Economic Injustice at Holy Cross

Clara Joy Gibson ’21
Guest Writer

Here at the College of the Holy Cross, we pride ourselves on being a community that values social responsibility, activism, and fights against injustice. Our leaders exhort us to take the values and tools we learn here and go out and change the world–a noble goal. But we, as students, cannot turn our gaze to the world if we do not confront the problems we have on campus. Last year, battles between students and the administration regarding transparency, the placing of image and the maintenance of a veneer of respectability before the safety and dignity of female students raged both on the pages of school publications and outside the offices of administration officials. Moreover, the constant drip-drip-drip of reports of homophobic, racist, misogynist, and hateful graffiti and incidents into student inboxes continues to remind us that we are not living up to our promise that we are “men and women for and with others.”

I have a great deal more to say about campus culture and the way students, particularly those who are people of color, women, queer, or trans are treated, and I will say it to anyone who stands still long enough, and for as long as it takes to produce change. But today I want to talk about the economic injustices perpetrated by our institution and society not on students, but on the people that provide the education we are here to receive: our adjunct faculty. The Holy Cross website, under the heading Holy Cross at a Glance, tells us that the College employs 290 full time faculty and 38 part time professors, implying that only 13% of classes at Holy Cross are taught by adjunct professors. However, almost 20% of full time faculty are adjuncts, so in reality, the website offers little real sense of how much of the teaching at Holy Cross is done by adjunct faculty.

Very briefly, an adjunct professor is a professor who teaches classes at a college or university who is hired per semester and is ineligible for tenure, an academic appointment that guarantees a professor their job (except in extraordinary circumstances). Tenure grants job security to professors, allowing them to be intellectually bold, experiment, and push academic boundaries without fear of losing their job. Tenure supports academic freedom, innovation, and protects experienced professors from being fired for less-experienced, cheaper candidates. Though the tenure system has its problems (namely, that it makes it very difficult to fire people for poor performance), generally, granting instructors job security and academic freedom benefits their fields through allowing for innovation and their students, who benefit from this freedom to explore and experiment.

Adjunct professors, however, are denied these benefits, despite the fact that they often have the same degrees, same experience, and the same number of publications as tenure-track faculty. Many part-time adjuncts–people with doctorates and years of experience–live well below the poverty line. At Duquesne University–a private, Catholic school much like Holy Cross with a $171 million endowment–adjuncts were paid $2500 per course (Rhoades, 2013). John Carl Baker remarked that at George Mason University, adjunct faculty are often paid “a few thousand dollars per course,” while the President’s wife, a motivational speaker, was paid almost 4000$ per day (Baker 2019), and Brett Kavanaugh was paid $25,000 by the Koch-funded law school to teach a two-week course (Lectieq, 2019). Moreover, academia treats adjunct or contingent faculty like day-laborers in that they are given no job security. Often hired at the last moment, with no time to prepare, many contingent faculty members are often kept in suspense as to whether they will have a job to feed themselves and their families. A professor who is grossly underpaid, who has to teach five classes at multiple institutions, all with varying syllabi, methodologies, online platforms, etc. is not being given the tools they need to succeed as a teacher, a fact supported by student graduation and retention rates.

As in most other areas of life, the economic injustice of the gig economy falls disproportionately on women and people of color. According to Carole Emberton, a professor at the University of Buffalo, male tenured faculty often increase the speed at which they receive tenure by avoiding departmental service, administrative work, emotional labor, and many of the other inglorious jobs female and contingent faculty often are stuck with by default. As in the private sphere, the work of women and people of color often goes unrecognized and unrewarded. Efforts at collective bargaining often rely upon solidarity, and when the more privileged members of a campus community fail to lend their voices or skew the agenda to suit their own needs, economic justice for contingent faculty can be difficult to attain. 

As students, we need to be aware of how our professors are being treated. In the neoliberal economy, education has become commodified and turned into a business, and we are the customers. It is only when we exert our power on the administration that things change. We’re young, so we sometimes forget that we have power, but the fact is, we do! The administration works for us. It’s our money, and the money of our families, that pays their salaries and forms the College’s endowment, and we should have a say in how it’s used. I say that instead of building new, shiny buildings to impress parents who come for campus visits or pay raises to high ranking administrators, we should pay the people who provide us with our education with a fair compensation for their labor and a living wage. It’s the faculty that make this College what it is. It is not a spa, or a resort, or a fitness club. It is a place of learning. And without the labor of contingent faculty, it would not be able to function. I stand in solidarity with the adjunct faculty that meet with me after class, counsel me, provide me with feedback and provide emotional labor, and who give all of these tasks all of their effort even though they are fully aware that they will not be compensated.

So what is the solution? Obviously, it is to compensate part-time and contingent faculty for their labor. But the College won’t do this–not on its own. Institutions change slowly, and they are loathe to abandon a model that works, even if it is exploitative and contrary to its professed values. We have to make it change. When adjuncts at Duquesne unionized, joining the United Steelworkers, they managed to raise their pay per course from $2500 to $3500. Unionized faculty at Georgetown, another wealthy, Jesuit institution successfully bargained for substantially improved wages and job security. Of course, in all these cases, cross-title solidarity between tenured and adjunct faculty is key. All College employees must be willing to use their privilege to advocate for their colleagues. When we–students, part-time and full time faculty, tenured and contingent professors–speak with one voice, we can achieve economic and social justice.

United we bargain, divided we beg.  

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