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


Chop from the Top

by Lydia Field Snow

Recently I’ve been talking to a fellow adjunct organizer, Andy Davis in California, who teaches at Cal Poly Pomona in the Interdisciplinary General Education program. He and I are involved in collaborating with a group of artist activists designing projects that capitalize on the power of the arts to change minds and hearts for Campus Equity Week 2017. Its theme captures our need to both conceal and reveal our complex identities as members of the precarious academic workforce: mAsk4campusEquity.

Andy and I are heading up the Historical Re-enactment and Other Performance/Performing Arts and we have been have been brainstorming 2-3 hours a week about the connection that Halloween in 2017 will also be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his revolutionary 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. It was a campus protest because Luther was teaching at the University of Wittenberg as an “ordinary lecturer” and posting his theses on the door of the cathedral was a standard method of engaging in a scholarly debate. As Andy has so eloquently stated, “There are distinct parallels between the corruptions that were taking place in Luther’s time and what is taking place today. Both systems supported an increasingly remote administrative elite through the exploitation of true believers.”

Well, last week I was particularly down when he called. Not only did my mother in law pass away at 93 after a long struggle that involved my husband bearing the weight of all of her financial and healthcare decisions from long distance, we also as a family lost our dear beagle after 13 years. The previous week I deduced, after 6 years of consistent summer work, that I was not going to be invited back to my summer job as camp counselor at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, this on top of having 20% of my remaining adjunct salary cut through the end of the semester through Northeastern Illinois University’s “Furlough Plan.”

Then I was emailed by my union that there was going to be a press conference where the students were going to talk about their student jobs being cut over the break and how Governor Rauner’s budget fiasco was harming Northeastern Illinois University’s students because of the mandatory furlough of 1,100 faculty and staff. They implored as many faculty to show up as possible. At first I was furious  at the college’s administration. Even in my sad state, it doesn’t take a whole lot of intellect to see that the ones being hurt by the pay cut are the faculty and staff. Let’s stop calling it a furlough because, unlike last year when the union was able to bargain that we actually take those furlough days, the administration made the unilateral choice to shut down over Spring Break. So what difference does that make if you’re still expected to teach at the same time for the same number of students? Adding insult to injury, the union thinks the press is more concerned about the students losing their jobs for a week and being hired back again than they are about part-time faculty who won’t be able to feed their families, or about staff who won’t be able to afford to pay their rent, heat, and electricity bills?

Anyway, Andy and I talked and he helped me make sense out of it. “Well of course that’s crazy. What can you do that will make adjuncts more visible?” I suggested, “How about make a sign that says Chop from the Top?” And he said, “Chop from the top, don’t kill the tree!” So in my grief-stricken state I went to Office Depot and bought a big piece of poster board and some enormous sharpies. I am just about the least artistically inclined person visually, but that night I did my best to create my sign, changing it to “Chop from the top, not from the Tree,”—(I think upside down and I’m not even sure it makes sense, but artists have that prerogative.)—I found photos of the Tree of Life, which was my mother-in-law’s favorite sculpture, on the internet; she had one in the living room that I often stared at over dinner, and I brought it in under my arm the next morning before the demonstration, hiding it behind my cabinet in my shared office space.

When I got to the demonstration, there were few people there and it was cold, and I had forgotten my gloves. I held up my sign on the steps of the Classroom Building and several students came up to me and smiled, “Oh I love that sign! Thanks so much for coming.” My fellow union members looked away in shock and horror when they saw me and my sign and I just kept thinking, Andy thinks it’s ok; I am just going to hang out here with my sign. Photographers came up to me later and photographed me. I held it up for over an hour despite a frozen shoulder injury I’ve been coping with due to grading papers for 2 years now. I have no idea how I did it.

And then the students started speaking. I can’t tell you how moving it was to hear the Northeastern students speaking about what our university means to them. And they didn’t stop with just the ability to go to college and be the first one in their family to graduate, or the undocumented immigrants that bravely graduate and have found work here in Chicago, but also talked about the other challenges they face. Working and going to school and taking care of sick family members, not having transportation and getting to work or school late. The mental health issues they face dealing with all of this stress. One young man bravely said, “I am here to tell you I suffer from depression, and yes, I am going to graduate and it’s important to talk about mental illness. Governor Rauner is not only hurting public higher education but social services for the mentally ill. We are fighting for our right to not only get educated, but to live, to be in community and support one another. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the social worker that supported me and convinced me to apply to college.”

