They turned college into McDonald's: Adjunct professors, fast-food wages and how colleges screw more than just students

Adjunct professors are joining the fight for a living wage -- and show us all education isn't a guarantee of a job

Published May 2, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

The fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 has already had an enormous impact on American politics. It hasn't been reflected in national legislation, of course. With Congress in the hands of flat-earthers, the federal minimum wage is still stuck at less than half that—$7.25, the level it reached in 2009, as a result of legislation passed in 2007.

But what first registered as a surprising anomaly—a one-day strike in New York City involving just over 100 workers on Black Friday, Nov. 29, 2012—has come to serve as a focal point for articulating demands for a dignified living wage, not just for fast-food workers, but for everyone who works for a living. What began as a movement of those holding “McJobs” is now brimming over with new participants making the point that virtually all jobs nowadays are, or at least can be, McJobs—even the latest to join in with demonstrations held on April 15: adjunct college professors.

The build-up to this point has been remarkably swift, even as the rest of the political system seems paralyzed. After a brief lull to lay further groundwork, NYC fast-food workers held a second strike on April 4, 2013, the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, while supporting the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike. Covering the strike for Salon, Josh Eidelson made a number of key points. First, that far from being peripheral, fast food jobs represent a de facto employment paradigm for today's America:

Fast food is becoming an ever-larger and more representative sector of the U.S. economy. “We should think of these jobs as the norm,” said Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren, “because even when you look at the high-skilled, high-paying jobs, they’re even adopting the low-wage model” of management. That means erratic schedules, paltry benefits, and – so far – almost no unions. “These are the quintessential example of the kinds of jobs that we have now,” said Warren, “and of the kind of job that we can expect in the future for the next few decades.”

Eidelson also discussed how the changing nature of work required changing labor strategies as well, and gave a hint of what was to come in the way of further actions:

A parallel effort is underway in Chicago, where workers are also demanding $15 an hour and unionization without intimidation, but so far haven’t gone on strike. While New York’s and Chicago’s are the only ones to go public so far, similar organizing efforts are underway elsewhere as well.

Finally, he quoted a prescient message of support from then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio,“Fast Food Forward is fighting for solutions for working people right here and now, and it deserves the support of all New Yorkers.”

From there, movement spread rapidly through a series of widening one-day strikes in 2013—Chicago on April 23, then St. Louis on May 8, followed swiftly by Detroit on May 10, then Milwaukee on May 15, and Seattle on May 30, culminating in a seven-city strike on July 29,  after which organizers gave Salon a heads-up on the massive expansion to come, which was quickly fulfilled by a 58-city strike on Aug. 29, and has continued spreading ever since. It's certainly no accident that a growing list of cities have either approved or are considering local minimum wage laws at or even beyond the $15 level. The idea of what a minimum wage can and should be has been radically transformed in a remarkably short period of time.

There are, of course, counter-arguments. But in a way, that's the point: The “Fight for 15” has set the agenda, put forth the argument for others to respond to. One such response has been to renew old attacks on the very idea of a minimum wage. The minimum wage is for losers, the argument goes. It's intended for teenagers just getting their start in the job market, but anyone who's been working a year or two and is still making minimum wage is only getting what they deserve.

There are plenty of counter-arguments to this line of thinking, and anyone seriously tempted by it should definitely read "No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City," Harvard anthropologist Katherine Newman's intensive study of young fast-food workers (my review here). But perhaps the simplest, most powerful counter-argument is the mere presence of a new contingent in the most recent wave of “Fight for 15” strikes—adjunct college professors. If you really think people are stuck in low-wage jobs because something is wrong with them—not the economic system—then how do you explain this latest addition to the fight for a humane living wage?

These aren't just college-educated workers we're talking about, they're college professors, yet many of them live just as precariously as fast-food workers do. An online survey by House Democrats last year (more on this below) found that 55 percent of responding adjuncts had PhDs, another 7 percent were PhD candidates and 35% had masters degrees. Yet, many are on some form of public assistance—earned income tax credits, food stamps, etc. Some are even homeless. “In short,” the report stated, “adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.”

SEIU, the same union that's been the major backer of the fast-food strikes, has also been involved in faculty organizing as well. It has launched the Faculty Forward campaign with a three-part platform:

  • Demand $15,000 per course in total compensation;
  • Target bad actors in for-profit higher education;
  • Make quality higher education affordable and accessible for all students.

The call for $15,000 per course may seem a long way from $15/hour—and it is. But adjunct professors generally carry massive amounts of student debt, and have invested years, even decades, developing the skills they're being paid a pittance for. Add to that the rates of poverty and economic hardship they endure, and you begin to see much more in common than what divides these workers from each other.

Adjuncts are officially, but usually not really, “part-time” instructors, paid by the class, but not for the full range of work that entails, nor do they usually get office space, staff support or other work necessities. In her doctoral dissertation, Donna Mae Bergmann explained, “Most of the faculty classified as part-time actually teach a full load. A college may limit the number of courses an adjunct can teach, but they often teach at multiple colleges.” This often adds long, costly commutes to the unpaid burdens they bear.

