Professor, Can You Spare a Dime?
Brianne Bolin has taught English at Columbia College in Chicago for 10 years. She also often buys her groceries with food stamps. She is on Medicaid. Perhaps worst of all, she lives with constant uncertainty about how much work she’ll have in the following semester, as classes can be added or taken away without her say.
At the end of last year, however, Bolin got an unexpected break. After I wrote an article about her for Elle magazine, strangers began to send her donations. They flooded her, arriving via email, in her faculty mailbox, and at the college’s address. Some were substantial, like the check for $5,000. Bolin shared some of the money, she told me, with two other in-need adjunct professor friends she met online, both mothers like her.
Today, 75 percent of the academic workforce is contingent, meaning that those teachers are part-time, adjunct, or not on a tenure track. In contrast, 40 years ago, 24 percent of academics were adjuncts and 45 percent were either tenured or on the tenure track. As has been widely reported over the past few months, many exquisitely trained and educated teachers are doing the same teaching work as tenured professors, often have the same credentials, and are still financially desperate.
Her own bleak situation, and the unexpected comforts from strangers, convinced Bolin that she needed to create something more formal. Along with two friends—a former adjunct named Joe Fruscione, and Kat Jacobsen, who currently teaches at a few colleges—she put together a non-profit devoted to aiding impoverished professors by way of cash donations. To conjure the financially precarious situation, they called it PrecariCorps, and set up a website to solicit funds.
So far, the trio has received 28 small donations and 10 requests for funding. PrecariCorps has given two adjuncts money for rent, and another funds to cover her car insurance. (Bolin, Fruscione, and Jacobsen draw no salaries.)
The three hoped to help others, but they also created PrecariCorps to draw attention to their profession’s plight. After all, adjuncts these days may be more likely than their students to be living in basement apartments and subsisting on ramen and Tabasco. In my reporting I’ve spoken to an adjunct mom who waitresses at a local family restaurant on the weekends (and hopes none of her students sit down at her tables). There is a medievalist on Medicaid. Famously, there was Mary-Faith Cerasoli, the “homeless professor,” who lived in her car. I got in touch with Cerasoli last year when she went on a hunger strike to draw attention to faculty poverty. (She went off strike after six days, when an aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called to help her work things out.)
PrecariCorps is scrappy, like a DIY benevolent association, but it is also part of a larger movement defending adjuncts, including sizable groups like Adjunct Action, founded by the Service Employees International Union (which includes hospital workers and janitors). There is the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and a group called New Faculty Majority. In February, during National Adjunct Walkout Day, thousands of adjuncts, general faculty, and students walked out of their classes on both coasts in a plea for fair wages and better working conditions.
When confronted about the difficulty of the adjuncts’ situation, university administrators often claim that they are in a bind, citing budgetary shortfalls that make contingent positions necessary. They note that the public has demanded greater accountability: America’s students and parents are angry that education costs have gone up exponentially. A few years ago, a raft of articles and studies found that tuition at colleges and universities was rising faster than inflation—and pinned the blame on the fact that public universities had been hiring twice as many administrators as teachers, creating sprawling bureaucracies.
In an attempt to help these vulnerable teachers, a burgeoning adjuncts’ rights movement has pushed local legislatures to impose binding contracts on state colleges. The groups want universities to ensure health and retirement benefits for adjunct faculty who work at least part-time. In January, the Colorado legislature introduced a bill that sought to end the “two-tier faculty system in Colorado’s community colleges.” The bill was voted down by a Republican majority.
While Bolin, Fruscione, and Jacobsen support these efforts, they can’t help but take a more gonzo approach. They say they will soon start attending academic conferences with knit hats in hand, beseeching the most comfortable of the tenure-track faculty and academic directors for donations. They will urge their more comfortable colleagues to open their wallets in solidarity with the worker-bee adjuncts.
Alissa Quart is the Editor in Chief of EHRP, a journalist, and the author of three non-fiction books, Branded, Hothouse Kids, and Republic of Outsiders, as well as the poetry book Monetized.
Co-published with Pacific Standard.