Soon I was standing there with my enormous sign and tears were streaming down my face. These are my students and this is why I am here after 11 years as an adjunct. It was so powerful to hear the strength in their voices, the tremendous hope they have for the future. It was like I was staring into the face of love and yet standing outside it at the same time. Of course Andy and I had talked about the definition of the word adjunct the day before: “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” Everyone else was hugging each other, the union members were passing out fliers that only spoke about Rauner and the budget impasse, not about the impending 20% pay cut for their members. But there was Andy’s voice in my ear, Luther wanted to debate the administration. He didn’t give up. We need to be heard. And in the end I learned something that day. I learned that the students’ voices are more powerful. They are more powerful because they are our future. But it’s important to talk truthfully about things too. Not every move has to be about publicity or gaining the public’s approval, or getting attention on Twitter. It’s important to be visible as adjuncts and to not let them bury us under the rug as “inconsequential.” We are the face of higher education. We are the reason these beautiful students are graduating because we teach most of the classes and we are the ones who are facing so many similar battles economically and psychologically. When we finally do combine forces we will be unstoppable.






Opinion: Professional Status, Professional Pay

PrintOne of the indignities that adjuncts complain most bitterly about is the not just the lack of respect, but the lack of pay. The two conditions are linked. In no other job that I have worked have I ever had so little respect for so little money. I’ve worked some really awful jobs in the pink collar ghetto of word processors, receptionists, administrative assistants, proofreaders, ad traffickers (ask me about that one sometime), and flunkies, but even when part of my job was to kiss the boss’s butt and get his coffee and dry cleaning, I did one thing I can’t do teaching at three colleges: I made a decent living.

Even when I was working part time, my hourly rate was between $35 and $60/hour, and—the real clincher—I was paid for all the hours I worked. If I was working, on site or at home, I was paid for it. Writing. Editing. Proofreading. Transcription. Layout. Production. They’re intensive jobs often requiring a lot of late nights to meet deadlines. I got overtime pay when that happened, or comp days, at least. I had a desk, computer, and phone of my own, free access to a copy machine, all the things I have to fight for as a college instructor. When I worked full time I had benefits, vacation, a pension plan.  And with the benefits, full-time work of the worst kind paid better than adjuncting, for far fewer hours. Alas, those jobs, born of a thriving economy, are gone now, or I’d be doing them.

But doesn’t it seem odd that,while people don’t balk at paying a lawyer $300/hour for their expertise (complain, yes, but ultimately cough up), they find paying a Ph.D. in history or math around a third of that outrageous? It’s not even that the rates are so awful, it’s that we’re not actually paid for the hours of work we do. In teaching, we’re paid by the credit hour swindle: apparently the only work we do is in the classroom, and that’s all we get paid for. Whoever thought that up was a fiscal genius and a rat bastard of the first stripe. And also completely ignorant of (or uncaring about) the amount of work that goes into teaching before and after you set foot in a classroom. So, if our pay is only for being in the classroom, do we get to write our lectures in the classroom too? And read the assignments there, and grade there? What will our students do? Oh, wait! Is this what they mean by the “flipped” classroom, where we and our students do our homework in the classroom and then listen the lectures previously re—no, that’s not right, either.

Piling on the Extra Responsibilities

In effect, whether our pay is figured hourly or per credit, most of us are paid a flat fee for a fixed number of hours and then spend far more than that actually doing the necessary work. Slipped into our boilerplate contracts (which are increasingly “agreements” and not “contracts—more on that in another post), sometimes illegally, are requirements for grading, communicating with students, course preparation, and office hours, each of which effectively lower the hourly rate until it hovers at or below minimum wage. It would be one thing if this were because of our own inept time estimates, but it’s not; it’s the rate set by administration who often do not understand how much work goes into teaching a class, and who appear not to value our actual expertise, or at least value it far less than their own.

Imagine if this tactic were tried with freelancers, with whom adjuncts have much in common. I recently saw a cartoon that showed a graphic designer delivering to a client a portfolio of designs that had taken him a couple of hours to come up with. His client asks, outraged, “why should I pay you so much for something that only took you a few hours?” The designer, looking world-weary, replies: “You’re paying me for the four years of school and X years of practice that taught me to do this WELL and RIGHT in two hours.” In other words, clients are paying for expertise and education, for our hard-won ability to make what we do look easy because we’re so good at it.

