Op-Ed: Different classes in education

As a graduate student, there is only one question I dread more than those asking how my dissertation is coming along: “So you want to become a professor?”

I do. That’s not the point.

When someone asks me that question, I need to make a decision: Will I smile and say yes, or will I tell the harsh truth about the job I desperately want?

The fact of the matter is that the picture of a professor that most people hold in their mind is outdated by nearly half a century. While elbow patches and personal libraries in which to spend ample free time researching might have been the hallmarks of educators gone by, today’s professors are overtasked and increasingly undervalued. And that’s at the highest levels.

Since the late 1990s, academics have become well acquainted with the term ‘adjunctification.’ The job and financial security associated with tenure, a necessary component of healthy research institutions, has been eroded slowly and methodically. Increasingly corporatized universities across the country are now often held up on the backs of contingent faculty. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70% of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.”

There is nothing wrong with a university hiring part-time faculty. They do good work, and the lecturers at Tufts are some of the hardest-working and most deeply-caring people I know. But that is why I have to ask the question: If we care about our education, shouldn’t we care equally about our educators?

Those teaching the lion’s share of courses — especially foundational courses — and spending what precious little time they have in the day mentoring students deserve our support. Adjunct professors should not have become, as a 2013 CNN article put it, “the new working poor” in this country: living without benefits, often commuting to multiple schools in order to teach enough courses to get by on meager pay.

This is not a symptom of a decline in enrollment (which continues to go up) or an attempt to stifle outrageous increases in tuition (also going up and up) or any larger decline in the economy. In fact, according to the AAUP, “the greatest growth in contingent [faculty] appointments occurred during times of economic prosperity.” Rather this is a cynical, systematic attempt to create two classes of faculty on campuses, of which the part-time faculty are the lower and easier to exploit.

The good news is that Tufts was among the first universities in the area to begin to turn the tide, and that’s something to be proud of. Right around the time that CNN declared them a new working poor, Tufts’ part-time lecturers banded together to form their union. They fought for job security (including partial compensation should their course be canceled through no fault of their own), their first salary increases in five years and other benefits that accrued to their feeling more valued by the institution at which their labor is integral. Their first contract became an example to contingent faculty at other schools in the area and led to the creation of a full-time lecturers’ union at Tufts as well.

That contract expired last semester, and part-time lecturers have been negotiating since March for their second contract. Unfortunately, the Tufts administration has been unable or unwilling to come to a fair agreement, with some arguing that the major gains of the first contract went far enough toward solving a problem decades in the making. If no such agreement is reached before Wednesday, Oct. 11, the part-time faculty have planned a walkout.

Tufts has an opportunity here to be a responsible voice, to lead the charge against exploitation and to give its faculty what they need to accomplish the most vital goals of the university.

What amounts to a negligible part of the university’s budget could allow for pay increases that mean the world to the lecturers. Moreover, it would put lecturers on track to reaching parity with their tenured colleagues — it would mean bridging the upper-class and lower-class divide by valuing the work of classroom instruction at a consistent rate rather than paying tenured professors and part-time lecturers different amounts for teaching the same material. Finally, in listening to the suggestions of those on the ground, Tufts has an opportunity to empower the part-time lecturer community to grow stronger. This will lead to better instruction, to lecturers having more time to spend in the service of students and ultimately to a more robust Tufts community as a whole.

I know that I face an unforgiving job market when I leave Tufts, and I hope that I can do as good a job as the dedicated professors I have met here. I also hope that Tufts will continue to make positive commitments that empower those most often taken advantage of and help reverse a pernicious culture of division in higher education.

It is important to recognize, however, that those positive commitments are not only for administrators and negotiators to make. Each one of us plays an important role at Tufts, and so I am calling on students, staff and faculty alike to support the part-time lecturers as they take a courageous step in their walkout this Wednesday.

Join me and others in our Tufts community in honoring their picket line. Your support will make a difference in ending what has become an on-campus class divide, and it will go a long way toward showing that you value not only your education but your educators as well.