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.

Theological Education Bubble IV: Is a PhD a good investment?

Let’s consider the costs of doing a PhD:

(1) Tuition and living expenses:  My guess is this is going to be in the range of an average of about $55K per year for a family; 45K per year for a couple with one PhD student, and 35K for a single.


(2) Minimum of three years lost wages for British PhD; average of six years for North America.  The average salary is $40,000.

=$120,000-240,000 lost wages; but if the above numbers living expenses would have to paid for in any case, so let’s subtract 50% for living expenses and 25% for taxes = $30,000-60,000

(3) Interest costs on student loans.  Let’s say you need to borrow only $50K at 5% and payments start only after graduation.  This calculation counts only PhD debt and assumes that the Master’s level education is already covered.

The first monthly payment (interest only): = $200.  Let’s conservatively say that the cost of interest loan will be $8000 over the lifetime of the loan.

So now, let’s see where we are, adding up these expenses; realistically a PhD will cost between $140-370K.

Suppose you were about to do a PhD and you had that kind of money available to you.  So instead you invest it, and for argument’s sake you put it in an average TSX dividend stock that pays 4%.  You started your PhD in 2004 and you graduated in 2010: the TSX has gone from 8300 and 13400 = 60% gain.  So now those funds would be worth between $224,000 and $592,000, and they would have provided a modest investment income at 4% of between $5600 and 14,800 per annum.  So at the end of a six year PhD you start with a negative equity of $50,000 instead of positive equity of between $260,000 and $680,000.

Now some have likened getting an academic job to winning the lottery.  The fact is that for the most part, most jobs, except academic jobs, a PhD is superfluous.  Of my friends that did PhDs while I was at Cambridge, only 50% landed jobs in academics.  Those jobs on average pay less well than if these men of considerable talent had applied themselves to some other professional occupation such as law [update:  well maybe not], medicine or engineering, and I don’t know anyone I would call well-off working in academics that wasn’t already well-endowed with family wealth.

Suppose I come to you and say I have a great investment idea.  You put up $150,000 dollars and at the end of six years you will have $50,000 in debt, and at the end of ten more years, you will get your money back–oh, but wait, there’s another catch: you have a 50% chance of losing the initial investment permanently .  Doing PhD degree would seem to have a very bad risk to reward ratio.

“Ah!” you say, “But you haven’t dealt with the intangible (non-renumerative) benefits.” Ok there are benefits, I agree.  But there also other intangible risks.

Intangible Benefits:

(1) Bragging rights:  with a PhD you have a great accomplishment behind your name and the right to brag and lord it over others who don’t have one.  People might even call you “doctor”.

(2) You may learn how to do research at a highly specialized level and to solve problems, for you get to spend three to six years researching a subject about which you are passionate. Of course, you might be in a bubble without realizing it.

(3) You remain attached to the academic world the whole time you are studying, meet some interesting people, perhaps learn a foreign language.

(4) If you are lucky, your marriage will survive, your children will love you, and you will write several books that will make you a household name throughout the world. But of course you don’t need a PhD to do this.

(5) If you do land that elusive job in academics, your self-esteem and future career will now be determined by 18-22 year olds who fill out teaching evaluations (oh, wait, that should perhaps be in the category below).

Intangible Risks:

(1) You may have to deal with the bitterness of failure if you don’t complete your dissertation or if after completion it is not accepted.  I knew one lady who went into a 25 year cycle of depression after failing her Oxford dissertation (due to no fault of her own).

(2) You may feel isolated and detached from society during your years of focussed research on a subject about which few people know and fewer still care.

(3) You may have to deal with resentment towards the academic community for letting you spend so much of your life and financial resources for a degree that doesn’t land you a viable job.  While you are waiting on tables during your day job, that resentment manifests itself in poor tips from your customers.

(4) You may end up in adjunct hell, i.e.,  the work of teaching post-secondary education for less than minimum wage without the respect that comes from being a real professor.

