6 Ways U.S. Academic Labor Practices Are Seriously Shady

By: Dave Roos
Hundreds of California State University faculty members seeking pay raises protest at a Board of Trustees meeting in 2015. llen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Hundreds of California State University faculty members seeking pay raises protest at a Board of Trustees meeting in 2015. llen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

College students and their cash-strapped families are shelling out more than ever for a four-year degree — 296 percent more for in-state tuition at a public university compared to 20 years ago — but at least they know that they're getting the best education money can buy, right? Students might be shocked to learn how little some of their teachers are paid or that others have to raise funds for their own salaries.

Here are six egregious labor practices we've found in modern academia.


1. Low-Paid Adjuncts

Welcome to the "adjunctification" of higher education. According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 70 percent of all faculty appointments are non-tenure track or adjunct positions, where teachers are contracted rather than full-time employees of the university. And the pay sucks.

"The national average for adjunct [professors] is $2,700 a course, which comes out to less than $30,000 a year."
Maria Maisto , New Faculty Majority

"The national average for adjuncts is $2,700 a course, which comes out to less than $30,000 a year," says Maria Maisto of the adjunct faculty advocacy group New Faculty Majority. But that's only if you can manage to score a full course load (five courses a semester). Many adjuncts attempt to cobble together a teaching career at different colleges, or take on second and third jobs as temps or pet-sitters. Some even find themselves in line for food stamps, Ph.D. and all. To compare, the average salary for a full-time tenured professor at a public university in 2015 was more than $115,000.

2. High-Paid Administrators and Coaches

Public colleges and universities have been hit with steep cuts in state funding since the Great Recession, which has tightened the budgets of college administrators. Not enough to cut their own generous salaries, though. The average salary of a public university president in 2014 was more than $428,000, a 7 percent increase from the year before. And don't even get us started on college football coaches. The two top-paid coaches in 2015 — Nick Saban of Alabama and Jim Harbaugh of Michigan — made more than $7 million each.

3. 'Artificial Scarcity' of Tenure-Track Positions

"Tenure" in academic circles means the professor has a full-time contract (usually with benefits) and cannot be let go without due process. But tenure is extremely difficult to get — the probationary period is typically seven years at a four-year college. In 1995, 51 percent of college professors were tenured. In 2011, it was 33 percent. It's not so much that tenured positions have been cut — rather, they haven't been added even though college enrollment has greatly increased.

Instead, the growth has been in adjunct professors. One reason is that adjuncts can be laid off when enrollment is down, unlike tenured faculty. Or if enrollment is up, colleges can hire a two or three adjuncts for the price of one tenured professor.

"The same entities that control the supply control the demand," says Maisto. "They have created an artificial scarcity of demand. What students need are more properly supported faculty, not fewer, but [colleges] have decided to drastically reduce the number of properly supported faculty positions in order to create what seems to be a glut of Ph.D.s."

4. Hiring and Firing Without Notice

When the New Faculty Majority issued a national survey of adjuncts, they found that 30 percent of adjuncts were hired within two weeks of the start of their course.

"Oftentimes adjuncts think that they're teaching a class, but the class is taken away at the last minute, either because of low enrollment or they want to give it to someone else," says Maisto. "An adjunct can do weeks and weeks of work and have it taken away without any compensation."

In response, the lucky few adjuncts who have successfully unionized are negotiating cancellation fees into their contracts.

5. Anti-Union Tactics

And what about unions? Can't adjuncts band together to collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions? Not in Ohio, where Maisto teaches as an adjunct. The state doesn't recognize adjuncts at public colleges and universities as public employees and obstructs their right to collective bargaining.

An even bigger setback is the so-called Yeshiva decision, a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows private colleges and universities to characterize full-time faculty members as "managers" in order to prevent them from unionizing. Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is one of many private colleges embroiled in a fight to prevent full-time faculty from voting to join adjuncts in unionization efforts. 

6. Fund Yourself or Get Fired

Research is a job requirement for many full-time college professors, especially in the sciences. Faculty are expected to win grants and publish research that contributes to the field and raises the profile of the university. But you might be surprised to learn that many professors are contractually obligated to cover part or all of their salaries through grant funding. And the university gets to keep part of the grant money raised for their own purposes.

In 2014, two non-tenure-track Columbia professors were unceremoniously canned when they failed to raise 80 percent of their salaries through grants. Even though Columbia just wrapped up a $6.1 billion fundraising campaign — the biggest in Ivy League history — it dropped the two professors, including a 26-year Columbia veteran beloved by students, without warning and without an opportunity to state their case.