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Alternet: Heartbreaking Stories from Academia

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

“What is education?” Ruth Wangerin asks me, when I Skype the sociology professor at her home in New York. “Is education a good for its own sake? Is it a process of weeding people out? Or is the student a customer paying for certification and the adjunct is there to train them?”

It’s a good question.

Wangerin is an adjunct at the City University of New York or CUNY. Although she completed a PhD in the 1970s, the energetic 70-year-old spent her career outside of education, returning to teaching after filling in for a friend on sabbatical.

“I’m not sure how exciting academia is,” she tells me, “It used to be exciting when I was a grad student. We were always talking about the latest theories.” She looks uncharacteristically forlorn for a moment, before adding, “That being said, there were probably always hacks.”

As an adjunct, Wangerin is employed on a casual basis and earns somewhere between half and one-third of what a tenure-track professor would make for teaching the same courses. That is significant, because non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70% of all teaching staff in American higher education. This means that roughly three out of every four courses a student takes are taught by someone without job security who is working on minimal pay.

When Wangerin conducted a survey at the College of Staten Island, a CUNY-affiliated institution, she discovered that one-fifth of adjuncts had no health insurance and that half of all respondents were seeking full-time employment but were unable to attain it.

“The work is there,” Wangerin tells me, “they just don’t want to pay.”

A one-time adjunct and contract lecturer myself, I decide to look into the matter more deeply. Are Wangerin’s contentions particular to her own experience or are they more widely shared across the United States? And if they are, what does this mean for higher education?

Information, as it turns out, isn’t hard to come by. I write one message to a long-time Twitter contact who also happens to be a contingent faculty member and my inbox explodes. As I sort through my e-mails a picture of higher education begins to emerge and, far removed from the conventional image of pipe-smoking professors in book-lined studies, it is largely one of exploitation and control.

“I am currently teaching one class, and in all honesty, unemployment benefits pay double that,” a community college lecturer who wished to remain anonymous told me, “I would be better off not teaching at all.”

An art professor from Ohio writes in to tell me that she’s just thrown in the towel after more than a decade of work: “My class was canceled two weeks before classes start and I decided to get my Alternative Educator License and teach at the high school level.”

I hear of a lecturer whose courses were allocated to someone else after he spoke out about a contract clause that demanded access to his DNA; about an adjunct who could not afford to pay property taxes on the family home after 20 years of teaching; and of someone who was fired after a student complaint that he was a "black racist." “Whatever that means,” the adjunct reporting the incident grumbles.

I also hear, repeatedly, of lecturers working at low-paid jobs in restaurants and department stores to supplement their meagre wages. Some literally work alongside their students. It brings to mind the beginning of the Netflix series "Breaking Bad" where future drug lord Walter White is mocked by his students for working part-time at a carwash.

As I speak to contingent faculty from New York to Texas, Seattle to San Francisco, it becomes increasingly clear that academic penury has become the order of the day. And, concerningly, this is occurring at a time when higher education – and some salaries associated with it – is booming.

Unequal University

“Education claims to ameliorate class stratification, but it actually reinforces it,” says Alex Kudera, who has taught college writing and literature off the tenure track for over twenty years.

It’s not hard to see what he means. The average adjunct lecturer receives only $2700 per course taught. While that amount is sometimes portrayed as easy money, in addition to time spent in class lecturers must also prepare course content, create exams and assignments, grade, advise students, and, of course, travel from campus to campus. When academics are employed on a casual basis, such activity is not compensated, meaning that the true rate of pay is often around the minimum wage.

“It’s insulting,” Wangerin tells me. “Embarrassing,” is how Loraine Hutchins, a 68-year-old sexuality lecturer from Maryland describes it.

At the same time, salaries for school administrators and presidents have increased exponentially. “Universities have increased their profit-lines by hiring part-timers and increasing the cost of the school,” Arvis Averette, an adjunct and economist from Chicago says, “Schools are expanding but not to the benefit of the students.”

