Not many professors have their own clubs on the Facebook. Even fewer have clubs with almost 100 members. And there may be only one who is only an adjunct. Thaddeus Russell, who currently teaches American history at Barnard, should be proud of his popularity. But, all things considered, he probably would rather be certain of having a job this time next year. Too bad Barnard administrators are doing as much as they can to prevent him from keeping it.
Recently, the Barnard History Department established a five-person search committee which interviewed scholars across the country applying for a tenure-track position in American Studies. Russell, who is currently the only American Studies professor at Barnard, seemed to be the logical choice. The committee disagreed, recommending another professor ahead of him. The history faculty at Barnard voted unanimously to create two new appointments, one for the committee's top choice and another for Russell. Citing financial concerns, the Faculty Planning Committee rejected the faculty's request. Now, instead of having two eminently qualified professors, this time next year Barnard's American Studies program will have none.
Those familiar with Russell know that students love him. Every semester, hundreds of students flock to his lectures, where he can make deathly dull surveys come alive. Former pupils almost uniformly describe him as intelligent, funny, approachable, and even inspiring. Many recount anecdotes which show that, unlike too many professors at Barnard and Columbia, Russell actually cares about his students.
Unfortunately, Russell is a part of a larger group of brilliant and gifted teachers who are increasingly marginalized and abused by universities. In 1980, only seven percent of professors had non-tenure track jobs, by 2001 the percentage had risen to 25 percent. Part time adjuncts have gone from teaching six percent of courses in 1980 to 28 percent in the same time. Frequently, they are the professors we have the most contact with undergraduates, since the burden of teaching undergraduate classes largely falls on adjuncts. Among these adjuncts, approximately 60 percent earn less than $16,000 a year. These professors also receive substantially reduced benefits, most notably with regard to healthcare. Faced with low pay and even lower benefits, many adjuncts must make impossible choices like deciding between paying the rent bill for last month or the health care bill from this month. These aren't faceless people; they are our professors.
The treatment of adjuncts is one of the great scandals in higher education today. It is a broad based problem with a variety of causes and no simple solution. But it doesn't have to be so unbearably awful. Against the unanimous wish of its own faculty, Barnard administrators have stomped on an adjunct who, against what many consider insurmountable obstacles, tried to be a real teacher. Barnard can start making the bigger problem a little better by giving Thad Russell the job he deserves.