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LETTERS / Can Your Professor Make Ends Meet? The University’s ‘Flexible’ Underclass

Dear Editor,

If you are a college student or the parent of one, you may have noticed something funny happening at universities these days. Like many Americans, you are paying more for a college education than ever before. Yet there is a good chance you are being taught by someone having a hard time making ends meet. This is academia’s new underclass, known alternately as “adjuncts,” “contingent” faculty, or “non-tenure track” professors (NTTs).

On April 15, Americans across the country are calling for a $15 minimum wage. As part of this effort, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched a campaign entitled “Faculty Forward,” which wants all NTTs to be paid at least $15,000 per course. Though it is many times what they currently make, this figure would offer them the decent standard of living they often sorely lack.

The facts are troubling. According to Measuring Up’s “report card” on higher education, between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees ballooned by 439 percent. Yet over the same period, universities dramatically reduced the number tenure-track professors, hiring large numbers of NTTs instead. According to a recent report by the Pullias Center for Higher Education, while tenured and tenure-track positions made up 78.3 percent of the faculty at American universities in 1979, they had shrunk to 33.5 percent by 2009.

Why does this matter? Contrary to popular opinion, a “tenure” does not mean a professor cannot be fired or is guaranteed a job for life. Rather, it means that, following a probationary period (usually six years), professors can keep their jobs unless they make a serious mistake or their institution runs into major financial trouble.

Tenure has been crucial to establishing American universities’ global reputation for two reasons: it guarantees academic freedom (protecting professors from being fired for teaching or studying controversial ideas); and it attracts talented people to the profession (who might be reluctant to seek time-consuming advanced degrees without some promise of job security).

So why are tenured positions down and NTTs up? NTTs are academic temp workers. In an age of state budget cuts, administrators like NTTs because they are cheap and “flexible”: as pieceworkers, paid by the class or for limited time periods, they can be “let go” when budgets are tight.

Yet at the same time that administrators say they are cutting costs by employing poorly paid NTTs, they are hiring more administrators making large salaries: a recent study by New England Center for Investigative Reporting reports that since 1987, the ranks of administrators and professional staff have doubled, expanding at twice the student population’s rate.

Recourse to contingent labor is bad for students—not because NTTs are bad teachers (they are usually uncommonly dedicated), but because their working conditions are poor. Hiring NTTs undermines academic freedom, since they are focused on keeping their jobs. They are often denied opportunities to develop as teachers, since they receive little support for research (which keeps teaching fresh) and scant time for preparation.

Frequently, NTTs receive shabby treatment from their institutions. Some cobble together jobs at various schools, working seven or eight classes per semester. This often means exhausting commutes. One of my NTT colleagues leaves home at 6AM and returns at 9:30PM. Another I know drives hundreds of miles a week to teach in Boone, Dobson, and Cullowhee. For his troubles, he makes between $1,300 and $1,500 a class, allowing him to eke out around $14,000 a semester. Since some schools do not reimburse mileage, driving alone sets him back $1,800. That means one whole class is lost to gas money.

Online learning, far from being the panacea imagined by administrative champions collecting six-figure salaries, can make an NTT’s workload even heavier. One told me: “There is no way to describe the pain and the process of creating an online class. Not only are you to have the course established from day one, you basically live online all the time.” Many online courses are “canned,” requiring instructors to grade and encourage discussion, but discouraging any meaningful interaction with material designed by anonymous course designers.

Some universities cap their NTTs at three courses per semester, absolving them of their obligations to provide health care under the Affordable Care Act. At ASU, NTTs have had their course loads cut simply so the university can skimp on health care. Some NTTs work 80 hour weeks on multiple campuses, but are not considered “full time.”

Despite this grueling existence, many NTTs work second or third jobs to make ends meet. One of my NTT colleagues has worked at Greene’s Construction, Staples, and collected scrap metal to top up his income. He has not been to the dentist in nearly ten years. Another, when not teaching classes at ASU, has cut firewood and done rough carpentry and plumbing jobs.

Yet when asked why they do this, the answer is always the same: they love to teach.

In the United States, college education has long been considered the gateway to the middle class. Yet the people teaching college today are not, in practice, members of the middle class, but of a reserve army of disposable academic labor.

The NTT issue is not just about professors. It is about public services and the common good. If you pay your taxes and tuition, shouldn’t this get you an engaged and secure professor who is not making a personal sacrifice just to educate you?

Find out if your professor is an NTT. Ask administrators why this is fair. Join the SIEU’s campaign. In today’s economy, a lot of us are only a step away from being deemed “flexible.”

Dr. Michael C. Behrent

Associate Professor of History, Appalachian State University

President of ASU’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors