Friday, July 12, 2019

An Injustice That Few People Care About: The Adjunct Underclass

“Adjunct professors are the minimum-wage temp workers of academia. Underpaid, overworked, with no benefits and no job security, their numbers have ballooned in recent decades. They are part of what Herb Childress calls ‘hope labor,’ in his new book, The Adjunct Underclass. Childress quotes researchers who define hope labor as ‘un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow.’ For most adjuncts, that hope comes to nothing.

“Childress compares the catastrophe of gig economy college teaching to gig-based employment in other industries like medicine or taxis. He argues that adjunct teachers are the Uber drivers of academia. ‘College teaching has become primarily a pickup job … like running chores for TaskRabbit,’ he writes, reporting that 25 percent of adjuncts depend on some form of public assistance. His book brings to mind the nearly starving, peripatetic scholars, wandering from one university to another, teaching and begging, in medieval Europe.

“The Adjunct Underclass summarizes The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s account of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtkowho died at the age of eighty-three from cancer she could not afford to treat. She died at her home, for which she could not afford electricity. She had taught French at Duquesne University for twenty-five years, never making more than twenty-thousand dollars a year for her six or more courses and never receiving health benefits or retirement contributions.
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“Childress discusses homeless adjunct professors who sleep in their cars. He cites the San Francisco Chronicle and the example of English professor Ellen Tara James Penny. While teaching four courses per semester at San Jose University in Fall 2017, Penny ‘often drives to a parking lot to grade papers. When it’s dark, she’ll use a headlamp from Home Depot, so she can continue her work. At night she’ll re-park in a residential neighborhood and sleep in her 2004 Volvo. She keeps the car neat to avoid suspicion.’...

“Many adjuncts toil at multiple campuses in a semester, commuting hundreds of miles each day, working essentially nonstop except for sleep, as they teach, grade papers and answer multitudinous student emails. ‘The figure of 45 contract hours is a fiction that conceals 350 hours of work, maybe 400 and maybe more,’ Childress writes. ‘A $3,600 pretax stipend with no benefits like healthcare or retirement contributions, spread over 400 hours of work, comes to $9 per hour.’

“As a result, adjuncts are organizing. This spring, adjunct professors at several Minnesota colleges began agitating for unions, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Minnesota’s first adjunct union, at Hamline University, has pursued negotiations for a second contract since July 2018. Meanwhile in January, New York City-based Mercy College adjunct teachers started a drive to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Recently, Fordham University adjuncts ratified their first contract, which mandates substantial pay increases. ‘Nationally about seventy new faculty bargaining units — all but one for nontenure faculty — have sprung up on private campuses since 2012,’ according to the Star Tribune.

“By 2016, gig faculty labor at more than 60 schools was organized by SEIU. In March 2018, ‘University of South Florida adjuncts voted to form a union…. On April 13 adjunct faculty at the University of Chicago ratified their first union contract … adjuncts at Loyola University in Chicago,’ also reached an agreement, according to the Johns Hopkins notice. And Labor Notes recently reported that this past April, international student workers were key to the success of the University of Illinois at Chicago graduate employees strike. Unionization is sweeping the gig faculty labor force, despite fierce management opposition that does not want to cede money or power to what Childress calls ‘the scavengers, the bottom feeders, paid by the course as the need arises.’

“Overworked and impermanent, no matter how excellent their teaching skills, adjuncts lack opportunities to form the sort of lasting mentoring relationships with students that are associated with tenured faculty. So, students suffer. And these students are predominately low-income at community colleges, which employ more adjuncts than four-year schools — at some, 90 percent of their faculty. Adjuncts, Childress writes, ‘are camouflaged to look exactly like their [tenure track] counterparts,’ so students and parents don’t know the difference. This affects lots of students, because there are so many adjuncts. ‘More than one million people are now working as contingent faculty [in the U.S.] … providing a cheap labor source, even while students’ tuition has skyrocketed,’ according to a congressional Democratic staffer quoted by Childress.

“This faculty precariat constitutes almost three-quarters of community college teachers who instruct, in turn, 40 percent of all undergraduates. ‘If community colleges prepare students to mirror their faculty’s lives as isolated individuals, scratching out a tenuous survival,’ Childress writes, ‘the state [universities] also prepare students to mirror their own faculty’s lives, with secure enough jobs that provide for the mortgage, the gold clubs and the new SUV every few years.’ Affluent liberal arts colleges have far fewer adjuncts, while Ivies and other elite universities are certainly not training their students for a precarious survival.

“Stanford education professor David Labaree, quoted by Childress, says ‘stratification is at the heart of American education. It’s the price we pay for the system’s broad accessibility.’ Just as 100 million economically precarious Americans cling to the bottom rungs of the U.S. economy, so too in U.S. education, precarious gig faculty labor teaches those low-income students who can scrape together community college tuition. Clearly community college students have the greatest need for close mentoring relationships with their professors, but, as Childress observes, they are the least likely to get it, since more of their professors are adjuncts. Ironically, it is students at elite colleges, among the least needy, who get the most professorial attention.

“Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, this devaluation of teaching parallels the profession’s feminization. Many adjuncts are women. Childress cites ‘rising discrimination against occupations after the entry of women.’ This has happened in medicine, education, law and veterinary practice. Research ‘shows college grads entering male-dominated fields at starting salaries far greater than those of college grads entering female-dominated field.’ Women’s work is not considered important. This explains why when women enter an occupation, the pay and the standing decline.

“The public-school model provides the best approach. Early on public education became feminized, thus devalued and underpaid. But it unionized completely. Adjuncts in higher ed should do the same, because barring the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, no help other than unions awaits them.

“The Adjunct Underclass lists five ways that universities have whittled away teacher pay: fewer people, longer hours; workers redefined as independent contractors; de-bundled professional activities and the creation of paraprofessionals; outsourced non-core functions; replacement of humans and space with technology. And of course, the glut of Ph.D.-credentialed teachers puts downward pressure on pay.

“Yet colleges and universities still crank out Ph.D.s, tens of thousands ever year. And every year many, many of those people don’t get jobs. They join a pool of surplus educational labor that constantly swells: There are more unemployed adjuncts every year, their increasing numbers putting downward pressure on pay.

“Years of study, papers, exams, the dissertation, followed by ferocious competition for academic employment scraps: It’s high time this sector of the work-force unionized widely, got some benefits for its precarious piece-work and recognized that tenure is, for most, an impossible and destructive dream.”

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Commentary Redux:

It is well known that adjunct faculty work without job security, without the benefit of healthcare, and without an ethical living wage. Most universities’ priorities are their development of building projects and technology, renovation of infrastructure, management of revenues and investments and reducing operating costs, administrative/bureaucratic positions and salaries, and athletic programs and their resources…  

There is no equity for adjunct instructors. Courses staffed with contingent adjunct faculty cost the same student tuition and provide the same credits staffed by tenured full-time faculty. Adjunct faculty grade compositions and tests, write recommendations and advise students, devise and develop classes, create lesson plans and course materials and improve curricula, among other unpaid responsibilities. 

There are no due process protections for adjunct faculty. There is no equal pay for equal work. There is no professional advancement. There is no equity in the lack of health insurance and retirement benefits available for adjunct faculty. There is little to no inclusion in the way higher education’s formal decision-making procedures and structures are made. Indeed, adjunct faculty are simply part-time contractors, “lecturers,” or non-essential “marginalized” hires who are disenfranchised from high-level governance and required to carry out most of the responsibilities of the full-time faculty (and sometimes at multiple institutions), but for less than one-fifth of the salary of the full-time faculty and without meaningful job security from one semester to another…

Equally demoralizing is that most full-time faculty do not sympathize with the adjunct faculty’s plight. Adjunct faculty are generally without help in their hardship… What is more, most tenured faculty are unconcerned about the slow moral dissolution of higher education and the threats to their own security, even though these debasing administrative trends and practices persist. 

Not surprisingly, at Benedictine University where there is declining student enrollment but increasing student tuition ($33,900 a year (2017)—though only a fraction of this amount pays for college adjunct instruction), full-time tenured faculty are given priority for available classes each semester; thus, an adjunct faculty member’s originally-designed course will be dropped from the core curriculum, no matter how competent and dedicated the adjunct instructor is and respected by students.

Nevertheless, if the reduction of courses taught by adjunct faculty is one of Benedictine University’s severe budgetary constraints, “when contingent appointments are used, they should include job security and due process protections. Contingent faculty appointments, like all faculty appointments, should include: the full range of faculty responsibilities (teaching, scholarship, service); comparable compensation for comparable work; assurance of continuing employment after a reasonable opportunity for successive reviews; inclusion in institutional governance structures; and appointment and review processes that involve faculty peers and follow accepted academic due process…" (Background Facts on Contingent Faculty).

Indeed, “[f]or the [Catholic] Church, there is no distinction between defending human life and promoting the dignity of the human person. Pope Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate [Charity in Truth] that ‘The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized’” (no. 15) (Human Life and Dignity).  

Surely, flagrant indifference to the mental and physical well-being of adjunct faculty is incompatible with the adage “cura personalis” (care for the entire person). What remains to be seen at universities like Benedictine and across the nation is the rejoinder to an essential ethical question: “To what extent can universities be considered [moral and just] while engaging in practices or ideologies that run contrary to [their Mission, Vision, and Commitment Statements]? ...Catholic universities have to decide whether or not running a [consumerist/capitalist academic structure] that utilizes [and exploits their core adjunct faculty]… fundamentally contradicts Catholic teaching [and its ideals]. Adjunct pay, [their lack of benefits and precarious job security… are] not just a [Benedictine] issue — it is an industry wide issue...” (“The Fordham Ram Unfair Adjunct Wages Go Against Jesuit Values”).

-Glen Brown
Adjunct Faculty Instructor

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