Book Review

Part-Time Professors in Poverty

American college professors donate plasma for money, rely on food stamps to feed themselves

By April V. Taylor

College professors work hard to obtain the education necessary to teach at the college level, and many believe that the hard work of obtaining a doctorate degree will pay off financially once they are able to begin teaching. However, the reality is much different than the dream. As many colleges and universities across the country have sought to trim their budgets, they have increasingly relied on part-time adjunct professors to fill teaching positions. Many of them work from semester to semester, with no job security, no medical, dental or vision benefits, no retirement plan, and no family or sick leave.

Even worse than the lack of job security and benefits, is the pay. Most part-time adjunct professors earn between $2,000 and $3,000 per class, per semester. Starting in community colleges, the use of part-time adjunct professors is now the norm in four-year institutions and research universities, both public and private, with an estimated 74 percent of all faculty at America’s colleges being part-time adjuncts.

Colleges exploit adjuncts to be able to spend more money on non-academic endeavors leaving many adjuncts to be the lowest paid people on a college campus, many times earning less than janitorial staff who clean the classrooms they teach in. While adjunct pay has dropped 49 percent between 1970 and 2008, the salary of college presidents has risen by 35 percent, meaning they make 170 times more than the teachers who make the existence of a college even possible.

The average annual salary of an adjunct professor is just $21,600, putting many professors below the poverty line for a family of four. Miranda Merklein is an adjunct professor at a Santa Fe community college, and she describes her dismal pay by stating, “The most shocking thing is that many of us do not even earn the federal minimum wage. Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Merklein goes on to describe, “If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only. So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free…anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened while the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs.”

Being a tenured professor used to offer the guarantee of eventually earning a six-figure income and decent retirement, but universities now rely on what many are referring to as the “Wal-Mart” business model that reduces labor costs and increases labor servility as college campuses become more corporatized. This has increasingly created an environment where professors not only do not earn a living wage, but they do not speak up about unethical job conditions, accept tiny salaries, and do their work, praying that they will be allowed to be employed under the same miserable conditions the following year, because some salary is better than no salary. Robert Baum, a dean who was once an adjunct professor, states, “The Wal-Mart model is based on the idea of putting the burden of taking care of the worker on either the state or on the worker’s credit card or on the worker’s family. And that is no different than what I’ve experienced across my adjunct life. No different. Zero difference.”

America’s higher education system is an embarrassment. Higher education is mostly free in countries all over the world, but in America, students become saddled with more debt than what many people spend on a down payment on a house before they ever work the first day as a professional worker.

Adjunct professor Nathaniel Oliver describes the quandary like this, “You fall in this trap where you may be working for less than you would be at a place that pays minimum wage yet you can’t get the minimum wage jobs because of your education.” College professors are essentially over-qualified to work fast food or customer service type jobs, but are not able to earn an adequate salary doing what they spent years studying to do. Oliver considers himself fortunate for only requiring food stamps, something that has become a fact of life for many adjunct professors.

Oliver states, “It’s completely insane. And this isn’t happening just to me. More and more people are doing it. We have food stamps. We wouldn’t be able to survive without them. Many professors are on food stamps and they go to food donation centers. They donate plasma. And that’s a pretty regular occurrence.” Professors all over the country have attempted to form unions, with intense pressure from schools to prevent them from organizing. Several professors have also penned a petition to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, calling for, “an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty.”

Something must be done. A country that allegedly prides itself on making education an equal opportunity for all of its citizens cannot treat the majority of its professors as slave labor by asking them to work for compensation that requires government subsidies like food stamps for them to be able to meet the basic need of feeding themselves.

Kulture Kritic, February 16, 2015