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Do College Professors Deserve a Living Wage?


When running for reelection last year, Vice President Joseph Biden specifically singled out professors as one of the major reasons for the skyrocketing cost of college tuition:  “Salaries for college professors have escalated significantly,” he said.  Last month President Obama released his plan to hold down the costs of tuition and make college more affordable, which would certainly make it more difficult to raise faculty salaries.

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden should be experts on professors’ salaries.  Obama was a nontenure track “senior lecturer” of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago prior to his serving in the Senate and Biden’s wife Jill is an Associate Professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

Yet Obama and Biden have completely neglected the huge income disparity on college campuses between the comparatively well off tenure-track faculty, such as Jill Biden who earns $82,000 annually, and the deplorable situation of the nontenure-track faculty, whose plight is so bad that last year the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story entitled, “From Graduate School to Welfare:  The Ph.D Now Comes with Food Stamps.”

Indeed, one million college professors now teach off the tenure-track with poverty-level wages that have long-rivaled Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s workers.  With the recent clamor for higher wages for unskilled labor, should our nation’s highly skilled “contingent” professors also receive the minimum wage for each and every hour they work, and time and a half for overtime?

In Clawson v. Grays Harbor Community College District (2003), the Washington state supreme court ruled unanimously that they should not, even though in Washington the average part-timer in the community colleges teaches halftime and earns $17,400 a year, or about one-fifth of Professor Biden’s annual salary.

Why did the state Supreme Court rule against the adjuncts?  Because the colleges had argued they were “professionals” who had control of their hours and working conditions, and were therefore exempt from Washington’s Minimum Wage Act.  The colleges may call them “professionals,” but do not in fact treat hoellerthem as such.

According to the American Association of University Professors, there are now one million—three of every four–professors teaching off the tenure-track.  Unlike their tenured counterparts–who have professional salaries, great benefits, summers off, sabbaticals, private offices and lifetime job protection in the form of tenure—these “contingent” faculty have none of these things, and little hope of ever obtaining them.

Could unions help?  Actually, these terrible conditions exist even in unionized colleges where the teachers unions (NEA, AFT, and AAUP) routinely negotiate inequitable contracts that force these insecure part-time workers into the same unions with the tenured faculty, who often serve as their supervisors, interviewing them, hiring them, assigning them classes, and firing them.  Adjuncts who have spoken out against the two-tier system have faced retaliation, sometimes initiated by union leaders.

Workers in bargaining units are supposed to share a community of interests and not conflicts of interest.  Yet there are conflicts between the two tracks at every level.  Tenure-track faculty, for example, are routinely allowed to teach overtime while “part-time” faculty are forbidden to teach “full-time,” with their workloads capped significantly below 100%.

But it’s not just the adjunct faculty who suffer.  Several studies have shown that the nontenure-track faculty are superior teachers.  In Off-Track Profs:  Nontenure-Tenured Teachers in Higher Education (MIT Press, 2009), John Cross and Edie Goldenberg conducted a twelve year study of student evaluations at ten elite research universities; they concluded that “Nontenure-track instructors usually (but not always) obtain higher scores than other types of instructors.”

In “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” (September, 2013) David Figlio, Morton Shapiro, and Kevin Soter studied students at Northwestern University and confirmed the findings reported in Off-Track Profs, “We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in introductory courses.”

Obamacare has led to the loss of health insurance for thousands of adjuncts since it requires employers of fifty or more to offer health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours.  Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has order all state agencies, including colleges and universities, to limit all part-time workers to 29 hours a week.

Nearly sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine in our public K-12 schools (Brown v. Board of Education), our college campuses are more segregated than ever—with massive income inequality and discrimination among the faculty worthy of the name “apartheid.”

How can college professors teach equality and a respect for diversity when they refuse to practice it in their own ranks?  The two-track system is not a merit system; it is a caste system.  Should the U.S. spend billions each year on a higher education system dedicated to offering better opportunities, jobs, and salaries for all of our citizens—except those who teach in the colleges and universities that make such opportunities possible?

Keith Hoeller has taught philosophy in the Washington state community colleges for 25 years.  He is the editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty:  Overcoming the Two-Tier System, Vanderbilt University Press (forthcoming, January, 2014).



Keith Hoeller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and Editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt, 2014). 

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