Last month, a New Jersey community college fired one of its professors for comments that she made during a television interview.
Yes, you read that correctly: Right here in America, the birthplace of academic freedom, a professor was dismissed for something she said.
That’s because she was part of the great army of so-called adjunct faculty, who don’t have any real academic freedom at all.
Adjuncts now make up the majority of college professors, which might surprise the students and families who are struggling to pay for college. You’ve already read about runaway tuition costs and skyrocketing debt. But did you know that once your kid gets to school, she’s more likely to be taught by an adjunct professor than by a full-time one?
About 1.5 million people teach at American colleges and universities. And more than 1 million of them are adjuncts, hired mostly at poverty-line wages to teach courses here and there.
Some adjuncts are great teachers, to be sure. But there’s only so great you can be when you’re driving between two or three campuses to teach eight or 10 courses for three grand per class, with no health insurance and — most of all — no job security. You can be let go at any time, and for any reason: The curriculum changed, the enrollment of your course declined, or a full-timer decided she wanted to teach it.
Or, maybe your school simply didn’t like what you had to say. Just ask Lisa Durden, the Essex County College communications professor who appeared on Fox News to defend a Black Lives Matter event on Memorial Day that asked nonblacks not to attend.
Durden was fired shortly thereafter by Essex president Anthony E. Munroe, who said that students and faculty had expressed “frustration, concern, and even fear” over Durden’s remarks. “Institutions of higher learning must provide a safe space for students to explore, discuss, and debate,” Munroe wrote. “Racism cannot be fought with more racism.”
The episode went viral on conservative websites, which gleefully noted how the doctrine of “safe spaces” — promulgated mainly by members of the Left — can just as easily be turned against it. In more liberal precincts, meanwhile, bloggers took issue with the highly debatable claim that a blacks-only event was inherently racist.
But both sides mostly ignored the real elephant in the room, which was Durden’s adjunct status. If she had been a full-time professor, her college could not have dismissed her just because it didn’t appreciate her point of view. But she was an adjunct, so she was dispensable.
She’s not the only one, either. An adjunct faculty member in Iowa was fired recently for calling the biblical story of Adam and Eve a “myth”; another adjunct professor was let go after students complained that he had assigned them “offensive” readings, including one by Mark Twain.
That should offend anyone who cares about the fate of higher education in the United States. The entire system is premised on the right of faculty to say and write what they’d like, without fear of penalty or punishment. But many of our professors — perhaps, most of our professors — can’t do that.
If you’re an adjunct, and you think your department is underserving its students in some fashion, will you speak up about it at a faculty meeting? In your own classroom, will you challenge your students if their objections can get you fired? Apparently Durden has other sources of income, and she could afford to take some risks. But most of our adjuncts can’t.
You don’t have to agree with Durden’s viewpoint or with the way she defended it on Fox News, where she told host Tucker Carlson that “you white people … crack me up.” (Not to be undone, Carlson likened her position to Nazi racial doctrine.) But if you believe in the American university, you have to make it a safe space for every kind of opinion. And that won’t happen if the majority of our faculty are adjuncts, who can be dismissed for anything they say.
In 1972, 9.2 million undergraduates attended a college or university in the United States; today, more than 20 million do. But over the same period, the number of full-time faculty increased only 25 percent while adjunct hiring rose by 300 percent. “College for all” is a fabulously democratic idea. Yet it was built on the backs of adjuncts, which is the least democratic option of all.
In the long run, we need to demand more state and federal spending so that our adjunct faculty can earn a living wage. Until then, we need to promise them that their employment won’t hinge on their opinions. You can’t get quality education on the cheap. And you can’t have a democracy if your teachers aren’t free.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press, April). firstname.lastname@example.org