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Southern Illinois University at Carbondale felt the fury of academics scorned this week, after it asked its professors to ask alumni to assist with what is typically faculty work -- for free.

The university has defended the proposal, saying the Alumni Association pitched it as a way to connect terminal-degree-holding alumni with current students. But some have described it as a thinly veiled devaluation of already devalued academic labor.

Michael Molino, associate dean for budget, personnel and research in the College of Liberal Arts, first shared the idea in an email to department chairs, asking them to refer “qualified alumni” to join the graduate faculty in a “zero-time (adjunct) status.”

Candidates must meet accreditation guidelines for adjunct professors, he said, and will generally hold a terminal degree. Appointments, to last three years, could include service on graduate student thesis, departmental or university committees, along with lectures in graduate or undergraduate courses and collaborating on grant proposals and research projects.

Molino said that participating alumni “can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.”

To get started, professors “should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty,” Molino said. Many departments “are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students,” for example.

Chairs should seek faculty recommendations and approach alumni to gauge their interest, Molino said, setting an initial goal of one nominee per department. (Candidates will have to submit an application to be vetted by the graduate dean.)

The email -- perhaps predictably -- has been widely circulated and criticized online.

A university spokesperson said Tuesday that Molino’s email has been “widely misinterpreted." She shared a new statement on the program from Meera Komarraju, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. In it, Komarraju pushed back on the idea that the unpaid alumni would replace faculty members, saying they would instead “enhance” their work.

“The goal is to create a pool of potential, volunteer adjuncts with advanced academic degrees who might contribute as needed for up to three years after their approval,” Komarraju said. “Many departments welcome occasional adjunct faculty who bring special expertise that may add to the student experience and the overall expertise of the faculty. This approach is in compliance with university policy.”

The project also provides “eager” alumni an opportunity to give back, she said.

Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who runs the academic career advising service The Professor Is In (and a blog of the same name), shared Molino’s email online after hearing about it from Carbondale faculty members.

Calling the idea “the apotheosis of exploitation,” Kelsky said the work being offered is worse than chronically underpaid adjuncting in that it’s “literally unpaid.”

The university’s explanation notwithstanding, she said, “This is real faculty work -- serving on committees, for heaven's sake.” Kelsky noted that the idea comes as Carbondale faces enrollment and budget concerns, making the financial implications of the proposal impossible to ignore.

And "the fact that the email affected this cheery tone takes it deeply into the realm of gaslighting," she added. "It's not an ‘opportunity.’ It's gross, grotesque exploitation."

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