Professors are some of the most highly respected and renowned members of the higher education community. They are immensely successful and have gone through countless years of schooling. Therefore, you would expect that they were all paid a decent salary, right? You’d be wrong.
In reality, only a specific group of professors receive this treatment—tenured professors. Receiving tenure is a rigorous process: after six years of teaching in a tenure-track position, professors have to amass a portfolio of their academic record, all of their publications and research, and letters from outside the university discussing your status in the field. It goes through rigorous review by other tenured faculty, your department, a committee, and ultimately the president or provost, who gets the final say.
All of this to say, receiving a tenure-track position, or tenure itself, is highly coveted and incredibly difficult to achieve. Once a professor has tenure, though, they have the freedom to work at the university for as long as they want and can not be punished unless they commit a crime, giving them academic freedom. Their average salary is $104,820, which one would expect a professor to make.
This is all great—but the problem is, a recent trend at many schools, BC included, has been to hire an increasing amount of adjunct professors. These are faculty members that are not on the tenure track, and so their jobs are not permanent. However, they teach the same amount, if not more, classes than tenured professors for less money: in 2015, NPR found that the average salary for adjunct professors was between $20,000 and $25,000. This is clearly a very stark difference to tenured professors. I understand why tenured professors deserve to be paid more than adjuncts, but I don’t think that this is at all acceptable. A difference of $80,000 is bad enough, but $20,000 is just simply not a living wage, especially for people with so many years of schooling that they must have massive amounts of student loan debt.
This low salary means that these professors often teach at multiple schools or take on some other second job during the semester in order to make ends meet. This means that they have less time to be available for students, as they can only be on campus so much. As well, this can cause a lot of stress for them, as it is hard enough to work one job, nevertheless two, especially one as demanding as being a professor. They also may not even get benefits such as health insurance from these jobs! Despite students often not even knowing whether or not their professor is tenured, they are treated like they have nothing to offer.
This crisis worries me because it seems like it could be a threat to academic freedom. Tenured professors don’t need to worry about what they are teaching and whether or not the school would agree—they can give students their opinions and the facts and not worry about the repercussions. One of my favorite classes that I have taken so far at BC was one that heavily critiqued capitalism and American hegemony, specifically in relation to foreign policy. It was taught by a tenured professor, and he mentioned multiple times in class that he could not have taught the class if he was an adjunct. This was shocking to me—I would have missed out on an incredible class and on learning things that I had never been exposed to if he had not gotten tenure. After he mentioned that, I began to notice how some of the contingent faculty I had— especially graduate students— seemed to censor themselves to prevent saying anything that might be unfavored by some students, such as socialist views. If this trend continues and we continue to see a massive increase in adjunct faculty being used, students are going to have less access to classes that challenge their worldview and get them thinking.
Many schools have been increasing the number of contingent faculty (any non-tenured track faculty member) as a cost-saving measure, as they clearly cost a lot less than a tenured position. This is mainly seen in public universities, especially community colleges, as their budgets continue to be cut by the federal or state government.
This creates a whole different issue: the students who attend these institutions are receiving a drastically different education than their peers that are privileged enough to attend elite institutions. It prevents these students from having access to the same types of ideas and knowledge and is a disservice to them. The students attending these institutions tend to be of a lower-income and/or part of a marginalized community.
I understand that not every faculty member can receive, or even wants, tenure. Tenure in and of itself is a problematic system. But I do not think that it is at all acceptable to be taking advantage of adjunct faculty in this manner and to be treating them so poorly. It is a disadvantage to their hard work, to students at the institutions, and to the higher education system as a whole. Universities need to do better for these valuable staff members and stop exploiting them for cheap labor.