by Katie Meyer
Last week, a handful of Rose Hill’s adjunct professors spent the day without food. Their cause? As longtime anthropology adjunct Alan Trevithick explained it, the fast was part of an ongoing campaign that aims to “make visible the poor working conditions, low pay, and non-existent benefits of adjunct…faculty.”
These professors, Trevithick noted, commonly work multiple jobs with minimal security. And yet they make up a clear “majority of higher-ed faculty in almost all colleges and universities in the U.S., including Fordham.”
At Fordham alone, there are about 650 adjuncts. These professors are part-time (at Fordham they are only allowed to teach a maximum of two courses, or 18 hours per week). They are also, by definition, untenured and must renegotiate their contracts at the end of each academic year.
Trevithick and many of the rest of the participants in the Fast for Faculty movement tweeted pictures of themselves throughout the day holding up signs expressing solidarity and hashtagging #FastForFaculty. And they say the conditions they are fighting against constitute a crisis.
“The pay is extremely low…less than one third per class of what full-time faculty receive to teach the same class. And there are no benefits. There’s no job security,” Trevithick said. “Basically it is part time employees without benefits who are de facto full-time employees.”
And, he said, the problems are not limited to any single school or type of college or university. Although Fast for Faculty is a movement specific to Jesuit institutions, it is just one offshoot of a more general movement called Faculty Forward which, in turn, is organized under the umbrella of the Service Employees International Union.
All things considered, it is a large movement. Even the specifically Jesuit offshoot that encompasses Tuesday’s fast stretches across the nation, with chapters popping up everywhere from Chicago Loyola to St. Louis University to Georgetown.
But breadth notwithstanding, the movement has seen some difficulty, particularly with organization. At Fordham, although the 650 or so adjuncts currently employed by the school make up a significant percentage of the faculty, you would be hard-pressed to tell based on the fast. When asked how many participated, Trevithick (who is one of Fordham’s more active adjunct-rights activists) said he wasn’t even sure.
“I really have no idea, actually,” he said. “Maybe five or six, maybe more.”
But, he explained, that low number has less to do with disinterest in protesting, and more with the challenges of consolidating a fragmented group like adjunct faculty.
“One of the big problems with adjuncts, certainly, is that they’re hard to organize because they have so many different schedules,” he said. “They’re often on campus at many different times, and then they’ll have to go another job, or another campus or something like that.”
That is not the only difficulty, however.
Another Rose Hill adjunct who participated in the fast said one of her primary concerns is the lack of security that comes with an adjunct position. Though she has taught at Fordham for over five years, she said she is often reluctant to speak up about poor adjunct treatment. For this article, she declined to share her name or department because she feared any negative remarks may put her job at stake.
But, she said, that does not mean she accepts the current state of affairs for adjuncts around the country.
“The problems involved — it’s financial, but it’s also time. Being a good professor takes preparation,” she said. “That’s important. And you can’t give it your best if you’re working multiple other jobs, because there just isn’t time.”
She herself has four different jobs, including her two-day-a-week Fordham contract. But she said she’s actually more fortunate than a lot of her colleagues.
“My field has a good number of practical applications, so if I can’t find a job in academia for a while, there are other options,” she explained. “Not everyone has that.”
Sometimes it is obvious that people are struggling, she said. She has known some professors who routinely come to school hungry, and food stamps, she noted, are fairly common. That level of poverty within the academic community, she said, is what disconcerts her most.
“I knew I wouldn’t be wealthy when I went into academia. But I’m going to work until I die…and that’s terrifying,” she said. “There’s no savings.”
Trevithick agreed with those sentiments.
“This is a situation that has building to its present crisis for forty years,” he said. “It’s changed higher ed very much and it’s very bad not just for faculty, but for students as well.”
He remains fairly hopeful however, particularly with this Jesuit-based approach to adjunct rights gaining some traction. Jesuits in particular, he reasoned, might be a little more receptive to arguments for higher pay and better benefits.
“They should have a kind of moral motivation to take us seriously,” he said. “It’s a pretty straightforward set of ideas we’re trying to get across. You know, it’s just a set of notions about social justice and job equality and so forth.”
The anonymous professor, for her part, said she and many others would happily settle for just a decent livelihood.
“We’re not asking for tons and tons of money,” she said. “We’re just asking for a living wage. Any worker deserves that.”