At http://dollarcollapse.com/welcome-to-the-third-world/welcome-to-the-third-world-part-8-a-phd-is-now-a-path-to-poverty/ is a fine article by John Rubino on the Ph.D. as a “path to poverty.” In this article, he notes that 67% of American professors are adjuncts, part-time professors who receive a set stipend per course and no benefits. American colleges and universities continue to pour out Ph.D.s. They find graduate students valuable because they teach courses themselves and do not cost the university much money. For all its alleged ideals, the contemporary college or university enjoys its pool of cheap labor, whether from graduate students or adjunct professors. In any other profession, such a situation would be criminal.
Adjunct professors have been around for many years, but in the past they were primarily used to teach evening college courses that full-time faculty did not want to teach. In those days, adjuncts were usually either retired professors or people with graduate degrees working outside a university setting who wanted to teach. The motives were either to make a little extra money or a strong desire to teach. People in those categories still work as adjuncts, especially in the evening college (and sometimes in summer school). I am proud to say that at my university, adjuncts are used primarily in the evening sessions and are used in day classes only when there is a temporary need due to, for example, a faculty member going on sabbatical. The university has also made efforts to make sure that more courses, including some outside the fall and spring semester day classes, are taught by full-time faculty.
Other colleges and universities do not necessarily have that level of integrity concerning adjuncts. State universities, increasingly strapped for cash when states are going broke, are hiring more adjuncts to teach day classes. Private schools whose endowments have dropped due to the current economic downturn have, in some cases, hired more adjuncts to save money. However, there are also schools who are doing fine financially who hire adjuncts as the most efficient economic way to teach courses. Economic efficiency and saving money rises above finding the best qualified candidate for a full time job. Now many adjuncts are as good as some full-time faculty. I was at a meeting at the American Philosophical Association in which I heard stories of candidates for full time positions who had four or five academic books published as well as multiple articles in peer-reviewed journals. Often these candidates did not find full time work and either had to remain as adjuncts or leave teaching all together. When a school can afford full-time faculty and hires adjuncts in the name of economic efficiency, this is when economic exploitation takes place. The adjuncts are treated as means to an end and not as ends in themselves, as tools to a businesslike, economically lean, “mean” college or university. This is a grossly unethical way to treat workers–and this in a world that gives lip service to helping people in need. As Rubino points out, much of contemporary academia is run like a medieval feudal system in which adjunct faculty serve as serfs and overpaid administrators function as nobles.
What can be done? First, colleges and universities who can afford to hire full-time faculty should not hire adjuncts in order to be “efficient.” Second, accreditation agencies could demand that a condition for accreditation or re-accreditation is a 90+% rate of full-time faculty during the day school. Third, schools who are financially strapped need to stop “biting off more than they can chew” economically. Fourth, adjuncts need to organize and call for an end to exploitative wages. They should demand higher stipends per course and at least the opportunity to consider health insurance plans through the university. Graduate schools should limit the number of students accepted to reflect the actual need for people with graduate degrees in a particular discipline. More full-time faculty should teach introductory courses on their own to lessen the need for more graduate teaching assistants. Schools should avoid building facilities that will significantly increase the school’s expenses.
Most people in the humanities, the area I know best, go into university teaching because of a fascination with their chosen field. They are driven to get a Ph.D. for the learning experience. I know of few Ph.D.s who would take back that experience of learning, even if they are unemployed. With the new emphasis on efficiency, potential graduate students may focus on a field that helps them to get an academic job rather than focusing on the field they love the most. That is a sad and unjust situation. A Ph.D. costs a great deal of money and time. It is a shame that some Ph.D.s in the United States are below the poverty level and receive food stamps and other welfare assistance. This unjust system must be reformed.