Theological Education Bubble V: On the payment of adjuncts

Fourteen years ago, after finishing a PhD at Cambridge, I managed to land a part time job at a seminary as an adjunct instructor.  The pay was $2700 per course, and I taught a full-time equivalent load (6 courses) in the year that I was there.  The salary was thus about $16,200.  But as a first-year instructor, I had to work essentially full time, despite having no committees or other administrative responsibilities.  One of my students was making more working at MacDonalds, with benefits.

I left after realizing that the seminary had no plans to regularize my appointment.  I made known my complaints, which were actually more about working conditions than it was about pay.   Afterwards, I taught at an African seminary for eight years on short term mission trips for no pay at all–in fact, we paid out of our own pockets to make it happen.  It really was more about working conditions (no office, no email, no key to building, no parking spot, etc.)  and the lack of any real status or respect that there is for the poor guy who can’t manage to find full-time employment in a field with an extremely limited number of job prospects.  I’ve known other adjuncts who have felt exactly the same way.  And you can read about these people and their stories all over the internet and in such distinguished publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education.  But when you are going through the experience, you feel isolated and like you are going to go insane.

The former dean who hired me wrote to me in an e-mail the following comments:

You may feel that they have treated your poorly, but …  I, as former Dean … , certainly do not agree …. I was giving you an opportunity to teach in a graduate seminary. This was intended to open the door to you to find long-term employment in the area, eventually.

There are dozens and dozens of young and older men and a few women who have PhD’s in biblical and/or theological studies who would love to have had the opportunity that I gave you. You had an inside track because I knew you from [before]. The fact that you had a PhD from Cambridge was of marginal value in securing this opportunity. During my time at [as dean], six of your colleagues were willing to teach without any pay at all, and one of them continues to teach regularly without pay. And there were dozens of others who were in regular contact with me asking to teach who were willing to take whatever we had to offer, or even teach for free, whom I could not, or chose (for a variety of reasons) not to, invite.

You have every right to set whatever salary you would like for your gifts and skills, but each of these institutions has every right to offer you whatever it thinks it can afford to pay you. If you do not come to an agreement, then each will have to go its separate way. This is the way the world works economically (and this is also the way the church and the non-profit world, which has much more limited resources, works as well).

He very kindly warned me not to make such a protest when deciding to leave, because in doing so I would give myself a negative image in the Christian community.  He was undoubtedly correct.

I write because many people who might stumble across this post, even some whom I know, might be spared this agony.  The academy is a ruthless place for scholars–Thomas H. Benton compares graduate school to a cult.  If you don’t act just the right way, you become branded and since there are so many other candidates for any position you might be competing for, you may as well kiss your career good bye.

In this post and my previous posts, I describe the bubble in academics and theological education which is so bloated and out of control that it seems irresponsible for educators to continue down this destructive path.  And yet I think they will not heed these kinds warnings because every institution seeks to survive, and every employee to preserve his own position.  Education in general is a bubble:  students on average get little out of it, its costs are escalating out of proportion, and afterwards, graduates experience the pain of  inescapable debt with few job prospects.  The bubble is there but few employed in it can admit it, nor are they necessarily well positioned to determine how to address the problem.

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