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In the last few weeks, Harvard’s contingent faculty campaigned to form a union and organized their first rally, urging the University to increase compensation, job security, and other workplace protections. For many, it may be hard to empathize with the faculty’s grievances. After all, who could complain about teaching at one of the top universities in the world?
But for adjuncts — part-time professors paid per course — it’s not all glitz and glamor. In fact, across the country, higher education continues to underpay and overwork this faculty underclass.
The adjunct problem has grown as universities have started to increasingly hire part-time labor. From an economic standpoint, this move makes sense: Tenured professors are expensive investments under long-term contracts, whereas adjuncts are cheap hires that can be laid off more easily. However, when university professors are paid so little that they are forced to sleep in their cars and apply for food stamps, it might be time for a change.
Adjuncts are often imagined as successful experts with jobs outside academia who dabble in teaching to make a little extra money. But these big names actually only represent a small portion of the adjunct population. Far more common are so-called “freeway flyers” who rely on meager teaching wages as their primary income. To compensate for low salaries, a majority of adjuncts take on a full-time course load — plus second and third jobs — to make ends meet.
A 2019 survey of over 3,000 contingent faculty — 79 percent of whom self-reported as adjuncts — offers insights to the precarity of the adjunct position. The median respondent in the survey earns between $3,000-$3,500 per course — a strikingly small amount. Nearly two-thirds of respondents earn under $50,000 annually across all jobs, not enough to reach financial security for a family of four. Around a quarter reported problems accessing adequate food and housing.
What’s more, for 75 percent of respondents, employment is only guaranteed semester to semester. Many adjunct instructors aren’t informed about their teaching appointments until a few weeks prior to the beginning of the term. And in times of crisis, such as a pandemic, adjuncts tend to be the first to receive pay cuts or get laid off.
This endemic low pay not only imperils the livelihood of these professors, but inevitably impacts educational quality for students as well. Adjuncts stretching their time across multiple institutions simply cannot devote the necessary energy to engage with their students. Departments that are primarily made up of adjuncts, often in the humanities, experience higher job turnover rates, leading to a revolving door of instructors lacking institutional knowledge and continuity.
Harvard’s adjuncts aren’t the only group beginning to organize in response to poor working conditions. Adjunct faculty at Loyola University Chicago and Boston University voted to unionize in the past decade, and adjuncts at Fordham University and American University have recently negotiated contracts with their administrations. But often, any wage increases remain pitifully small, and universities are hard negotiators. For instance, union leaders bargained with George Washington University for 18 whole months before increasing adjunct salaries by a measly $533 per course.
Of course, the logic of the marketplace suggests that if universities can find cheap labor, they should do so; that’s just supply and demand, right? But universities should be trying to attract the best and brightest professors, not maximize profit. Plus, institutions are already cutting costs by hiring contingent faculty in the first place. For instructors who have pursued advanced degrees but have not been awarded a full-time position for whatever reason, a living wage seems more than reasonable.
Universities might argue that not all adjuncts have degrees equivalent to tenure-track professors and that it would be a logistical and financial nightmare to get rid of part-time labor in academia. Nevertheless, those are insufficient excuses for failing to treat adjunct faculty with the decency of a living wage. Yet, institutions brush off concerns about adjunct mistreatment far too readily.
Here are some immediate and practical solutions that universities across the country can implement to improve adjunct well-being and thus the quality of education received by undergraduates. First, institutions should index the adjunct pay per course to local living conditions. No adjunct teaching a full course load should struggle to feed a family of four. Second, adjunct pay raises should match full-time faculty pay raises, at least on a percentage basis. Finally, institutions should inform adjunct faculty at least a semester in advance if they cannot be rehired the following term.
It’s high time we start treating adjuncts with the respect they deserve — both for their own sake and to ensure higher quality education for the students they teach.
Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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