I am alarmed. It’s 5:14 p.m. in California on February 25, 2015 and something historically profound is happening to education in America.
Every fiber of my being screams out a warning about the direction we are headed in.
The number of adjunct faculty is on the rise and they are being terribly exploited. That is, the very people we have charged with the cultivation of young minds, the future of our country, are not being paid enough to keep themselves housed and healthy, let alone do their jobs well — and they are afraid to speak up for themselves for fear of losing the work they do not because they are personally benefiting, but out of a passion for a better world.
Today I sat through a teach-in where Renee Fraser, Professor of History and union activist at Moorpark College, defined what it means to be adjunct: To be adjunct is to be joined or added but not an official or necessary part of.
I’d like you to pause for a moment to let that sink in.
Nearly 80 percent of professors today are adjunct. That means our educational institutions are declaring that 80 percent of teachers are not a necessary part of students’ education.
Professor Fraser showed us three pie charts. One was of the percent of part-timers to full-timers in the 70s, one was of the same for today, and one was where we would be in 10 years if the current trends continue. Basically, in the 70s there was a complete reversal from a majority of faculty being full-time to a majority of faculty being part-time.
Why is this happening and what does this mean?
Adjuncts were originally hired temporarily to address surges in enrollment, but when Prop 13 capped property taxes, we started using adjuncts as a means to stabilize a drastically fluctuating economy.
Chancellor wages are rising at the same rate as corporate CEOs. Too much emphasis is being put on giving raises to full-time faculty and administrators and amenities and facilities while simultaneously trying to Band-Aid the negative long-term economic consequences by increasing the number of adjuncts.
Recently, AB 1725 tried to stop administration from exploiting part-timers, but it has yet to be enforced. One of AB1725’s many well-intended goals is to reverse part-time to full-time numbers to what they were in the 70s. Yet, no movements have been made by our state legislatures to actualize the bill.
It is one of many flaws of the current political system that even when the people get together and play by the rules to produce a piece of legislation — and even get it passed — it can still be ignored by those in charge of finances, thereby rendering the educational proletariat powerless.
This is what is happening and why. What are the effects?
Because of the rise in part time, non-contract workers, the education system is contributing to the loss of middle-class jobs. Students have less access to mentorship and don’t get to experience a rich, personal interaction with faculty. This is because our professors are too busy freeway flying to other colleges where they’ve picked up the classes they need to keep themselves fed and clothed. Fraser showed us a picture of her “office,” which consists of books and papers strewn wildly in her car’s trunk space. We are being denied the decidedly most prominent student need — personal interaction with professors, and this is lowering graduation, transfer and retention rates. Fraser tells us for every 10 percent increase in full-time faculty comes a 4 percent increase in transfer rate.
Teachers are also experiencing such a reduction in academic freedom and innovation that we are all experiencing a sense of discouragement. With the threat of being fired looming over the heads of adjuncts, a fear penetrates the classroom in which new, revolutionary, or challenging ideas are stifled.
I can tell you from personal experience that sitting in a classroom in which a teacher is lecturing straight out of a textbook that has only been slightly updated since 1542 sends me running for the hills; and there’s honestly no place I’d rather be than a classroom.
This stagnation and lack of funding is resulting in less research being done and a reduction of diversity of research. What is research? Why is it important? Research leads to discoveries like Einstein’s theory of relativity. Diversity leads to Galileo’s challenging of the geocentric universe.
I could say that this is being done deliberately, that this necessary and creative dissent is being stifled because capitalists want to keep things the same so they can keep making money the way they are, but I don’t believe that. And that sort of blame casting won’t fix anything.
What we need is a surge of people taking personal responsibility to protect the academic freedom that has allowed American educators to research and teach against the grain, creating a more educated citizenry, protecting students against cuts and class cancellations, pushing back against the dumbing down of content for accreditation, and driving away a culture of fear.
I don’t expect you to delve further into the meaning of this. I don’t expect you to do more research about what it means that adjuncts can’t participate in department meetings or that power to make decisions for us students and our institutions is in the hands of an infinitesimally select few full time professors.
Do think about what will happen if full-time positions disappear altogether. Imagine what school will look like if business and economically minded administrators who only have the bare minimum level of interaction with students and refer to them as “customers” are the only ones making decisions about “student success.”
I think about my job when I worked at Jack in the Box on the fryer and had my manager breathing down my neck pushing me to produce potatoey sticks of grease and salt as fast as mechanically possible. I imagine teaching becoming equitable to food service. That makes future students about equal to French fries.
I said in the beginning that something with profound historical implications is happening. This is because I don’t believe French fries can compete on a global level. If we allow our educational system to become a privatized industry like Coca Cola or McDonalds, we will be eaten alive.