National Adjunct Walkout Day

Today I’m not going to drive to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, where I spent 5 1/2 years as a PhD student – four of those years as a Graduate Assistant (stipend +  tuition waiver) and 1 semester as an adjunct.

I wonder how many of my former colleagues who still teach at UH Manoa will also not be driving to campus today, to fight for their rights and the rights of their peers, to earn a living wage with benefits, doing one of the most important, time consuming, and heart-messy jobs in the nation.

I don’t know when the poor treatment of adjuncts first made waves, but I imagine awareness came with the public outrage concerning Margaret Mary Vojtko, a French professor who was adjuncting at Duquesne University. She was 83 years old and suffered cardiac arrest on the street in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Margaret Mary didn’t die on September 1, 2014 from old age. She died because her job, a job that she loved, afforded her a lifestyle that left her without benefits, no health care, and nearly homeless.

Soon after her death, Margaret Mary’s lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, published an op-ed called “Death of an adjunct” in the Pittsburg Post Gazette. Besides pointing to Margaret Mary’s recent stresses–being let go from her adjunct position at Duquesne without severance or retirement benefits while battling returning cancer–Kovalik writes that Margaret Mary received a letter from Adult Protective Services indicating that she needed to meet a caseworker or else her case would be turned over to Orphan’s Court. Someone referred Margaret Mary because he or she was worried that the professor could not take care of herself.

And, apparently, the worry was rightfully warranted. After Kovalik called Adult Protective Services to ask that they back off, at the request of Margaret Mary who felt too dignified to ask for help, despite her recent job loss and crumbling house, the former French professor died.

What Kovalik’s op-ed exposes is not only an adjunct’s typical meager pay, but Duquesne’s claim that “the unionization of adjuncts like Margaret Mary would somehow interfere with its mission to inculcate Catholic values among its students.” That’s right. Duquesne University claims that it is too religious to stand behind the unionization of their adjuncts.

Duquesne adjuncts are still fighting with the university to unionize. Although, according to a Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare, the university “…does not represent any unwillingness to improve the wages and benefits of our adjunct faculty,” low wages, no health care, and no job security remain the status quo.

Margaret Mary’s story is just one of many. Recent headlines include nods to homeless adjuncts and adjuncts on food stamps.

One headline, “Adjunct Prof. Leleua Loupe’s office: the trunk of her car,” tells the story of Leleua Loupe who claims “I love every aspect of teaching,” while she literally uses the trunk of her car as an office to store books, office applies, clothing, and her laptop. Loupe’s story is more than not having a proper office. She has foreclosed on her home. She lost her classes during the recession, but thankfully got them back. She’s been in therapy (for three years) after a car accident. She commutes 8 hours a day, a “freeway flier,” to teach at multiple institutions, making somewhere around $10/hr. Like me, and so many of those who adjunct, Loupe received her PhD.

Charlotte Allen from the LA Times reported that “adjuncts generally have the same kind of advanced degrees as faculty members who have tenure or are on a track to get it, and often teach the same classes as their tenured or tenure-track brethren.” Her article states that these adjuncts with advanced degrees working the maximum amount allowed (including summer school) are making just a little above a barista. But last time I checked, even Starbucks offers health care.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that adjuncts continue in these part-time positions because they are head over heels in love with their work. They thrive in an academic setting because they’ve been trained in one, earning master’s degrees and doctorates in their fields. They were made for university teaching. And universities are using their training and love of teaching to exploit them.

Adjuncts currently make up an estimated 70 percent of instructors on campuses nationwide, which points to what’s been happening for the past few decades: the corporatization of the university. Richards Moser writes,”The most striking symptoms of corporatization shift costs and risks downward and direct capital and authority upward. Rising tuition and debt loads for students limit access to education for working-class students. The faculty and many other campus workers suffer lower compensation as the number of managers, and their pay, rises sharply.” This means administrators are making six figure salaries while adjuncts, who bear most of the teaching load, are struggling to survive.

National Adjunct Walkout Day is important, not only to show the disparity between adjuncts and tenure or tenure-track professors, but also to remind students and parents of students where their tuition money is going, how hard adjuncts are working, and how the university has been slowly upholding a business model that, as Noam Chomsky writes, is “designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility” at the expense of students’ education.

I only lasted in my adjunct position for a semester because I couldn’t afford to. My husband and I were spending an astronomical $2100/month on rent to live in a suburb of Honolulu, which is typically cheaper than living in the city. We lived in a standard two bedroom “ohana” unit, which was a luxury but also necessary for my partner’s work-from-home-job. Even with his salary as a web developer, both our wages weren’t enough to make ends meet in a place where the cost of living is one of the highest in the nation. Even though I loved my job, I couldn’t do it. I was spending more money on gas to get to work than my budget allowed.

Like some of my former colleagues who make many sacrifices to keep their adjunct positions, I would have had to move closer to the university to keep teaching there. Instead, I sucked it up and got a 9-5 job with a killer commute but great pay and benefits, finished my dissertation, and left academia behind.

Now, as a starting freelance content writer I can make the same amount as I did teaching in less than a semester, without the commute.

I miss being in an academic environment. It drives creativity and fulfills the intellectual life I thought I would have. My colleagues were enormously smart and generous. I miss my students who were the best part of working life. But I don’t miss it as much as I enjoy the freedom not being in academia has given me: a flexible schedule, a more active lifestyle, more quality time with friends, family, and my dog. I get to work beside my husband everyday, and I’m really grateful for it.

But I also admire all the adjuncts who stick it out, despite the unfair treatment they endure. They are working hard, way more than their pay grade suggests, to make positive changes at the universities and community colleges they work at, both inside and outside of the classroom.