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Leaving Brandeis

By Daniel Souleles

Section: Opinions, Top Stories

March 31, 2017

Though I’m being made to go, I confess, I like Brandeis quite a bit. Brandeis has a lot to recommend it. Unlike the two institutions at which I got degrees, Brandeis has never owned slaves or profited from the slave trade. Always a good start. Brandeis, too, was founded in part to give Jewish people, excluded from other institutions of higher learning in these United States, a fair shot at an excellent education. Taken together, and particularly compared to some of our Cambridge-based neighbors (though I name no names)—no slavery and no anti-Semitism, Dayenu, that would have been enough. Dayenu, that would have been enough, but did you know that Brandeis students come to office hours and are excellent writers? What more could a lecturer want?

You see, these past three semesters I have been working in the anthropology department. I have taught six courses, five unique preps (one course was offered twice), and four of these were entirely of my own design. I have worked with undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students. I have coordinated seminars, facilitated research workshops and led, with the help of one of my colleagues, a graduate student research project on the relationship of weight to well-being in the Boston area, which is ongoing. Beyond my teaching work, I have gotten an independent grant to support my own research on shared ownership and capitalism, had two peer reviewed articles published and have several more writing projects in varying stages of review and completion. Brandeis has even been kind enough to award my colleague and me a teaching innovation grant for this academic year. I am in a department with wonderful, supportive colleagues, working at a university that seems to value my contributions.

I can hear it now: “That all sounds great! What do you mean you’re leaving? It sounds like you’re doing a perfectly fine job.” And you’d be correct. But this is how academia currently works. We’ve got a two-tier caste system going. Nationwide, around 70 percent of faculty are, like me, part time or non-tenure track, usually called “adjuncts” or “lecturers” or “instructors” who serve at the whims and the mercy of whatever university needs an extra course taught that semester. Only around 30 percent of faculty at American colleges and universities are currently on the tenure track. Forty years ago, these stats were flipped. So despite enrollment and your tuition bill going up, there are fewer tenure track faculty around. That’s why I can’t advise your thesis, and that’s why I won’t be offering courses this semester. I wish it were otherwise.

The entry-level salary for a lecturer at Brandeis is around $6,800 per course (it’s worth noting that this is much better than the national adjunct average of $2,500-3,500 per course, so I suppose there is some honor among thieves…). But think about this for a moment. At a university like Brandeis, the conventional teaching load for a professor is two courses per semester, leaving the professor time to serve on university committees and to keep up on their own research, staying at the top of their game (one of the reasons you came to Brandeis). Four classes per year at $6,800 is $27,200, a bit below the annual living wage in the Boston area.

Just think about that—a lecturer on a normal teaching load makes lower than the Boston-area living wage. And that’s if you have courses through the whole year, allowing you to plan ahead and do things like sign a lease or buy a car. I only had two courses this fall, so I lived with family and borrowed the old Honda a few days per week. And how much are you paying in tuition, per course, again?

To recap, I’ve done a good job in my work, am an expert in my field and made below a living wage for the Boston area. Moreover, I have no further work at Brandeis. It is for this reason that I and my colleagues, part-timers in the class of faculty that has been treated as expendable, have joined a union, Faculty Forward, and are currently negotiating a contract to better our pay, job security and course guarantees. Without improvements in any of these, people like me will keep getting used up and thrown away by universities like Brandeis. There’s a real way in which Brandeis, in relying on part-time and contract faculty, has been swept along in a national trend in higher education that has created an academic underclass (this assessment depends, though, for purposes of moral reasoning, on how far you want to carry the principle, “but everyone else was doing it”). And regardless of how you apportion blame, this contract is an excellent opportunity for Brandeis to stay true to its progressive history, say, “We will not treat any of our employees as disposable” and start down the road of righting these wrongs. I just wish I could be around to see this work get done.

  • Leigh Swigart

    Bravo, Daniel! Brandeis is poorer for the loss of a teacher like you.

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