The Two Academias: A response to the illusion of upward mobility in higher ed.

(Photo: Psychology Benefits Society, 2015)

By John Palameda, Red Phoenix correspondent, Illinois.

John Palameda is a member of the American Party of Labor, an adjunct professor of English, and President of his local adjunct faculty union.

When I first saw the headline for Amos Dewy’s article “The illusion of upward mobility in higher education,” I was excited to read it. A sober, class analysis of the US university is desperately needed to cut through right wing claims that teaching empathy is brainwashing, and liberal romanticism that sees college as the great separator between themselves and the unwashed masses. Dewy’s headline is an undeniable truth, but there’s more to an argument than the headline.

Unfortunately, in pursuing this analysis, Dewy strayed from actual class analysis and fell into the right wing trap of seeing academia as a monolithic institution, writing about a local community college and Harvard as if they were the same. Dewy also inexcusably takes chief aim at teachers, so-called “elites,” rather than the true academic bourgeoisie — college boards and administrators.

To conduct a true class analysis of universities, we have to establish who these so-called “elites” who teach at college are if we are to undertake a meaningful analysis of academia. It is easy enough to prop up a strawman of a Harvard professor with elbow patches, and I think this is why Dewy used imprecise, non-Marxist terms like “capital elites.” 75% of college professors are not tenure track, and work instead as adjuncts, myself included. What does this mean? Adjuncts are paid hourly (per class), and have contingent, semester to semester contracts. We often get our contract offers the week before the semester. We have no accruing PTO, no retirement benefits, and widely ranging pay. Most adjuncts make nothing over summer and have to file for unemployment; which is denied in some states where college adjuncts are classed together with public school teachers who have a ‘reasonable expectation’ of returning to the classroom in the Fall. Because administrators limit adjunct faculty to part-time course loads, we often work at 2 or 3 institutions, teaching sometimes over 10 classes per semester, to make a living wage. If only a few of our classes are canceled, we need food stamps, gig economy jobs, and Etsy shops to survive. In recent union negotiations, we fought bitterly and won to put just cause into our contract. Up until just a few weeks ago, the college could fire us for no stated reason at all. This is the reality of 75% of college professors. To say that “the professorial class is composed of mostly class privileged elites.” as Dewy does, is simply absurd, and openly false. 

Dewy raises a good point in identifying the lack of diversity in college instructors and the generational aspects of teaching college, but again, comes to the wrong conclusion. It is a topic I discuss with my freshman every semester — why is there such a lack of diversity in staff? Every semester, my diverse, working class students at community college say the same thing — the cost and risk. For many students, getting a masters’ degree in a field that has such bleak career outlooks is not tenable. Thus, the people who do it are often from families of teachers. Who made the stakes for pursuing intellectual fields so high? Who destroyed tenure track full time teaching jobs? Who made it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a master’s degree? Was it the “capital elites” teachers? Or was it a bloated administration and huge president salaries?

College president salaries have been the only salaries in academia that have kept up with the extreme cost, and have even grown faster. Today, the president of the University of Michigan makes over $9 million a year. 25 years ago, they made $350,000 in today’s dollars. Every college teacher has been drilled on corporate “retention” methods, to keep students clearly not meant for college in an endless debt cycle propped up by bloated administrative “support systems.” On top of that, the highest paid workers at most universities are now sports coaches, demonstrating the slow metamorphosis of college into a business.

In short, there are two academias in the US. Dewy, for some reason, decided to conduct a “class analysis” of a caricature of a university professor that is not the reality any more. The US university, like all petty-bourgeois businesses as Marx identified, is being proletarianized and eaten up by the bourgeoisie. In this moment of resurgent fascism, anti-intellectualism, book banning, and the increasing reduction of human life to work and productivity, we have to accurately identify those responsible: it is not some imagined philosophy professor in a sweater vest, but the very real capitalists cutting up departments and increasing tuition while pulling in record profits.

Categories: Editorials, Education, U.S. News

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