Assault on Academia

Tenure is too often perceived as the Elysian Fields of the academic world, i.e., something which provides utmost leisure and emboldens the lazy to be lazy, but what naysayers fail to recognize is the strenuous hardship faculty must endure for years before tenure is within reach and, perhaps more importantly, the struggle academic professionals who are not on the tenure-track face each and every day.

To fully understand tenure one must first erase preconceived impressions of tenure. Prior to a National Education Association (NEA) report in 1885 which called for political action to protect teachers from at-will employment, teachers were terminated for just about anything including pregnancy, political affiliation, race and many other things which are now prohibited actions under various labor rules. Back then, tenure served as a method to protect employees from arbitrary, capricious and often discriminatory termination. Today tenure preserves these prohibitions but also offers faculty the opportunity to explore grand research projects that perhaps aren’t practical for contingent faculty. In layman’s terms tenure provides freedom to explore new ideas which is critical for quality higher education.

In 1909 New Jersey became the first state to adopt a comprehensive tenure policy for K-12 teachers which helped pave the way for tenure now employed at institutions like Rutgers University, however the majority of employees instructing students at Rutgers are contingent faculty on term contracts and some of those appointments are as brief as one semester. No need for a double take, you heard that right: most academic professionals at Rutgers (and higher education generally) are hired on a semester-to-semester basis. As an adjunct professor, you’re effectively reapplying for your job each and every semester and the only guarantee of employment is for approximately 14 weeks and even those appointments have conditions that warrant termination mid-term. Crazy, right? Welcome to academia.

While the union that represents contingent faculty at Rutgers University has made some significant gains in recent contracts, faculty remain underpaid and underappreciated despite an influx of student enrollment and an unrestricted reserve to the tune of $770 million that the university saves for a rainy day. Well that rainy day is now as cost of living continues to skyrocket in New Jersey, and without an equitable adjustment to offset that cost contingent faculty will continue to struggle.

Teaching positions in higher education generally require an advanced degree to even qualify for consideration so it comes as quite a shock to discover the paltry salaries these positions offer as well. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary a university professor earns annually is $58,000. Meanwhile, Chris Ash, head football coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights earns $2 million per season. This is an inexcusable outrage but isn’t much of a surprise: higher education is transitioning to a corporate profit model rather than a public good similar to the healthcare industry.

Similarly in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, universities are relying on underpaid part-time adjunct professors to make up for budget cuts in higher education. Instead of hiring full-time faculty (contingent or otherwise) that require health benefits and other protections, Pennsylvania state universities are offering positions to part-time employees with fewer protections and sometimes to maneuver around union contracts that exclude part-time workers. These conditions resulted in thousands of faculty from 14 Pennsylvania state universities striking early last year.

Not only are professorial positions underpaid in America, they’re also extremely volatile. Did you know that full-time faculty at most universities must justify their position each and every year during a reappointment review? Did you know that within the reappointment process administrative deans have full discretion to not reappoint faculty? In what other industry does one have to justify his or her employment year after year? The answer is very few.

The bottom line is this: we need to be angered and we need to collectively come together to fight injustices not just in higher education but across the country. President Trump and his Republican colleagues feign compassion for the working people but without a comprehensive plan to address income inequality in higher education and elsewhere these efforts are nothing more than empty slogans.

By Damon Fillman, Staff Representative, Rutgers AAUP-AFT. Follow him on Twitter @DamonFillman