I grew up a beneficiary of the American dream. My grandfather in India worked two jobs, and despite the family’s poverty, got my father through medical school. My parents, both doctors, came to the United States with three children and $8 in their pockets. They completed their medical training, found jobs and saved well. As a result, they gave us each a college education and a lesson: study hard, work hard and you can do better for the next generation — the American dream.
Even though I am a highly educated professor at a prestigious university who receives excellent evaluations, and even though I’ve published two critically acclaimed books (which matters in the publish-or-perish culture), I am finding that dream increasingly distant. I worry constantly about how to meet the ever-increasing cost of college for my own children.
Why? Because I’m an adjunct professor. And I’m not alone.
Adjunct professors teach around half of Hamline University’s courses now. We are hired one semester at a time, with no promise of future classes, and zero job security. While tuition has increased at Hamline by 50 percent since 2006, adjuncts have not gotten a raise, not even a cost-of-living increase, in that time. Which means that things have been getting worse for us. Most of us receive $4,000-$5,000 per class with no benefits, and many adjuncts struggle to make a living, much less save.
That is why we came together to form a union. Since organizing, I’ve met an adjunct who teaches at four universities to try to support his family, another who stopped getting classes abruptly after 26 years of dedicated teaching, and one who works despite the fact that she is ill and — because she receives no benefits — can barely afford to eat.
I have not been certain how to advise my students who are burdened by student loans and want to follow me into teaching. Do I tell them that I’ve known adjuncts whose classes were canceled two days before the start of the term, thus tanking their income for the semester? Do I advise them that adjuncts nationally have no job stability, that many of us don’t receive our contracts until just days before our classes start? Or that we use our cars for office space?
Most of all, do I tell them what I secretly wonder: Is the American dream still sustainable? The answer I hear when I’m being honest with myself: I don’t think it is, unless we make changes. Because things have been getting worse. For adjuncts, for students and for higher education as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. I still know the value of education. I see education’s value firsthand as I watch my students learn to think critically, improve creatively and become smarter citizens of the world. I want to give my own children at least as good an education as my parents gave me.
Because I know the value of education and because I believe things don’t have to keep getting worse, that in fact, things can get better, I joined my colleagues and we organized. Last week, we won the election by an overwhelming majority. And we made history.
Hamline’s adjuncts are the first to unionize at a private college in Minnesota, but we won’t be the last. St. Thomas adjuncts have filed for an election, and I have every reason to believe that more schools will follow — locally and nationally. We have started something here, become a part of the national Adjunct Action Movement, and the momentum is in our favor. American, George Washington and Tufts universities have unionized, and adjuncts have seen as much as a 30 percent increase in their earnings. Our time is now.
Maybe we can’t promise the American dream, but we can have a voice in those decisions that affect more than just our jobs. We can have a seat at the table so that together, Hamline’s administration and our adjunct union can begin fixing our higher education system for ourselves, our students and our children.
Swati Avasthi, of Minneapolis, is the author of “Split” and “Chasing Shadows.”