When I began teaching on a tenure track almost thirty-five years ago, an adjunct instructor was someone who on rare occasions was employed as a temporary replacement or as an outside specialist to assist in a special course or program. Adjuncts might even lack the usual credentials and degrees and so would not necessarily receive normal employment benefits or have the same responsibilities as permanent faculty.
By the time I retired in 2000, the regular and growing use of adjuncts had become a nationwide phenomenon in higher education, and at my university approximately 30 percent of the faculty were adjuncts. What had once been a category for special temporary teaching arrangements had become an administrative device for hiring teachers without having to pay for the rights and privileges of tenure-track positions such as health insurance and pension contributions. The increased national use of adjunct teachers was in effect an indirect attack on tenure because the growing numbers of adjuncts provided an excuse for administrations to reduce the overall number of tenure-track positions.
The extensive use of adjuncts in place of tenure-track positions reflects a crisis in higher education. The policy not only demeans the professoriate, it also erodes the process of shared governance in colleges and universities, promotes faculty inequity, undermines institutional allegiance and faculty morale, eliminates common standards for professional responsibilities and working conditions, and perhaps worst of all, by creating an atmosphere of arbitrary procedures and chronic job insecurity, it destroys the intellectual and creative self-confidence of professors that is central to the integrity of any college or university.
The blame for using adjuncts as cheap labor usually falls on state legislatures for their failure to adequately fund higher education. While this is undoubtedly the major cause of the problem, it does not follow that higher education should have chosen such an ignoble and academically destructive solution to deal with a financial problem. The growing denigration of selected members of our profession could not have happened without the acquiescence and cooperation of faculty and administrations alike.
So what is to be done? One solution is the efforts of some adjuncts to form their own unions. And if higher education fails to respond to their grievances, that probably is their only recourse. But it is not a desirable solution because it will only make permanent an unjust category for teachers and further erode an already-damaged sense of collegiality. …