President Obama, looking for solutions on student debt, should not overlook the issue of contingent faculty labor

The student protests around the country have been focused largely on three key concerns: the high cost of a college education, the resulting weight of student debt after graduation, and the scarcity of jobs.

Put together, it’s a recipe for frustration, if not outright desperation.  Students who lack substantial family support these days have to make incredibly tough sacrifices to get their B.A. degrees, and with no jobs at the end of the tunnel, many are rightly asking–is it worth it?

A lot of thoughtful people have been considering this very question for some time now.  On Monday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, there will be a panel discussion on “The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World,” featuring, among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College, who just co-edited a book called What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

In the book, Lagemann and co-author Harry Lewis argue that colleges and universities need to renew their commitment to fostering ethical, responsible student engagement with the public sphere.  Higher education should not just be a credential to string around one’s neck, the passport to a decent job, they say, but should challenge students to think deeply about their role as citizens and stakeholders in society.

This message certainly seems timely.  If getting a college degree can no longer be valued in purely instrumental terms, as a ticket to a job, then it had better be providing some deeper value, both for the students and for society.

On the same day as the Harvard panel, President Obama will be meeting at the White House with a group of ten influential college and university presidents, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other key players in higher education, to discuss “increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable,” according to an article in today’s online Inside Higher Ed magazine.

The article says that “amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make the issue a focus going into the 2012 campaign. In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency.” The House of Representatives held a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs, discussing a broad range of possible solutions.”

As someone who has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I am of course concerned about the rising costs for students.

But I’m also concerned with the way budgets are increasingly being balanced by reducing fulltime tenured faculty teaching lines.

The phenomenon of using adjunct faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, temporary “visiting” faculty and any other form of contingent labor available is under-discussed, both within the institutions perpetrating these practices, and in the broader society.

Within the institutions, it’s under-discussed partly because it’s so humiliating for Ph.Ds, respected scholars when they present their research at conferences or publish articles, to admit how little money they’re making as adjunct or visiting faculty.  College adjunct teachers are typically paid $2,000 to $4,000 a course.  Most faculty teach 3-4 courses a semester.  You do the math.

Also, there’s the fear factor: if you speak out, your contract may not be renewed next semester, or next year.  There is no job security for what we call in the business “term contracts.”

At the White House meeting, the college presidents aren’t going to want to tell the President that they’re reigning in the cost of tuition by hiring contingent faculty at bargain basement salaries.  But that’s the truth of the matter.

And it’s been very difficult for adjuncts to unionize, in part because the Labor Board in recent years has ruled that college and university faculty are “managers” because we make a salary rather than an hourly wage, and get to set our own hours. Managers aren’t entitled to a union.

There are a host of reasons why it’s bad for American higher education to use cheap faculty labor.  If we want to get serious about student success, as the Obama Administration claims, focusing on contingent faculties would be a good starting point.

A harried professor who’s working at two or three institutions to barely make ends meet is not going to do as a good a job for her students as someone making a living wage with a longterm contract at a single institution.

American institutions of higher education need to model the kind of society we want our students to create when they move out into the world as newly minted young citizens.  They won’t want to be temporary workers any more than their teachers do.

President Obama, if you really want to make a difference, you need to push those college presidents for deeper, systemic changes.

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