|It's not all bad news for adjuncts, however. John Hammang of the American
Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents 435
institutions and systems, points out that many are happy with their part-time
status. They have families and can't work full time. Or they're retired or have
full-time jobs elsewhere and are uninterested in tenure. Adjuncts, he says, can
improve the educational experience for students if used in the right way. They
can bring real-world expertise into the classroom that's hard to replicate.
Colleges can also react to student curriculum demands quickly with adjunct
teachers even when they aren't sure if future students will be interested.
The harsh truth, says Hammang, is that not all adjuncts are good enough to be
full-time faculty. At least being an adjunct allows them to teach. A number of
college administrators also argue that this is the trade-off in the era of mass
higher education. If you want to keep tuition down so more people can afford
it and not increase public spending, you need adjuncts.
Take the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where 34 percent of the
staff is adjuncts. The enrollment in computer technology-related courses has
mushroomed by 60 percent in the past few years. The university can't find
enough new full-time teachers to keep pace with the growth. Even if it could,
it couldn't afford to hire them all. Adjuncts fill the gaps. Part-timers also allow
the school to react on short notice to changing enrollment. This fall UMBC
needs teachers for 40 additional classes. The administrators don't have time to
do a nationwide search, so they'll turn to adjuncts. The alternatives, according
to Provost Arthur Johnson: Raise tuition or cap enrollment. He likes neither
choice. He points out that UMBC produces a large portion of the information
technology graduates that Maryland's high-tech industry needs. "We're
fulfilling an important economic role here," he says. Adjuncts make that
The quality of education, Johnson argues, doesn't suffer. If anything, he says,
students benefit from adjuncts who bring cutting-edge experience into the
classroom in fields like computer science. And the salary, ranging from
$2,000 to $5,000 a course, is fair, he says. Remember, he says, adjuncts
don't have to advise students or do research. They make less, but they also
do less. Their pay is determined by the open market, he says, as with most
other jobs. "No one is forcing anyone to be an adjunct."
Still, Hammang's organization, which includes UMBC, thinks many of its
members are overly reliant on adjuncts as states continue to tighten budgets.
The late 1990s was a "missed opportunity," says Hammang. That's when
colleges could have afforded to cut back on their adjunct dependency. He
thinks there'll be another chance in a few years. The question is how much
desire there will be to change.
Many adjuncts have decided they don't want to wait to find out. In the last
few years, adjunct unionization movements have sprouted up around the
country, and they're getting results. California has been one of the leaders,
setting aside $57 million last year to increase part-time salaries at community
colleges and an additional $7.1 million to pay adjuncts for office hours.
Similarly, the state of Washington allocated an extra $17.5 million recently to
raise adjunct pay at two-year colleges. More battles are raging from
Pennsylvania and New York to Illinois and Wisconsin in both public and
private colleges. This momentum hasn't hit the Washington area, but that
could change soon. Look inside this fifth-floor conference room at UMBC,
where six professors have gathered on this Monday afternoon. Some are
adjuncts. Others have one-year renewable contracts. All are unhappy.
"The very fact that we are here means that we mean business," labor union
organizer Scot Hamilton says to the group. "It's ironic. Universities are
supposed to be the bastions of freedom, but when you look behind the
scenes, they're very exploitative."
His colleague Cathleen McCann tells those assembled they can't rely on the
university to treat them fairly. Only collective bargaining will do that. She's told
faculty on six other Maryland campuses the same thing. As the lead organizer
for the American Federation of Teachers in Maryland, McCann is scrambling
to organize faculty members at the state's public four-year college campuses,
where 38 percent of the faculty, systemwide, is part time.
By next year, she hopes, legislation will pass to force the system to bargain. If
that happens, McCann could be sitting down with administrators by next
summer to demand higher pay, longer contracts and benefits for all adjuncts.
Some places are changing on their own. The president of American
University, where a quarter of the faculty is part time, last fall declared that the
university will significantly cut back its reliance on adjuncts. The remaining
part-timers will teach more, make more and have more responsibilities.
But some in academia, like Jonathan Loesberg, until recently chair of AU's
literature department, think the use of adjuncts needs to stop altogether.
"I'm authorized to pay an adjunct here to teach a course something like
around $2,000," says Loesberg. "That seems to me on the face of it
exploitative. If such a person taught the standard full load at AU, which would
be five courses, they would be making $10,000 a year without health benefits,
without any type of retirement benefit, with no benefits at all--I feel terrible
about it. But these are crocodile tears. I feel terrible about it, then I offer them
the money. And yet the people are always happy to get the jobs because their
alternative is not getting anything."
Tracy wants one of those adjunct jobs this fall. She sent an application letter
to his department and received a terse e-mail reply saying someone would
contact her later. She hasn't heard anything back. She's thought about
showing up at his office and lobbying for the course in person--looming bills
have made her bold. First, there's the $46,000 in student loans from graduate
school. Then, there's the $10,000 in credit card debt. The only way she can
make ends meet is by teaching four to six courses a term, with pay ranging
from $2,385 a class at George Mason to the relatively lavish $4,695 a course
at Georgetown. But the biggest financial crunch comes during the summer,
when the teaching dries up.
Last summer Tracy didn't have any classes to teach, so she applied to 15
temporary agencies. After a month of waiting, only one found her regular
work at $12 to $15 an hour doing proofreading. But at least that was better
than the endless word-processing tests that the secretarial agencies had her
do. "I have a PhD. I can't believe I'm doing this!" she would think. Then she'd
put her head down and start typing.
She also tries not to think about her car breaking down, even though it has
more than 100,000 miles on it. But one day in January she couldn't ignore the
orange "check engine" light on her dashboard any longer. After a morning
class, she pulled into a small repair shop in a desolate part of Fredericksburg.
