. After 7 years, he was making $37K. We can safely assume his position hasn’t kept up with inflation. That’s far more typical than a job at Indiana University.

  • KentonS


    Thanks for sharing this.

    So here’s my thought, and I’d love your feedback: The bubble is bursting on college education and this is a symptom. Boomers told busters they HAD to go get an education to be successful. Busters passed it on to Gen X and we created a high demand for secondary ed. Seeing the opportunity, universities rose up and met the demand with supply. Then we ended up with a glut of educated Gen X folks and a scarcity of private sector jobs for them. Some of them cut their losses and went to work doing jobs they could have done right after high school. Others doubled down on their losses and went to grad school. Now Gen X-ers are telling Gen Y not to bother: that a college education doesn’t live up to its promises. And so the post-grad academics who doubled down flood a market of supply that has too little demand, and prices (“wages”) plummet.

    I know that doesn’t help the guy teaching a two hour course for $267, but demanding higher wages isn’t going to fix this picture.

    • There’s truth in that, to be sure. It’s not unlike seminaries pumping out MDiv grads who have no churches to serve. I agree that demanding higher wages, or more job security, isn’t the answer. However, I think that schools will begin to see that some of their most beloved teachers are adjuncts and they must pay more to keep them. It’s the tenure system that needs to be rethought.

  • Nick

    I completed a PhD in 2009, part-time, while teaching HS full-time. I taught HS for 15 years, and hold a PhD, with a few peer-reviewed publications. As a result of not following the traditional track, my resume is very odd, and not surprisingly, gets little attention in the pool of posted positions. And I am an outsider to the world of academia, who gets quite strange looks at the few conferences I attend when I explain my background. Being a HS teacher, I did not really have the time (or funding) to dedicate to all the things the professors need to do – attend conferences, research and publish, write reviews, grant-writing, etc. And of course, I have a family (three teenagers, a happy marriage… that’s the good part).

    As a result, I adjunct (online, in my “free-time”) and have no real plans to land a TT job, especially now that an assistant professorship would be a pay-cut, and likely a relocation, etc.

    It is a travesty that the higher education system in America has become what it is, as far as its employees are concerned. If the only way to keep it solvent is to be such a blight and source of frustration on the lives of so many, it may just not be worth it.

    That said, I am a much better person for my life’s path and for earning my degree. I learned so much and have developed so many skills in the process, that I can see the intrinsic value of the work that I did. But it is still incredibly frustrating and grieving to see the realities of working in higher education.

    • I agree with the last paragraph. It’s true in my case too.

      What’s also true is that academic guilds don’t know what to do with me because I don’t hold a tenure track position and I write for a popular audience. I’d like to go to AAR and contribute, but there doesn’t seem to be a place for me.

      • This next year would be the year for you. Open and Relational Theology section has a focus on Emerging Church stuff. It would have cost me $1000 to go and stay, and I’m among the adjunct salaried, so that wasn’t really an option. But I suspect there’s a place for you there or other academic settings. I hear you make a tremendous dissertation reviewer….

  • Craig

    Infographic seems misleading. The average salary of “TT Professor” is better shown here: The number of “Doctorates” awarded (“140,000”) last year is far greater than the number of Ph.D.s awarded in 2011 (49,010).

  • Pax

    I’m a tenure-track prof, and I’m all for adjuncts unionizing. IMHO, adjuncts ought to only be used as a temporary fill-in to cover for faculty on leave or on an interim basis until permanent faculty can be hired (and it should be something that someone with a full-time “day job” does occasionally because they like it and want to earn a few extra bucks). The degree to which we rely on adjuncts is unconscionable.

    If tenured faculty lines are too expensive, I’m perfectly fine with replacing research faculty lines with permanent teaching-oriented faculty who teach more but are given some job security and paid a living wage. Rather than paying someone $120,000/year to teach 2-3 classes a year and run a research program, couldn’t we pay someone $60,000 to teach 6-8 classes a year with reduced/eliminated research expectations?

    • Pax

      And, as a Catholic institution, Duquesne should be required to actually demonstrate Catholic social teaching by encouraging their adjuncts to unionize.

    • And those $60K professors, in turn, would have to realize that teaching is just part of a multi-vocational life. Like high school teachers who paint houses in the summer, they’d have to supplement their income. That’s something I’d be totally fine with.

