Op-ed Submission: Wash. U. must turn attention toward underpaid adjuncts

Erik Strobl | College Writing Instructor

After years of earning negative press as “the nation’s least economically diverse top college,” Washington University has recognized that increasing socioeconomic diversity is both integral to fulfilling its mission and good for its student body. We laud the chancellor and provost’s push to double the number of low-income undergraduates receiving Pell Grants (the standard measure of underprivileged college students) for its noble aims. Because Wash. U. and elite schools like it are stepping stones on the path of upward economic mobility, they should be accessible to smart, qualified people who benefit from that mobility the most.

Chancellor Wrighton knows this personally; a 2015 Post-Dispatch editorial quotes his belief in Wash. U.’s “important responsibility to serve talented people, independent of their background,” saying, “I’ve lived the life I’d like to encourage for other people.”

That’s a tall order, though, considering his own historical luck. The editorial explains that “a year’s in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public university averaged less than $400 (about $2,580 in 2015 dollars)” when he was an undergraduate, and rightly points out that Wash. U.’s current lofty “status was won at the expense of expanding financial aid to more low- and middle-income students. Given that history, the university’s chancellor, Mark Wrighton, might not have been able to attend the very college he now heads.”

I feel that irony every time I step into my College Writing classroom. You’re not very likely to qualify for low-income assistance as a student here, but the odds get pretty good if you’re an adjunct professor. And if you teach at a university in 2016, you probably are an adjunct: About 75 percent of instructors nationally are classified as adjuncts, compared to 40 years ago, when the numbers were flipped and Chancellor Wrighton’s “first job out of graduate school was as an assistant professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

That’s all but unheard of today, as tenure-track academic jobs were converted to contingent positions—“gigs,” Wash. U.’s lawyer calls them—to save money. This race-to-the-bottom mentality runs contrary to Washington University’s values, and so does the compensation model that goes with it.

While Henry Ford famously created the American middle class by paying his employees enough to buy the cars they made, Wash. U. adjuncts can’t hope to pay Wash. U. tuition, and rich universities turn to low-paying jobs prevents academia from being the means to a better life for teachers and their families. A prospective undergrad from a household headed by a Wash. U. adjunct teaching full time—four fall semester classes and four more in the spring—is eligible for a low-income Pell Grant. In fact, that breadwinner would have to teach more than 11 courses per academic year at the university’s proposed rate—nearly full time and a half—to NOT be Pell Grant eligible; that is, to be middle-class.

It’s good to finally see socioeconomic diversity among Washington University students—that means Wash. U. is helping low-income smart people. It’s equally deplorable, though, to see so much socioeconomic diversity among Washington University faculty—that means Wash. U. is creating low-income smart people. We know that attending Washington University should be a path out of poverty; let’s hope administration learns that teaching here shouldn’t be a path into it.

Chancellor Wrighton, the best way to encourage a life like yours for others is to stop paying your adjunct faculty poverty wages.

Washington University administration hasn’t proposed anything close in a year of bargaining. Wash. U. has one of the largest endowments in the nation, yet denies adjunct faculty livable wages. Adjuncts, students, staff and allies have teamed up with the Fight for $15 movement and will walk out of classes on April 14 to protest current working conditions unless administration agrees to a fair contract. Please join us in front of Olin Library at noon and show your support as we rally for policies that prioritize students and their instructors.