Inequality for All in America’s Higher Education System

Originally published on the San Diego Free Press:

By Jim Miller with Ian Duckles

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Thomas Piketty speak on economic inequality at UCSD. In his talk, Piketty hit on the central themes of his seminal work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: how our current level of economic inequality is now back to where it was before the “great compression” of the mid-twentieth century when union density, progressive taxation, and educational policies helped produce the high point of the American middle class. He underlined how there is no economic benefit to our current level of excessive inequality and that it is the product not of any “natural” function of the free market economy, but rather several decades of wrong-headed ideology, destructive politics, and bad policy. During the question and answer session following his presentation, a well-heeled older gentleman prefaced his question about why the “lower 50 percent” don’t just vote out the bad policies with, “this audience, we’re all the top 10%,” which drew a few laughs from people, many of whom were likely debt-ridden students, teaching assistants, campus workers, and lecturers whose income doesn’t come close to landing them in that realm. That there may have been a ragtag group of professors and students from lowly City College in attendance was not even in the speaker’s imagination. I couldn’t help but think how UCSD is a perfect microcosm of the macroeconomic inequality that Piketty was talking about and that the class-blind commenter was a perfect manifestation of the very elite ideology that serves to enforce our deep level of inequality. But of course, it’s not just at UCSD where this is an issue but across the entire landscape of American higher education, where what used to be one of the most solid middle-class professions in the country is in the process of being hollowed out, bit by bit. Coincidentally, October 26th through the 29th happens to be Campus Equity Week, a twice-a-year action designed to bring attention to this very problem. Thus, I will leave the rest of my column to Dr. Ian Duckles, my adjunct colleague in the San Diego Community College District, to further illuminate this issue.

Why Campus Equity Week? Monday is the first day of Campus Equity Week 2015, a biannual event first held around the turn of the millennium to draw attention to and raise awareness about issues confronting what are variously known as “adjuncts,” “contingent faculty” or “part-timers.” Defined in the California Educational Code as “part-time, temporary faculty,” adjuncts were originally intended to be just that: supplements to the full-time faculty to teach classes that wouldn’t support a full-time hire, or to help fill out a schedule and cover for sabbaticals and leaves. If, for example, a college wanted to offer courses in real estate, they wouldn’t necessarily hire a realtor full-time (who probably wouldn’t want to take the pay cut to become a full-time instructor), but instead invite a realtor to teach a class or two per semester. In this way, the college could take advantage of the professional expertise of these individuals without forcing them to quit their day jobs, the very thing that qualifies them to teach in the first place. There is clearly a role for this kind of instructor in the community colleges and schools wouldn’t be able to offer such a diverse list of courses and certificates without the assistance of these kinds of professional, part-time instructors. Unfortunately, the role of these “part-time, temporary faculty” has shifted considerably over the last 40-50 years. During the late 60’s to early 70’s the ratio of adjuncts to full-timers was about 20% to 80%. Today, the numbers have almost completely reversed with adjuncts making up about 75% of the faculty and full-timers making up about 25%. This shift in the make-up of higher education faculty is mirrored in all areas of higher education (community colleges, Cal States, UC’s and even many private colleges), and has some significant, negative impacts. In what follows, I want to explore these negative impacts on the adjuncts themselves, students, and full-timers. Beginning with the adjuncts, this emphasis on hiring part-time faculty has significant, negative consequences for those teaching professionals. These consequences are numerous and wide-ranging, but I will highlight just a few. In addition, because there are so many adjuncts, and these adjuncts live such a diversity of lives, it is difficult to speak for everyone. Instead, I will focus on my personal situation as a window into the broader issues confronting part-time college instructors. Perhaps the most significant impact is that even though I have a Ph.D. and over 10 years of teaching experience, I make significantly less than my full-time counterparts for the same work. As a quick example, I interviewed for but did not get a position at Miramar College back in 2008. Had I been hired, today I would be making an annual salary of $80,000-$90,000 for

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