      • Greg Carey

        Except, when are these professors going to do the work that earns tenure? We can talk about the role of research in higher ed, but summer is when that happens for most instructors. By the way, I’m a $65K full professor with kids, and I moonlight.

      • Craig

        Generally speaking, wouldn’t another option be to find a way to live within a $60K budget?

    • Craig

      A petition to sign, for those so inclined:

      I’m still trying to make up my own mind on the general issues here. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is such an abundance of highly qualified college instructors that all teaching needs could be more-than-adequately met by part-time, volunteer PhDs who, like many Sunday school teachers, simply desire in the opportunity to occasionally teach. Under such conditions, would it be reasonable to demand that universities instead meet their teaching needs though full-time positions compensated at $60,000/yr with benefits? I’m not sure it would be. Would it even be an improvement?

      This scenario is hypothetical, but how far off is it? There seem to be enough qualified college instructors to meet the administrator-perceived teaching needs at near-volunteer levels of compensation. And those who fill such positions tend to be those who, relative to the average citizen, are endowed with the kinds of talents that are generally valuable. This means that, more than others, the people who fill such positions tend to have other options (though not always, of course). Moreover, meager incomes and benefits notwithstanding, these people tend not to be lacking, relatively speaking, in the social bases of respect.

      And what are the all the effects of creating better-compensated teaching positions? Some of the effects wouldn’t, I take it, be positive–even for those in the relevant talent pool.

  • Craig

    Isn’t getting a PhD a lot like a getting a black belt in karate? People are going to pursue such things just because they’re cool achievements–even if rarely useful. If the unemployment rate among black belts is high and their earnings are low, who complains of injustice?

    I’m not saying that the structure of higher education is just (much less that adjuncts shouldn’t try to organize); I’d just like to have more of an argument.

  • Rustin Comer

    Tony, You and I have had this conversation at a few conferences. I am a pastor and an adjunct. I teach Religion and Ethics at California Lutheran University. I see this as a further “death of professionalism.” Just as you hold that a professional clergy as we knew it, is finding its end, so too is the professional Professor.

    I think you can find this happening in all professional fields. Think about the medical field and the radical changes happening there both in pay and postion. Think about the legal system and lawyers. I have more friends with law degrees than I can count, that are unable to get a law job that provides enough money to survive. We could go on and on through each of the traditional “professional” careers.

    The people I meet who are most successful in any career are the people who have been able to create a freelance reality for themselves like you. People who have gathered a multitude of skills and taking them in any direction that is bearing fruit.

    I see this only getting worse not better. I think this also contributes to the death of the middle class.

  • Administrators are looking at the bottom line and with health care changes are even more unwilling to create committed positions. They pack adjuncts into the schedule because it makes things easier. Of course they do so at a risk. More adjuncts means a lower quality rating for the school. At Wheaton, in four years I only had two adjuncts, one for a freshman writing course and another for 101 speech class. A lot of schools have adjuncts teaching upper division courses for majors. Now, I’m more than happy to get the work, and have been kept extremely busy by two schools, keeping my family fed, housed, and doctored. But, it’s tight and unnerving without the security of knowing what will happen “next” semester. Adjuncting is like manna, it’s there but it’s no promised land.

    On one side, there’s the administration and on the other there are the adjuncts. There’s a missing group in this discussion: tenured faculty. Do they, should they, have a role in this discussion?

    The trouble is that the system is set up so that those who “make it”
    are either so exhausted in the process or excited by finally getting
    into the club they don’t make waves. The ones who don’t make it, drift
    away or exist on the outskirts where there is no voice or power.

    It seems that if tenured faculty fought for better situations schools would begin to change. Can they fight the power? Or is that only something professors tell other people to do in those other fields?

  • 5 Schools, No Unions
    I’ve taught at 5 schools as an adjunct at a wide range of schools (state university, couple of private schools, and a couple of community colleges). None of those schools had unions.

    When my wife got sick, I was teaching 10 classes a semester at anywhere between 1200-2000 per class. No health bennies. 🙁

    One of the Lucky Ones
    I’ve been lucky enough to secure meaningful employment in a related field (instructional design) & I’m lucky enough to be able to “teach on the side”.