Testimony at the U.S. Department of Education’s Hearing on President Obama’s Plan for Higher Education
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
George Mason University
Good afternoon. My name is Maria Maisto, and I am the president of New Faculty Majority and the Executive Director of its affiliated Foundation. We are the only national nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to improving the quality of higher education by improving the working conditions of the majority of faculty, who work in temporary, precarious positions while teaching over half of all undergraduate courses in higher education. This majority is now 75% of the faculty, or over a million professors, working on contingent appointments—that is, appointments that are contingent on budgets and enrollments and that can be terminated with little or no notice. These positions pay an average of $2700 per course. Many part-time faculty teach the equivalent or more of a full-time teaching load and make less than $25,000 per year. (One of my students has told me that when he worked full-time as a manager of a fast-food restaurant as a high school dropout, he made that same salary.)
As a leader of this organization, an adjunct faculty member myself, and the parent of three future college students, I, along with my colleagues, appreciate the efforts of the Obama administration to address the critical problem of the skyrocketing cost of higher education and its effects, particularly on the students and faculty who are saddled with crippling student debt. Ironically, however, the majority of the faculty at colleges nationwide work in conditions that do not allow them to repay their own student debt, if college teaching is their primary source of income.
Like other workers in the US, college instructors have seen their profession turn into low-wage, part-time, unbenefited jobs rather than into respected employment capable of supporting a family. However, the president's plan neither acknowledges this reality nor addresses it. This is particularly unfortunate when the Association of American Colleges and Universities has called contingent faculty employment "the elephant in the room" of higher education; when the president of Colorado State University has been the first campus leader to make a public commitment to improving the working conditions of contingent faculty on his campus; when contingent faculty are now unionizing in rapidly growing numbers at campuses all across the country; and when research shows that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions and that students want and need well-supported faculty members in order to succeed.
Like the president, we believe in holding colleges accountable. That is why we suggest that colleges --especially those which receive public funding -- be required to disclose the numbers and working conditions of the majority of the faculty. We believe the public should be told about the significant research that shows that faculty working conditions are among the most critical factors affecting student success. We would suggest that the administration consider that retention and graduation rates are meaningless at institutions where faculty are discouraged from holding the highest standards possible by adjuncts' economic precarity and lack of access to meaningful due process protections.
As college faculty, we talk to students on a daily basis, and we have learned that they don't want quick fixes that are being implemented without input from students or faculty. We have learned that the vast majority of students, especially the most disadvantaged, crave what students at elite institutions take for granted: accessible, supported faculty able to engage in the basic human interaction and mentoring at the heart of good teaching, the intellectual research at the foundation of good teaching, and the intelligent use of technology -- not as a substitute for real teaching and learning, but as a tool in the service of human beings rather than as a cog in the machine of what has become the big business of higher education "reform."
We call on the president to listen to an authentic cross section of student and faculty voices and to consider both the quality of education, and the quality of life of the majority of the faculty, in devising higher education policies going forward.