I Love Higher Education. It Isn’t Loving Me Back.

The transformative experience I had in the classroom led me to dedicate my whole life to academia. But austerity and precarity have made it impossible for me to give those same experiences to my undergraduate students.

Students discussing in class at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Logan Cyrus / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If you attended a college or university, you probably remember a few of your professors, the ones that made an impact on you. Maybe one of them helped you figure out what you wanted to do with your life or supported you through a hard time. Maybe you remember these professors’ names, the titles of their courses, the readings that mattered most to you. I’m sure you don’t remember their rank — assistant, associate, full professor, lecturer, clinical assistant professor, visiting assistant professor — or whether or not they were tenured. You remember how they spoke to you, how they made you feel, what you learned from them.

When I was in college, I remember being confused that one of my favorite professors was leaving because her position was only temporary. She was brilliant — an incredible instructor and a perfect fit for the student body. I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.

When I graduated college, I applied to graduate school on a whim, thinking only of how much I admired the professors I had gotten to know at my small liberal arts college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, but a master’s program seemed like a safe place to land and figure it out. I rolled into graduate school like a tumbleweed in the wind, and I kept rolling straight through a PhD program, through my second master’s degree, through field research and dissertation writing.

I have now spent my entire twenties in graduate school. In many ways, I have been one of the lucky ones. When I graduate from my doctoral program next year, I will have a PhD from a prestigious private research university, recommendations from top scholars in my field, experience teaching some of the nation’s smartest undergraduate students, and an impressive list of fellowships and grants I have been awarded based on the quality of my research. My CV is, as they say, sparkling.

Yet I am faced with the very real prospect that I will soon be making poverty wages as a part-time faculty member at whatever college or university will hire me, a position with no job security, meager benefits, and minimal or nonexistent paid family leave.

In the case of the New School, where I am slated to teach next spring, part-time faculty now make up 87 percent of the university’s faculty. Their historic three-week strike, which finally ended last week as both parties came to a tentative agreement, revealed the dark realities of modern academic labor. The union went on strike not only for reasonable raises, affordable health care, and some modicum of job security, but also for such shockingly simple demands as independent recourse for harassment and discrimination.

This last point is particularly troubling to me, as someone who experienced harassment in graduate school and knows how much damage it can cause, and how unreliable Title IX can be when it comes to resolving it. Not only are part-time faculty being exploited for their labor both in and outside of the classroom, but they are also effectively cut off from the institution and its (albeit less-than-perfect) protections.

I was thinking of this yesterday, as I listened to a podcast interview with a former member of NXIVM, Sarah Jacobson. You may think it’s a bit of a stretch to compare academia to a notorious cult — a sign of my jadedness as a disgruntled graduate student. But given the cruel response of the New School administration to the part-time faculty strike — including cutting off health care benefits and pay for striking workers during the walkout — I don’t feel the comparison is entirely unwarranted.

What struck me as I listened was how Jacobson described NXIVM’s basic structure: lots of people at the bottom, paying for trainings and working for free, sacrificing more and more of their lives to prove their loyalty to the organization; and a small handful of people at the top, reaping the benefits, perpetuating an “illusion of hope” that those at the bottom can succeed too, if they just work hard enough. One need look no further than the academic job market to see how this structure plays out in universities, where hundreds of highly qualified PhDs compete each year for a vanishingly small number of tenure-track jobs. And this, after they have already provided cheap labor to the university for years just to get their degree, contributing research, service, teaching, and grading to the university for a poverty wage with little to no recourse for mistreatment at the hands of their superiors.

If I sound cynical about the state of academia, it’s not because I think higher education is a fool’s errand. In fact, some of my best memories have been in the classroom, both as a student and an educator. I have had the privilege to design and teach several courses on queer and feminist history, and the connections I’ve made with my students have been profound and lasting. I want the very best for my students, as I think most professors do.

But I am not willing to sacrifice my health, my family’s future, and my well-being to perpetuate a system that is bankrupting my students as much as it is bankrupting me.

I am no longer willing to work forty hours a week prepping and teaching a course for which I will be paid $6,000 before taxes (if I’m lucky), when my students are each paying that same amount or more — each — to take my course. Part-time faculty at the New School, to give just one example, made as little as $3,000 a course before the strike. Many are juggling multiple jobs just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, the university tries its hardest to keep part-time faculty from getting to the ten-semester mark, where they would begin to accrue certain benefits and some degree of job security.

The system of higher education in the United States seems to be reaching an inflection point, and people like me are the collateral damage. Many of us who pursued graduate degrees were told that education would be our way out — out of poverty, out of the places where we grew up, out of the bigoted or homogenous communities where we couldn’t thrive — and into something better: a stable career with a clear moral purpose.

Our teachers, seeing our promise, told us to keep going, to the next degree, and the next. And the people who warned us not to keep going seemed cynical to us, or out-of-touch. We were the special ones, we thought. We could go anywhere, do anything.

The sad thing is that those of us who made it through are now in a position where we are meant to tell the same thing to our students. We love what we teach. We love learning, and we want our students to love it as much as we do. We encourage them to pursue ideas. We write them letters for graduate school programs. We advise them on the best departments and programs to get their doctorate and congratulate them on their acceptance.

But the truth is, the thing we love is slowly killing us. We can’t be the educators we want to be, because we are being forced into chronic precarity by universities that are only concerned with their own bottom line. We have been trained to embrace an almost pathological scarcity complex about academic work, making us undervalue our own labor and accept a myriad of indignities, often working for free or for little pay just to prove our worth. Not to mention the fact that all of this makes it nearly impossible to research and write the scholarly work for which we have, theoretically, been hired (and without which we can be fired, as the “publish or perish” idiom suggests).

We can’t give our students the life-changing education they seek, because our own lives have become unmanageable just trying to teach them. We can’t ensure that they’ll have a stable career after they graduate, because we don’t even have one ourselves. And we can’t tell them, with a straight face, that all that money they spent, all those loans they took out, all the sacrifices they made, were worth it — because we have seen the other side of it, and we know that may not be true.

At the end of the day, the work we do as academics is just that, work. It is not divinely appointed, it does not make us special or superior, it is not illustrious or even envious. It is valuable and necessary work, which is exactly why we should be compensated, protected, and treated fairly by our employers. That means doing away with the false and damaging myth that part-time faculty are less valuable, more expendable, and less qualified than tenured faculty. Without us, the university cannot function. Without us, there is no university.