The New Face of Corporate America: School

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Feb. 2, 2011

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Debra Leigh Scott

These days, experience gets you nowhere—fast. Just ask Debra Leigh Scott, who has had her share of career ups and downs over the past 20 years. While working as a part-time adjunct professor of English at several colleges in the Philly area, she found time to publish a book of short stories and provide editing, writing and corporate coaching services to business clients. She’s even written several plays, which eventually were produced. But by the time the market crashed in 2008, her resume wasn’t enough. Scott lost her Bala Cynwyd home and moved into an apartment with strangers she found on Craigslist. She lived there for a year while she tried to get back on her feet.

“I was like a lot of people,” she says over coffee in her Headhouse Square neighborhood. “You believe you’re going to find a full-time position for the first 10 years or so. You really think it’s going to happen. And it’s a horrible day when you finally realize you’re not going to get full-time.”

Which is a reality for many, considering full-time professorships have been on the decline since at least the ’70s. A 2006 American Association of University Professors report found that from 1975 to 2003, the number of tenured track positions in higher education had fallen from 56.8 percent to 35.1 percent. Today, about 1 million professors nationwide are adjuncts, and can teach up to 11 classes per semester at any number of schools. Eleven classes may seem like an enormous workload—but at $3,000 per class, how else do you make ends meet?

What’s more, Scott says, the student learning under that overburdened professor may be worse off. “Students are being taught by dedicated but demeaned professors who have no offices, who are hired semester-by-semester for wages lower than those of K-Mart workers,” she says. “Students have little to no personal access to faculty beyond the classroom. They receive no … face to face meetings, they are forced to resort to email exchange.”

These sentiments led Scott to embark on yet another project, one that would be the culmination of her career doing scrappy freelance academic and writing work. It began with “The Homeless Adjunct,” a blog that chronicled her jobs at various universities—Temple and University of the Arts, to name a few—where, as she puts it, we’re all being screwed by “the corporatized university, where the needs of the students and the value of the professors are minimized in the pursuit for a profit, which benefits neither.”

It was the stuff movies are made of. So she and filmmaking partner Chris LaBree set out to make one. The result was Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, a documentary about the student-teacher-administration relationship at the American university, which she says relies on contingent workers and outsourcing—just like an American corporation.

In their research, Scott and LaBree said they found evidence of corporations moving in and taking over what’s taught in the classroom. Sharp cuts in state budgets have forced universities to rely more and more on corporate donations, which “come with strings attached,” Scott says. “You’re not going to get corporate donations in the humanities. You’re going to get research subjects from pharmaceutical companies, for instance, making large donations that are tax deductible, to universities, which then guide grad students into conducting research on behalf of the corporation.” Graduate students can easily become low-paid or unpaid labor on behalf of Big Pharma without knowing it.

Further, Scott says, when they graduate hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt (according to FinAid.org’s student loan debt clock, about $882 billion is owed) they become frightened, obedient workers who find work at the very corporations funding their laboratories, buildings and scholarships.

Such circumstances, the filmmakers say, have created a culture in which cheating and laziness, on both the students’ and teachers’ behalf, is the norm.

And it’s perpetuated by outsourcing. In recent years, online companies based around writing students’ papers have become extremely industrial. “I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students,” pseudonymed-writer Ed Dante said in a piece for Inside Higher Education . “You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word “desperate” misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students … couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school.”

Scott and LaBree have found a lot of people in academia who are open to discussing the problems with the university system—just not on film. “People we’ve talked to in Philadelphia are terrified [to speak on film],” she says. “I mean, the economy’s terrible and we just can’t afford the job losses. The people in this industry who still have employment are just desperately trying to hang onto it.”

But it’s not stopping the pair from spreading their message. They recently traveled to California to meet with adjunct labor activists and will be headed to a conference in Washington, D.C., this weekend for more interviews with professors.

“Debra’s film and book project and others like it will be invaluable for educating people both within and outside of higher education about the reality of adjunct faculty working conditions and the urgent need for action,” says Maria Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. “I have to believe [the university system] can be saved. I have kids. I am not going to stand by and watch their educational future continue to be, as Debra has so cleverly and accurately put it, ‘junct.’”

Scott and LaBree are hoping to get Junct into Sundance, Tribeca or another big-name film fest. But, LaBree says, “the important thing is that it be seen period, even if it’s screened at a public library and I have to bring in the projection equipment myself.”

