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Degrading value on America's college campuses

Jennie Young, Community Voices • Mar 10, 2019 at 7:45 AM

A few years ago I attended a meeting about Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to outsource some public jobs to private interests. A gentleman from the audience spoke of working at three Tri-Cities higher-education institutions to cobble together a full-time, low-pay job with no benefits. He wasn’t speaking of threatened lower-level service jobs. Two major differences characterized the jobs at risk in that they are full-time with benefits. The speaker was a credentialed college professor. One of the class known as “adjuncts”.

The gentleman’s words struck a chord because I’d recently read an article about adjunct professors across the country who were beginning to unionize as a last resort. It was there that I became aware of a troubling, and growing, reality. How can it be that 51 percent of America’s college-level professors are part-time, mostly not by choice? In the ensuing months, I asked about adjuncts at ETSU and was told they numbered about 25 percent, only half the national average. I tucked the subject away until a recent letter to the Forum stated that ETSU’s faculty is now 40 percent part-time. That, in itself, is distressing, but I gathered the local issue has to do with the pay rate, which hasn’t increased in about 20 years. According to university officials, that will be addressed in the next budgeting. That’s a good thing because it addresses a glaringly shameful situation, but it doesn’t begin to touch a growing systemic crisis.

Of course, some professors teach part-time because it suits their needs or interests. Others may be private-sector professionals recruited to teach specialized courses in their fields of expertise. These adjunct positions are, in most cases, positives in the system. The rapidly expanding number of highly qualified professors who seek and need, and I will add deserve, full-time positions but find them no longer offered should be a wake-up call about the general health and future of higher education. It goes hand in hand with a decreasing number of tenured professors. When the tenured ranks are replaced by poorly compensated part-time faculty, it will inevitably create unhealthy two-tiered faculties, especially in cash-starved public colleges and universities. I’ve personally heard these disturbing words “Oh, he’s just an adjunct.”

Please understand that I don’t blame our colleges and universities. I think the blame lands squarely on the populist notion that we’re better served by starving government because, to accomplish that, vital public services suffer the collateral damage. We need only consider the state’s gutting of ETSU’s operational budget over the last couple of decades. The lifeblood of our educational institutions, at all levels, has been drained, particularly at the highest level. Hence the significant hikes in cost to students and their families and the degraded value, and prestige, of somehow still dedicated, prepared and inspired teaching staffs.

The realities faced by adjunct faculty vary somewhat from institution to institution, but the basics are about the same. The pay is low with average national wages between $20,000 and $25,000 per year. Most report having to work one or more other jobs to pay the bills. That’s compared to average full-time professorship salaries at around $84,000, with tenured professors often earning six figures. There’s no expectation of pay raises, as our local adjuncts know all too well. Part-timers typically don’t receive health insurance and pension benefits, with most institutions limiting the number of hours an adjunct can work for that reason.

There’s no job security. Employment is completely dependent on the whims of the administration, and one semester’s job may not be there for the next. It’s not unusual to learn of actual class load only hours in advance as classes may be canceled at the last minute. It’s seldom that part-time faculty participate in meaningful university governance and often aren’t provided office space. But these are jobs with the same performance and integrity requirements as apply to full-time professors. This has to contribute to a growing disconnect between administration and faculty. It certainly explains why adjuncts would look to forming unions.

Is it an overstatement to say this is, by any definition, an exploitative set-up? I suspect it took courage to speak at that public meeting or write to the Forum. How else could 51 percent — or 40 percent — of our college professors become part-timers, hence vulnerable and relatively powerless, along with disappearing academic freedom, under our very noses?

It raises more questions. What will the effects of deep cuts to labor costs be? How can a burgeoning rent-a-professor cost-cutting strategy attract quality educators? What’s the rationale for believing that financial insecurity in a transient faculty body, constantly dealing with deepening power differentials between faculty and administration, will produce quality education? Who bears responsibility for quality?

We’re a country of haves and have-nots, but public education has traditionally been our most important equalizer. That’s seriously threatened now from kindergarten through college. At any level of academic interaction, there’s only rank populism and nothing of true conservatism to be found in deliberate lessening of prestige.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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