It’s me, your professor. Yes, I know you’re not technically one of my students. But I think that we’re at a moment in history that we professors like to call a “teachable moment.” That is, an unexpected moment when we can all learn something very insightful. It is a fleeting moment that professors love and one that must be seized. You see, you’re on a path to failure. Not my class or any other. But on the path to failing your students. You, as administration of this college, have the ultimate responsibility of guaranteeing the best education for your students. And so do I! That’s what we have in common; a strong bond that we are both bound to. Yet, let’s be honest, you’re failing the students. Not directly, but rather, you’re failing your professors and thus hurting the chances of your students to receive the best education they can get.
The first step to solving any problem is admitting there is one. So let’s come clean and agree that there is a problem. A very serious problem. Costs of higher education have skyrocketed in the last three decades. It’s gone up almost 1200%! That’s more than medical care, housing and food. That is a serious problem. But one for another discussion. The problem at hand is how you treat your professors. More specifically, your adjunct professors. Professors who now make up 80% of your faculty numbers. We are the backbone of the faculty at this college. Yet, our pay is so low it sometimes leaves us needing public assistance like food stamps. You limit the number of courses we teach, forcing us to teach ourselves into poverty. We don’t even have a real contract! So our classes can be taken away semester to semester, or cancelled the day before they start. And it’s true, we are not offered benefits by the multiple campuses most of us commute between to make ends meet.
Lucky for you, I am a compassionate professor (as are most of my colleagues) and I’m willing to work with you the rest of the semester. Together, I think we can turn this failure around for our students. Because isn’t that why we both exist? For the students? Not only are underpaid and overworked adjuncts stretched too thin have to give 100% to every student, but it hurts the college as a whole. A recent study by Ronald Ehrenberg of Cornell University found that relying on adjuncts in this situation is associated with lower freshman persistence and graduation rates. The President won’t be too happy about that! And neither will your parents.
What’s more, because of the way you’ve treated your adjuncts, some of the best and brightest are calling it quits. They quit being a professor to take a job in…well, almost anything that pays someone with a Master’s or PhD well. I know personally of a sociology adjunct who became a bartender because the pay was so much better. A bartender. That is not a slight against the hard working bartenders of the area. It IS an affront to your goal of providing students the best education that can get.
So what can we do, together? Again, this is a teachable moment. Rather than placing blame on any individual, office, or institution, let’s focus on the way out. Your adjuncts, who teach the majority of our students, should be paid a living wage. A wage that allows them to not ask the questions “how am I going to pay rent this month?” or “what bills can I push off another week?” A wage that allows them to give each and every student 100% of their mental and emotional energy.
Money is important, a fact of the world in which we live. But it is not everything. Most of us who teach as adjuncts want to do this. Just THIS. Nothing else. We pour our hearts into our work and yet experience some of the most precarious working conditions in all of academia. A legitimate, long term contract would give us peace of mind to focus on education rather than job security.
Finally, there’s one more thing you can do to turn around from this path of failure. We are all required to have health insurance as part of the new health care laws. The idea is community; everyone, healthy and sick, buy in to keep the costs down. Can you offer all of the adjuncts basic health insurance? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t teach economics, but I do understand ethics. At the very least, it is your obligation to make sure that your students receive that excellent education we’re striving for. Even providing a basic subsidy to adjuncts would mean the world to them in an era of uncertainty.
I’ll be honest. It’s going to take a lot of work on your end to turn this around. And it won’t be easy! But just like I tell my students, I’m willing to work with you to make this happen. If you put in the effort and make the changes that need to be done, we can turn this around. Do it for your own future. Do it for the future of your adjuncts. But most of all, do it for the future of our students. They’re counting on us.
Eric Fiske is a graduate student at the University of South Florida in the political science department and is an adjunct professor at Hillsborough Community College.