The work horses: The plight of adjunct faculty at WU

“I’m going to do something really embarrassing.” He hesitates for a moment, gazes downward, and slides his phone across the table. His bank statement occupies the screen. “I have, like, 52 bucks in my checking account.”

He sighs and looks at me with tired eyes. He has come straight from teaching three back-to-back sections of Writing 1. His name is Erik Strobl, an adjunct professor at Washington University.

Strobl came to Washington University in 2008 as a Ph.D. student studying 20th-century British literature. Now a Ph.D. candidate and professor for three Writing 1 sections, Strobl makes $26,000 per year. And Strobl is not alone.

Adjuncts make up 32 percent of Danforth faculty members, and that 32 percent makes only 2 percent of all compensation doled out by the University.

“Do your students know?” I ask.

“They know if and when I tell them,” Strobl says. “I joke that my students assume that I’m grading their papers in some high-backed leather chair with a snifter of Port. I think that students assume that every professor here is compensated equally, and they’re not.”

I ask if this is a problem specific to Wash. U.

“It’s everywhere,” Strobl says. “There are a lot of institutions that have…75-percent adjunct faculty. Washington University is about 1/3. Better in a relative sense, but still not good. Especially given the resources we have.”

As Strobl continues talking, I begin to realize the problem stems from a cultural shift that in the world of education that has, as a result, thrown adjuncts into such a dysfunctional world. “I don’t know how many times people have been sold on the educational experience when you come to college,” Strobl says. “With its beautiful dorms and new gym and rock climbing walls and a new building and everything else. But that used to just be called an education, and because you’ve got all this new stuff, you start getting the executive assistant to the interim associate dean to sharpening pencils. There are more administrators on this campus than there are professors. It makes you question the priorities of the school.”

Three days after meeting with Strobl, I sit down with Christopher Boehm in the Danforth University Center. It is Labor Day, and the irony is not lost on me. Boehm is sporting a gray trucker cap that outlined a distinctive farmer’s tan along his cheeks. He came to Washington University in 2003 for his master’s degree, completing his Ph.D. by 2012. In the fall of 2011, after his funding ran out, Boehm began working as an adjunct, teaching various literature and writing classes, and continued teaching until this semester.

Boehm has moved back home to Shelbyville, Ill., to begin a construction company with his father and brother.

“It’s a kind of testament to where we are in academia,” says Boehm. “Why would somebody with a Ph.D. in literature go and work a difficult manual labor job? And the answer, in part, is that I get to do it with my family, but the other answer to that is there was no future, no full-time living, in academia, for me. And that’s the result of this sort of systemic exploitation of teaching labor on college campuses.”

In one year, Washington University pays $6.5 million in general legal fees, and only $3.8 million to all adjunct professors.

“They see things in terms of business,” Boehm says. “They don’t necessarily see or think about the mission of education. This is the place where you’re supposed to be able to believe we can be a better society. And when you have an exploitation of the labor force here, the people whose job it is to sort of inspire the next generation of thinkers and doers of the world, it’s really unfortunate.”

I sit across from Boehm, staring down from the second floor of the DUC at the students studying below.

“Why do people keep falling into this administrative trap?” I ask.

“This is a job that people do because they’re passionate about, they got into it because they want to inspire people,” Boehm says. “They devote their lives to developing better thinkers, and that passion is being exploited. And that’s a really nasty thing.”

I walked out of the library and back home, ashamed to have gone so long unaware of the problem at hand. I think of Boehm’s parting words.

“There’s something even more nefarious about it when it happens in a place that’s supposed to be mission-driven,” Boehm said. “This isn’t a for-profit institution, it’s not supposed to be a for-profit institution, and yet they’re turning out about 210 million in profit each year. I can’t believe that we can’t pay all of our teaching labor at Washington University a living.”

Erik Strobl won’t know until Thanksgiving if he will have work for spring semester, but the top 16 administrators at Wash. U. will have made an average of $441,000 by the end of the fiscal year. Christopher Boehm will continue working construction in Illinois with his father and brother, making more money whilst staying closer to home. It will be the first time in 28 years he has not spent the year in a classroom setting.

With the year still young and negotiations ongoing, there is hope for adjuncts, but that hope is contingent upon the student body’s willingness to effect change. Remember the next time you go from General Chemistry to Writing 1, the professors taking command of each class are not seen as equal to older faculty members in the University’s eyes. If they are equal in yours, read this article again, and let’s take a stand.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the University pays $6.5 million in general legal fees. The article previously stated that the University pays $6.5 million in legal fees to fight the adjunct union, which is inaccurate. Student Life apologizes for the error.

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Alex SiegmanComment