Separate and Unequal

By Dan Berrett

Higher education’s own hiring practices are undermining one of its chief selling points: that a college education fosters upward mobility, several speakers said here Tuesday at a conference on academic labor

In particular, it is the condition of adjunct faculty members, which was the subject of several sessions of the annual meeting of the National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, that casts the harshest light on the gap between academe’s aspirations and its actual conduct.

“In order to maintain faith with higher education, you have to be able to confront the idea that a high proportion of the most educated portion of the population is having trouble making ends meet,” said Alan Trevithick, founding member of the New Faculty Majority and an adjunct who teaches sociology at Fordham University and Westchester Community College, during a session entitled “Contingent Faculty: Issues at the Table.”

Adjunct faculty make up an estimated two-thirds of the professoriate, and they typically earn far less than their tenured and tenure-track counterparts, often for doing similar work. Hard data or statistics on adjuncts can be hard to come by, many speakers said, in part because the term refers to different kinds of jobs and situations. Some adjuncts hold doctorates, have the same qualifications as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues, and teach full time (labels include full-time temporary faculty, per-course teachers, contingent labor or “precarious” faculty — or more evocative terms like academic proletariat or sweatshop workers).

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