The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The hard life of an adjunct professor


Zein El-Amine’s story, as recounted in the April 29 Metro article “For adjuncts, subject is economics,” resonated with me. My first experience as an adjunct professor came during the late 1970s when I was enrolled in my second doctoral program and also serving as a graduate teaching assistant. My assumption was that having a lot of hands-on experience would help me find a tenure-track faculty position. I had a couple of perfunctory interviews, but I found that then, as now, schools were laying off faculty members because of decreasing numbers of students.

I faced reality and found employment in the private sector. However, I did not give up on finding a teaching position. Over the next 25 years while working for various employers, I served as an adjunct for six universities, two colleges and two community colleges. I taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels, on campus and off campus, online and on cable television networks. I also taught for two prominent national seminar providers. I wrote and published material. Some of the 10 schools for which I taught employed me for as long as seven years, and I carried a teaching load as large as that of a tenure-track faculty member. But I found myself stuck in the world of adjuncts with a small paycheck, no office, no secretarial help and no job security. Again, I was told the problem was that student enrollments were down, which meant that I couldn’t be brought on board.

Eventually, I got the message, abandoned teaching and moved on to government contracting.

Gaylord Reagan, Alexandria

The April 29 Metro article “For adjuncts, subject is economics” succinctly demonstrated the plight that many adjuncts face, even in a region awash in institutions of higher education and the seeming job opportunities they should present for highly qualified people.

There are other types of “contingent” faculty in addition to adjuncts, called “term faculty.” These faculty are considered “full time” and get paid somewhat better than adjuncts, but there is no tenure track for them, their pay is nowhere near as high as that of tenured faculty, and they typically work on short-term contracts of just one to three years, so there is no job security. I have colleagues who have worked as college professors for 20 or 30 years on year-to-year contracts.

Though unionization efforts are extremely important to improving this situation for all contingent faculty, this solution is not available for everyone. Virginia, for example, is a so-called right-to-work state that prohibits by law its faculty at public institutions from unionizing. This is unlikely to change with the current administration in Richmond.

Ironically, though adjuncts and term faculty barely make a living wage, students are going into debt to take their classes, especially at expensive private schools. Who is getting all this money? While the factors driving college costs are complex, top administrators and business and engineering faculty making six-figure salaries certainly must add to the problem.

If higher education wants to retain talented teachers who have the mental and emotional energy it takes to deliver quality education to students, it must begin to pay them fairly and give them job security.

Lori Rottenberg, Arlington