If you’ve ever hung out with or are any kind of artist yourself, you’ve inevitably met the people who say, “I could do that,” or worse, “my two-year-old could do that.” (Really? Has Cake Wrecks taught you nothing?) Art only looks easy because artists practice. All. The. Time. Ditto with teaching. Good teachers make it look effortless. (And of course, for bad teachers, it usually is.) But “looks easy” and “is easy” are two different things. With a college professor, you’re employing someone with at least one and usually two advanced degrees and more accumulated knowledge than most people ever want, not to mention experience in the classroom imparting that knowledge they’ve accumulated. (Or as we like to say, creating it with students. Yeah, you try creating knowledge, suckah.)

But even this is not a good analogy; the lawyer analogy works far better. A lawyer, if s/he is even thinking about your case, or making notes, or doing a little research, or taking your call to update you on its progress, will charge for that time. I should be able to do that, too. Likewise, when doctors and dentists charge you a fee, they have figured in the cost of their education to gain their expertise, as well as their overhead. You’re paying a fee for their professionalism. What’s more valuable? The professional, or the professional who teaches and helps create the professional? When you offer lawyers $80-$100/hour to teach, that’s a big pay cut for them. When you don’t even pay them for all of their hours worked, that’s wage theft.

More, Please, Sir?

Here’s another example: I have a colleague from grad school who now works as a freelance consulting writer/editor for business-to-business white papers for clients like IBM, Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, Cisco, and Big Pharma. She read law at Oxford initially, but her Ph.D. is in English literature and it’s this expertise she’s hired for. She bills like a lawyer, though, at triple digits/hour, and rightly so. And you know what? Her clients come back to her year after year after year after year. Recently, some penny-pincher in one client’s accounting department asked her to come up with a 20% reduction in her fee over the weekend. She replied with a curt note that said, first, she does not work on the weekend for free and secondly that she has worked with X client for many years and he (the accountant) had a lot of damn gall (my words, not hers) trying to negotiate with her, and finally, he could take her offer or leave it. She copied her client’s project team leader. They paid her original asking price and reprimanded the accountant.

The moral of this story is two-fold: 1) management will always try to whittle down your pay and undervalue you; 2) if you don’t value yourself, they won’t either. We have to stop being Oliver Twist, holding out our empty porridge bowls and asking if we can have a raise, or be paid for office hours, or for the hours of grading compositions and the work that anyone who does not use Scantron exams does at finals. (And can we just stop the 48- or 72-hour deadline for final grades? Again, fine if you have Scantron exams; nightmare if you have 60-100 student research papers.) What would happen if we presented a bill for services at the end of the semester? All of us? Let’s do that!Adjunct Consulting Invoice-Bolin

Another story, this one from one of my lean years of adjuncting at the community college level in the early ’90s. The father of one of my students was a STEM Ph.D. researcher at a Big Pharma company that had a fit of downsizing and “accidentally” downsized Dad. The company then discovered that he was the only one with expertise in a particular drug they were developing and tried to hire him back. Instead, he negotiated a freelance contract deal with them for $300/hour (like our aforementioned lawyers) and eventually moved on to found his own lab.

We are every bit as much professionals as lawyers and PhDs and MDs and DDSs outside academe. We should not have to say this. It’s insulting to pay us as badly as our institutions do. Each of us guides 120-300 students a year through the thickets of academe, mostly successfully, helping to mold and launch a new group of professionals. Why is that not a valuable ability, along with our own research and creative output? As a colleague says, “we teach because of professionalism—and because [of] LOVE. You know the calculus of love and decency” that administrators rely on to figure our wages. They rely on the fact that we won’t quit mid-semester in disgust at the insult, and that we’ll keep coming back for less than our non-academic colleagues would because we love our students.

Other professionals who sometimes teach as adjuncts have noticed this too. Another full-time adjunct observed that if you scratch a professional who’s teaching as an adjunct, you’ll find an angry, disrespected professional. They claim at first to do it for the love of teaching and the love of their students (sound familiar?), but they know they’re not being paid what they’re worth, any more than we are.

Such treatment puts a very low value not just on us, but on students, as well. There’s a calculus of “butts in seats” that’s become more and more common in every university as well, as though packing students in like sardines in a lecture hall, no matter what the course, was the answer to fiscal shortfalls.

One big difference: in this calculus, there is no love, and the only valuable professional members of the university are sitting in the airy suites of the administration building, soaking up the payroll.

–Lee Kottner