How for-profit thinking undermines teachers

The flipside of back to school for students is back to work for the teachers who fill the classrooms of colleges and universities throughout San Antonio — an apropos reminder for a college guide issue that tails the Labor Day holiday. We tend to view college campuses as ivory towers cut off from the everyday realities of the field, the factory floor, and the office cubicle. Yet in the last 30 years, the same forces of privatization that have restructured health care have likewise reshaped higher education, giving rise to teacher, staff, and student-led movements to recognize college campuses for what they are: workplaces. And while public institutions, like the Alamo Colleges or the UT and A&M systems, are not-for-profit enterprises in the way insurance companies are (or their higher-ed counterparts like University of Phoenix), colleges and universities have been increasingly subject to a corporate logic that jeopardizes the mission of accessible public education by emphasizing profit and cost-savings through tuition hikes and cuts to program budgets, wages, and student services.

One of the most visible strategies for corporatizing public higher education has been the widespread casualization of teaching labor across the spectrum from community colleges to research institutions. Part of larger global patterns seen since the 1970s, “casualization” means the increase of profits for corporate heads via the creation of permanently temporary conditions for workers — think the 39-hour, temporary-contract, benefit-free “part-time” job. The casualization of higher education is evident in the fact that, whereas 35 years ago 75 percent of college teachers were full time with job security, those statistics are now reversed. According to statistics compiled by the American Federation of Teachers, if you are taking four courses this semester, roughly three of those four will be taught by someone who has an advanced degree (or is on the road to one) but who has no long-term job security, no benefits, no office for meeting with students, and oftentimes no academic freedom to choose course texts or design syllabi.

Locally, these statistics are fortunately better, but still paint a sobering picture. While hard data on employment categories is hard to come by, instructors at three different Alamo Colleges campuses report that the full- to part-time ratio of teachers at Alamo Colleges is about 50-50, as described by Belinda Roman, the faculty senate president at Palo Alto College.

The rationale behind this greater reliance on part-time “flexible” teaching labor, not just here in San Antonio but around the United States, is brutishly economic. Staffing courses via adjuncts, lecturers, graduate students, and other non-tenured instructors means more student-enrollment dollars for far less in labor costs. As stated by David Katakalos, an adjunct at St. Philip’s College, “We hear, ‘You guys are the ones who are the bargain; you’re the money makers.’” Exactly how much of a bargain? “I would say we make half to a third of what full-timers make,” he tells me.

Trying to attach a dollar value to his claim, I ask how this would compute as an hourly wage. Katakalos pulls out his calculator, and we start with the going rate for part-timers at his campus — $2,200 per course taught — then divide by the number of course hours on the books — 55 — for an hourly wage of $40. Sounds pretty good, until I remember that 55 hours per semester comes to about 3.5 hours of work each week for a 16-week semester: 3 hours in the classroom per week, plus just shy of a half hour extra. As a college teacher myself, I can attest that 3.5 hours per week vastly underestimates the time and effort required to teach even one course. When you factor in prep time, student interactions, email, and grading, a bare minimum of 10-15 hours is typical, with 20 or more hours not uncommon during some grading-heavy weeks. A more reasonable hourly wage, then, for someone with an advanced degree but off the tenure track? Try $6.88-$13.75, depending on how often you decide to actually prepare for lecture, grade some papers, or linger after class to answer those pesky student questions.

To get closer to a living wage, many adjuncts will become “freeway flyers,” piecing together courses at different campuses to cobble together a full teaching load. Katakalos, for instance, works both at St. Phillip’s and at Sanford Brown, a for-profit institution, picking up five, six, or even seven classes per semester to make ends meet. But as SAC adjunct Gerald Davey reports, even a full load — meaning all likelihood a 50-60 hour workweek — nets only $23,000-$24,000 a year at adjunct rates. “With no benefits, no retirement, no paid sick leave,” Davey reminds me. For this reason, most part-timers do not attempt to adjunct as their main source of income; to do so would be impossible. How do adjuncts on the piecework-teaching circuit deal with the no-benefits thing? Katakalos chuckles dryly at my question. “Try to stay healthy: avoid risk-taking behaviors. That’s what you do. Knock on wood, I’ve never missed a class because of poor health. But that’s not true of everybody.”

Like Davey, for example, who developed cancer this previous summer and was forced to pay out of pocket to buy into college-offered health insurance plans. Davey knows firsthand the kinds of injustices experienced by this “new faculty majority.” An adjunct at SAC with a PhD in Mass Communication, more than 20 years of teaching experience and numerous teaching awards under his belt, Davey in 2008 revealed to local and national media that SAC administrators had asked adjuncts signed up to teach 12 credit hours — entitling them to benefits as full-timers — to sign forms waiving that entitlement.

Yet, under the current push to model colleges and universities after corporations, there is tremendous incentive to substitute as much adjunct labor as possible for tenured and tenure-track positions. “If they could do it, they would,” says Davey. “That’s the for-profit model, what the online colleges use. Effectively, all their faculty are adjunct faculty. The long-term consequences of that are horrifying. It’s a kind of systematic abuse, the consequences of which nobody is really willing to think about.” For Davey, the long-term implications of this system are global in scope. “At the very same time `that we’re creating a system of cheap teaching` we’re competing or supposed to be competing globally, in terms of increasing the number of advanced degrees. And, at the same time, not providing any support for that and depending on people who cannot make ends meet to teach `the students`.”

When adjuncts hurt, students hurt. Why hold office hours if your job requires 20 hours of work per week and you’re only getting paid for 3.5 of them? Or when your office is “a bullpen with half a dozen computers,” as Katakalos puts it. Casualization of higher ed is linked to a gutting of public education, in which state budget cuts are loaded onto the backs of students by raising tuitions outside the reach of more disadvantaged students and by slashing the wages and benefits of college staff — workers whose labor (cleaning classrooms and hallways and answering phones and staffing offices) keeps colleges and universities in business.

As Roman puts it, the big question on the table now is whether higher education is ultimately a public good or a for-profit commodity — whether, or to what extent, the for-profit model serves the practices of critical thinking necessary to the creation of more democratic and just social institutions. “Education is not just a process of input-output,” she says. “Its impacts may not be realized until much later. To measure that is very difficult. Student-in student-out, tuition-in tuition-out, misses the point of education. It’s about gaining `job` skills, yes, but it’s also a growth process in a lot of ways. In this country, the economic model we have is so much driven by profit. But there’s other ways to measure profit than money. Isn’t there?”

Solutions to the casualization of higher ed are hard to come by in a climate of budget crisis, not to mention in the historical context of Texas as a right-to-work state that does not recognize the right of teachers to unionize. But the collective efforts of an actively engaged faculty and staff are necessary to preserve access to a quality public education for students. The solution was spelled out more simply on the back of my graduate-student employee union t-shirt: Educate! Agitate! Organize! •

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