Why Our Problem is Your Problem
First off, thanks for all the great comments on part one. I’m glad people are finding this helpful; it goes without saying (I hope) that I’m finding your thoughts helpful, too.
Recently, two friends of my husband – a graduate student at a major research university – had a baby. My excitement for them was tempered by the troubling question of how they were handling health insurance, since the university refuses to cover spouses and dependents. I myself pay fifty dollars a month for a Blue Shield plan that doesn’t cover maternity (but does cover abortions, in a not-so-subtle message to its customers). Grad students at this university make $18,000 a year after their fourth step increase. How in the world was this couple going to come up with the money to cover an infant’s health costs?*
When I found out that the baby is on MediCal, I couldn’t help but think of the service and agriculture industries’ policies of encouraging employees to go on welfare, in essence foisting their responsibility for their workers’ well-being onto other taxpayers. Obviously academics have it a whole lot better than farm workers; my intent isn’t to try and compare the two. I just think it’s very interesting that universities are taking their cues from corporations like Walmart, even while researchers and educators within those very universities work to put an end to worker exploitation. Why should you care about whether child-bearing women in academia – not to mention their partners and colleagues – receive fair compensation for their time? Because if universities don’t pay for essentials like health care, then you will. In fact, you already are.
Well, if you’re middle- to upper-class, at least. But you may have already guessed why overworked and underpaid educators is everyone’s problem. The more taxing and stressful a job is – and the more jobs a worker is forced to take on – the worse that worker’s output will be, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the effects this has on college courses. Furthermore, it’s not just adjuncts who are suffering. Full-time salaries have stagnated over the past thirty years, driven down by cheap part-time labor, and with part-timers barred from participating in their departments (by either official policy or time constraints), professors are forced to take on extra committee and intradepartmental administrative work. All of this leads to educators – both full- and part-time – who have neither the hours nor the energy to fully invest themselves in their students.
Of course, there are professors at the top of the pyramid who rake in salaries most of us don’t dare to dream of. But chances are you’ll never study with them.
Understanding how this affects you is the first step in stopping it. Parents need to know that universities regularly replace seasoned instructors with first-year grad students. Students need to know that they may go through their entire college career without ever taking a class with a full-time professor. Is this really the system we want? A system in which the people who teach you in high school are often more experienced and better paid** than the people who teach you in college? A system in which educators who are supposed to be your mentors don’t even have time to learn your name? A system in which higher education – advanced research, analysis, understanding, and empowerment – is reserved for those who can manage the hefty price tag on top tier schools? A system in which it’s taken as a given that most of your educators will be working two, three, or even four jobs just to survive?
The American university and college system is broken. Presidents, provosts, and other administrators would have you believe that the problem lies solely with state budgets – that they’d raise salaries in a second if only they had the money. This falsehood is part of what’s perpetuating the problem. As long as we all believe that the bad stuff is out there, amorphous and inaccessible, then we can continue to tell ourselves that things will get better on their own, or that it doesn’t even really matter because teachers just love teaching, and will do it no matter how little they’re paid.
The truth is that everyone who sets foot on a college campus needs to work together to change this system. And change isn’t only possible – it’s very doable.
So What the Hell Do We Do?
Devoting more government funds to education and enacting universal health care (so that administrators lose the incentive to create two part-time positions instead of one full-time) are obviously two important steps in achieving fair pay. However, students pay higher and higher tuitions every year, even at schools that rely heavily on part-time and grad student labor. So where is all that money going, if not to the faculty members who are doing the actual work?
The answer should infuriate you:
To theorize the contemporary university is to recognize that there was nothing inevitable about its formation. It did not have to be, and it can still be dismantled. Set a $200,000 limit to faculty salaries and a $300,000 limit to upper administrative salaries. Limit coaches to $300,000 as well. At my institution, even the president’s assistants earn $300,000; I’d cut their salaries by 50 percent. Redirect the money saved to hiring assistant professors, raising part-timer salaries to parity and graduate student employee wages to the cost of living, and eliminating all tuition payments for poor and lower-middle-class students. Deny administrators the right to fund gratuitous pet projects at the expense of a principled campus salary schedule (Nelson xviii).
Secretaries make sixteen times as much as educators; technology with dubious educational value is installed with money that could be funding salaries; prospective football players are flown in to be wooed by coaches who are earning more than part-timers will see in their entire careers. And, all the while, administrators responsible for allocating funds are allocating inordinate chunks of those funds to themselves. It’s clear that even if state budgets are radically overhauled, real change won’t happen until we acknowledge that administrative salaries, sports programs, and campus improvements that help sell more “products” (ie. degrees) are funded, to a large extent, through the ruthless gutting of actual education. To answer Brownfemipower’s question: although the point of academia is supposed to be the betterment of society as a whole, the current point is to increase the profits of those in charge. This is what Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works, means when he refers to the “corporatization” of academia. Universities and colleges have become, in effect, corporations.
And our only option is to organize against that trend. More and more adjuncts and grad students are unionizing, which is a step in the right direction; my own salary is roughly four times higher than those of my colleagues at nonunion schools. But although conditions are slowly improving for part-timers, few people are willing to acknowledge that we shouldn’t be part-timers in the first place. Adjunct and grad student labor has become so normalized that many academics view one job that pays all your bills as a luxury that only the elite deserve. We have to resist this complacency. Union members must meet and strategize instead of merely paying their monthly dues. We mustn’t shy away from direct action like strikes and sit-ins; grad students, instructors, professors, undergrads, and parents must join forces. We must ensure that everyone teaching at the college level is given time to advance their careers and their fields through their own research. We must realize that all we have to lose is a dismal future of low-paid labor and expensive, sub-par education.
Of course, these strategies won’t fully help women until academics recognize that academia isn’t an enlightened haven free of discrimination. Equality must be made a priority in all fields; male academics must be forced to acknowledge and understand their privilege and bias. This may be too much to ask of many white male academics, who are either fully aware of their privilege and loathe to give it up, or happy to support equal opportunity until it conflicts with their own interests. However, many other white male grad students, instructors, and professors are ready and willing allies. Whether it’s through awareness-raising, civil disobedience, or both, we must chip away at the current sexist, racist, and capitalist higher education system from all sides.
Because, damn it, the work I’m doing is worth more than $22,000 a year. Why are college professors – that’s right, professors – making annual salaries lower than what we paid for our own education? How is that fair? What good does it do? Is, as Bousquet asks, “the work nontenurable because it is done by women? Or is it ‘women’s work’ because it is nontenurable” (171)?
Whom does academia serve? Does it serve you? Does it serve me?
Are you satisfied with that?
Nelson, Cary. Forward to How the University Works. New York: NYU Press, 2008.
Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. New York: NYU Press, 2008.
* At this point, many people like to argue that couples like this shouldn’t have kids until they have better jobs – or, since they’re in a field in which that’s not guaranteed, they shouldn’t have chosen this line of work in the first place. I remain baffled by the idea that you only have the right to reproduce if you luck into the right kind of job.
** And considering the salaries of most high school teachers, that’s quite a feat!