Until recently, I justified adjuncting at a community college because out of the seven institutions where I’ve taught, it was in many ways the least abusive -- partly owing to the established paradigms and controls of the sector in general.
Specifically, this community college:
tolerated my public activism;
provides benefits to a small number of adjuncts and created an associate faculty tier that pays slightly better than the extremely low national average adjunct rate;
invites adjuncts to faculty meetings (despite the absurdity of this show where all faculty cannot vote);
charges tuition that is relatively fair and keeping with community college standards;
rewards innovation and provides training opportunities; and
has unionized full-time and part-time faculty, albeit under one collective bargaining agreement that should be renegotiated with a closer eye on adjunct labor (or adjunct faculty should get informed and organize a distinct agreement).
But in the end, it’s exploitative and I quit. An authentically innovative institution would pay all their workers a professional salary with benefits and prioritize job security. I quit because community colleges help perpetuate the labor crisis in higher education by shortchanging adjunct faculty at a time when community colleges are in the national spotlight and positioned to collect more taxpayer dollars through, for instance, presidential candidates’ proposed free tuition plans. I quit because I lost respect for the administrators for whom I worked and that posed a conflict of interest. I quit because they never respected me. And I quit because my energy and intellect are better spent fixing the crisis instead of contributing to it while they walk all over me.
I briefly questioned whether or not I’d lament the loss of .edu affiliation and quickly realized there’s nothing prestigious about associating with a morally bankrupt system. Indeed, doing so goes against the grain of my personality and professional aims. Another inconvenience of quitting cold turkey is that I’ll have to pay to access research databases as an alumna at another institution. I’m not too worried about losing colleagues, because the majority of mine are fellow activists and students gained through social networks and membership in disciplinary and professional organizations. Ultimately, the personal and professional impact of not quitting, in my particular situation, far outweighs the benefits of staying.
This in no way suggests that adjunct colleagues should follow suit and quit their many gigs; rather, I believe they owe it to themselves, their students and their families to fight for better working and learning conditions. It’s often said that teaching is a calling, and it’s time to question whom we are currently serving. For me, questioning the system opened new pathways to fight for the reform and revaluation of higher education, and I’m well fitted for that. So please, adjuncts: fight for your profession. I’ll be fighting hard, too. Solidarity.
Washington State is leading the charge on part-time to full-time faculty conversions at community and technical colleges, which gives hope for authentic reform. House Bill 2615 is promising, but I’m unwilling to stick it out for another six years to see if the long-term strategic plan is passed and implemented. It’s a necessary step in the right direction, however, and this type of progressive governance signals positive change. This is certain: people power pressures legislators to write effective reform bills, so, readers, please keep up the pressure and cast informed votes.
I thank Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant for giving me the final push of courage to quit. She spoke at the Seattle University Fast for Justice action organized by Washington Faculty Forward on April 14. The rally united faculty members, students and allies who fasted for justice, called out Seattle U for the apparent hypocrisy of their mission versus practice and then joined in a multisector labor march on McDonald’s, Wells Fargo and Starbucks. Sawant is a former “severely underpaid” economics adjunct at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, and her words resonate with me: the system is “… fundamentally unjust and unacceptable. … This is a fight against the privatization and commodification of higher education” in a rigged economy.
Here I’ll borrow a quote from my adjunct colleague Alan Trevithick, who teaches at Fordham University and is deeply invested in the movement for adjunct justice and equity: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative” (“The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). If the supposed best of colleges won’t behave according to doctrine, it should be all too clear that the worst are flat-out robbing students and faculty members.
When I hear people talk about deregulating higher education, I wonder where their motives lie. Students are severely shafted in this century’s subprime higher ed scheme through the rising cost of tuition, textbooks and incidental fees that make it impossible for most students to pay out of pocket. Community colleges used to be affordable, but now, 78 percent of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. And at two-year private nonprofit institutions, it spikes to 90 percent. This means many students face a lifetime of making impossible payments on high interest loans, and they need relief, now.
