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Hit Them Where It Hurts—Right in the Rankings

by Michael John Rollins (New York)

Colleges live and die by their USNews rankings.  Traditionally, the rankings have looked at well-known measures such as student-to-faculty ratio, percent of faculty holding a terminal degree, and average class sizes.  However, a crucial metric is missing – what percent of classes are being taught by adjunct faculty at an institution?

While most adjuncts I know are incredible teachers and dedicated mentors to their students, our non-permanent status quite often prohibits us from establishing secure, long-term relationships with our students.  How many of us have had to say to a student – “Sorry, I can’t be your advisor – they don’t let me do that, since I may or may not be here next year”?  Or “That’s great you want to take another class with me – but I can’t really tell you what or when I’ll be teaching here next”?  There are real costs to all involved when these words must be uttered.

So, why don’t we push to illuminate this problem by cutting straight to the heart of the “business” of higher education?  By putting “% classes taught by adjunct faculty” next to average class size, endowment, retention rate, etc., we are providing another data point for educational “consumers” to use to make an informed decision about the educational experience they are “buying” into.  In turn, institutions that have a (shamefully) high percent of adjunct labor will have a strong and legitimate incentive to set their priorities accordingly if they wish to remain competitive to their comparison groups.

The goal of this push is not to stigmatize or devalue the work or status of adjunct faculty – rather, the goal is to create an incentive that will get colleges to re-invest in their workforce (and their students), and provide us all with better chances at stable and sustainable employment doing what we already do so very well.

So how do we do this?  Probably the best way is to continue to expose the dark secrets of “disposable professors” in higher education – the world has begun to listen.  However, we also need to repeat one simple message – instead of saying “colleges need to treat adjuncts better”, we must instead say “we need USNews to collect and report from every college and university the percent of their classes that are taught by adjuncts”.  Universities can hem and haw endlessly about how hard it is to pay their faculty; however, it’s difficult for colleges and universities to find a convincing PR spin as to why they would not share this basic information.

There are many great initiatives underway to improve working conditions for adjuncts; however, in order for contingent faculty to truly have a chance at moving forward in our careers, we need to develop the right external incentives for universities to invest sufficiently in our work.

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19 thoughts on “Hit Them Where It Hurts—Right in the Rankings

  1. I concur: that’s a great idea. Do you know where to start, how to start? Can you write someone at USNews? Who? I think you’ve really hit on something here. And while we’re at it, we’ve all been talking about indentured servants, and migrant laborers of academia, and I just keep mulling it over in my head, how I would love to do some kind of class action suit… of course, I don’t know any lawyers. And I know lawsuits are hard to win. But making the stink? Look at what’s happened with the law schools being sued. First there were only a few, but now there’s more and more. And today, law schools are running scared. They are really looking hard at their practices. So Michael John Rollins, you are absolutely right; if we just get them to look at what they do, how they do it, who they hire and for how long, and for how much, how many students they give them without benefits, etc etc, if we get them to really look at their practices, and we get others to SEE their practices, that goes just a bit closer to change.

    So who knows a good lawyer who is willing to work for free?

    • I’m not really sure what you mean by a lawyer? For what and why would we be suing?

      At any rate, I do happen to think Rollins is on to something here. I actually believe this will become a category in the ranking system in the near future. Really it comes down to working within the framework of the “business model” and using that rhetoric to our advantage. We want the customers to know where their money is going. As I see it, it is actually very logical that US News would adopt this new metric. That is to say as long as they are not too deep in the pockets of the major universities (and they very well may be).

      Either way, I don’t think this is something that adjuncts can request. I think it’s something the consumers will have to request. The US News readers. If we continue to force the issue into the light, it will only be a matter of time. American consumers are very savvy.

      • You think it’s ok to be paid $1500-1800 average a semester, with 30-35 students per class? You think it’s ok to have to commute between 3 and 4 campuses a day and travel miles and miles to eke out a living, just to scrape by? You think it’s ok to have to hold your office hours in your car, or at a table at the library, or outside your classroom, because you don’t have an office, or if you do, you need to share it with who knows how many other adjuncts? I’m not saying that a lawyer can do anything. I’m not saying we could possibly win in this corporatized society that Academia has become, but I am not the one who first coined the terms indentured servants or migrant workers of Academia to refer to us. This is why we have a case, and staying silent does nothing. A lawyer is just another venue… Unfortunately, I have written to many newspapers, and from where I sit–in conservative la-la land–not one has answered me back. I have written to my legislators too, and the same goes there. But if we keep going, and we keep making a stink, we keep making noise, we will be heard eventually. The law students in those law schools have been heard… And so, what better way to be heard than getting a lawyer involved? He can just be just another law student. Or better yet, an adjunct working at a law school: HA!

        • I agree wholeheartedly that unless we want to be just the latest group of adjuncts chatting about our problems , we must explore every avenue at our disposal to not only shine the light on our situation but also take steps to redress these grievances.

          Over the past twenty years I have seen these adjunct groups or projects start out with great ideas and much zeal but quickly devolve into little more than chat rooms or blogs where everyone can whine, moan, or rant but take no real action. While there is risk in taking action, anonymity will produce nothing and it is exactly what the universities are counting on. After all, keeping us hidden and anonymous is their whole game plan.

          We should each be reaching out to any Law Schools at our university, contacting lawyers specializing in labor issues for advice (most have one free consultation), and we should not ignore those Labor Organizations (unions) that have had some success in achieving an improved situation for adjuncts at some universities. As Ana so correctly stated, staying silent will accomplish nothing.

          • No one is suggesting that we stay silent. I’m not sure where you got that. In fact, I think we are doing exactly the opposite of that. I give interviews every single day and actively seek out every news outlet I can. Please do not ever suggest that I am advocating silence.

          • Mark, I would like to see you begin contributing to the cause, too. It seems that you do a lot of talking on this site. Let’s get some action going.

  2. I see nothing wrong with contacting U.s. News & World Report and simply suggesting that this might prove a useful metric in their evaluations.

    The appropriate contacts are:

    Bob Morse, U.S News Editor, College Rankings

    Diane Tolis,
    U.S. News data collection manager

    By the way, did everyone see this issue and The Adjunct Project featured in an article today in the national news publication, Salon? It can be read here:

    The word is spreading! The key now is to not stop spreading the word.


    • Don’t overlook Twitter. US New & World Report has a separate account and stream for education. Tweet them requesting that faculty ratios be a rating factor. Tag other highered groups and figures, pols interested (or pretending to be) in higher ed and so on. Add a please RT note. Repeat.

      Imagine if all the tweets tagged #dayofhighered had included this request addressed to @USNewsEducation and tagging …. (tweeter’s option but we could work up a recommendation list)

  3. Thanks so much for the contacts Mark! We really need to start an email blast to these people (and others in the press, if possible) to put some pressure on them. Really a great idea.

    The big problem with the adjunct status is that for most students we’re teachers just like the full-timers. They assume that we’re probably paid just as well as any other teacher. It’s clearly the dirty little secret universities have done well to keep hidden all these years.

    • And at my university we are expressly forbidden to talk to our students about school policies and such. I made the mistake of making a comment to one of my classes regarding a policy that effected the students and it got back to some administrator resulting in my being schedule for only one class the following semester. N one said anything but it was obviously my punishment as it had never happened before or since in my ten years at this institution. No such thing as free speech if you are an adjunct!.

  4. Also, see if your institutions have, anywhere, info on adcon and traditional ft faculty, and if there are no adcom numbers anywhere, tell anybody and everybody you can think of. Local press, local pols, your ft and adcom colleagues, who probably have not thought about this issue in this way. I’ve been doing this for about two years and, frankly, it has not had the effect I had hoped for. But I think I see it beginning to have an effect-and I am heartened by evidence that many of us are thinking in such ways. Our invisibility has been one of our worst enemies. Alan Trevithick , New Faculty Majority, and adjunct at three places including Westchester Community College, which advertises plainly that it has a FT faculty of 171, but makes if pretty difficult to see that the majority faculty, capped at three classes and earning less than a third per class than ft, number in the range of 1200.

  5. A number of years ago, Mortimer Zuckerman, the owner of USN&WR, once chimed in when the USN&WR ratings of law schools were criticized in, as I recall, the National Law Journal (or, perhaps,the New York Law Journal).

    Though he never practiced law, Zuckerman holds a LLB and a LLM degree. Zuckerman pointed out that the criteria used by law schools to evaluate law students are open to no less criticism than USN&WR’s criteria employed to rank the law schools.

    I do not know whether, or to what extent, Zuckerman insinuates himself into the day to day editorial affairs of USN&WR, but the magazine’s Weltanschauung is most compatible to his (and, to a large extent, to mine).

    I think that USN&WR should be contacted.

  6. There have also been recent articles in The Chronicle as well as Inside Higher Education and they each welcome letters, so they may be outlets we should pursue as well., It seems to me that it is only through national media attention will we have any chance of success. Fortunately, it is starting to no small part due to The Adjunct Project.

    One last thought. Remember also that it is an election year and candidates are always looking for new issues. ;0


  7. Love the idea of lobbying USN&WR to list the % of adjunct faculty. If it goes into the school’s rankings, all the better.

