The Business of Higher Ed. Cont.

Categories:  Opinion    Community    Features
Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 at 7:15 AM
The Business of Higher Ed. Cont. by Katie Chriest

In May, 2006, I left my bartending job at the Plymouth Tavern, bought a Tacoma, and spent a month road-tripping, hiking, and camping alone. That fall, I was to assume the role of Teaching Assistant in Gannon’s English Department.

I’d loved bartending, but was anxious to move on. Pay was paltry, but earning tuition-free graduate credits and getting to teach college students felt worth it. I imagined I’d taken initial steps toward a career in academia — that when I earned my Masters, I’d start as an adjunct, working my way up to full-time while pursuing a Ph.D.

How naive I was. Two years later, in my first year adjunct lecturing — at Gannon, Mercyhurst, and Behrend concurrently — I made just slightly more than a third of what I’d earned bartending part-time. No benefits, no job security, no full-time potential.

Foolishly, I didn’t realize that in the last few decades, though tuitions and executive salaries have skyrocketed, universities have been quietly chipping away at their full-time, tenure-track faculty, and replacing them with adjunct and contingent faculty. Even the once-revered Ph.D. doesn’t protect academic job-seekers from below-poverty-level compensation and dubious academic freedom. Robert Fuller, former Oberlin College president, said, “What began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.”

The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities reported that non-tenure-track faculty currently comprise “approximately 70 percent of the faculty providing instruction at nonprofit institutions nationwide. Yet, most campuses ignore the needs of this group.” This oversight “may carry deeply troubling implications for student learning, equal-employment opportunities and nondiscrimination.”

On NewsHour last February, Peter Brown of SUNY, New Paltz stated that from 1970 to 2008, “adjunct pay has gone down 49 percent. The salary of college presidents has gone up 35 percent.” Meanwhile, student loan debt now trumps credit card debt, at $1.2 trillion.

Some adjuncts teach in addition to other careers. But increasingly, they fill positions that formerly employed full-time faculty.

In a 2012 statement, Modern Language Association President Michael Bérubé referenced Gary Rhoades of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, “colleges promote themselves, especially to first-generation students, as a pathway to the middle class — but, increasingly, colleges do not pay middle-class wages to their own faculty members. The contradiction is deepest at the lowest tiers of the academic hierarchy, where, Rhoades said, underpaid adjunct faculty members are effectively ‘modeling what is acceptable as an employment practice.’ It is no wonder that adjunct faculty members are so politically invisible: apparently no one wants to say to high school graduates, ‘Go to college, work hard, and someday you can get a job teaching college— at a salary of $20,000.’ It casts a pall over the American dream.”Truthout

Students rarely realize that many of their instructors are contingent employees.Universities are careful not to reveal this. It’s easier to justify tuition hikes if students think all faculty are highly valued.

Maybe we’ve all been a little naive.

William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, stated, “The only genuine solution to the crisis in the classroom is for colleges to bring back teaching to the center of their mission … If we want people to do the hard, highly-skilled work of educating the next generation — of workers, of thinkers, of citizens, of leaders — then we need to pay them well and treat them with respect.

The point is not that adjuncts — or any faculty — should be compensated beyond what their jobs entail. But neither, then, should higher-up administrators, particularly at institutions who raise tuition astronomically while undervaluing the education which that tuition pays.

The American Association of University Professors found that adjuncts earn a median salary of $2700 per 3-credit course. “While faculty and staff members were told there was no money for raises or continued benefits,” they reported, “presidents were scooping up double-digit percentage increases in salary. Suffering from a decades-old case of ‘administrative bloat,’ higher education is losing its focus.”

Local institutions have worked to maintain better tenure-track faculty numbers than the national trend reflects. Nevertheless, enormous discrepancies persist in faculty compensation. And students — encouraged to recognize injustices elsewhere in society — remain none the wiser.

Lately, attention on the plight of contingent faculty has increased, as many adjuncts move to unionize or otherwise demonstrate in favor of living wages. Feb. 25 was even chosen as the first-ever National Adjunct Walkout Day, bringing national awareness to this too-long invisible majority. The idea began with an adjunct professor at San Jose State University who maintains anonymity to protect her job.

