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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 12:01 am

The educated poor: adjunct professors

 There’s a growing army of the working poor in our U.S. of A., and big contingents of it are now on the march. They’re strategizing, organizing and mobilizing against the immoral economics of inequality being hung around America’s neck by the likes of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and colleges.

Wait a minute. Colleges? That can’t be. After all, we’re told to go there to go to college to get ahead in life. More education makes you better off, right? Well, ask a college professor about that – you know, the ones who earned Ph.D.s and are now teaching America’s next generation.

The sorry secret of higher education – from community colleges to brand-name universities – is that they’ve embraced the corporate culture of a contingent workforce, turning professors into part-time, low-paid, no-benefit, no-tenure, temporary teachers. Overall, more than half of America’s higher-ed faculty members today are “adjunct professors,” meaning they are attached to the schools where they teach not essentially a part of them.

It also means that these highly educated, fully credentialed professors have become part of America’s fast-growing army of the working poor. They never know until a semester starts whether they’ll teach one class, three or none – typically, this leaves them with take-home pay somewhere between zero and maybe $2,000 a month. Most live in or on the brink of poverty. Good luck paying off that $100,000 student loan on such wages.

Adjuncts usually get no health care or other benefits, no real chance of earning full-time positions, no due process or severance pay if dismissed, no say in curriculum or school policies, no keys to the supply cabinet. Frequently, they don’t even get office space at their schools. One adjunct prof says he used the trunk of his car as his office, until one day he found that the “office” got towed.

Like their counterparts at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, college presidents don’t treat adjunct professors as valuable resources to be nurtured, but as cheap, exploitable and disposable labor. We know that the moral values of corporate chieftains rarely penetrate deeper than the value of their multimillion-dollar pay packages. But shouldn’t we expect more from the chieftains of colleges and universities?

After all, campuses are places of erudition and enlightenment, where we hope students will absorb a bit of our society’s deeper ethical principles, including America’s historic commitment to fairness and justice for all. Yet, in my own town, top officials of Austin Community College issued an edict last November that could’ve come straight out of Wal-Mart. A newspaper story about the college’s edict was headlined: “Adjuncts at ACC face cut in hours. School seeks to avoid paying for health care.”

Of this school’s nearly 2,000 faculty members, three-fourths are “adjunct professors” with no health care benefits. But the new Obamacare law would’ve finally given them a much needed break by requiring colleges to provide health coverage to employees who work 30 hours or more a week. But the honchos of ACC – a school with the word “community” in its name – have snatched this basic element of human decency out of the adjunct faculty’s hands by arbitrarily decreeing that none can work more than 28 hours a week.

That’s a double whammy: Not only are the college chiefs denying needed health care for the people who carry most of ACC’s teaching load, but the sneaky cut in hours means that these poorly paid professors will also suffer a pay cut. This is the Wal-Martization of higher education, and it’s happening at all levels all across the country.

Unsurprisingly, this contingent of America’s low-wage army is organizing campaigns for fairness and forming unions, just like the exploited workers at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. For information, contact New Faculty Majority: NewFacultyMajority.info.

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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