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Adjuncts Have Fewer Options Than Grad Students at University of Missouri

by Carl Kenney

Adjunct professors are often treated like Walmart employees.

At Walmart, those pulling the strings are most concerned with making money. Consumers flood the retail giant because of   those amazing low prices.

“Always low tuition” is the desired slogan of your favorite university.

Higher education feels more like Wall Street than a community concerned with preparing young people for the future. Education isn’t what it used to be. Early retirement, state cutbacks, bigger stadiums and capital campaigns have become buzzwords that label most colleges and universities.

As an adjunct professor, I often feel like one of those self-checkout machines. What happened to the people who do the hard work of taking money, returning the proper change and stuffing items into a bag  — will that be plastic or paper — as part of the deal that comes with shopping? Are adjunct professors relegated to watching students pay for their education from a self-checkout with as little output as possible?

Is my job to stuff shelves with new students after the former group goes to Blackboard to check out their most recent efforts? I feel like a discount store with low-cost professors pointing in the direction of the customer service area.

“Go to the professor in aisle three for instructions on that,” I feel like murmuring in the middle of every class I teach. “That’s not my department.”

Walmart employees are encouraged to stay in their lane. No, don’t go over there. Stop!

Adjunct professors have few options. They lack a union and other forms of leverage to demand more than the outlandish compensation they receive to assure profitability.

Graduate students are like Target employees.

Graduate students at MU are like the grass on the other side. They are fed up with being mistreated. They are willing to skip class and pick up big signs with statements like “Heck no, we won’t teach no more.”

Graduate students know the deal. They enrolled fully aware that a load would be dumped on their schedule. They considered the benefits related to their decision. They pondered the cost for housing, provisions for childcare and medical benefits before coming to the university.

They had the type of options that made it easier to say no to a job with adequate compensation and benefits. It was part of the negotiation that made it easier to say yes to graduate school. You simply can’t take stuff away after a person has signed his or her name on the dotted line. At Walmart, you suck it in and take what’s given.

Target is a classier option.

Graduate students didn’t suck it in when the university announced it would discontinue their health insurance benefit. The decision to give the benefit back wasn’t enough to absolve the issue. On Wednesday, graduate students will not be showing up for class.

The Forum on Graduate Rights sent a list to university administrators with a deadline for them to respond. Friday’s reversal was not enough to satisfy the group. The can of “whip that behind” has been opened, and MU has some decisions to make.  Don’t be surprised if they take a month to make their point.

MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin has offered to form a task force to address the other concerns of the graduate students. This is the point where finger-pointing and name-calling begins. Graduate students brought their items to the check-out line prepared to place them in the bag of their choice.

They bring the type of punch that gets things done.

No walkout is planned for adjunct professors at the university. They will continue to prepare, teach and grade papers while singing the blues like B.B. King crying “The thrill is gone.”

They receive no benefits for their labor. Many teach because their livelihood is dependent on the low wages they receive for teaching. Some teach for the students. Others do it because they have no option. Many come back because baby needs a new pair of shoes.

As graduate students wave their signs and cry for better treatment, adjunct professors will show up to teach. They will come with no demands for benefits or increased compensation. They won’t complain about the difficulties they face economically. They will come back, over and over again, because they lack the clout needed to bring attention to their place in the corner near the checkout line.

Big business has a way of making profit on the backs of low-wage employees. The consumer benefits from the low-priced education that comes from paying people as if   they’re an afterthought. Who should we blame for treating adjunct professors like Walmart employees?

The consumer wants low prices.

Employees deserve a livable wage, and the boss wants to make as much money as possible. Something has to be sacrificed to make everyone happy.

Syllabus complete. Writing assignments for the next week are in the can. How many students this semester? Eighteen. Check. It’s time to start the semester, and I’m ready to go.

One last note before heading to class.

Don’t forget to support the graduate students on Wednesday. It’s too bad there are no benefits and adequate pay for adjunct faculty.

Thank God I have money to buy baby those new shoes.

Carl Kenney is co-pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and an adjunct professor at the MU School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian. This piece originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian and is used here with permission.

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