Adjunct faculty have long been a part of college life—just not such a dominant part. As Bergmann explains, “The movement to employ adjunct faculty began in the 1960’s on community college campuses. The demand for evening classes was so great that administrators had to find a quick and viable solution, and they hired from the professional community.” At the same time, there was a significant growth in the use of graduate students to teach course sections at large universities. As a result, by 1975/76, 45.6 percent of faculty was either tenured or tenure-track, compared to 55.4 percent classified as "contingent"—full-time non-tenure-track or part-time faculty or graduate student employees. By 2011, the most recent figures available, the percentage of tenured or tenure-track instructors had fallen almost by half to 23.6 percent, compared to 76.4 percent contingent.

The story, in short, is one of decades-long erosion of secure employment, essentially the exact same story affecting workers in traditional core industries like manufacturing, as well as those in the growing service sector—such as fast-food workers. What's key is that the stories are virtually identical, regardless of the work being done. What's shared is the context, not the content—the economic system, the cultural values and power relations, which combine to make it seem “only natural” that individual workers shoulder the blame for an ever more dysfunctional system. Adjunct professors have been grumbling about their lot for decades, and for decades it's been getting worse. But now that they're joining into a broader living-wage movement, their attitudes and expectations are starting to change, even as their involvement promises to help change the broader movement.

As one article in the Chronicle of Higher Education put it:

The plight of adjuncting in the U.S. has been well documented within the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed circles of academe, but the public at large is mostly unaware of it. Part of the reason is that the rest of middle-class America is mired in its own deep economic struggles, which virtually consume their every waking moment, and the perception still persists that academics, including adjuncts, have a cushy work life. Until the rest of America learns of the dirty large secret of adjuncting, its deplorable conditions will continue.

Now, it seems, that all may be starting to change.

In its story about adjuncts involved in the strike, the Chicago Tribune focused attention on  Wanda Evans-Brewer, who has PhD in education and “earned so little last year as an adjunct professor at Concordia University in River Forest — $27,000 — that she qualified for food stamps,” specifically, “$390 a month in food stamps for her and her three children,” as well as “a $40-a-month Medicaid family plan and subsidized day care for her 4-year-old daughter.” It was not the sort of life she had planned: “In my wildest dreams, I would never think I would be a Ph.D. On welfare," she told the Tribune.

They also cited Matt Hoffmann, currently teaching one class at Loyola University Chicago and another at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His position is precarious, at best:

Hoffmann calculates he works about 30 hours a week, which translates to a pay of about $21 per hour. For that pay he said he invested eight years completing a master's degree in environmental studies and a doctorate in sociology.

He has about $10,000 in credit card debt and receives an average of $200 to $300 a month from his parents to help him and his wife make ends meet and support their 16-month-old son.

"I'm 35 years old and still need some support from my parents," Hoffmann said.

It's disturbingly commonplace for adjunct professors to rely on support from their families. In some cases, it's just a matter of the other spouse being the breadwinner—regardless of who's got more education. But often parents or siblings help out—with cash, free or cheap rent, etc. It's common enough, but not well quantified.

There's a much clearer picture of government aid, however, which is where the story of adjunct professors once again resembles that of fast-food workers and employees at Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers, who've also been targeted in the Fight for 15. In all these different cases, low-wage work is partially subsidized by government assistance. According to a recent report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, poverty-level wages cost taxpayers $152.8 billion per year in public support. The cost for adjunct professors—$468 million--was a relatively small part of the whole. Nonetheless, it still meant that 100,00 faculty members, roughly one in four such families, received some form of public assistance. A state-by-state breakdown found poverty rates among part-time faculty ranged from a low of 9 percent in Nevada up to a high of 43 percent in Maine, for a national average of 22 percent. This is roughly 50 percent higher than the poverty rate for Americans as a whole (14.5% in 2013).

"I never considered myself a laborer or someone who would be part of a labor union because I always thought that those were for working-class people in industries that required manual labor,” Hoffmann told the Tribune. “It took me a long time to realize that I was actually part of the working class,” adding, “I am not looking to be rich but just middle class.” Obviously, that's still going to be quite a struggle.  But it's hardly an isolated one, and that's the point of building a movement.

An illustrative example of the broader picture was provided by Arik Greenberg, an adjunct professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, in testimony provided at a congressional briefing in January 2014, and adapted by PBS. Greenberg's testimony touched many key themes and obscure, but highly important topics—such as how legal principles conceived to protect the rights of non-tenured faculty in an earlier era now only serve to make life worse for them. As he explained:

Almost immediately after I first began teaching at my school, they hired me for a short-term “visiting” position, which was full-time, non-tenure track. But after two years of this full-time position, they deliberately let my contract lapse so that they would not be in danger of my suing them for tenure — a risk that universities face when employing a short-term contract employee for several consecutive years in a full-time position. This is common practice at our school and elsewhere.