All things considered, the most reasonable and ethical decision for me is to quit because I have a full-time job that pays the bills and my core beliefs aren’t valued in this academy or any number of others that minimize the labor crisis. And I’m quitting for my colleagues across the nation who aren’t in a position to up and leave for other work that shows them the dignity and respect they’ve earned the hard way: the “right” way, according to the rules of American society. Well, as the American Association of University Professors confirms in “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16”:
The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).
Undeniably, many faculty members also struggle to keep the heat on and gas in their cars to get between jobs. That is the reality of intentional economic hardship, and once it’s ended and we are able to reflect on it and regulate it, shame on the designers of failure.
Without doubt, the college will manage in my absence and immediately hire another qualified, flexible unit to pick up teaching where I leave off, because I am replaceable in the current system: we all are. I do hope students find this explanation and understand why I chose to quit the system that isn’t working for me or them in order to collaborate more effectively in the solution.
My employment agreement states: “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be canceled or for any other reason,” quid pro quo. The total appointment amount for teaching two courses was for $7,086 spread out over 10 weeks. That’s $2,362 per month before taxes, which is approximately $4,000 to $5,000 less than many of my tenured colleagues with comparable Ph.D.s are paid per month. (Rates vary.) Overall, this institution paid me a measly $24,125 per year for nigh a decade of sustained service to the community college, with minor fluctuations. It’s hard to hold my tongue when I consider the cumulative effect of being underpaid.
Of course, I wasn’t expected to serve on committees, advise students, conduct research or publish, as full-time faculty are (all of which I did on my own accord, though, without pay). Honestly, I’m sadly burned out, as are no doubt thousands of part-time instructors nationwide who are extreme adjuncting to make a living in our gig economy. The bottom line is that labor exploitation is degrading and disrespectful. I’m quitting with my dignity, however, which really is all I had left to lose in the moral vacuum of the neoliberal university.
So what now? As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, the higher education labor crisis isn’t caused by a glut of Ph.D.s: “To wit, there are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.” The authors move on to cite hiring practices as one of the ugly problems, concluding: “… if you don’t believe that a profession should abide by professional hiring practices, you have nothing to complain about when your profession finds itself deprofessionalized.” Indeed, institutions bear a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of students (stop calling them customers), which means they ought to raise the standards, invest in instruction and put an end to dodgy business practices that cheat students and faculty members. It’s important to stress here that Bérubé and Ruth’s proposed hiring practices include the revaluation of nonterminal degree holders, too. This is not a sweep.
Obviously, any viable proposal to raise the standards and fix the crisis will court trade-offs, and those may include the evaluation of cost drivers (such as nonessential administrative staff that pose a negative net worth to the institution), shrinking the faculty and maximizing labor efficiency, along with other cuts that free up funds that should be spent on quality instruction that leads to student success. What Henry. A Giroux calls the neoliberal war on higher education isn’t sustainable, and it’s time to reclaim it ethically and just as intentionally as the CEOs who crept in and jaded it with oppressive profit-over-mission business deals.
Back to quitting my McJob: it’s unremarkable how easy the physical severance is. That is, after a decade of teaching in this particular institution, I haven’t taken up any office space or accumulated any books or stacks of papers. In fact, the only physical trace of my presence that I’m leaving behind is a Faculty Forward Network “Invest in Instruction” sign that’s pinned to a portable wall in a shared office space. In time, my digital footprint will fade from the course schedule, adjunct faculty Listserv and so on, until it’s a memory of a chapter well spent with amazing students.
Higher education desperately needs to be revalued. Everyone with a hand in it needs to stop what they are doing -- which is often just maintaining the status quo -- take inventory of the $1.3 trillion in national federal and private educational debt and do something to change it.
I am not an adjunct anymore. You’ll find me in the streets at labor rallies and marches and @TiffanySKraft, with a laser focus on higher education and the rigged economy.
Tiffany Kraft is a former adjunct and current higher education activist/organizer with Faculty Forward Network. All statements and views in this piece are her own.