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Liberation (of Adjuncts) Theology

April 24, 2008

Adjunct faculty members and their advocates put forth lots of arguments for improving the benefits paid to those off the tenure track. But Marquette University's theology faculty has come up with an unusual argument that involves a power higher than a college president.

After discussion of a memo questioning how Marquette could stay true to moral and Biblical values while not paying for health insurance for part-time instructors, the theology department voted to call on the administration to start paying for health insurance for those who teach at least two courses at a time at the university. While it is unclear whether the theology department can sway administrators, Marquette is a Jesuit university, so the views of its theologians might carry weight -- and at the very least can be embarrassing if ignored.

The author of the memo, Daniel C. Maguire, a professor of theology, said he found himself thinking about the treatment of part-time faculty members after discussing with his students the Biblical teachings about the powerful and the powerless.

"I teach ethics, and I was just recently talking about what the Bible says to us about how every society builds up royalty-slave syndromes, and royals let the slaves do their work for them," he said. It happens in the business world, he said. It happened in ancient societies, he said. "And I told them that it happens here." He explained: "I have tenure. I have good benefits, and there are people doing as much work as I am. And they don't have health insurance. They are covering most of our courses so we can have these leisurely 3-2 schedules," he said.

While Maguire said he's proud of how he has spent his time out of the classrooms (10 books and dozens of articles, among other activities), he said that there was something wrong -- morally -- with tenured professors not speaking out about the conditions facing adjuncts who make their research possible by covering so many classes.

He said that a majority of introductory theology courses are taught by adjuncts -- typically Ph.D.'s who have been unable to find a tenure track job. They are paid about $3,200 a course, he said, but receive no health insurance. Because they must scramble to find enough courses to teach -- at Marquette and elsewhere -- they have no job security and thus no academic freedom, Maguire said.

In addition to citing Biblical teaching on obligations to the less fortunate, Maguire cited the practices of well known corporations. "Even corporations like Starbucks (not the expected moral prophets or beacons of justice in our society) provide health care benefits for their full-time as well as their part-time workers," he wrote in his memo to his colleagues. "Here is the question for this university with its avowed religious commitments: Can we rise to the moral standards of Starbucks? As of now we have adjunct faculty teaching some of the same courses we teach but without the benefits given to Starbucks workers."

Maguire said he understood that there are some adjuncts at Marquette (as at many colleges) who hold full-time jobs in various professions (typically with benefits) and who teach courses on the side. He said he wasn't worried about such arrangements, but that these adjuncts shouldn't hide the reality that many adjuncts are working full-time without any benefits or a decent wage. Maguire noted that the phrase "a living wage" -- currently much quoted by student activists working on behalf of custodial staff -- has its origins in the work of a Catholic theologian, the Rev. John A. Ryan, who wrote a book by that name in 1906.

"This is a classical term now in Catholic thought," Maguire said.

Now that the theology faculty has adopted the resolution calling for health insurance for adjuncts, the department chair, the Rev. John Laurance, has written to the other department chairs and to the administration calling for the benefits to be offered.

David Shrock, interim provost at Marquette, said that the university does provide a range of benefits for part timers, including flexible spending accounts, tuition remission, an e-mail account, and a match in TIAA-CREF accounts of up to 8 percent after two consecutive years of work if the employee contributes 5 percent. As to health insurance, Shrock said that the university allowed part timers who are on full-year contracts to "have access" to the university's plans, provided that the adjuncts pay all of the costs. While the part-time professors thus gain the benefit of the university's group rate, they would shoulder all expenses and the university would pay nothing.

"Marquette has a proud tradition of attracting outstanding faculty and staff who exemplify a commitment to our mission," Shrock said. "To that end, the university makes a concerted effort to provide competitive salaries and benefits which are clearly delineated at the time of hire. Competing demands for resources are a constant challenge for any institution, and Marquette carefully weighs such demands as it allocates resources annually."

While Marquette officials said they had only just received the theologians' statement, it has been circulating on campus, and has already prompted praise from a columnist in the student newspaper, The Marquette Tribune. At the very least, Maguire said, there is more public acknowledgment of the problems faced by part timers. And he rejected the idea that letting them pay for their own health insurance was a solution -- given that their salaries are low to start with.

Eric Lombardi, the student columnist, described a Marquette adjunct who must teach six courses at a time -- at colleges around Milwaukee -- to meet her expenses. Lombardi wrote that there is money to be found when the university wants to find it, and that there is no excuse not to offer health insurance to adjuncts.

"Essentially the administration thinks it's more important to pay a coach $1.6 million a year to teach boys how to bounce basketballs than to provide fair benefits to its professors," Lombardi wrote. "My thoughts are these: The money is there and if we're going to call ourselves Catholic and we're going to teach Catholic doctrine, which emphasizes the value of human life, then we better be ready to back up that teaching."

 

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