“I have a lot of hope that something’s going to blow up,” Scott says. “We’ve reached a tipping point. We’ve lost knowledge, we’ve lost the ability to transmit knowledge and that’s a huge thing to lose. But what have we gained? That’s been the question I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed for Junct so far. What have we gained and who’s the winner? No one seems to be able to answer that.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. Anonymous said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 11:33AM

“It is shameless! Are most of these classes taught by adjuncts on line?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 11:59AM

“Most online instructors are also adjuncts. But undergraduate classes at all universities across the country are taught by adjuncts. 75% of all American university faculty now are adjuncts. The question students and parents need to be asking is "Why isn't more of the exorbitant tuition cost going to pay faculty? Why is it going to marketing, public relations, administrative salaries, president's salaries?" Students need to demand full-time faculty with offices, and campus support. And if their adjunct professor is paid barely 1/3 of what a professor with full-time designation is paid for teaching the same course, why aren't they charged 1/3 of the tuition cost?”

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3. Ed Dante said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 03:26PM

“I think Scott's experience says an awful lot about the twisted priorities of the higher education system. Particularly, the invasion of corporate principles and priorities has distorted what education is about. As Scott points out, educators and students are both de-prioritized by the interests of profitability, reputation and the production of ready-made corporate recruits. Naturally, there is no place for a quality humanities program in this equation.
Ed Dante
ed@eddante.com
www.eddante.com”

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4. hoppingmadjunct said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 03:51PM

“Maria Maisto is president of New Faculty Majority, the first nationwide faculty organization to focus on faculty equity to improve American higher education. Go to www.newfacultymajority.org to become a member: it's an adjunct faculty version of Cairo's Tahrir Square, a way to come together and rise up against oppression.”

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5. Dr. Alan Trevithick said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 05:54PM

“Great article, and Debra Leigh Scott, and LaBree, are excellent narrators of this disgraceful story in higher education-one that is ignored by the tycoon reformers and by the politicans, who nevertheless manage to convey to the general public that they are friends of higher education. "Dedicated but demeaned" is indeed the best way to describe the majority faculty who are teaching most sections in this country, and Scott and Labree, and organizations like New Faculty Majority *above) are spreading the news.

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6. CREAM said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 09:48PM

“great article! it's shameful that so many professors are stuck in adjunct limbo while tenured profs can go senile but still have their jobs. if administrators really cared about their students and faculty, they would hire more full-timers, but, as the saying goes, "cash rules everthing around me" and the paying adjuncts a pittance ensures university coffers stay full.”

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7. Debra Leigh Scott said... on Feb 2, 2011 at 11:35PM

“I'm grateful to Randy for writing this article, and to Philly Weekly for publishing information about this issue. But I wanted to make a few corrections. First, I lived in Bala Cynwyd, not Bryn Mawr. Second, I have never taught at Drexel, although they hire large numbers of adjuncts as well. Third, I am happy that it's been mentioned that Maria Maisto is President of The New Faculty Majority. She is dedicated and determined, and NFM is an important organization, doing wonderful work to raise awareness of this problem, and to correct it. Finally, I want to clarify something that the article said with which I do not agree. Yes, the circumstances created by adjunct faculty labor abuse make it very difficult to provide everything we want to give to our students. But, no, I would never call the adjunct professors I know "lazy". We are educated, capable professionals doing the best we can in the most difficult of circumstances - without offices, without staff support, without supplies, without a living wage or benefits. Many of us are teaching two or three "part-time" loads at several universities each semester. Some of us are working other part-time jobs as well. We are, often, performing Herculean feats of teaching in the face of all that. Yes, we do burn out. We leave the profession when we can't survive the poverty any longer. We admit defeat and heartbreak. But I don't see laziness in any of that. Quite the contrary. I see heroic effort that deserves to be acknowledged; and I felt it was important for me to state that publicly.

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8. Anonymous said... on Feb 3, 2011 at 07:36AM

“Another example of the deteriorating effects that greed within corporate America have on education, business but more importantly the American who is trying to make a quality life through honest hard work. I do hope that Debra Leigh Scott and LaBree's film make it to Sundance and inspires not only the academic world to do something about this greed but also other areas of labor and industry. It is time to put the "we" into the corporate "I."”

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9. Adjunct X said... on Feb 3, 2011 at 05:52PM

“The figure of $3000 per course may be a bit generous. It may apply in the Philadelphia area, but around the country, many work for considerably less. In out area, adjunct faculty are paid as little as $1800 per course and the average is around $2500. In some areas of the South, adjuncts are paid as little as $1200.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 06:07PM

“Actually, you'll find LESS than $1200 paid to quasi-professors (um, adjuncts) right in New Jersey, a state which sometimes boasts that it has more Phds' working in its green hills than any other state of the union. Now look at the logic. Those were darn cheap Phds. Today US higher education smells like the auto industry just before it crashed.

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11. public high school teacher said... on Feb 22, 2011 at 02:52PM

“Excellent article. Adding more turmoil is the partisan negativity against public school teachers across the nation. When these experienced and devoted professionals are forced to leave their public positions, I augur the influx of even more adjuncts. I hope this issue gets the press and film notoriety it deserves. Good luck "Scottie."”

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