The Professor and the Poverty Tour

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is now touring California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. On Friday 15 December 2017, the findings will be live-streamed from a Washington, D.C. press conference.

While I welcome an examination of whether financially struggling people can engage meaningfully with education and political participation, will anything more than rapporteuring come of this?

Professor Alston has declared that “despite great wealth in the U.S., there also exists great poverty and inequality.”

Alston, who admirably went forth to hold the U.S. government’s feet to the fire on inequality, is a New York University law professor. Other professors will help to inform the report.

At NYU, administrators and star professors get handsome pay packages, while most teachers fall into the adjunct category. At NYU and elsewhere, an adjunct title indicates a drastically lower wage tier, with no tenure protections — thus, reduced career security and diminished freedom of expression. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority and fastest-growing segment of instructional staff nationwide.

I’m not going to suggest that all adjunct faculty face the dire circumstances plaguing the 40.6 million people living below the government-defined poverty line, some of whom Professor Alston will interview — although some adjuncts are. But I will suggest that financial fairness begins in one’s own household.

Extraordinary Ability to Naturalize Inequality

Ed Pilkington’s recent Guardian article about the U.S. poverty tour quotes David Grusky of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford: “The U.S. has an extraordinary ability to naturalize and accept the extreme poverty that exists even in the context of such extreme wealth.”

Indeed it does.

Stanford pays its president more than a million dollars and has paid a football coach more than $4 million. While Stanford’s reliance on adjuncts is reportedly low, a recent memo from its med school shows the adjunct role etched into its institutional hiring practices; and a 2015 story in The Atlantic note Stanford’s historical involvement in gendered adjunct hiring practices.

As I write, the U.S. government is poised to push millions of people out of their medical insurance, while lowering the top tax rate for millionaires. This is part of a more general U.S. disdain for ensuring its populace has access to the basics of human dignity: medicine, food, shelter, education, and a sustainable income.

When holding forth on inequality, academics lack standing. The academic world, through its own pattern of practice, sends the message that grotesque inequality is acceptable. A giant wink, no, to the government that rewards and enshrines inequality on a national scale?

Tenured professors profess to yourselves. Change what you have the power to change, right where you are. If tenured professors are now down to just 17% of today’s college faculty, your power to change things will soon be gone.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.