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, takes home over $3 million a year – about 140 times what an adjunct teaching a back-breaking eight courses would earn. The average pay for public college presidents was $428 000 in 2014. Some college sports coaches are paid as well, or even better: the 10 most highly paid college coaches in 2015 each earned more than Gutmann, with some bringing home more than $7 million.

This wage gap is facilitated by severe limitations on the number of tenure-track positions – i.e. positions that come with more secure, long-term employment – that are offered to teaching staff. Like a bizarre game of musical chairs, universities and colleges always need more teachers than they are prepared to offer long-term employment to. As a result, in an environment that is ostensibly about self-improvement, casual employment without the opportunity to advance has become the only option for many academics, while a small minority, who are able to literally and figuratively procure a chair are rewarded with pay packages that would, in some cases, have been viewed as absurdly generous only a few decades ago.

Unsurprisingly, a culture that legitimizes this stark differentiation between the haves and have-nots of further education has arisen.

“There is a stigma that contingent faculty just weren’t good enough to get a tenure-track job,” Maria Maisto, of New Faculty Majority tells me, “At the same time, there are a lot of tenured faculty who acknowledge that they would not get a job if they were to apply today,” she continues, referring to the fact that in the past a higher proportion of tenure-track positions were on offer.

“To be an adjunct has become a class moniker,” Richard Aberle confirms, “Very few adjuncts, even those from top-tier universities, ever get on the tenure-track. The idea is that if you are an adjunct, you are a failed academic.” Aberle has worked more than 20 years as a casual academic teaching English, and racking up a bevy of awards, including a Campus Teaching Award in 2013 and a Chancellors’ Award in 2016. With such high numbers of academics denied tenure, he no longer finds such explanations convincing. “How can we all be failures?” he asks me, “And if universities do consider us failures, why have they constructed a system in which they depend on those failures to teach most of their undergraduate students?”

Aberle’s words remind me that Ruth Wangerin referred to academia as a "caste" system during our interview, a term later echoed by others. Tenured faculty can be fired, although in such cases cause must be proven. By contrast, because contingent faculty work on short-term contracts or on a course-by-course basis, a college or university need not even fire an offending lecturer; they need only refuse to re-hire them, something that can be done without any grounds whatsoever. Contingent faculty and adjuncts are not only poor, their work is also extremely precarious.  

While the human toll on contingent faculty themselves is obvious, I begin to wonder what the consequences for society of transforming a group of independent intellectuals into exhausted, highly dependent labourers could be.   

The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Academics may enjoy more intellectual freedom than many workers, but they also have a duty that does not generally fall on others: to research and to publish the results of that research regardless of how unpopular it may be. That might be the news that the earth goes round the sun, that smoking causes cancer, or that corruption exists in politics. I wonder what influence the lack of both money and job security is having on research today.

The first casualty would seem to be that non-tenure track staff are simply too exhausted from their heavy teaching loads to engage in any research at all. “We’ve figured out how to shut down intellectual vibrancy,” Aberle tells me, “It may not have been intentional, but it had the same effect as if it were. They are all struggling, so now they shut up. If you wanted to kill off intellectual life – left or right – this was the way to do it.”

“In most adjunct situations, nobody gives a damn about what you've published,” Gordon Haber tells me, “They just need a warm body.” But he adds that job precarity still has a chilling effect on what lecturers are willing and able to produce. “Administrators won't bother re-hiring adjuncts if there's the slightest hint of trouble. Think about how many students are at community colleges in the U.S., where maybe 60-70% of classes are taught by adjuncts. Make the slightest wave and the administrator simply won't hire you back.”

For some casually employed academics the problems go deeper.

“The more you speak out on average, the less chance you have of getting a tenured position,” Alex Kudera tells me, “There is a lot of hypocrisy surrounding the alleged free exchange of ideas. When you are working in education, you feel that you have to agree with everything that is being said, and you have to agree enthusiastically. It’s actually quite exhausting – more exhausting than the actual work.”

