Second-class PhD

“I never thought I’d be a second class citizen,” he lamented. “Where I come from, education is the most important thing. A man with a PhD is respected, listened to.” He shook his head gravely. “What did I do to cause such treatment, that I wouldn’t be listened to by my colleagues?”

He dug a shovel into the ground and leaned into the wooden handle. “What did I do?” he asked again.

He is a temporary, although full time, lecturer at Chico State, one of the hundreds of people in the California State University system who have earned the highest level of education in their respective fields of study, have years of teaching or private sector experience, and still are classified as temporary employees.

The problem is not of individual creation: this is a structural problem. Over half the California State University system faculty are now lecturers, and that number is increasing each year. The structure of higher education in America is now relying on part time or temporary faculty more than ever. Most lecturers teach only a few classes a semester, but here’s the real truth: 19% of all full time faculty in the CSU system are full time, temporary lecturers, who are at risk of losing their jobs every year, despite performing well on the job. All lecturers are considered temporary in the CSU system, even if we’ve been teaching at the university full time for 10 or 15 years, and thus, are easy to dispose of.

But being a temporary lecturer is not just a part-time gig for most people in the CSU; they don’t get a sense of value and worth at a “real job” and just see teaching a a side job. This is their real job.

At the California State University, we are different from most other temporary lecturers and instructors at the college level. We have some security in contracts after 6 consecutive years of teaching in the same department at one university, we are provided health benefits for teaching at least 6 units a semester, and we are unionized, which offers a degree of protection from unfair treatment. Although not more importantly, full time lecturers earn a decent middle class wage, although still not close to what professors with the same experience and level of education earn.

We are in a much less precarious situation than many of our colleagues who are either not protected by 3 year contract and or who work at other universities and community colleges In the U.S. A majority of community college classes and students are taught by “temporary” instructors, and at those universities and colleges, unions are few and far between. Both faculty and students suffer for it due to low wages, feelings of insecurity, larger class sizes, and inconsistency in faculty mentors who are committed long term to the success of students, among other, less apparent, issues.

It is often the invisible differences that are the greatest offenses, and it is so with tenure track faculty and temporary lecturers. There exists a difference in social status among the tenured/tenure-track and the temporary lecturers at the CSU system, and my colleague with the PhD (let’s call him Dr. Lecturer) is the epitome of that status difference. Whether correct in his assumption or not does not really matter: Dr. Lecturer knows he is disposable in the college, and feels as if he’s treated differently. He feels as if his opinion does not matter as much as tenured faculty in department discussions, as if he must never speak up about injustices he feels, as if he can never request a specific schedule, as other tenured faculty do and are granted. He fears retribution from his department chair and the college Dean, if he asks for the same considerations that tenured faculty enjoy. He never questions the status quo, or decisions made in the department, because he’s afraid of losing his job, or being given a schedule that takes him away from his children more.

Being a “temporary” lecturer means being disposable, or at least telling people in a subtle way, every day, that they are disposable.

Marx called this phenomena alienation: the worker is treated as if he or she is disposable and as a result, becomes mentally separated from the product of the work, and has little or no investment in that work. Workers work not because they are invested in the job and care about the outcome of the work, but because they are afraid of losing their job.

Imagine if, every day, your employer told you and reminded you that you are disposable, that your presence at your company could be replaced tomorrow, that you are worth less than the person working next to you, who has the same education and less work experience. How would you feel about that employer, and that job? How would that make you feel over time about yourself?

I shake my colleague’s hand as I leave him to his yard work; he invites my family and I to dinner soon. “Thank you,” he says to me as I say goodbye. “You always respect me, and I appreciate that. Thank you.”

Academia is not what I imagined it would be when I was growing up, or even when I was an undergraduate. I imagined a place of equality, and fairness, and deep respect for colleagues and students. I imagined a lot of things, but I never imagined a world where Dr. Lecturer would be disrespected so thoroughly because of his title, that he would thank a colleague who showed him respect.

6 thoughts on “Second-class PhD

  1. Really interesting and alarming. Like you, I grew up believing academia to be a place of fairness and equality, and this is what attracted me to it. Unfortunately the structures of power in academia has become too shallow, and openly discriminatory.

  2. Your question is a good one, but I’m also not convinced there is a “golden past.” I think that the bigger question is how does the university go about guaranteeing security of employment for the greatest number of faculty possible? I do not think that the current system is doing this–i.e. the one where what is probably now a minority have LOTS of security (i.e tenure plus bumping rights), but where a majority has much less.

    One think I would like to avoid though, is a system where administrators who have short term views get to hire and fire at will. Tenure and seniority protect against the destruction such administrators can wreak.

  3. I think one fundamental problem in academia is “Publish or Perish” policy. This constant pressure to publish is producing academics with a lot of publications, and hence “preferable”, but what about the quality of these publications? It is weird that academia should quantify talent based on the number of peer-reviewed publications and not the quality. This recent article based on UCLA’s research points to this problem somewhat:

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