In Pittsburgh, the Adjunct Faculty Association, in affiliation with the United Steelworkers, works to “maximize educational quality by ensuring that all faculty have the institutional support they need to carry out the academic mission.” Movement towards unionization has been particularly strong at Duquesne University, where organization began in spring, 2011. Since then, national media attention to these efforts has been partially galvanized by the controversial death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a 25-year Duquesne adjunct who died in abject poverty. 

Duquesne initially supported an election for unionization, but later reversed its position, citing religious exemption. On Feb. 17, United Steelworkers celebrated “the unanimous decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to deny Duquesne University’s appeal opposing the adjunct faculty’s right to organize a union.”

Interestingly, this proposed exemption would protect that Catholic-affiliated campus — where other unions exist — from adjuncts unionizing for living wages. In 2012 in The New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer wrote, “‘Union busting is a mortal sin,’ the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice said in a 2010 statement on the indispensable role of unions. And while the church hierarchy has never quite put it that way, workers’ right to unionize is an issue on which church teachings are pretty clear.” We must also wonder how compensating employees at sub-poverty rates isn’t itself religiously exempt.

As the Washington Post recently concluded, “It’s to be wondered why the collective conscience of a college or university is rarely stirred by the salary inequality that has persisted, and even grown, for decades … At graduations, students are grandly implored to go make the world a better place. Every place, dear children, except your alma mater.”

I’ve had “adjunctivitis,” as it’s not-so-lovingly dubbed, since 2008. At Mercyhurst, I earn $2300 per 3-credit course. One Gannon adjunct reported $1950 per course; one made $2500.

Per-credit costs are harder to ascertain; but sites such as break down yearly costs for prospective students’ reference. So if students are paying about $775 per credit hour at Gannon, that’s $2325 per three-credit course. Of course, most students benefit from financial aid, and thus aren’t paying full price. Nevertheless, the university presumably values the course at $2325 per student. With the usual 25 students per class, that’s a per-class value of $58,125.

Compare that to what an adjunct is paid to teach it. Adjuncts in state schools, like Edinboro, are better compensated; but declining enrollment threatens their positions first. On The Adjunct Project, hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Allegheny adjuncts reported $2,625 - $3,500 per course.

Full-time faculty members teach the same courses, but make livable salaries with benefits, and typically earn raises. This year, I’ll earn $13,800 for six classes. No benefits. I spoke with one Ph.D. adjuncted for eight years, and never received a raise.

Meanwhile, many universities create temporary faculty appointments, which offer full-time status, somewhat better-than-adjunct pay, and benefits. However, these positions are often for one year, with only the possibility of one-year renewal. Thus, job searching still consumes much of the appointees’ time, as they’re left wondering if they’ll be employed the following year.

Regardless, students are led to believe that they’re going into debt to pay for superior classroom experiences from focused, inspired, reasonably-compensated faculty. And many times, they are. But this contingency epidemic is destined to rob students of the consistency and dedication that their exorbitant tuition dollars should be buying.

Students deserve to know this. Instead, adjuncts feel compelled to hide their status. And so adjuncts meet students somewhere other than the shared, non-private office. We tell them we’re “not on campus on that day,” when, though we’d like to be there for them, we have to be off working another job to afford this one. We worry that end-of-semester reviews — which largely determine whether contingent faculty are rehired — will be negative if students believe they deserved better grades. We hold our breath before semesters begin, wondering if classes will be taken away at the last minute without notice.

And since the Affordable Care Act, we’re assigned even fewer classes per campus, to keep us ineligible for insurance.

So why does this work?

I still get to creatively engage college students. In a world of “likes” and algorithms designed to limit exposure to opposing views, I’m privileged to witness that thrilling moment when their eyes are opened; when they tune into whatever ignites them and begin to discover their true depths. These moments are priceless.

Inevitably, though, I hear about the multitudinous injustices in higher ed. I get angry and sad. I want to do something. Many of us do.