Kudera has been teaching fiction writing and creative writing for over 20 years, writing a novel while taking a break to tutor students in South Korea. “I would never have finished my book if I hadn’t gone to South Korea,” he says. The novel—which is about life as an adjunct—won a fiction prize and has sold quite well, says Kudera, “better than many novels written by tenure-track professors.”

Kudera says he saw from the beginning that the subject matter of his book might have a negative impact on his career chances, but that he was past caring. He remains lukewarm about his job chances, “If someone doesn’t want to hire me, they can just say ‘we felt that his credentials or skill-set didn’t fit here.' They can always find a reason not to renew a contract. It’s very vague and passive-aggressive, but you learn that it is about what I would call ‘the manners of the system’.”

It is easy to see how in a system in which job security has become a rare prize, conformity would quickly become the order of the day with precarious staff hesitant to engage in activity that could affect their long-term careers.

“The point of tenure was to allow new ideas and new technologies to develop,” Aberle says, “but do that as a contingent staff member and you risk your job. Teaching staff are expected to do nothing but teach, and are expendable if they challenge the prevailing ideology. If a tenured member is let go, that becomes a news item, but if I have one bad semester, I’m done; one controversial thing and I’m done.”

Robert Ovetz may know this better than most. Over 20 years ago, Ovetz, now an adjunct in California, wrote his PhD dissertation about privatization at the University of Texas at Austin. This led him to conclude that the budgetary crisis at universities was caused by channeling student fees into biotech and military research in the hopes of producing, licensing and commercializing lucrative patents. “In 1980, Congress changed the law to allow federal funding to be used for private profit,” he explains, “but it cost the public more to fund these projects than it brought in.”

Ovetz says that he is not in a position to assess the impact his research may have had on his career, although he concedes that “what you write about can have an impact. If someone googles you, they’ll find out about any controversial writing or other activities.” While he worried about this at first, he no longer lets it get to him: “I’m nearly 50. I can’t live my life in fear.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the chilling effect the entire complex has on academia is deep. He recalls that when he defended his dissertation, a faculty member refused to sit on the committee, telling him that he should not write about such topics until he was tenured. In hindsight, Ovetz realized, “he was telling me you need to self-censor until you’re safe.”

Since building a case for tenure can now take a very long time, even decades, I wonder what is lost in the long quest not to rock the boat until one is "safe."

Danny Ledonne a former film adjunct puts it bluntly, “By the time you get tenure,” he says, “you don’t want to leave the cage. You need to get into administration or become a department chair to make money, so there’s always a reason to suck up to people.”

Uniquely among those I speak to, Ledonne eventually took a more confrontational stand with his institution. A film major, he started working as an adjunct at Adams State University in Colorado in 2011. He says he was given to understand that he was working on an emerging program and that if he developed it and enrollment increased, there would be a full-time position available in the future.

Ledonne, who described himself as lucky to be starting out with no student loans, scratched together a living teaching two to three courses a semester, summer school and making promotional videos for the university. When a position opened up for full-time faculty in 2014, he thought his hard work was finally paying off. But when he applied for the post, Ledonne was not invited to interview for the position. The role remained empty and he applied again in 2015. This time he didn’t even make the cut for semi-finalist, despite an additional year of experience and a good track record. Ledonne raised a petition on campus to support his application, a move that he still sees as a pivotal in his relationship with the institution’s authorities. “It upset people that I wasn’t just going to pack up and leave. In their eyes, there is no greater sin than self-advocacy.”

A short time later he was told that he could no longer teach at the university or make the promotional videos that he had used to subsidize his career.

Deeply disappointed, Ledonne found himself watching the Batman Dark Knight Trilogy, a choice that was to prove fateful. “I slowly realized that Bruce Wayne comes back to Gotham, this city that he loves, and realizes how corrupt it is. And as Bruce Wayne he can do nothing about it, which is why he invents the persona of Batman. Bruce Wayne is powerless but Batman isn’t.”

Like Bruce Wayne, Ledonne struck out into an alternate persona as the founder of Watching Adams, a website primarily aimed at drawing attention to the poor working conditions many contingent faculty face. Within days of publishing articles on payment delays and lack of transparency on the website, Ledonne was banned from Adams’ campus. When he tried to follow up he was told that his actions were "threatening" and that "someone said they felt harassed."

“You start to half-guess yourself,” Ledonne says, “Did I threaten someone? What could I have done?”

With the help of the ACLU, Ledonne eventually took a case against Adams, which was settled out of court when the university agreed to pay compensation.

Nonetheless, his experiences and those of others show how vulnerable contingent faculty are to being ‘disciplined’ for raising legitimate concerns about hiring processes or engaging with controversial subject matter. That is concerning when one considers that academia as a whole is supposed to work as a force of scientific inquiry, challenging conventional wisdom and independently assessing the truth of various claims and studies. If many qualified academics are no longer in a position to carry out this vital societal task, either through lack of finances and time or through more aggressive retaliation, the question is raised as to who will do so? What will be the consequences if the students of today are not exposed to conscientious role models who are not afraid to shine a light into every dark corner?  


Students: Suckers for Education

Considering the difficulties contingent faculty face, the concern that they show for their students often seems almost pathetically touching. Every person I speak to agrees that low pay and job precarity impact on the level of service they are able to provide for their students; they repeatedly express concern that students are unaware that the education they are "purchasing" may not be the ticket out of poverty that they had hoped for.

Arvis Averette knows more than most on this topic. He graduated high school in 1957 and marched on Washington in 1963 as part of the civil rights movement. Thanks, in part, to a college education, Averette became a successful economist who never depended on his adjunct position for income.

“I lived in a steel town. About 90% of students were white and 10% were black, but 50% of college graduates were black,” he tells me, referring to the traditional method of overachieving one’s way out of adversity. While Averette remains upbeat, he admits that things are different today: “One per cent of the population used to work for General Motors. Now one per cent of the population works for Walmart. I don’t need to say anything more. People who are from minorities or lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t even have a chance.”

Almost every lecturer I interview tells me about students who excelled in their classes and now work as waiters, movers, even strippers.

“There are a lot of good people who have something to give who are lost to the system. People who were good enough to write a dissertation, a book, articles,” Ruth Wangerin says. “It’s such a waste. Wasted education and wasted effort.”

Worse, many students go into debt to finance their education – a good often provided by people who are themselves in debt. “I expect that I will die before I pay off my grad school debt,” says Loraine Hutchins, who went back for a PhD in her 50s before beginning to teach. “We are misleading students to think that education is a way out of poverty, meanwhile the teacher isn’t making anything.”

But if anything, students have often become unwittingly complicit in their own undoing, unknowingly contributing to poor education standards and the insecurity of staff trying to aid them.

Because student evaluations can play a substantial role in whether contingent faculty are rehired, teachers are often reluctant to provoke their students by bringing up controversial subjects in the classroom, pushing students out of their comfort zone or grading them vigorously. This means that while students now rarely fail a class, they often fail to reach their full potential as intellectuals and to develop the ability to self-examine and revise their own conclusions.

“Student evaluations determine who is rehired and that changes how you teach to a certain extent,” Aberle claims, “That makes it risky to stake out any controversial positions. No administrator wants to deal with controversy. It’s easier to just get rid of an adjunct who generates controversy.”

“I am scared most of the time of making a slip that could end my career like that, and has for others I know,” a community college lecturer in California, who wished to remain anonymous agreed. “A student who gets pissed off for any reason, and wants to slam a teacher, for any reason, can make an accusation, which, even if it has no substance, is very dangerous for that teacher.”

