Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Adjunct Nation

Why is it that higher education is the only industry with highly-credentialed pieceworkers?

Adjuncts at colleges and universities hold graduate degrees – usually master’s, but increasingly doctorates – and get paid peanuts. Someone teaching at my current institution could teach 8 courses a year and total $13,000, without benefits. That’s less than a part-time secretary with a high-school diploma makes. The shocking thing is how many adjuncts are around and available. From an administrative perspective, such cheap labor solves some short-term financial issues quite neatly, even if, I suspect, it slowly erodes the intellectual capital of an institution. (In saying that, I don’t mean to impugn the intelligence of adjuncts, but merely to echo Aristotle’s observation that contemplation requires leisure.)

The financial logic is compelling. Yet only higher ed seems to have latched onto it. Why not other credentialed professions?

Imagine adjunct surgeons. For about $35 an hour, they will perform surgeries on an as-needed basis. Finally, a solution to the rising cost of health insurance! Doctors who couldn’t afford health insurance seems like poetic justice.

Or adjunct cops. Whenever a crime wave breaks out, or a political convention comes to town, local bruisers would join the force at a low hourly rate to wield what Max Weber called a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. What could possibly go wrong?

Adjunct attorneys! The key issue here is pay. Lawyers are often paid by the hour now; why not drastically lower the rate? After all, there’s no shortage of lawyers! Let the market work its magic. $45/hour, tops. If you don’t like it, work at Burger King. As with professors and surgeons, the pay only covers hours actually ‘at work’ (i.e. in the classroom, in the courtroom, in surgery) – preparation is strictly on your own time and your own dime.

Adjunct airline pilots! How many kids grow up wanting to be pilots? $50/hour, covering only time spent in the air. See how long they linger on the tarmac now…

As with our adjuncts, low performers (defined however their managers choose) can be dropped without notice, new people called in at the last minute, etc. Keep a few full-time positions around, just to keep hope alive, so the adjuncts don’t go into a more secure line of work, like show business.

For some reason, academics with doctorates are willing to tolerate conditions that no other trained professionals would even dream of accepting. If academic adjuncts used the same billing logic as, say, business consultants, they would insist on reimbursement for preparation time, travel, meals, and course materials, and would quintuple their rate.

You’d think smart people like professors would have figured this out by now. Colleges pay adjuncts so little because they can. But why can they? Why are Ph.D.’s willing to allow themselves to be so badly exploited, often for years on end?