Theological Education Bubble III: Just because you got a PhD from … does not mean that you must be paid a livable wage for doing what you have chosen to do

Are you thinking about a PhD in evangelical theology?  I want to share part of a message that a seminary dean once sent to me.  Now pretend that you are the recipient and that you had just been wondering if your employer is ever planning to offer you full-time employment.  The date of the message was 1998 (emphasis mine):

Just because you got a PhD from [insert name of well-respected university] does not mean you must be paid a livable wage for doing what you have chosen to do. There is simply no correlation economically between the level of education and what people end up getting paid. This is certainly true in the case of the academic community, where there are literally thousands of people who do PhD’s in the humanities (including theology) and who simply cannot find a job working full-time in the area for which they were educated. For at least a decade, there have been fewer and fewer full-time academic teaching positions ([Insert name of large, well-known institution] Seminary, for example, has said that no more than 60% of faculty positions will be tenure track positions, and they have really not added anybody net in recent years) open each year, matched with an increase in more and more PhD graduates each year. The trend will be more and more people teaching as adjuncts, regardless of the number of courses that they teach (many such teachers teach a much larger than traditional full-time load). This is not some plot by the administration of such schools, but it is the only possible way for any but the very rich schools to survive (and the very rich schools are also moving into this direction).

If anything, the bubble in sacred and secular institutions alike has become more bloated since 1998.  Now one can ask why this man, who had taught one of my master’s level seminars, would not have warned me seven years earlier when he saw that I was on the way to do a PhD.  Does he not bear some responsibility for what I later became, an unemployed holder of a PhD?  I ask this not because I hold any rancour towards him.  Not at all.  But it is really a question of asking those who are handing out PhDs whether they are acting in their own interests or in the interests of the candidates.  Theological education, like all education (“The media is the message”), has become self-sustaining and self-justifying; producing more graduates employs staff and faculty and sustains the enterprise itself.  It doesn’t really have a purpose that is easy to see, because there are few jobs available where a PhD in theology is not a luxury rather than a necessity.  When you have 8000 people with PhD’s working as waiters and waitresses, then there is a serious problem.

Don’t get me wrong.  While I’m shrugging, I am not bitter nor do I regret my studies. My PhD was a luxury that my family could afford.  My dad and an inheritance from grandfather paid my full education and all my student loans by 1996, the year I graduated. But the situation in education is alarming–even those who have full-time jobs have little security as schools begin to downsize as a result of the economy.  One of my friends, a high-level administrator, is suffering from just such a downsize despite his PhD in science.  Actually, since I’ve become a DIY investor and financially independent as a result, perhaps I’ve been spared the pain that some of my friends with full-time academic jobs will soon face.

Hath not a half Korean eyes? Part IV: Conservatism is a mental illness

Prof. John Stackhouse sitting atop his endowed perch as Regent College’s Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, wrote:

You certainly make it clear when dialogue is a waste of time. Your rage and bitterness simply render conversation impossible. I’m frankly glad you’re not in the academy where you can influence people. I hope you’re good at making people money as the “righteous investor” you advertise yourself to be, but I think we’re done listening to you on this subject.

I have been reflecting on why Prof. Stackhouse became so defensive and irate with me for having spoken “blunt” opinions on his blog about affirmative action.  I said that affirmative action waters down the academy by giving less qualified candidates jobs, discriminates against white men and Asians, and shifts jobs from white males to white females.  When I mentioned my own experience of seeing myself and other adjuncts passed systematically in favor of female candidates, he said that in order to create social change some people have to suffer and even he himself has suffered.  Then I became cheeky and said, oh do tell about your suffering–it must be really hard for a full-time professor with a real job with benefits–that really sounds like suffering compared to Adjunct Hell.  That’s when he said that I was full of bitterness and rage.  But why would he do this, I ask myself, to a minority half Asian that I am.  Is it because he is a racist?

I found this blog post by church planter and pastor Wayne Park in which he reviews Soong-Chan Rah’s recent book The Next Evangelicalism.  According to Park, Rah’s book says that by numbers, brown Evangelicals are starting to dominate the scene:  Evangelical Asians, Hispanic and blacks, such as Haitians, are beginning to out number whites, while the whites continue to dominate the structures.  There Park refers to Rah’s contention that bi-cultural Christians are key to multi-ethinic ministry, citing Rah:

The cautious, sensitive biculturalism… is the perfect postmodern prescription for the heroic triumphalism of modernity. Furthermore the call to listen and to gauge others before speaking and acting provides a model for multiethnic ministry… cannot occur without the unique skills offered by bicultural Americans.

The author Rah himself visited the Park’s blog and mentions that when he has broken out of that quiet mold, he is interpreted as angry:

I do think our bi-cultural identity, our willingness to more reflective and to be third culture (as Dave Gibbons puts it) is a definitive plus. I think it will serve us well to accept the ways we live out our identity. What’s interesting to me, however, is that when Asian-Americans break out of that mode/mold, we are labeled as angry and confrontational. As one of my Korean-American colleagues put it, my passion is often mistaken for anger by the majority culture.