The fact that legal principles that once protected non-tenured faculty now contribute to making their lives hellish is a perfect encapsulation of how the larger social context has changed dramatically, standing old truths on their heads.

But perhaps what was most wrenching about Greenberg's story was what he had to say about family, and in turn, what his family story has to say about the death of the American Dream. First, there was the impact of crushing student loan debt, which may well have prevented him from ever having children:

After taking out nearly $140,000 in student loans to pay for grad school, and after years of financial hardship deferments, accrued interest has brought these loans to over $190,000. And on an adjunct lecturer’s salary, even augmented with other side jobs, I can neither support my family nor pay my student loans. My wife and I cannot afford to raise a child on our combined income, so we have waited to raise a family. Now at the age of 43, it may be too late.

Then, there was the inability to care for his aging parents as he felt called to do:

And when my parents became ill, I couldn’t afford to move them in with me, arrange proper medical care or take enough family leave to be at my father’s side when he died.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, he let slip perhaps the most devastating comment on his family's history:

With the massive debts that my parents have left me, I risk losing the family home that I grew up in — that my grandfather built for us with his own hands — all because I am living on part-time wages.

The American Dream comes in various different guises, but one of them certainly involves a working-class parent building the material foundations for his children and grandchildren to enter the middle class, with each generation's life experience made up of the stuff of their parents' dreams.

That is precisely what Greenberg's grandfather set in motion. His father was a grade school teacher, and he is a professor. By all the traditional markers of status and accomplishment this is a multi-generational success story, the very embodiment of the American Dream. Yet, the lived experience has turned that dream into a nightmare, and that has implications for all Americans, no matter what our stations in life—fast-food worker, college professor, it makes no difference in the end. Because if that's what happens to a hard-working three-generation family that lives out all the responsibilities and hits all the markers that supposedly lead to success, then something is profoundly wrong with society itself. Blaming individuals as “losers,” as “takers,” whatever derisive term you choose, simply doesn't fly in a world where the story of Greenberg's family is not just possible, but increasingly representative.

And representative it most certainly is. The congressional testimony Greenberg gave was taken in conjunction with the release of a report on contingent faculty in higher education, “The Just-In-Time Professor,” summarizing results of an e-forum by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., which collected stories from 845 adjunct faculty in 41 states.

“In 2009, CNN Money ranked college professor as the third best job in America, citing increasing job growth prospects,” the report notes in its introduction, “But, as will be seen in this report, many often live on the edge of poverty,” and the report itself is filled with their testimony, providing glimpses into lives with similar stories. For example, one participant explained:

Growing up in a poor neighborhood … I believed earning several college degrees would be my path out of poverty—but that is no longer the case.

Even though I’m a first-generation college graduate, and I teach at an institution of higher learning, I can’t afford to help pay tuition for family members who are currently enrolled toward degree programs: college tuition costs more than I earn in a semester.

Another participant, who works for an online for-profit university, provided more detail on the mismatch between student costs and teacher pay:

Considering that students pay $565 per course, and that there are approximately 20 students per class, adjuncts are paid approximately 4% of what the university takes in even though we execute the core requirements of the university. As an open enrollment university with 86% Title IV students, dedicated adjuncts must provide extensive, time-consuming feedback frequently up to 20 hours per week, which averages a wage of less than $10 per hour.

At that pay, a call for $15/hour would mean a dramatic increase. But it would still fall far, far below what tenured faculty are paid. Instead, as already mentioned, the Forward Faculty call is for $15,000 a course—a dramatic increase over current levels, which usually run around $2,000 to $3,000 per course. But, after all, these are the ones who are supposed to be models for the rest of us. And even that pay rate would still leave them well within the middle class, as realistic models of good citizenship and hard work paying off.

What's more, the experience of joining together in struggle is starting to reignite a genuine spirit of cross-occupational solidarity—a spirit that ought to be nurtured as a foundation for future activism and policymaking as well. At the end of its story about adjunct professors joining the Fight for 15, In These Times gives the last word to Alyson Paige Warren, described earlier as “an adjunct who has worked at Loyola University Chicago and other Chicago-area schools for 12 years, sometimes making as little as $100 per weekly class.” The story concludes:

Paige Warren believes that it’s also a basis for solidarity with other workers, something that adjuncts are increasingly attuned to. “If someone who serves my coffee before I go to teach my students is struggling to make ends meet,” she said, “it’s my job to be concerned about his plight, just as he should be about mine.”

That sense of mutual concern should not sound strange or unusual to us—although it certainly might sound that way today. But it goes to the very heart of what American education has been all about for most of our history. It's why parents, teachers and students all have a powerful sense of shared mission which can enable them to do miraculous things—such as turning the children of illiterate immigrants into eminent, gifted scholars. Even today, we're still doing that. Not often enough, surely. But we're still doing it, sometimes. What we're not doing is paying them—or anyone, really—what their blood, sweat and tears are really worth.

And that's what's up for being changed. That's what the Fight for 15 is ultimately all about.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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