The Dark Side of Free Education

There’s been a lot of buzz in the last week about New York State’s new promise to offer free tuition at its state (State University of New York-SUNY) and New York City (City University of New York-CUNY) systems, most of it excited and positive. Bernie Sanders got on board. Everyone in my Facebook feed, including most of the educators I know, is excited. I’ve seen the same reaction to Stanford’s decision, and the plans elsewhere for free community college as well.

Frankly, I hate it.

Don’t get me wrong: I think tuition for all students should be free (though that’s not exactly how this plan works). Education is not a privilege, it’s a right, and an investment in the future good of any civilization or society. It’s criminal that we load students down with debt just to get something that’s required for them to even begin to “get ahead” in life (and many of them still can’t do that because of the structure of our economy). I applaud any school that can make this happen—except if they do it on the backs of adjuncts. Here’s what I mean, from Inside Higher Ed‘s summary of the new annual salary survey:

Released today, AAUP’s annual survey finds that … the average total pay for part-time faculty members at a single institution was $20,508. Average pay for part-time faculty members teaching on a per-section basis only (excluding professors teaching part-time during phased retirement, for example) was $7,066, with serious limitations to the data…. Dunietz, of AAUP, emphasized that the statistic is “not meant to indicate an average pay per course,” but rather the average salaries of those part-time faculty that are paid on a per-course basis. “Some of these faculty may teach two or three courses, and the data that we have doesn’t differentiate between cost per course,” he added.

The “part-time” designation is also highly misleading. Many of those part-time professors are part-time at several institutions, due to course caps that keep them from teaching a full load at any one school, so no one gets stuck with their insurance and benefits costs. They are, in fact, often teaching anywhere from 5 to 12 classes, in person and online. Meanwhile, according to the same AAUP survey, college presidents are now making 3.5 to 4 times as much as full professors at research institutions.

Regarding CUNY and SUNY “salaries,” Lynne Turner, of the CUNY Adjunct Project, notes,

The starting compensation for CUNY adjuncts is a meager $3200 per 3-credit course, whereas at both Rutgers in N[ew] J[ersey] and the University of Connecticut systems equivalent adjunct pay per course hovers at around $5000 to start—and they are organizing for more. The CUNY Adjunct Project where I am a coordinator and many others are pressing for a real campaign for a livable compensation of $7000 per course—but it won’t happen unless we stop being complicit with the silence rendering invisible CUNY’s poverty level adjunct compensation.

At CUNY and SUNY, adjuncts teach approximately 60% of the courses. This means that a majority proportion of faculty is making about $20K/year, cobbling together a career from the scraps dropped from the high table of the CUNY chancellor and his $18K/month apartment or the SUNY chancellor’s $200K pay raise. NFM and others have written over and over again about how “Adjunct working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” Because of lack of institutional and financial support, contingent faculty are less able to take risks in either the classroom or their own research, try innovative new teaching strategies, or mentor students. Despite their lack of support and job protection, adjunct faculty still manage to do extraordinary work, sacrificing unpaid labor for both their discipline and their students and winning both teaching and research awards. As one commenter on the compensation story said,

At my C[ommunity] C[ollege], two adjuncts won “part-time teacher of the year” and had published three books and five journal articles between them. The next semester they both lost their classes due “bumping” by a new TT faculty member. Adjuncts have zero academic freedom, yet these two managed to be of great benefit to the students, students who pointlessly protested the non-rehires to our governing board. There is NO other profession in which there is almost zero correlation between performance and compensation.

So what are CUNY and SUNY students getting for free? Overworked, underpaid, exploited adjuncts with no job security or academic freedom, mostly, especially in those crucial core courses of their first two years. This is not a good deal for anyone.

But I’m most disturbed by the number of educators, both full time and adjunct, who are cheering it on. Why is this okay? Sure, it sounds, on the surface, like a great deal for students, but if you’re an adjunct it’s at your own expense. Why are you not asking when we’re going to start supporting and paying the workers who do the actual educating living wages, as part and parcel of helping our students succeed? When one group is exploited to advantage another, there’s nothing good about that, nothing fair, nothing right, and nothing sustainable. And if you approve of it, you’re part of the problem.

Stop cheering. Get up and demand better for all of us, students and faculty. Chop from the top, as my friend Lydia says, if that’s what it takes to make it happen.

–Lee Kottner