Published in the December 27, 2013 Santa Maria Times.

A comment overheard recently — made only partly in jest — asserted that an application for a part-time, or adjunct, faculty position in U.S. higher education today should be accompanied by an application for food stamps.

In other words, adjunct faculty can expect to be poor.

Last August, an 83-year-old woman named Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor in French at Duquesne University in Maryland, died penniless. The case attracted national attention.

“She was a professor?” shocked people asked. For an-all-too-brief moment, columnists, commentators, students and the general public focused on the plight of adjunct faculty at the nation’s colleges. CNN ran an editorial entitled, “Adjunct professors are the new working poor.” A lengthy article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Both NPR and Huffington Post carried the story.

Eyebrows were raised at the disparity in pay between full-time and part-time. The startling number of contingent faculty was discussed. The injustice of an 83-year-old having to work, the fact that she had taught for 25 years at the same college but had no health benefits, no office to work in, no rehire rights, and that she was paid such a miserly amount were all mentioned.

At Duquesne University, where she taught, the tuition is $31,385 per year. The university president is paid $700,000 annually. Ms. Vojtko was earning less than $10,000. Adjuncts there, like adjuncts everywhere, are paid an average of $2,700-$3,000 per course.

She was battling ovarian cancer, was racking up medical bills she could never pay for, could not afford to heat her tiny apartment, and in the spring had been told by the university officials she would not be rehired in the fall, an all-too-common occurrence for adjunct faculty, whose employment hinges, semester to semester, on student enrollment, scheduling of full-time faculty, and the good will of the administration.

Locally, Ms. Vojtko’s death caused a great deal of discussion.

“That could be me!” a Hancock part-timer said.

“This will be the fate of all of us if things don’t change,” said another.

In short, all the problems connected with the issue of contingent labor in higher education have been brought up except the real one — American higher education is built on a foundation of sand. Over the past generation, our college and university system has become so dependent upon contingent faculty it can no longer function without it.

Contingents — part-time faculty, graduate students, and a much smaller number of full-time, non-tenured instructors — now teach more than half of all classes in American higher education. Every college and university in the United States now builds its budget on the assumption that at least half, sometimes more, of its sections will be taught by adjunct teachers, who in general are paid about one-third what is paid to a full-time instructor, and they have no benefits of any kind. The amount of money saved this way is astronomical. The amount of money that would have to be added to the budget to increase the number of full-time instructors is equally astronomical.

In 1960, 75 percent of the faculty in American higher education were traditional, tenured professors, with a decent salary, benefits and the other perks you would associate with a full-time job. Today, that figure is less than 25 percent. If you ask college administrators what would happen if they hired enough full-time instructors to return to 1960 levels, they will tell you — truthfully — that they cannot afford it. The college would go bankrupt if they did.

That is exactly the point.

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA