1. What's wrong with the current crop of undergrad students?
K-12 teachers have been so hamstrung by state-mandated standards that no real learning/teaching is going on. In my opinion, in many schools, if students are not in honors/AP/IB classes, then it is a giant holding tank until graduation. As a result, students come to the university with no real idea how to learn independently. (Please see the LA Time's most recent article on Kashawn Campbell for an example; although it is being used to say affirmative action is wrong, the real problem is that many public schools, regardless of their racial makeup, do not teach learning or critical thinking skills and hand out grades like candy to appease the masses.)
Students become resentful when exams ask for critical thinking rather than fill-in-the-blank. There is a deep culture of victimhood. It is always someone else's fault for the student's failings. Also, there is a ridiculous obsession with GPA and grades. Students do not understand how "curves" work, and think that demanding a class being graded on a curve will solve their low grades.
Things are so bad as far as employment after college that anything less than perfection often means that students face huge obstacles getting a job after graduation. The grade-grubbing and pursuit of perfection is driven not by a desire to learn and polish one's knowledge, but rather to legalistically scrap for any point(s) that will ensure an A grade. The current crop of undergrad students also feels that if something doesn't come easily/the first time to them, then it is below/beneath them. It is the fault of the instructor if the student does not understand the information the first time. Many students also work full time while being students full time. This makes the grade-grubbing/resentment much more pronounced. It leads to a very adversarial classroom environment, where every student wants to be the exception. Frankly, after over a year of my own under/unemployment, I would advise my students who worked full time to keep their jobs and try to move up in the company. There is nothing wrong with working retail/fast food, especially when managerial positions pay more than many starting professor salaries.
2. What's wrong with the current state of higher education in America?
Corporatization. Education is a product. The haves will always have access to better products (here, education) than others, and be able to enjoy opportunities that other can only dream about. Higher education has been gutted and defunded. As a result, most colleges really do only offer a piece of paper that will let our former students rise up the ladder of our new corporate overseers.
3. What could regular faculty do locally to improve things?
I don't know. People deserve to know what kind of mediocre "product" they will receive when they are taught by a majority of adjunct instructors. Perhaps if people (faculty included) pushed their state-level Congress to enact rules/laws about the percentage of full to part-time faculty, the contingent faculty situation could be ameliorated. I know this is true in many states where community colleges have these kinds of requirements. Education is a public good that should serve the public. State representatives should be called on their lack of protection of a basic human right.
4. What could part-time faculty do to not only improve their working conditions, but also the fate of our students?
As a result of my time and personal experiences at Misleading U, I refuse to work as part-time faculty. When I was contingent, I upheld my personal standards, even if that made me unpopular. I know that isn't possible for everyone. I know that I'm fortunate to be in a relationship with someone who can support me financially since I burned bridges at Misleading U.
I would also encourage part-time faculty to look for a way to jump ship, although (as I have posted previously) it is hard to find a job within the academy even if you're not seeking tenure. It's also hard to get work outside of the academy. Our students deserve to be challenged and to be held to standards. I fear that the new faculty majority (contingent faculty) will be unable to do either given the current lack of political will and general public contempt regarding higher education.