Letter to the editor: What every student should know about the modern university

The Appalachian

College is one of the most thrilling times of your life: a time to learn, discover yourself, and forge lifelong relationships. If this is where your attention is focused, that’s perfectly normal. But it’s absolutely crucial that your generation realize that it is living through an unprecedented—and deeply troubling—moment in the history of higher education.

As Henry Giroux explained in his stirring talk last Thursday, universities—and particularly public universities—are facing an unparalleled attack from politicians, businessmen, and all those who subscribe to the dogma of free-market fundamentalism, commonly known as neoliberalism. This is not your parents’ university. If you want to control your own destiny, you must understand the changes being imposed on college campuses—particularly since those responsible would much rather keep you ignorant:

Many of you are being taught by adjuncts or contingent faculty. They are among the least paid and most overworked people on this campus. Previously, college professors generally held tenure-track positions, promising them job security once they had demonstrated competence in teaching and research. But in an age when public institutions are viewed as financial burdens rather than as investments in the future, these jobs are seen as too costly. Instead, universities prefer to hire adjuncts, the academic equivalent of temp workers. They are paid by the year or even by the course. When no longer needed, they are simply let go. Many don’t get benefits. Some live so close to the poverty line they need food stamps to make ends meet. Adjunctification is a problem for students, too: not because adjuncts are bad teachers—they’re usually uncommonly dedicated—but because their working conditions are appalling. A 2013 study published on uscrossier.org shows universities that rely on adjuncts have lower completion and retention rates, offer less access to faculty, and employ fewer successful teaching practices.

The problem of rising income inequality has its counterpart on campuses. Our so-called Appalachian Family consists of a few rich uncles and many poor cousins. Of our university’s nearly 3,000 employees, only a fraction—ASU’s one percent—earn six figures. The athletics director (who earns $235,606 annually) makes seven times more than a colleague of mine, a full-time adjunct with fifteen years’ experience who teaches four courses, or around 120 students, a semester. Staff, who literally make our university function, are often paid even less than faculty. Income inequality isn’t just about economics. It’s also about values: at ASU, the more you spend teaching and researching, the less you are paid. An alien visiting our campus might conclude that teaching was a form of punishment.

Furthermore, as Benjamin Ginsberg notes in a February 2014 article published by The Fiscal Times, between 2000 and 2012, campus administrative costs rose nationally by 28 percent. In other words, “colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers,” Ginsberg said in his article. Not only is this a dubious use of resources, but it distorts university priorities by giving authority to administrators who disregard faculty inclusion in governance and value quantifiable, data-based outcomes over genuine education.

Meanwhile, students face some of the most daunting economic challenges in generations. No problem is greater than the crushing student debt with which many of you are saddled. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), some 40 million Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loans. As Kyle McCarthy argues, student debt can destroy your credit rating and force you to postpone starting a family, buying a home, or just living on your own. The payoff? One of the toughest job markets in the past century.

These problems have a common denominator: the attack on public institutions in the name of free-market fundamentalism, which distorts our tax system, budget priorities, and educational policies, in the US and across the planet. It is incumbent upon your generation to decide if this is the right direction for our globalized world.

So what do we do? One thing is certain: we need a genuine, unflinching campus dialogue about these issues. My organization, the American Association of University Professors, wants to be part of such a conversation. Faculty must engage with students to discuss matters of common concern. It is my hope that such a conversation can begin in these pages or in a comparable forum. Students must speak out.

It’s a fact: you live in difficult times. But they also present great opportunity. Another university is possible—and another world is, too.


Michael Behrent is an associate professor of history and President of the ASU Chapter of the AAUP.