Friday, January 30, 2015

Rocking the Economic Boats of Higher Education

In his essay "Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer," Robert B. Reich discusses the changing composition of the American workforce, groups it into three categories--routine producers, in-person servers, and symbolic analysts--and describes their past and possibly future trajectories as three boats; the first two categories are falling and the third rising.  It is within this essay that he visits the decline of unions and the subsequent rise of executive salaries. These factors are not unrelated and I believe the second labor uprising in America may be the only way to overturn the boats of Reich's apt metaphor and construct a new and better way forward.

Reich reports the steady decline in union membership by young working men without college degrees from "more than 40%" in the 1950s to "less than 20%" by the end of the 1980s.  More recently, according to The Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the rate of union membership in 2013 was 11.3%.  This total includes workers regardless of gender while Reich's data is for males only.  However, even with the added boost of all workers counted the percentage still has fallen drastically.  Growing up as a child in West Virginia and listening to presentations about Mary Harris "Mother" Jones and the dramatic battles to unionize the coal fields, I never dreamed I would live to see these struggles rejoined.  Jobs disappear, salaries dwindle, and American workers either suffer from underpayment or unemployment.

Now we witness the corporatization of nearly every institution in America.  (For a multi-decade breakdown of the economic and political assault on American higher education, check out this fine post from The Homeless Adjunct:  "How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps.")  Instead of seeing college and university students as, well, students, they are being considered, marketed to and sometimes referred to as consumers.  Colleges and universities pay big bucks to develop a marketable "brand" that can be easily packaged and sold at recruitment fairs to the eager high school seniors and their families, as well as non-traditional students via on-line, streaming, and even television ads.  Higher education administrators schmooze like corporate CEOs.  Amenities get top billing along with sometimes faked diversity in mailers.  Where does education and the working conditions of faculty providing the educational product fall in the budget?  Where do the people who keep those glossy magazine spaces glowing and livable get allotted a place? I'm afraid we've fallen out of contention.  We are not, for the most part, trendy and ad-worthy.  We are, however, all key factors in why students stay.  The kind custodian who cleaned my freshman dorm floor had far more interaction with me and much more impact on my living conditions, checking on my friends and I, striking up conversations, than any administrator.  Plus she cleaned the toilets.  I do not mean that derogatorily.  She was a more highly visible face of the institution than a president I saw only at formal functions, photo ops, and in the school paper.  The professors who called me when I suddenly disappeared from class during a sudden and vile bout of flu didn't just teach me English and music history, but that I was a person who mattered to them.  Were any of us visible to those at the higher echelons other than as props to marketability and good PR when we achieved sports, artistic, or academic accolades worth headlines?

Reich returns to the history of industry and compensation:  "At midcentury, the compensation awarded to top executives and advisers of the largest of America's core corporations could not be grossly out of proportion to that of low-level production workers.  It would be unseemly for executives who engaged in highly visible rounds of bargaining with labor unions, and who routinely responded to government requests to moderate prices, to take home wages and benefits wildly in excess of what other Americans earned." While his essay is written specifically about industry, it can be applied also to higher education.  How many college and university presidents walk the halls and sidewalks of their campuses, getting to know the students, staff, and faculty who comprise their domain?  How many students would recognize their administrators?  These mythical folk seem to move in a sphere beyond the average campus citizen.  Once I received an invitation for the Homecoming Ball.  The ticket price was $100+ --I laughed and tossed it in the recycle bin.  Who sends their alumni and adjuncts mailers like that in this economy? One example of being completely out of touch.  When the people in charge have little to no idea of the day-to-day reality of those working for them, when they do not have to deal with all those groups face-to-face on a regular basis, these people, WE, become objects, mere factors in a budget to be treated as numbers to tug and arrange.  We cease to be people with lives, families, and futures.  This is what, I feel, Reich was getting at in the previous quote:  without a constant reminder of how a CEO's life and salary compares to and affects those under them, the distortion becomes not only possible, but highly likely.

