THE BLOG

The Great Shame of America's Colleges

12/14/2008 09:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Imagine working for the same institution for thirty years, always earning below minimum wage, never getting any benefits whatsoever, then being let go without notice, without an explanation, without a severance package or a retirement fund or even a $.50 pen from Staples as a souvenir.

You think Wal-Mart employees are exploited?

What if I told you that all over this country, major institutions created and sustained with a mission to pursue the betterment of mankind, colleges and universities that sit on billion dollar endowments are using the current economic crisis to further enrich themselves at the expense of the meager livelihood of long-time faculty? That at the same time as they claim to be the guardians of knowledge and the champions of the arts, they treat their faculty to the legal and financial equivalent of what migrant day laborers earn by standing outside Home Depot?

Freeway Flyers: aka "adjunct professors", aka "teaching professionals." They're the dirty little secret of universities and colleges all around the United States. They're the PhDs with decades of teaching experience, award-winning artists, published authors whose names and reputations draw students to the universities, whose work justifies the $50,000/year tuition, raises the million-dollar donations, earns the sought after rankings in USA Today's annual poll.

In exchange for all that, they are hired only on a part-time basis, made to sign a pledge that they will not work more than twenty hours a week and will not--not now, not ever--have a claim to health or retirement or any other kind of benefits, not even a parking pass. That they are "at will" employees who can be let go at any time, for any reason. Their salaries are so meager, they have to teach two, three, sometimes five classes a semester, at five different universities, just to pay their rent. That's why they're called Freeway Flyers. One writer I knew taught for twenty years at a Southern California college with more money than the GNP of a small country. He was paid so little, he had to supplement his income by working the graveyard shift at airport gift shops. He was the author of one of the biggest literary novels of the 20th century; when he died, his family couldn't afford to bury him. Another guy--a teacher of mine from the days when I was a student of writing--drove four hours each way to teach the same class for twenty-seven years. He made something near $3,000 a semester. He was recently let go because the school could take advantage of the rising unemployment rates to hire a younger person for less than $3,000.

I could go on, but it's too depressing.

Why do these college do this? Because they can. Because they have gotten away with it for decades and are even more likely to do so now that the times are hard. Without a union, each one of these professors is up against a Goliath with a bureaucracy that's reminiscent of a third-world government, in-house attorneys and outside law-firms at its disposal, and two or three other PhDs waiting in line for his job in case he dares complain or ask for more money. Even in cases where they know they're breaking federal labor laws, the colleges use their formidable resources to defeat the rare individual who's foolish enough to complain.

Aren't the heads of these colleges ashamed of the exploitation? Wouldn't they want to do the right thing even if they don't have to?

I've asked many of them these questions, especially recently. One of them was a former peace corps volunteer. Their answers are short and scripted: "Of course we want to do the right thing; but only when possible." His colleague, another dean, lamented openly the fact that out of every professor on their payroll, there was one who could not be let go or forced to work for half her usual salary because that one, unfortunately, had a contract. Not that anyone's unhappy with the professor's work, mind you. They just don't like paying more than they have to.

Palmam qui meruit ferat--Let whoever earns the palm bear it. It's one of those phrases that universities like to carve into the stone facades of their libraries and research facilities. Only it's quite likely that around the colleges you and I all know or have heard of, the person who's bearing the palm isn't really the one who's earned it.