Adjunct faculty: The new underappreciated factory worker

When I first began my time here at Portland State, I was hopelessly optimistic that my education was worth the investment and would put me ahead in life. As my junior year comes to a close, even walking across the campus puts a bad taste in my mouth. Not a day goes by I don’t think about my loan debt and wish I had gone into the trades.

Don’t get me wrong, I value my education more than I do anything else, but if I died tomorrow all I’d have to show for my short time on this earth is my good grades and the ridiculous amount of textbooks and supplementary materials I’ve collected.

While I still have a shred of respect left for modern American universities, its slowly being eroded by the fact that most universities seem hell-bent on sucking dry every single person who has the misfortune of stepping onto their campus for more than 30 minutes.

Everyone here at PSU has had at least one experience where the university charged them too much for something. Whether that was for returning a library book late, signing up for housing, dropping a class, rescheduling a final or buying the overpriced first edition of a textbook, every student has found out that tuition rates are just half the battle.

It’s hard to see universities as the nonprofit institutions they claim to be, given their track records. I wouldn’t be surprised if they began outsourcing jobs to Asia. One of the largest and most concerning problems that faces the modern American university today is the startling amount of professors who are in adjunct positions.

In 1969 less than 19 percent of professors worked part-time in adjunct positions, and today that number has skyrocketed to 75 percent. These professors often make wages below the poverty line.

That means classes you will take at PSU might be taught by people with Ph.D.s who can’t even afford to pay their bills, let alone buy their food. While adjunct faculty probably learned how to spend only $10 per week on food during their time in school, that shouldn’t be a reality for them for the rest of their lives.

There are many reasons for this trend, and people are quick to point fingers at administrators, university presidents and a lack of fair labor practice. However, I think there is a deeper cause for this trend rooted in the current American conception of the university.

People now see college as a place where education will lead to prosperity or economic stability and not a place where they will educate themselves or seriously invest time doing scholarly research. It appears this idea of the university as a risky financial investment has begun to creep into how the university runs and makes hiring decisions.

At times it seems universities are run like a cold, calculating, multinational corporation, rather than a place of higher learning. For example, between 2009 and 2012, the salaries of university presidents went up 14 percent, averaging at about $544,000. Some universities saw this figure increase to $974,000.

Not surprisingly, at the 25 universities with the highest paid presidents, more than twice the national average of adjunct professors were hired and student debt increased at a faster rate. While this may be a correlation and not a cause, I feel it’s something to keep in mind when universities claim they can’t pay professors living wages without raising tuition. If they can give administrators raises and start large building projects, they can probably invest some money when it comes to the academic side of the university.

It seems adjunct professors are treated like low-level Wal-Mart employees. Luckily for them, there’s a nice surplus of individuals with M.A.s and Ph.D.s desperate for work, and if you don’t like how you’re treated they’ll find someone else.

This is not only unfair to those who have spent seven years or more studying and conducting research to become an expert in their field, but it’s also unfair to students who truly come to a university to learn. In order for students to really get something out of their education, there need to be well-paid, well-trained scholars who aren’t overworked, under appreciated and treated like second-rate employees.

As long as the university is treated like a vocational school that hands out pieces of paper that will simply be put on resumes, this will most likely remain a problem. If students are not truly invested in their education, then they will not give much thought to how academic faculty are treated. If a student isn’t dedicated to scholarship and research, you can guarantee the school won’t be particularly concerned with providing professional scholars a living wage.

Universities know this and take advantage of it. They know a good portion of people who enroll at a university these days, especially at an urban campus like PSU, want to get in, get out and find a job. And even if you are dedicated to the idea of teaching, scholarly research universities don’t treat you like a scholar in the making, they treat you like a consumer who can be exploited and then potentially exploited again later for unlivable wages.

In my mind, there are many ways to help the symptoms of the current adjunct crisis; unions, petitions and compromises with the administration are just some of them. However, this and student debt are a symptom of a larger problem: the shifting of universities away from academic scholarship to degree factories.

Under this current system, students are the cheap toys sold at Wal-Mart and adjunct faculty are the overworked laborers working frantically to get us out of the factory and onto shelves.

I hope that in future years we will realize that running a university in such a way only hurts educators and students. Deep down, I can’t help but feel the whole system needs to fall apart in order for that to happen. While I hope things improve in the near future, we need to not only make a conscious effort to improve the position of adjunct faculty, but also the reputation of America’s public universities.