Healthcare for Adjuncts

It seems at Wesleyan the only time anyone really cares about a professor’s tenure status is during evaluations. “Does he have tenure?” “Yeah.” “Oh, then fuck this.” And the student crumples up the evaluation and leaves. Well, the problem is when professors aren’t even in the running for tenure. Visiting professors and adjuncts are not on the tenure track. Colleges see them as temporary employment for temporary shortages and their treatment reflects their evident disposability. As such, they tend to face more job insecurity, less benefits, less academic freedom, considerably less pay and often greater workloads than many other tenure-track professors. Basically, they are the unsung heroes of academia.

One enterprising adjunct at Ivy Tech sought to throw a benefit concert, using the proceeds to establish a safety-net fund for adjuncts who are mostly uninsured. And then she was promptly told to stop it. And then she was fired. Inside Higher Ed reports:

Then Meadows received e-mail messages from college administrators complaining about the tickets, which identified the name “College Relief Fund.” Ivy Tech officials complained that the word “college” violated the pledge by Meadows not to link Ivy Tech to the concert — so she blacked out the word “college,” leaving the tickets labeled only as “Relief Fund.” But more e-mail messages arrived, including one telling her to “cease and desist” and in a meeting with administrators, Meadows said that the she was told by administrators that the concert had become “a PR nightmare” by implying that Ivy Tech doesn’t treat its adjuncts well.

After more meetings, and fearing that she was unfairly being labeled a troublemaker, Meadows agreed to call off the concert. Within a few weeks, despite earlier receiving good indications about her future, Meadows received a certified letter from the college saying that her contract would not be renewed. Under her contract, the college did not have to specify a reason for non-renewal, and it didn’t.

Martin Benjamin, professor emeritus of philosophy at Michigan State University and chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of Philosophers, said he was intrigued by the case as soon as Meadows told him about it. So he requested copies of all the documents and e-mail exchanges. After reviewing them, he wrote to the Ivy Tech chancellor this week to ask for reasons why Meadows is no longer employed.

“It’s a prima facie case that her rights may have been violated,” Benjamin said. He said he was waiting for the Ivy Tech response, and that he couldn’t prove a link between the concert and the non-renewal, but that the timing raised questions. “It looked like she’d been doing an excellent job, had the esteem of her colleagues, good teaching evaluations, and it was very surprising that she would not be given a contract,” he said. “It seems like everything they asked her to do, she did.”

Richard Schneirov, a professor of history at Indiana State University and president of the Indiana AAUP, has also been looking into the case and talking to faculty members who, because of what happened to Meadows, do not want to speak out. Based on the interviews he had conducted and the documents he reviewed, “there is no doubt” that Meadows lost her position because she tried to raise money to help adjuncts, he said.

Whether or not she was fired because of her actions is beside the point. The point here is that adjuncts are treated like crap by colleges and Wesleyan is not necessarily exempt. The poor treatment of adjuncts is a problem that has permeated higher education from top to bottom.

I’m sharing this story because it upsets me greatly to see how many of my favorite professors are thrown away year after year because Wesleyan felt they were disposable. I’m discomforted knowing that many of my professors who work as hard as any other are driving around New England teaching at multiple colleges just to make ends meet.

While Wesleyan isn’t as offensive as Ivy Tech, I think we should all be thinking a little bit more about how our professors and professors everywhere are treated. Tenure is a weird, complicated process which does serve to protect the welfare and freedom of some professors, but there should be some guarantee of security for all professors, no matter their tenure status. And I believe firmly that health care should be a basic right, if not ideally guaranteed nationally, then at least institutionally. Just because this is how it is and how it’s always been done doesn’t mean this is how it ought to be.

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