Opinion: A Labor Day call for fair treatment for part-time profs
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It is a tiny perk, but one I wanted: an identification badge for my job as an adjunct professor.
The official I.D.’s are helpful for free or discounted admission to museums, college athletic events and many state and federal parks and facilities, all in the interest of public education.
But when I asked, I was told that only full-time professors were eligible.
Barely a month later, I read an email announcement offering Personal Health Assessments to college employees by a professional nursing group that would be on our campus for two days the following week.
Or so I thought, since this benefit could be a godsend for part-time professors who do not receive health benefits.
But as you might have anticipated, as soon as I inquired further about the free check-up, I learned it was limited to full-time teachers only.
An administrative assistant sent an apology, not for refusing the benefit, but sorry that I received an invitation meant for full-time staff.
These are but two recent examples representing the tip of the huge iceberg of imbalance between full-time and part-time professors at our nation’s colleges and universities.
And because Labor Day celebrates the dignity of American workers, it’s time to decry this patently unfair two-tiered system in higher education.
Forbes magazine reported in 2015 that over half of all college teachers in the U.S. were adjuncts or part-timers. Yet they earn one-fourth the annual salary as their full-time colleagues.
Full-time professors average $90,000 per year, equivalent to $9,000 per class. In addition, they receive paid illness and personal business days; health coverage, including visual and dental; subsidized pensions; and paid sabbaticals for research, along with travel expenses for workshops and conventions that keep them current in their field.
Adjuncts receive no such benefits and around $2,700 per class for teaching the same course material.
Full-time professors work inside their own personal office with their own telephone, individual voice mail account, and their own laptop computer to take home, backed by 24/7 technical support.
With credentials greater or equal to their full-time colleagues, part-time professors get zilch. Thirty of them might share one office and one telephone, expected to devote time outside the classroom, ministering to students.
As a parent, I would prefer that my son or daughter were enrolled in a class with a full-time teacher who is more likely to be up to date in their field, have all learning tools at their disposal, is possessed of the time and energy to devote individual attention to my kid, and is less stressed, better fed and better prepared.
Heaven forbid that my child end up with an adjunct who has to rush off as soon as the session ends, in order to teach another class across town, lest his earnings dip below the poverty level.
The system’s inequality short-changes both the part-time teacher and the students in his class.
College presidents maintain that hiring adjuncts is a necessary evil because of tight budgets. They can get four part-timers for the price of one full-timer.
But that’s like a farmer defending inferior wages paid to fruit pickers. Sure, it’s better for his bottom line; but it’s unfair, discriminatory, exploitative and inhumane.
According to the American Association of University Professors, administrative priorities, not tight money, is what perpetuates low pay for adjuncts.
Administrations prefer to spend money on technology and new facilities, as evidenced by the firing last year of College of DuPage President Robert Breuder, who shoveled funds into money pits like the campus restaurant and hotel while paying peanuts to the colleges’ part-timers.
Several days ago, while trying to do research for a class I will teach this fall, I discovered my online library privileges had been terminated for the summer, yet another routine indignity imposed on adjuncts. I registered a complaint, citing full-timers’ year round library access, which should certainly be a given for any educator.
A similar adjunct “occupational hazard” occurred a year ago when my school email account was closed at the end of the spring term, causing me to lose communication with several students I had volunteered to tutor in the off-season.
I’ve since learned that by objecting to these deprivations and appealing to a higher up, I can get back my email account or library card on a contingency basis.
That’s because quiet individual concessions by the administrators can quell and forestall major upheaval, which they may sense is imminent.
Such an upheaval is sorely needed. For the only sure way to right the system is to phase out adjuncts altogether, and slowly but surely build a teaching staff of all full-time professors, from the pool of part-timers and other qualified applicants.
It will likely require budget redistribution: shifting funds from shiny new buildings to teaching personnel; cutting top-heavy administrative staffs and positions unrelated to instruction.
It will be a sad day for those invested in the college caste system.
But it will be a long overdue victory for both education and labor.
Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, David McGrath teaches at Florida Southwestern State College and is author of THE TERRITORY.
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