Reich closes the essay with the following statement - "The salaries and benefits of America's top executives, and many of their advisers and consultants, have soared to what years before would have been unimaginable heights, even as those of other Americans have declined."  We now live this reality.
This chart, produced from a survey by The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources in 2012-13 shows the incredible MEDIAN amounts for administrative salaries in American higher education:  "Administrators in Higher Education Salaries."  The highest median salary, with a PhD is for a CEO with $431,575 per year.  While the Adjunct Project shows a wide range of salaries based on location and degree, the median per class is $2, 987.  Multiply this by the number of courses taught and it would take roughly ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR, that's 144, classes to equal the median pay of the highest administrator.  Four to five classes, if combined across schools is a lot of work for one term!  I taught six in the fall for two schools.  I have five now because some did not run and were cancelled.  To be slightly more realistic, approximately thirteen courses per year would give an adjunct a $40,000 income IF that adjunct could secure the median adjunct rate of $2,987.

This is where we have come to in most of American higher education.  Across the country, interest in unions surges among adjuncts.  We have no other recourse on our own. Alone we are expendable, vulnerable.  Together we can stand up to this tide of disparity.  We can begin the wave that upsets the boats.  We can create an alternative to the untenable future before us, and if we can do it, this can spread to other fields and professions.  We can create a new metaphor for work, perhaps a sustainable one that considers quality of life for everyone, not just those at the top.

Maxine Salary matters

Friday, January 23, 2015

Flipping Some Tables

A few weeks ago, I worked myself into a proper outraged adjunct state to sit down and write a blog post.  It would've been a good one, too, and I already had much of it mapped out in my head as I normally do before I ever sit down at the computer.  Then something happened that made my adjunct anger and the issues I was thinking about seem mightily insignificant:  Eric Garner's killer was not charged though the medical examiner ruled that choking caused that man's death.  This set off a wave of protests worldwide and brought attention back to the Ferguson protests that had never ceased, only slipped from the front pages.  The hashtags signifying #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot blazed into the public consciousness.  Social media filled with shots of marches, die-ins, and public displays of many kinds by folks who could no longer bear in silence the state brutality against black people in America.  College and university students walked out and sounded off--this time no one needed to ask where America's youth were.

From my rural location I watched millions take to the streets.  Then the criticism began.  So very many people hurt and hurting.  I felt there was nothing for me to do.  I wondered about my students from fall who had needed time every class to speak about Mike Brown.  Would someone let them talk now?  Were they shouting yet?  I wanted to.  However, I became acutely aware of speaking FOR others instead of letting them speak.  I did not know what to say and so I simply said nothing here in this space until now.  I used my social media accounts to boost information for demonstrators, to provide facts and figures to rebut those determined to discredit the movement.  I stand with the people in the streets for this cause.  For my students.  For my friends.  For Black Lives.

So much seems wrong in America right now.  I watched citizens get tear-gassed with canisters made in the state where I live.  I saw a child gunned down by police in seconds as he played in a park with a toy.  I saw shooting victims denied care and left to die in the streets.  I saw passersby heckle the demonstrations and hurl hate at them verbally.  This has always been here in America, but now it is out in the open.  The question has become, "What then shall we do about it?"

Keane Badmin TableI say that all of us, activists especially, are called to stand together.  I do not mean that I want to take over any other cause, but that many of our causes are interrelated.  The Fight for 15 living wage crew, the Adjunct Activists, the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender rights, immigrant issues, the missing and murdered students in Mexico, the healthcare workers fighting for rights, the besieged public school teachers--all of these things are the causes of the people NOT the 1%.  We should be side by side.  Together is our strength.  I have seen it shut down the mighty bridges of New York City and the wide, busy highways of Southern California.  We live in a world where someone at Keane University thinks that buying a table for $219,000 for a select few administrative uses instead of spending money to hire permanent faculty (only 257 out of 1,472 are tenure track) or student support staff is perfectly fine.   We live in the world where most of our lives are disposable, with some, such as Black lives, being viewed as even less than others.  Those of us fighting all these separate fights, some of which intersect and compound the difficulties of involved individuals, need each other's support and care.  Together we can make something different, something better than we have ever had.

That is my New Year's challenge:  not to go back to some romanticized past, but to think in new ways and create new things that harm less and benefit more.  It will not be easy but it will be worth it in the end.  The power is with the people, if only we realize it in time.

If anyone gives demonstrators any grief over their revolutionary activities and asks them to calm down and only be peaceful, the following picture is more than useful.  Justified outrage has its place.

What Would Jesus Flip?

I say revive the practice. Maybe even start at Keane, but bring some friends because that one looks heavy.