Ed Firmage's Essay "Wage Slaves in the Ivory Tower"

From the UVU Review, March 26, 2012

Wage slaves in the ivory tower

The glass ceiling for UVU’s adjunct faculty has been questioned. Illustration by John-Ross Boyce.
Some weeks ago, the UVU Review ran a story about the gap in pay for faculty men and women. According to the story, the average annual salary for male faculty at UVU is $73,000, while that for female faculty is $71,000. Clearly, despite official policy, sexual discrimination is alive at UVU.

But women faculty have this consolation: sexual discrimination is not policy. There is a faculty group, however, that have no such consolation: UVU’s dedicated, talented and essential adjunct instructors, who constitute two-thirds of UVU’s teachers. In the case of adjuncts, the discrimination is on a scale that makes the school’s gender bias pale in comparison. And, it is deliberate and systematic.

Let’s take my own case. I presently teach two classes totaling seven credit hours. For this, I receive a monthly check for $1,200. If I were to double my teaching load–which university policy prevents me from doing–to four classes, the number expected of full-time faculty, I would get $2,400/month, or $28,800/year, 40% of what a tenure-track professor receives on average. But that is not the limit of the discrimination. My annualized $28,800 does not include benefits. I am prevented from working more than 12 credit hours specifically in order that I not become eligible for benefits. And I don’t even get full compensation for the hours I teach. Students in my Latin 1010 class get four credit hours for attending. I, their instructor, get only 3.3 for teaching them.

Without adjunct faculty, who teach most of the classes, this university could not operate. But instead of recognizing our essential contribution, the university not only discriminates against us, it humiliates us. A year ago, UVU instituted a policy of requiring adjunct faculty to reapply for their jobs every year. Regardless of our expertise and experience, and mindless of actual contributions made by individuals to their departments over the years, the university treats us as mere at-will employees.

A few years ago, the Salt Lake City Public Library hired a new director, who in similarly highhanded fashion required her employees to reapply for their jobs. People who had given years of service to the institution were now arbitrarily told that none of that work counted for anything. A new director, who had given nothing to the institution, would now decide whether they were qualified for their jobs. Thankfully, the library eventually recognized its mistake and fired the new director, but not before many good people had left the institution in disgust. UVU apparently believes it has nothing to learn from the library’s experience.

Unfortunately, what employees at the Salt Lake Public Library and UVU have experienced isn’t unique. It’s a kind of behavior all too familiar in corporate America, where our nation’s HR policies are cooked up. What’s surprising, though, is that such behavior should find support at an institution of higher learning, an institution that prides itself on being a model of open and ethical behavior, an institution that in fact purports to teach ethical behavior in several of its departments.

What UVU’s adjunct faculty policy does is to create a permanent academic underclass of wage slaves. This sort of behavior is, as I said, not uncommon. It’s found, for example, in America’s meat packing industry, where illegal migrant laborers are paid minimum wage to work in the most dangerous job in American industry. And, because they’re illegal, and hired BECAUSE they are illegal, these exploited workers know that they are there at the will of their exploiters.

Is this the sort of behavior for which UVU wants to be known? Are the Cargills and Tysons of the world the “comparables” that UVU wants for its indispensable adjunct faculty?

The university will respond that it has no choice, that it has only as much money to work with as it receives from the legislature. But, like all excuses for corporate misdeeds, this does not pass muster. The university DOES have a choice. It has a choice in how it apportions its allotment from the state. The university also has a choice in how it prioritizes money raised from private donors. Today, the university chooses to pay tenure track faculty two and half times as much as their adjunct counterparts. What’s clear from that choice is that fair compensation for adjunct faculty is NOT a priority.

And, of course, it is not just compensation that is in question. It is deliberate humiliation, as represented in the requirement that adjuncts reapply each year for their jobs. The university will perhaps say that this requirement helps insure that it has the best faculty it can get, or that reapplication insures fair access for everyone. But surely, if these are the true reasons, then new tenure-track hires should be subjected to the same yearly scrutiny, especially since these are the people who will occupy future tenured positions.

The disregard the university shows us adjuncts is further illustrated by the difficulty that we have in moving from part-time to full-time, tenure track positions, despite in some cases long service and demonstrated capacity.

The message of such policies is clear: adjunct faculty are not respected contributors in the eyes of the administration, whatever we are in the eyes of our colleagues. I wonder how the university would feel if we began taking this message to heart?

By Ed Firmage, Jr.
Guest Writer
Ed Firmage, Jrteaches Latin and humanities at UVU. Trained in classics at Princeton, he holds an M.A. in ancient history from U. C. Berkeley, where he was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. From 1986-1988, he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


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