Because Park had participated in the dialogue with Stackhouse that led to my banishment, I commented on Park’s blog, hoping that Rah was still tuning in:

Wayne Park, Soong-Chan Rah:
I wonder how you interpret Prof. Stackhouse’s reaction to my admittedly cheeky comments on his blog, saying that it was a clear sign of my rage and bitterness? But you know I gave up being involved in theological education in North America 12 years ago, and am now a DIY investor. If there is no place for me in the evangelical theological education today except in Africa, where I have multiple contacts and many invitations that I could take up, it is because I am perceived as uppity and angry, because I am not willing to keep my mouth shut about the injustices that I see.

Isn’t this what you both are talking about: “What’s interesting to me, however, is that when Asian-Americans break out of that mode/mold, we are labeled as angry and confrontational.” When I complained against affirmative action that it has merely passed privilege in the academy from white males to white females (and I referred to ATS statistics to back up what I was saying) and that Asians have become the new Jews–i.e., subject to quotas, Stackhouse freaked out and blocked me from his blog, telling me in an e-mail that I needed counseling. Thanks for this post, Wayne. Because I’m only half Korean, I’ve always lived and worked among the dominant White culture (BTW, I’m 47, my grandparents came to Hawaii as children among the emigration of Koreans from 1902-1905). I am NEVER aware when I am being treated as just a normal everyday guy or when I am being perceived and treated as an Asian. I’ve always assumed that I’m just like everyone else; so when I’m mistreated (as Stackhouse clearly became ad hominem instead of sticking with the issues), I should just see myself as part of the mistreated white guy category. But maybe my perspective is completely wrong. Of course, I’m also conservative, so it could just be the liberal hegemony in education reacting to my conservatism: my conservatism leads me to promote meritocracy as opposed to affirmative action–as the best way to assure fairness. Asians are harmed by affirmative action and would be greatly benefited by a system of meritocracy, especially in admissions to universities.

I haven’t heard back from Park or Rah.  But I think that Stackhouse’s reaction to me is not racism but my final suggestion.  He saw me espousing pretty solid, mainline conservative views about affirmative action.  So he reacted as any good liberal and concluded that I was a lunatic.  He wrote to me in an e-mail:  “Honestly, I believe you need to get professional counseling to deal with this rage.”  Liberals in academia consider conservatism to be a mental illness.  So for example after googling “Conservatism is a mental illness” I found some surreal articles in which apparently serious academics had done studies which determined that conservatives are deranged.  In one such article, the writer concludes:

Whether it be an unfortunate evolutionary holdover or a mental disease transmitted by our parents—the science is apparently still up in the air—academic researchers have surely amassed enough evidence of psychopathology that conservatism can listed in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Reasonable people, such as the distinguished academic researchers cited here, will no doubt agree that until effective treatments can be developed, we should reconsider whether sufferers of conservatism, like other mental defectives, should be allowed freely to exercise the franchise.

Ok.  So I think that article was satirical but it actually cites a number of academic studies which conclude that conservatism is a pathology.  I don’t think these two articles are satire:

Conservatism As A Mental Disorder – And A Threat, by WaltKelly

Is Conservatism a Mental Illness? states:

Resentment has always appeared to be at the core of modern conservatism. Now it has grown into a visceral aggressive motivation. Greed and [sic] has always been a part of it too, but the current conservatism is rife with selfishness and total disregard for others.

That pretty much describes to a tee Prof. Stackhouse’s view me.  Thus, his insular, provincial world view will not allow him to see me as anything more than a resentful, angry, greedy conservative bent on destroying everything wonderful that he has ever devoted his life to, the liberal diversity project in a Christian setting.  It is sad really.  Because of it, he is blinded to being able to see that the issues that I raise are serious: (1) dropping academic standards; (2) the exploitation of white adjuncts in higher education; (3) discrimination of overachieving minorities (viz. Asians and Jews) and the favoring of targeted minorities and women; (4) young men and boys dropping out, resulting from the favoring of girls and women and feminized schools; (5) The quest for diversity in the West is leading to a robbery of resources from the global church (reproduce below)[update: I see that Prof. Stackhouse has now graciously acknowledge this point].  He’s sees me as motivated by rage, while I am merely holding to the principled and mainstream conservative values of meritocracy and free market.

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