But in a climate flooded with overly-qualified and underemployed graduates, we’re all instantly replaceable. As I quickly discovered in researching this piece, it’s the rare non-tenured faculty member who’s able to speak out. In an industry focused on cost-cutting, even full-time faculty may feel compelled to keep quiet. That undoubtedly impacts students.

Elizabeth Segran spelled this out in The Atlantic: “The tenure system was originally designed to foster academic freedom by allowing professors to voice unpopular opinions without the fear of being fired: in contrast, adjuncts can have their contracts terminated without a grievance process.”

Segran also quoted Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an adjunct activist group. Maisto told Segran “that many adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students in class because poor student evaluations could cost them their jobs.” Maisto concluded, “College is no longer creating a critically-thinking citizenry who can participate actively in a democracy.”

And in many cases, what it is creating is a citizenry in debt.

One local faculty member feels that “Telling everyone they should go to college is bad advice. [College is meant] to shine a light on those who have intellectual capabilities to succeed in a number of different disciplines. We need to maintain that distinction.”

Instead, he contended that admissions standards are lower everywhere at enrollment-driven institutions. He also highlighted that some institutions prey upon potential students from lower socioeconomic classes, many of whom were not fairly warned about the burdens of coursework and tuition, and who end up “without a degree or employability, but with tons of debt.”

Though he has witnessed student success from every background, he nevertheless maintained that selling college as the path to guaranteed success is fallacious and manipulative.

“It’s almost like we’re guaranteeing that they’ll finish with all of these employable skills,” he stated. “We could be setting people up for debt and failure, with no security blanket afterwards.”

He believes high schools should better delineate how different college will be, and that “we aren’t stressing enough that this debt won’t go away.

“A lot of students should work first, instead of taking on thousands of dollars of debt as 18-year-olds that could ruin them. If they’re not ready to understand what they’re signing on for, they’re not ready for college.”

Even those who do graduate often have mountains of debt and no guarantees. As Bloomberg reported last year, ”Unemployment among [recent graduates] 25- to 34-years old rose to 6.6 percent in July, exceeding the 6.2 percent rate for all groups.”

And according to TIME last September, “student loan debt, unlike any other type of loan, cannot be forgiven under any circumstances, including bankruptcy or death. Americans who die with student loans often pass on that debt to surviving family members.”

Incredibly, the Government Accountability Office stated that among people over 65, ”outstanding federal student debt … grew from about $2.8 billion in 2005 to about $18.2 billion in 2013.” And social security benefits are garnished for those carrying this debt.

To ameliorate this, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced the “Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act,” which would cut interest rates on existing loans. On, Warren explained, “Student debt is keeping borrowers from buying homes, moving out on their own, buying cars, and opening small businesses.”

At a time when we desperately need young investment in Erie, this perspective is particularly alarming.

Despite ubiquitous low interest rates — especially for big banks — student loan rates remain cripplingly high. But as Warren clarified, “higher [student loan] interest rates are producing billions of dollars in profits for the government. According to the Government Accountability Office, just one slice of the loans – those from 2007 to 2012 – will produce $66 billion.” Unsurprisingly, “Bank on Students,” funded by taxing millionaires, has been blocked from a vote by Senate Republicans.

Warren defined the issue as “a question of values. Should we continue to support millionaires and billionaires, carefully protecting the loopholes that let people earning more than a million dollars a year pay tax rates lower than middle class families? Or do we spend the same money to support young people who borrowed money to go to school?”

Perhaps we’ve grown so accustomed to our country kowtowing to the One Percent that we’re blind to this skewed status quo. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what — or whom — higher education is for.

Robert Fuller summarized, “Of course, there’s a reason that things are as they are. There is always a reason, one which seems cogent enough until suddenly it does not.”

Are we there yet? Are we ready to admit that higher ed needs an overhaul? That we all have the power to inspire this overhaul? That because thriving higher ed institutions potentially provide countless assets to their surrounding communities, our attention is energy well spent?

Wendell Berry said, “A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.”

Let’s all take a deep breath and ask what we want from our educational systems. Let’s educate for posterity, not just prosperity. Let’s be willing to put first things first.

Katie Chriest can be contacted at

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