Twenty Years of Schooling, And...

The last few years have seen a number of editorial arguments in newspapers and journals on the exploitation of adjunct faculty by American universities; next week's Nation has this contribution from William Deresiewicz, concluding with a provocative challenge to American academics:

Just as in society as a whole, the academic upper middle class needs to rethink its alliances. Its dignity will not survive forever if it doesn’t fight for that of everyone below it in the academic hierarchy. (“First they came for the graduate students, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a graduate student…”) For all its pretensions to public importance (every professor secretly thinks he’s a public intellectual), the professoriate is awfully quiet, essentially nonexistent as a collective voice. If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to get off their backsides and organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole. Tenured professors enjoy the strongest speech protections in society. It’s time they started using them.


Deresiewicz focuses largely on public institutions of higher learning, but the adjunct/tenure-track/tenured professor ratios are not much different, I would hazard, at private institutions, including Catholic ones.  I was speaking several years ago with an adjunct who was teaching at two separate Jesuit institutions, neither of which would give her a full load of courses (because more than two courses would mean she would qualify for health insurance).  Each school was paying a little more than $3,000 per class per semester, which meant that she was making around $25,000 for the year.  "Why don't you write up an article about your experience," I suggested, thinking it might make an interesting argument on who gets ignored in discussions of the faith that does justice.

She looked at me like I was crazy, then said, "I still want to work."

Jim Keane, S.J.

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PJ Johnston
7 years 8 months ago
And sometimes we spend over $200K in student loans to reach this degree of unemployability or underemployability because we believe in God and our vocation as theologians, only to be told that our specialist degrees do not qualify us to speak with any more presumed authority about our area of expertise than possessed by the average lay person in the pews.  It can make a person literally suicidal.

I have health care and barely scrape by supporting myself and an elderly mother who is not getting by on her welfare benefits (who will no doubt starve to death if the Republican budget goes through, because even with all the state and federal programs she qualifies for, it's not enough to live on).  This would not be possible without our public sector employees union representing graduate student employees.  Without this union my mother and I would simply starve.
PJ Johnston
7 years 8 months ago
PS:  Here's a nice visual lay-out of the difference a union makes:  (There are two columns - one "pre-union" and the other "after union")

COGS has a religious studies graduate student as its president and most of the rank and file who actually show up for protests and negotiations are in religious studies.  The same thing is true in the undergraduate movement to get the state to live up to its responsibility to fund public education instead of saddling students with lifelong burdens of debt.  It is as if in today's society, only theology/religious studies have any concept of social justice.
Kang Dole
7 years 8 months ago
The situation at Manhattan College concerning adjunct facuty should be of special interest as an example in this discussion.
Kang Dole
7 years 8 months ago
lol. Point out these grad students pulling $25000, and I'll be sure not to feel sorry for them. Moreover, while grad students are expolited as lecturers and instructors (something evryone should be concerned about, including undergraduates and the parents of undergraduates), adjunct teaching staffs don't consist solely or even mainly of grad students.
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
Brett, with all due respect, you are out of touch with the world of academic employment.

Graduate students barely eek out a living on campuses today. Once they graduate they have only a small hope of finding tenure-track jobs-many do obtain one after several years but many do not. Driving around from campus to campus for chump change is no way to live. Some look for alternate careers but they have spent 5-10 years getting their doctorates and so this is not always possible.

Students (and parents and taxpayers) should be outraged that many of the classes being taught by these well-meaning but overworked adjuncts. The quality of instruction is usually okay (to great) but these instructors cannot offer advising or write strong letters of recommendation (and can usually conduct little research) We deserve better. 

The answer? Cut high administration salaries, re-think large capital campus projects, and get state budgets in line so that education at all levels gets priority. Meanwhile, TA's & adjuncts must organize! 
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
I do support tenure.  It's interesting that the folks in academia who back it aren't all left-of-center faculty who argue that it protects free inquiry (it does!); many are conservatives who want to protect their ability to present what they view as unpopular ideas; others are scientists who feel the pressure from administration, trustees, powerful legislators, etc. to compromise their basic research to bend to the agenda of big biotech, agriculture, et al.

No question that tenure is unique-but so is higher education teaching & research. Is there another profession that takes so long to gain credentials (four yrs. for UG, 5-10 Grad., plus post doc.) and then go through the necessary steps to gain this kind of job security (5-6 yrs.)? Colleges & universities should view it as an investment and one that pays off in the long run.
Tom Maher
7 years 8 months ago
Brett has a pretty good fix on the siduation.  College have to serve the students who are about to be so overpriced as Brett says just like the housing bubble.

How many people were able to afford a $750,000 or wahtever the average price of a home was back in 2006 qnd for how long realistically?  Very few made the income needed to afford the average home price and incomes were not growing  too fast and neither was the economy.

In the same way tuition fees and board have been going up very steeply in relation to any reasonable measure.  Just like in the housing bubble our freindly politicians are allowing maximum credit to all, completley disregarding once again reasonable prospect of repayment.  This is in the context of a sluggish economy and very poor job growth and only recently slight income growth.  Once again the politically motivated loan progam will freely allow student barrowers to commit financial suicide.  And then education and student loan market bubble will  collapse just like the housing and housing loan market did from to high prices and too much easy credit. 

(Interstingly harvard is working on some program that in the near future its incoming students will no longer pay tuititon which is now sky high. Harvard has apparently figured out for its own survival it could no longer attrract the students it wanted to maintain it reputation with such hugh tuition.  But then Harvard does things like endowmeents and investments and other "capitalistic" things that make larger scale financing and more choices possible.)

So are we worried about graduate students here?  Look again.  If undergraduates can no longer support the horribly high eduation cost burdens what makes you think graduate students on the university payroll will survive with or without unions?   

Oh and just to remind you of all the full interactions of Brett's analogy to the housing market collapsed don't forget the housing credit also went bust.  And so education loans will likely be restricted after the bubble burst because defaults of student loans will skyrocket.  This will make student loans harder to come by and likely restrict amounts that can be barrowed especially when the federal government itself is way too close to going  broke.

So you might want to take a more sober look at things like economic growth, job creation and buiness expansion becasue without economic gowth etc. a lot of things you have taken for granted like education as just being there for you (and you do deserve and need them)  won't be there for you or anyone else .  Everyone and everything is much better off in a growing economy. 
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
"That is the genesis of a possible solution: limited appointments of 5-7 years that would largely replace tenure."

So, just as they are eligible for tenure you can them?!  At my institution they have done just that with one of these "fixed term" contract instructors.  He's been there five years and had the nerve to weigh in on curriculim revision. The angry dean cut him loose.  Now the institution has lost a good instructor and the students who were doing directed studies with him must go in search of a new adviser and letter of recommendation. The people whose letters matter the most are the senior scholars but if they aren't around the students suffer.

The elitism at work is this: the schools using PT, non-tenured faculty are the less prestigious ones, not Harvard or Dartmouth.


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