    It gives us some form of leverage for those of us who want to work full time as teachers. I’ll stay an adjunct…

    As for suing schools- standard disclaimers apply (I practice law as a day job, but this isn’t legal advice.)

    The suits against the law schools are from current and past students claiming the following:
    1. The school they attended misrepresented the employment and average starting salaries of recent graduates
    2. The students suing relied upon the law school’s misstatement in choosing that school.
    3. Because the student made that choice, they suffered a loss.

    If you can show where the school that employs you has violated their agreement with you or misrepresented themselves, there might be a cause of action.

  8. Some thoughts on effective direct action:

    1) Department of Education — how do we get those who oversee our colleges and universities to see the problem? How to link this inequity to the law, to regulation?

    2) Vice-President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden — is it time for a petition? Some kind of direct contact with their offices? Remember the big conference on community colleges and the pledges of support? Not a single mention of the adjunct problem. But, Joe and Jill love a cause.

    3) Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy — contact them along with me in separate correspondences: (select education) (same)

    4) **** where I’m starting this week ****** Taskforce on Higher Education at White House: although President Obama has been reluctant (boy that’s polite) to get involved in labor issues, behind the scenes I know personally that his administration sent representatives to Ohio, Wisconsin, and OWS. It’s hard to break through the gatekeepers. So, I’ll report back with progress.

  9. These are great ideas, but as far as petitions go, my sad experience is that they don’t. Though we can get word out as much as we can, we just don’t have enough man-power on our own, and bigger networks are not willing to help. The NFM has their petition out, and that has been holding steady at 1494 as of today (although that was against Biden’s snaffoo against professor salaries!); my own petition, though it is steadily growing, cannot do much without support; it now stands at 842. I have written 10 area newspapers, several academic papers, countless media, a couple of national papers, government officials at the state and local level– not only about the petition but about our problem, and this great injustice of corporatization– and I have heard from no one. That’s right, unless you count a representative’s secretary who wanted to tell me it was an election year, and this issue did not seem to involve his constituents… And even the educational periodicals shy away from petitions, saying they cover other things. So I just wrote back to one, asking what they will have us do, and I will do it. I will write to Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, though (I did write someone from the Department of Ed, though offhand I cannot remember who, it’s been so many letters!), and I will keep on throwing my stone in the sand… And by the way, if you have not seen my petition, or signed it and shared it, do so, so that it grows!

    • On the other hand, Ana, that makes 842 people you goosed and informed who otherwise might not have been. Matt had a similar effect with his petition on an Ohio adjunct issue. Sometimes petitions do catch on. If not, I still believe there is a cumulative effect from as many of us taking as many different actions as possible. Momentum can take time to build too. We could do better at linking actions for mutual support and reinforcement, sending word out across multiple networks ~ that’s a habit to work on and could have something (besides cuteness) to do with why dolphins get more response.

  10. Many adjuncts may be great teachers. But given what a student pays in tuition, every single time s/he is taught by an adjunct that student is ripped off.

    I made $1900 to teach a course as an adjunct at a private university in southern Maine. My students paid $45,000 in tuition.

    If you divide my pay by the number of students, each student essentially contributed $79 to my pay. That’s peanuts compared to the $45,000 they think they’re paying for their education. If US News and World Report published the percentage of adjuncts at every institution, perhaps students and parents would start asking more questions about where their money goes.

    A lot of private colleges cost $45,000/year. If you’re going to pay that, you might as well attend a college with a small percentage of adjuncts rather than a large one. If I were a high school senior looking at colleges, I know my parents would not pay that kind of money knowing that so little of it went to my instruction

    Bowdoin and Bates were just up the road from where I taught. Students at those schools paid the same tuition as my students, but the Bowdoin and Bates students were not taught by adjuncts. They got more for their money in terms of instruction than did my students.

    Parents and students should also know what percentage of the adjuncts at a college are graduate students. A lot of small colleges sell themselves as places where you’ll never be taught by a graduate teaching assistant. In other words, come here rather than the cheaper State U.

    But I was an adjunct as a graduate student. Most of the adjuncts where I taught (not where I was enrolled in grad school, but where I taught) were graduate students. I’d say that most of the people doing the teaching at the university were graduate students. So, instead of being taught by graduate teaching assistants, who are supervised by professors, at the cheaper State U., the undergraduate students at my overpriced institution were by and large taught by unsupervised graduate students who they mistook for professors. The students didn’t see that just because there were no graduate students enrolled at the university that did not mean grad students weren’t recruited from elsewhere.

    The bottom line is that students should know what they’re paying for and whether the sales pitch they’re hearing has much truth to it. By publishing percentages of adjuncts (and even what percentage of adjuncts are grad students), US News and World Report could help students to make the best possible financial decisions regarding college.

© Adjunct Project 2012