Universities, colleges and community colleges make heavy use of part-time professors and lecturers, known as “adjuncts.” Chances are very good that if you’re a current college student, you’ve taken a class taught by an adjunct. Although they make up a large chunk of college instructors, adjuncts are paid only a tiny fraction of what full-time professors make, often with no benefits and no say in institutional decision-making. Adjunct professors may hold doctorates but are paid on average only $3,000 for each course that they teach. If (and this is a big if) an adjunct somehow manages to secure five courses to teach during the academic year, which is on par with (or exceeds) the load of a full-time professor, they could be bringing in a whopping $15,000 a year.

That sucks. They should just ask for a raise, right? Or maybe get their union to negotiate? Well. There is no national adjunct professors union. There are several different unions (Service Employees International Union; American Federation of Teachers; American Association of University Professors) that some adjunct professors belong to, but many don’t belong to any union at all. Adjuncts fear that if they ask for a raise, they will just be replaced with someone else who is more desperate for work and less argumentative. Adjuncts are also often caught in a cruel catch-22, where they can’t afford to strike for higher pay because their current pay is so low that striking would leave them unable to pay rent or other living expenses.

Historians Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley sum up the current adjunct situation quite well in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Many colleges claim to advance social justice or develop democratic communities, but few have acted on their own principles when it comes to giving adjunct faculty a living wage and a real voice in decision-making. Everyone who cares about the quality of higher education should demand they do so.

“Since the founding of the nation, the purpose of higher education has been to develop skilled, thoughtful citizens capable of contributing in meaningful ways to society. This purpose will never be realized with a professoriate composed predominantly of instructors who work without the protection of real academic freedom, and have no role in shared governance, no job security, no benefits, low wages, and no real hope of ever finding a full-time position.”

The solution, given that our institutions are uninterested in paying these professors what they are worth, given that they are uninterested in allowing adjuncts to participate in college decision-making, given that adjunct professors are in such a tenuous position that they are by and large unable to bargain, given that even successful bargaining brings modest gains at best, and given the staggering amount of money that students pay in tuition, the solution is for the students themselves to go on strike until our institutions agree to pay adjuncts a fair wage.

I would argue that $12,000 a course would be much more on par with the value these professors provide. This should come with benefits, job security and participation in institutional decision-making.

Colleges today are often painted as bastions of progressivism. Well, I’ve laid out a progressive issue festering in every college in America. These adjuncts create courses, give lectures, answer questions outside of class, spend hours grading, help thousands of students learn to think critically and to move toward a better future, all while getting paid less than some people make working in fast food. Maybe it’s time we do something for them. Do you care about fair pay? Do you care about fair benefits? Do you care about fair representation? Do you believe that your adjunct professors are worth more than $15,000 a year?

If you do, occupy your lecture halls. Get into the auditoriums. Take over the labs. Sleep in those weird tiny rooms for the upper-level classes that only fit like 10 people. Bring mattresses, bring blankets, bring food, bring games, blast music. Make big signs. Bring your call-and-response chants. Discuss injustice. Demand justice. Tell your friends at other colleges to do the same. Make a difference for the people who are helping you make a difference in the world.


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