It is something Beth Rosdatter knows all too well. Rosdatter began teaching as an adjunct alongside her own post-graduate studies in the 1990s. A committed anti-war activist, Rosdatter has previously served time for trespassing onto nuclear weapons sites. When we talk, she is expecting another court appearance. While committed to publicly opposing what she views as illegal wars, Rosdatter says she always refrained from proselytizing in class. “The important thing,” she said, echoing so many others I speak to, “is just to get people thinking.”

In 2005, however, a former student took a deep exception to Rosdatter’s personal activism, claiming on the website Free Republic that he had been "oppressed" in her class. “The funny thing,” Rosdatter says, “is that he got an A in that class. He was a really good student.”

Things didn’t stop there, Rosdatter tells me. The former student also posted her phone number and address online, along with photos of her children. Other commenters on the site threatened to shoot Rosdatter, and most horrifyingly of all, to rape her daughter (the website later removed the content).

“I thought he just didn’t understand what he was doing,” Rosdatter tells me. “It was his first year in college.”

Passing the student in the hallway one day, she asked him to remove the photos of her children. The student’s mother soon phoned the college’s administration to complain. Rosdatter was called in to meet with officials and told that in order to placate the student’s mother a reprimand would be placed in her file for having created “a hostile learning environment.” Rosdatter never saw her file and doesn’t believe that the reprimand affected her employability, but she was thrown off balance by the administration’s reaction and eventually stopped teaching.

Rosdatter’s views on foreign policy may not be universally shared, but it is hard to see how being exposed to the fact that some people oppose certain aspects of American military action could engender serious harm in the learning mind or why lecturers should refrain from participating in social activities outside the classroom. Indeed, much of the mission of higher education has historically been concerned with exposing students to different narratives and encouraging them to devise their own methods of testing each contention for plausibility. It is the cultivation of this capability, and not any particular content, which will one day make the student independent of the teacher—the ultimate goal of education.

Much like parents, teachers traditionally hope to be thanked later in life when children and students come to realize the benefits of being forced to clean their rooms or complete a daunting assignment. Students should undoubtedly be involved in their own education and protected from bullying, but when they are handed the whip-hand over the very people charged with pushing them to achieve their full potential, one has to wonder whether education is truly doing them any favours or if students have merely become walking dollar signs to administrators anxious to keep them placated and paying for the degrees that now so rarely result in upward mobility.

Beggaring our Intellect

The growth of insecure faculty in American higher education has consequences that reach far outside of the classroom and far beyond the lives of poorly paid teachers. Universities and colleges have fulfilled an important mission in our societies, not only in imparting skills to students, but in testing research, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, and providing a forum in which ideas can be independently scrutinized. When these bodies are starved of the time and resources needed to fulfill these tasks, how will the spirit of scientific inquiry that has contributed so much to our wealth and progress as a civilization proceed? Who will serve as role models for future generations to question "what everybody knows"? Most importantly who will freely share their knowledge with other researchers as universities and colleges have done for centuries, providing a powerful engine for the cross-fertilization of ideas?

Thus far the brunt of this change has been borne by adjuncts and contingent faculty like Robert Ovetz and Beth Rosdatter, and by people like Renee Fraser who was once given a heads-up that she was "teaching communism" after mentioning Karl Marx in a history of Europe. “If I had tenure,” she tells me “I would teach more challenging materials, and have more debate-style discussions. I would have an office and office hours and enough time to meet with students when they need help. I am the first person in my family to get a college degree,” she continues, “I have been teaching a full load of classes ‘part-time’ for 20 years. I have been rated ‘excellent’ by all three of my evaluators for the past nine years. Students love me. I volunteer for committee work and campus events. And my chest tightens for a month before each semester as I check the enrollment figures in my classes, and in all of the classes of the full-time faculty who can bump me, until the semester begins.”  

Traditional higher education is being unraveled, and the public goods that the relatively secure tenure-system provided cannot be adequately replaced by a dependent, impoverished workforce. Sooner or later, the implications of holding education and educators in such low-esteem will come home to roost.

This article first appeared on alternet.org


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