Half an hour later, a chatty mechanic explained that her catalytic converter
was dead. That--plus a new battery and an oil change--well, that'll cost her
$768. She grimaced, leaned an elbow on the counter and cradled her face in
her hands as she tried to figure out how to pay for it. Her credit card was
"That's it. Prostitution. Adjunct turned prostitute to pay for car repairs," she
moaned to no one in particular.
Patrick O'Malley finished his PhD at Harvard a year before Tracy. Both
started teaching in Georgetown's English department two years ago. The
difference: O'Malley is a tenure-track assistant professor.
On this day when Tracy hustles between Fredericksburg and Fairfax, he sits
in his office. Light is streaming in through a window. He looks relaxed with no
classes to teach this term. He's on a full-paid leave from the university to work
on his first book, which should help him gain tenure when the time comes.
Whereas Tracy worked on her own book between jaunts on the freeway,
Patrick spends his days in Massachusetts studying at Harvard's libraries. Even
when he is teaching, his load is much lighter. When Tracy had six classes, he
had three. Last year, he taught a reduced load of two classes a term so he
adjust to Washington and to his new university.
He walks from the Dupont Circle apartment he owns and takes a shuttle to
campus, where he stays all day. While Tracy is scurrying between campuses,
he's rapidly becoming an integral part of Georgetown's. He has time to go out
to lunch with professors who can help him with his career later. He goes to
faculty parties that Tracy rarely attends. The English department is filled
mostly with strangers to Tracy; to O'Malley, they're friends and colleagues.
O'Malley knows about adjuncts like Tracy. He knows about the lives they
lead and knows he couldn't do it. "It would be too exhausting."
Talk to veteran adjuncts about Tracy and they tell you they were once like
her. They, too, thought being an adjunct was just a way station en route to
their real lives. But then the years passed and at some point they began to
realize they were stuck. They'd been tainted by the adjunct label and were
never going to get full-time jobs.
"You're used goods now and you are going to have to face it," a colleague
told one adjunct after he'd been teaching for five years.
Those who hire full-time faculty say that's not far from the truth. When they
get 375 applicants for a single job, they need some way to weed people out.
If someone's been an adjunct for a while, a search committee starts
wondering what's wrong with them. It may not be fair, but it's how things
After a while, longtime adjuncts begin to resign themselves to their fate. Year
after year, they teach out of cardboard boxes. They often give up on doing
original research. Mostly they have time only to drive and teach. And they
don't cross the invisible line separating adjuncts from full-time members. It's a
line that makes one adjunct of 15 years, a winner of several teaching awards,
wait till everyone else has eaten when there's food laid out for a department
event. He sneaks in later to eat what's left.
On an early January morning, the sun is rising as Tracy tailgates a silver
pickup in the fast lane. It's the first day of the spring semester, and she'll lead
two classes today at Mary Washington. Then this afternoon she'll go to
Georgetown, where she'll tell her class she's an adjunct professor, "which
means I'm pond scum."
But at this very moment as she cruises down I-95, she's thinking about the
letter she got just yesterday from the University of California at San Diego. It's
the sixth rejection she's gotten in this round. She still hopes one of five more
applications, to Bucknell, Duke, Fordham, Spelman or Toronto, will come
through. But she has more immediate worries. She doesn't know if she'll have
any classes to teach this summer. That's still weighing on her mind that
afternoon as she sits at the Tombs, a bar in Georgetown. "Maybe I could
work here this summer?" she says to the bartender. He nods, not sure if she's
She makes another push. "So if I need a job for this summer, can I hit you
As she eats, she thinks about what it would be like being a professor and
serving burgers and beer to students. She decides she could handle that. At
least it's a job.
"I've waited tables before in Dublin," she says. "I'm not above working in a
The last application responses eventually trickle in. By March they've all told
her no. She tries to stay positive, but she can't help but wonder sometimes if
maybe, just maybe, she's not good enough to make the cut. It's been nearly
two years since she graduated, and 38 places have said they don't want her.
"It's frustrating because I would have thought at this point in my career, I
would have at least gotten an interview."
Over the next month, a new hope arises. George Mason has a one-year
position open in the English department. The money would be better and the
course load lighter. It would be a good launching pad for a full-time job
somewhere else. Once more she puts her name in, and once more she lets
On a bright May morning, Tracy heads to her car in hurry. She weaves
through the back roads toward Alexandria. Her classes are over for the
summer break. Today is her first day of work in a different capacity: as a
temp. She managed to get two classes to teach during this break, but she still
needs clerical work like this.
She heard back about the one-year George Mason job. She didn't get it. So,
when next term comes, she'll have four adjunct classes between Georgetown
and George Mason. She told Mary Washington that she isn't going to work
there anymore. The drive was killing her. Instead, she's going to see if she can
drum up one more class in this area. And in a few months, she'll send out
more resumes for more full-time jobs. Meanwhile, she's coming out with a
book and another paper. Her chances of landing a real job this year, she tells
herself, are better than ever. She isn't about to give up her quest anytime
soon, she says. She's put too much of herself into academia to do that. "I'll
keep applying. There's not much more I can do."
She pulls into a parking lot, grabs her lunch and hurries toward a
marble-and-chrome office building, where she'll spend the next eight hours
looking for typos and spelling mistakes. She steps inside and waits for the
elevator. Sometimes there is nothing she can do but wait.
Eric L. Wee, a former Washington Post reporter, was an adjunct--for
one semester. His e-mail address is email@example.com. He will be
fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on
© 2002 The Washington Post Company