On Just Wages, Church Teaching, and the Plight of the University Adjunct

On Just Wages, Church Teaching, and the Plight of the University Adjunct March 26, 2019

A 2015 article in The Atlantic by Caroline Frederickson decries the unjust treatment of part-time faculty by universities, which are relying increasingly on non-tenure-track adjunct instructors, hired on contract. Though these are technically part-time positions, many of these part-timers work longer hours than full-time tenured faculty ever will, since they often teach at several different universities, take side jobs, and are obliged to maintain the highest possible standards of instruction in order to keep their classes full and their contracts renewed.

Historically, the article points out, these positions may date from entrenched sexism in the academy:

Some trace the practice of hiring part-time instructors to a time when most schools didn’t allow women as full professors, and thus adjunct positions were associated with female instructors from the start. Eileen Schell, author of Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, notes that these contingent faculty members were referred to as “the housewives of higher education.” My parents lived out that exact paradigm. Both professors, my father was full-time and tenured and my mother was originally tenure track until a move accompanying my father got her only a non-tenured position as an “instructor” as part of a “package” created to lure my father to Stanford. There my mother worked with a cohort of part-time faculty wives who were given little respect and even less in wages. Women still make up the majority of contingent teachers, with estimates as high as 61 percent. (By contrast, 59 percent of full-time tenured faculty are men.)

Today, universities rely increasingly on “part-time” instructors. These academic professionals may be unlisted on any university directory, impossible to find since they have no offices. They have no health benefits or job security through their employers. Many are even on food stamps. Yet even with their disadvantaged position, they work hard to make sure their students get their money’s worth, meeting with them in cars or coffee shops, trying to be available even with their hectic schedules.

Because, of course, in spite of this farming-out to low-wage laborers, student tuition has not gone down. The cost of higher education is astronomical.

One adjunct teacher, JJ, posting a comment online, calculated his/her pay as an adjunct as $65 per student per semester, adding up to the princely sum of $2,000, noting that “each student paid $45,000 in tuition and took about 4 classes a semester.… I think their parents would be rather upset to learn that only $65 of the $45,000 went to pay one professor for an entire semester.”

Where’s all that extra money going? Administrators, mostly, many of whom are businesss people, not academics, and have turned the offices of administration into ends-in-themselves, rather than means to the end of supporting the real heart of the university: teachers and students.

Writing a few years ago for this publication, the Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg described colleges and universities as now being “filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.” So while college tuition surged from 2003 to 2013 by 94 percent at public institutions and 74 percent at private, nonprofit schools, and student debt has climbed to over $1.2 trillion, much of that money has been going to ensure higher pay for a burgeoning legion of bureaucrats.

All of this is extremely familiar, because I lived it for eleven years.

Poised on the edge of completing a PhD, my two MAs were insufficient to qualify me for a full-time position in either of the departments for which I taught. Moreover, I didn’t conform to the particular variety of political correctness that dominated my school. I was there to teach, not to indoctrinate, and even if the administration didn’t like it, the students, for the most part, did: I was the highest-rated instructor in my department, by the time I was nearing the end of my relationship with the school. Lacking an office, I met my students in a nearby coffee-shop, which meant at least we were comfortable. I was available to them to chat via email at any time. And over the years, I had the pleasure and privilege of teaching many brilliant young people who have gone on to do spectacular things, and with whom I am still regularly in touch. 

My students were my reason for being there, but I did research, too. Partially because I enjoy attending academic conferences, partially because I was still trying, slowly, to build up my CV. And teaching well means you can’t stagnate, can’t just keep repeating the same lines and regurgitating the same material. Every class brings up questions that lead to new research, new content. By the end of a teaching career, a good teacher not only should have transformed the lives of countless students: she should have transformed her own life as well.

It wasn’t always easy, and the pay was terrible – far lower than the national average for part-timers – but I loved my work.

Unlike full-time professors, I never took a summer off, but rather ran a small business from home. I completed my doctoral dissertation while nursing my second child and teaching a full adjunct load, but was unable to defend it, because I lacked the leisure time to complete the preliminary language requirements for my program. I took online work on the side.

And when the administration decided not to renew my contract – for ridiculous reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of my teaching, or student satisfaction – I had no recourse.

And this was, theoretically, a Catholic university.

I would like to point out that the injustice with which universities treat their adjuncts is morally revolting, but this is even more of a scandal when the university in question claims to be Catholic. The Catholic church teaches emphatically that justice is due to the worker, and withholding just wages is one of the sins that, in our rather dramatic parlance, “calls to heaven for vengeance.”

As my oldest child is approaching the age at which we are beginning to think about his college career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what sort of higher education to choose. It has to be affordable: we’re still paying off our own college student loans, ourselves, and can’t afford to add more to the mix. It has to have a good robust program of study in his area of interest, whatever that will turn out to be. The university should demonstrate serious care for its students’ well-being, which means any college on the record for consistently covering up any kind of abuse is a no-go.

Whether or not he goes to a Catholic university depends on a lot of different variables. I will have nothing to do with a university that markets itself as “catholic”, then preaches a watered-down Ayn Randianism or white-supremacy-lite in place of actual orthodox teaching. Similarly, any school that shies away from energetic intellectual engagement with the broader world, and prefers to cling to outmoded disciplines and theories, will just get a big laugh from me. If theology and church history are taught, I would expect them to be taught accurately, and not as propaganda.

I’d like a good Catholic university with a rigorous adherence to the best in the Catholic tradition of lively intellectual inquiry, remembering that the scholars we look back on as “traditional” today were revolutionary in their time. I’d like a university that recognizes the tradition as polyphonic and ongoing, not monolithic and dead.  

But one thing I will say: any school that defrauds its workers of their just wages, does not count as authentically Catholic, even if it happens to call itself that.

image credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/books-man-person-businessman-3071110/

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