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Purloined Platitudes and Bipartisan Bunk: An Adjunct’s View

So the 2016 Republican National Convention is done. Rolling Stone’s list of its 12 Most WTF Moments gives substantial attention to Melania Trump’s speech—the now-famous plagiarism from an earlier speech by Michelle Obama. Oren Nimni of Current Affairs has boiled down that scandal’s real revelation: “It shows us that cheap myths about the rewards of ‘hard work’ are now central to both parties’ vocabularies.”

Michelle Obama’s defenders point out that Michelle actually embodies the hard-work success story. Granted. But the narrative of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to overcome, as Michelle’s recycled speech puts it, the only limit to the height of your achievements, misses a vital political reality. No one succeeds without the hard work of others, and we need to pull each other up collectively. For one thing, that means maintaining structural support for a healthy education system.

May I ask what the Obama administration has done to solve the adjunct faculty crisis in higher education? Non-tenure-track contract workers, also called “contingent” faculty, now make up more that 70% of all teaching appointments, reports the American Association of University Professors. For the last two decades, adjunct faculty have been telling law and policy makers about the abuse per se in this practice; yet the Democratic Party at its various levels keeps ignoring this unconscionable situation.

Michelle Obama, who has held key administrative posts at the University of Chicago, knows the crisis. Why hasn’t Michelle Obama personally stepped in to insist that U.S. academic administrators offer secure jobs and benefits to the people who have created and taught the classes their institutions market? If you’re not part of the solution when you could be—whether you are a salaried administrator, or a professor with the security denied to most of your colleagues, or a professional association that approves a curriculum knowing it is adjunct-run, or Michelle Obama—then you are making life harder for those of us working our years away for short-term contracts that do not cover even a modest rent while political speeches remind us all how hard we can work.

This graduation season, Michelle Obama gave a commencement speech for the City University of New York. The country’s largest urban public university, CUNY is historically dedicated to bolstering opportunities for people of modest backgrounds. Michelle Obama’s speech, at CUNY’s flagship City College in the Harlem District of Manhattan, lauded this year’s graduates for their own struggles. But the bright-pink elephant in the room—City College reportedly makes higher-than-average use of both part-time and adjunct teaching staff—never got a mention. CUNY suffers from the nationwide problem of financial resources largely directed into administration while students are deprived of a stable faculty and curriculum.

At this time, knowledge is critical to a public understanding of civilization-threatening problems. A 2014 Pew Research survey showed that most people who’ve attained a college degree know that global warming is driven by human activity, while most people without that education do not. And if this is so, higher education matters urgently to sound politics.
But opportunities to contribute to society, its knowledge, and its policies are being denied to current and future teachers and researchers.

Meanwhile, people positioned to change this are speechifying at commencements. How ridiculous if we’re reduced to wondering who supplied the motivational phrases. When public speakers tell bootstrap stories while structures meant to nourish our political health are crumbling, of course we’ve heard it all before.