Is Your Professor on Medicaid?


Is Your Professor on Medicaid?

When I graduated from Colgate, I did not imagine that I would spend at least three years teaching here; I certainly did not imagine that as a professor at Colgate I would rely on Medicaid for health care and prescriptions. Like most graduates, I didn’t know what my career would be, but after five years I returned to Colgate as an Olive B. O’Connor fellow in the English department. After that year I returned to be with my spouse who is tenure-track faculty. Many of Colgate’s adjunct faculty are hired because they are married or partnered to a tenure-track faculty member, often after having applied unsuccessfully for staff positions, as was the case for me.  

As a student, I would not have believed there were adjunct faculty at Colgate (that is, professors paid on a per-class basis who are ineligible for benefits and whose contracts are semester-by-semester). When I learned what adjunct faculty is and that across the country adjuncts are increasingly being relied upon to reduce spending on faculty salaries, I was grateful that, as I believed, by attending Colgate I had avoided participating in this denigration of teachers’ compensation and job security. The community college where my father taught for 25 years steadily replaced its tenured and tenure-track faculty with adjunct faculty through a process of denying tenure to assistant professors, not renewing tenure lines and incentivizing tenured professors to retire early. Learning this, it’s unsurprising that there is a national movement to improve the pay and status of adjunct professors. And yet, at Colgate, even those of us who are adjuncts are insulated from this movement and its message. 

Unlike many colleges, Colgate is not seeking to increase its reliance on adjunct faculty, and there are a number of reasons for this. For one, Colgate can afford not to; its $865 million endowment enables it to weather financial uncertainties and grow without impoverishing its faculty. More importantly, it cannot afford to: tenure-track faculty are an important datum for the all-powerful U.S. News and World Report rankings and something students and their parents expect for the cost of tuition. Thus it is not widely-discussed that Colgate hires adjuncts. But make no mistake: much as Colgate has contracted its food service to the notoriously low-paying Sodexo Corporation, Colgate hires adjunct faculty, many of us teaching in the Core Curriculum, the diamond in Colgate’s liberal arts tiara and the heart of a Colgate education.

In the United States, adjuncts are paid, on average, $2,700 per class, and Colgate’s adjunct rate is significantly higher at $6,630. Many unjust things are justified by comparison with even less just things; we should not accept the national average as an excuse for Colgate’s policy. Faculty are promised and then reminded that the cost of living in Hamilton is low, yet I could not afford to live here without the financial support of my spouse, and that low cost of living reflects the dearth of other jobs available. Effectively, I cannot leave my job at Colgate because, as badly-paid and insecure as it is, it’s more than I can make elsewhere. Colgate tuition is $60,145; the new hockey rink will cost at least $37 million, according to the Colgate Raiders’ website. reports that Jeff Herbst earned $459,000 as of 2012. The tuition is not a red herring: the money is there but is being distributed in ways that create “haves” and “have-nots” in this paradise of privilege where speeches by

former presidents are free to attend. 

Consider a 75-minute class as a measurable unit of the Colgate education. It represents about $200 of tuition money per student carrying a full load. For a class of 18, that represents $3,600 in

tuition money (that money represents everything at Colgate: staff and administrative salaries, facilities, events, etc).  The portion of that $3600 that I earn as an adjunct professor is $221. A new tenure track assistant professor receives $466 of that in salary, plus the value of health, retirement and other benefits, for a total of roughly $600. The average full professor at Colgate receives $900 in salary, $1176 in total compensation, for the same teaching.

What explains this difference? Do adjunct professors have inferior degrees, less teaching experience, fewer publications? None of these are true. While my terminal degree, an MFA, is not the peer of a PhD, it is equally suitable for teaching in a university, and several tenured faculty at Colgate hold this as their highest degree. Many adjunct faculty hold PhDs and many, like me, have taught for a decade or more and publish their research and writing widely and prestigiously. We work as hard in the classroom as our colleagues who earn more and receive institutional support for their

publications and research. Although faculty service is not stipulated in our contracts, we are informally required to attend and contribute to meetings and other non-academic work. And because we are committed to our students and community, we often end up participating in many other service-equivalent activities not reflected in our pay. The real difference in adjunct and non-adjunct faculty is in how we are hired: candidates hired through departmental job searches have access to the salary and benefits according their position, as do full-time staff. Only adjunct faculty are ineligible for full remuneration of their work. 

A hallmark of adjunct work is explicitly-announced job insecurity from the administration semester to semester. And while it is never formally advertised that adjunct faculty shall not be hired for more than three classes per year, I have learned at significant personal expense that this is Colgate’s informal rule: four classes is considered full-time work by federal law, and Colgate would be obliged to make adjuncts carrying a four-class load eligible for benefits. In your most disillusioned moment, would you have imagined that Colgate would begrudge a professor a fourth class (at $6,600) so that they could skirt a fundamental labor law? Yet that has happened to me and other adjunct faculty members now teaching at Colgate and is business as usual. 

For many tenure-track faculty, the Colgate salary, so touted for its competitiveness, is severely compromised because their partners are forced to work at a rate far below earning capacity, reducing the couple’s worth precipitously while the situation prevails. For faculty who receive tenure, a case-by-case, backroom negotiation process sometimes occurs by which their adjunct spouses are eased into a new employment status, such as a senior lectureship or “Category 1,” which provides steady employment and benefits for a competitive, but sub-tenure-track salary. But even if this happens to any of us, what is the cost, over, say, five to eight years, to someone who elsewhere could easily earn $40,000 making, at most, $20,000? Not counting raises, benefits and other unavailable assets, at the most conservative, the difference is about equal to the price of a single-family home in Central New York.

This manifestation of inequality has been invisible too long. I ask that you make your voice heard by emailing, calling, writing, or visiting with Doug Hicks, President Herbst, and any other administrations in a position to reconsider the remuneration of adjunct faculty. Ask your parents and alumni to do so. 

What to ask for? Adjuncts are already in a precarious position at Colgate, and it is conceivable that the administration might agree to better remuneration policies only to not rehire us under them, effectively firing us. A modest place to start would be for Colgate to provide health insurance to all adjunct faculty regardless of class load. This would mean Colgate could truly hire its adjuncts based on institutional need, a policy it currently espouses, rather than capping the classes we teach in order to avoid paying benefits, or hiring only to fulfill contracts if a minimum number of courses-per-year were instituted. This would slightly incentivize Colgate to grant its adjuncts more classes, because the cost to Colgate of our health insurance would be proportionately lower the more classes we taught: we would be a better deal to the university the more we worked, as opposed to now. 

Silence is often the enemy of the most simple and available kinds of progress. If you are a faculty or staff member, I hope you will stand in solidarity with your adjunct faculty colleagues. If you are a student, I hope you will not assume that all your professors enjoy financial stability or institutional support. Some of us are delaying buying houses and having children because we don’t make enough money, even while our partners, like us, are professors at Colgate. Some of us get health services at Planned Parenthood with Medicaid cards because the cost of buying health insurance from Colgate through our spouses, nearly $5,000 a year, is too high. You have a great deal of power at Colgate, which would abruptly cease to exist without your tuition. Colgate demands that you respect your professors; demand that Colgate respect your professors too.