Family and friends who know that I have spent much of my adult life earning a B.A. and Ph.D. from two top-ranked universities are surprised to learn that my youngest sibling — who holds a GED, works in retail in Topeka and changes jobs frequently — earns more per year than I do teaching a full load of college classes at multiple institutions in Kansas City.
Between 2003-04 and 2013-14, tuition increased 66 percent at the Kansas City Art Institute and 89 percent at Park University, where I now teach, while the percent of revenue spent on instruction increased only 34 percent at KCAI, and fell 19 percent at Park between 2002-03 and 2013-14. In an era of skyrocketing tuition, which places enormous burdens on students and parents of college-aged children, where do the extra dollars go if not to improve the quality of instruction?
Administrative bloat in higher education is no secret. Over the last 35 years nationwide, top administrators’ pay increased at 3 times the rate of that for faculty. The average salary of CEOs rose by 75 percent at public institutions and 170 percent at private institutions. Many non-tenure-track college teachers live below the poverty line or rely on spouses and family to support their work. Non-tenure-track teachers now make up two-thirds of the faculty on average, up from 21.7 percent in 1969.
Contingent faculty nationwide now realize that earning the highest degrees in their fields won’t help them rise out of poverty unless institutional priorities change. This is why adjuncts (part-time, non-tenure-track faculty) are fighting for a national standard of $15,000 total compensation per course, which factors in the standard salary and benefits package of tenure-track faculty and takes into account other non-instructional duties faculty also perform. Our “Fight for $15K” campaign joins adjuncts with local fast-food workers and others, demanding a national standard of $15 an hour.
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As a new member of the Faculty Forward Kansas City campaign, which is part of the Service Employees International Union, I was elated to feel the energy uniting fast food workers, home-care workers, janitorial staff and adjunct professors at an event hosted by students at Washington University on April 8. Panelists from each group of low-wage workers shared their personal stories and responded to questions from an audience of fellow workers and concerned students.
Never before in my working life have I witnessed people from such disparate professions banding together in large numbers for a common cause. I take heart from these early stirrings of a nationwide movement for a living wage. As a college teacher, I was especially pleased to see the role students are playing to support low-wage workers in their community and at Washington University.
Many students go through college unaware that many of their instructors, like me, are uninsured, have no job security, are subject to last-minute cancellations of classes they’d agreed to teach, and are unable to support themselves on a teaching salary alone.
The issue nevertheless concerns students intimately. By compensating teachers so poorly while students are going into debt, colleges reveal that there’s a shrinking difference between the working conditions students can expect before and after college.
Building on the momentum of National Adjunct Walkout Day in February, Kansas City adjuncts will join other low-wage workers at the Good Jobs and $15 for All Rally and March beginning with a barbecue at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Theis Park.
Naomi Beeman teaches at Park University and the Kansas City Art Institute.