“Ivory Tower”? Think Again


In November, the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and Workforce launched an electronic forum to gather comments from contingent faculty members about their working conditions and the effect of those working conditions on students.

The recently-released report on the results of that effort, titled “The Just-In-Time Professor,” tells a shameful tale about the real lives of most faculty members in U.S. colleges and universities that should put to rest the stereotypes of faculty as Ivory Tower denizens with their elbow patches, pipes, and summers in Europe.

Consider just one set of numbers the report details:

According to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), the median pay for a 3-unit course is $2,700.   Even working more than full-time, a faculty member making this wage would struggle mightily to make ends meet.  In fact, according to the report, “A family of three in California relying solely on the median adjunct salary would qualify for, among other things, Medicaid, an earned income tax credit, a child tax credit, and food stamps.”   As these numbers suggest, continent faculty may be “college professors,” but they are often also among the ranks of the working poor.

Numbers like this, which are unheard of for professional employment anywhere except in academia, shock even in the abstract; but the comments of respondents about how those facts (and other non-economic realities of contingency) affect their lives, their families, and their students are staggering.

Just one will suffice to suggest the far-reaching “costs” of this employment model:  “I caution my students about choosing education as a career path. I would not wish their lives to turn out like mine has.”

As the report makes clear, this is no isolated problem on the margins of the academy.  The numbers of contingent faculty continue to grow, now more than 1 million faculty members in American colleges and universities and more than 75% of the faculty workforce nationwide.

This report should be required reading for everyone in the academy (especially faculty members and administrators) and for state and federal elected officials.  As the report concludes, “The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education applauds Rep. George Miller for shining a light on this dirty little secret in our colleges and universities. We call on college administrators and elected leaders to do the right thing–take concrete steps toward improving the working conditions for contingent faculty and the learning conditions of the students they teach.

Note: In its report, the House Committee cited a study by CFHE and the New Faculty Majority Foundation titled “Who is professor staff” and drew on the basic themes and language of that report.  That report can be found at http://futureofhighered.org/research-center/.  The survey on which that report was based can be found at: http://www.nfmfoundation.org/NFMF-Back-to-School-Survey.html.