The plight of adjuncts

A new dimension to the student debt crisis is the subject of a special congressional briefing on Monday in Washington, as a coalition of educators and Brave New Films staffers tell lawmakers about another dimension of the greed-driven world of higher education.

As college and university tuition keeps increasing, forcing students to typically acrue five-figure loan debts before getting an undergraduate degree, a sizeable slice of college and university educators are falling into poverty because they are not full-time employees and have seen their pay packages, with no benefits, cut and cut again.

“I have the highest level of learning and I am literally on welfare,” said Wanda J. Evans-Brewer, who has a B.A. in English and literature, an M.A. in urban education and a PhD in education. A public speaker and author, she has 20 years of teaching experience. Her remarks and others are featured in a short video from Brave New Films, Professors in Povertythat will be screened at the congressional briefing.

“When we began exploring the causes of the student debt crisis, we found one area that was not contributing to increased tuition—professors’ pay,” said Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Films. “Institutions of higher learning are taking advantage of adjunct professors. It is unacceptable to have students going into debt and professors going into poverty while tuition remains at an all-time high.”

The congressional briefing, sponsored by Sen, Dick Durbin, D-IL, will be attended by a number of unions and groups including Service Employers International Union (SEIU), the New Faculty Majority, the National Education Association, the Association of American University Professors, and the American Federation of Teachers. These groups are demanding that lawmakers, colleges and universities acknowledge and address the inequities in pay for adjunct professors. The video will kick off the congressional session.

Professors in Poverty  lays out the problem in vivid and disturbing detail. The short film opens by noting there is a growing trend of of colleges and universities to increasingly rely on part-time adjunct instructors. Nationwide statistics find that 31 percent of part-time faculty “live near or below the poverty line,” the filmmakers report.

As Evans-Brewer explains, an adjunct professor has the same professional qualifications as full-time faculty, but is contracted to work at a campus “with no expectation of benefits and once the course is completed, they may or may not be utilized again.” Nationwide, 51 percent of college professors are adjuncts.

Astoundingly, between 1970 and 2008, the average pay of adjunct professors has gone down by nearly half, 49 percent, to $22,500. Meanwhile, average college presidents’ salaries have gone up by 35 percent to $410,523. Evans-Brewer said she makes $2,700 per course, which leaves her $2,300 after taxes.

“The perception is I have this cushy, easy life,” says adjunct professor Judy Olson, who says people look at her career and assume everything is fine. “The answer is no.”

Brave New Films reports that in 2010, nearly 34,000 people with doctorate degrees applied for food stamps. “I don’t want some student to say, ‘I want to be just like you, professor,’” Evans-Brewer said. “Be like me? I’m broke.” Olson adds, “It’s a lie that getting an education is your road to financial security.”

Evans-Brewer comments, “I invested in my education to never come here,” as she is seen opening the door to an Illinois state welfare agency.

The filmmakers report that “one in four part-time faculty receive public assistance.” The video shows Evans-Brewer shopping with her daughter, as she explains she burned through her savings, “because there’s no guarantee that you will get another course.”

Other adjuncts in the video say that schools don’t give them offices, computers and other tools they need to teach and do their jobs well. Footage in the film depicts protests, where adjuncts say the “corporate model in higher education is a disaster.” Even more humiliating, those on camera say, is facing the reality that being an adjunct means having to find a second job.

“Sixty percent of part-time professors have additional jobs,” Brave News Films reports. For Evans-Brewer, that means getting up at 4:30am to drive for Uber five days a week, she explains, “because that allows me to take care of my family.”

The film ends with young adjuncts saying they don’t want to give up on their dream of teaching, but the experiences conveyed by their older counterparts is not encouraging—especially if their field of study is in the liberal arts like literature, poetry and philosophy.

“Anyone who does this work does it because they care passionately about education and about teaching,” Olson said.

“I love this course. I love my students, and that’s what keeps me going and committed to my identity, which is to teach,” Evans-Brewer said.

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