Thea Hunter: The Death of an AdjunctHistorians in the News
tags: higher education, academia, adjuncts, history in crisis
...To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.
The position is often inaccurately described as akin to a form of slavery. Thea, a scholar of rights, slavery, and freedom, would have been the first to say that is not the case. It is more like the lowest rung in a caste system, the one that underrepresented minorities tend to call home.
“Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head,” a 2016 report on faculty diversity from the TIAA Institute, a nonprofit research center focused in part on higher education, reads. From 1993 to 2013, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in non-tenure-track part-time faculty positions in higher education grew by 230 percent. By contrast, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in full-time tenure-track positions grew by just 30 percent.
Nearly 80 percent of faculty members were tenured or tenure-track in 1969. Now roughly three-quarters of faculty are nontenured. The jobs that are available—as an adjunct, or a visiting professor—rest on shaky foundations, as those who occupy them try to balance work and life, often without benefits. And Thea wobbled for years.
She was on the tenure track, and then she wasn’t. She had a promising job lead, and then it wasn’t so promising. She was on her way to publishing, and then that fizzled. Meanwhile, her hopes and setbacks were compounded by an underlying reality that many adjuncts face: a lack of health insurance. She was a black woman in academia, and she was flying against a current. Some professors soar; adjuncts flap and dive and flap again—until they can’t flap anymore.
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