Christine Rice

Getting Educated or Getting Ripped Off? Why Running Schools like Corporations Is a Bad Idea

The people running our schools and universities have adopted the worst and most outdated business practices. Christine Rice explains why you should care.

 

At a college event several years ago, I was cornered by the father of a student; a guy who clearly liked the sound of his own voice. While I daydreamed about escaping to the appetizer table, he said, “Of course, my sister—who teaches at University of Chicago—calls them bottom feeders.”

Bottom feeders? Had we been talking about carp? “Wait. What?”

“My sister teaches at U of—”

“Not that.”

“Oh!” He brightened and chuckled conspiratorially. “The adjuncts. The bottom feeders. She’s tenured faculty at U of C and calls adjuncts bottom feeders.”

I don’t know why he assumed I wasn’t an adjunct (I was) or why he thought that someone he just met might chuckle knowingly at such an astoundingly asshat-y thing to say, or why he said it at all, but in that split second, as I rearranged my face, he realized he’d made a mistake.

“I’m an adjunct.” I delivered it straight, no righteous anger, no hysterics.

I was genuinely curious: Why would someone say that? After all, I’d been teaching for about ten years at that point. Sure, I knew the hierarchy. I knew my place in the scheme of things. But our department chair treated adjuncts with respect and dignity. We even had monthly staff meetings where we discussed best practices, problems, shared success stories, and received training specific to our specialty (most adjuncts do not enjoy this level of departmental engagement).

The guy’s face fell. His sparkling, one-sided conversation had been wasted, after all, on a bottom feeder. Poor guy. He tried to speak. No go. As I pressed him with a follow-up question, he retreated to the drink table, grabbed the elbow of a woman I could only assume was his long-suffering wife, and leaned into her ear. I imagined him nodding my way, “That woman is an adjunct.


Fast forward another ten years. I’ve been at this adjunct thing far too long. In the meantime, the private college where I teach has made it a point to marginalize adjunct faculty. We are no longer invited to attend regular faculty meetings or paid to conduct one-on-one student conferences, and the college has scrubbed adjuncts from their website. In other words, they are hiding the majority of their faculty (of the 1,460 instructional employees, 74% of us are adjuncts). And while adjunct stipends, assignments, and student-centered programs are being cut, the top-tier administration and salaries swell.

Here’s the thing: I love teaching dynamic, highly creative people, I love being a teaching artist, I love working with other dynamic and talented teachers. And then there’s this: I’m so much better at this teaching thing than I was twenty years ago. So much better.

But, sadly, it comes down to the fact that it’s getting progressively harder to put up with all the nonsense.


So, why do it?

Why not just switch careers, you ask?

Well that’s none of your damn business.

Wait. Maybe it is your business.

Before I answer, let me ask you this: Would you ask a lawyer or an accountant—someone with comparable education and experience—the same question? Probably not. Instead, you might ask them: If you don’t like it, why not go to another firm? You can ask them that because you know that lawyers and accountants can slide to another firm and, most likely, end up with better pay and benefits.

These options do not exist for adjuncts. If you’re lucky, you’ll move horizontally from one mediocre work environment to another. Or you might go to a much worse work environment. And there are rarely pay increases (and no benefits).

Why?

As everyone knows, most colleges—public and private alike—are raising tuition and cutting student-centered programs in lieu of a thicker, downier administrative padding. On top of that, they’re cutting entire departments (see this article about “prioritization”), tightening belts, running the whole show like a for-profit business. And that means fewer full-time/tenure-track positions. And that translates into more low-paying, no-benefit adjunct positions.

It’s the same model businesses use (outsourcing, hiring seasonal employees) to appear profitable.

Chew on this from an article published five years ago (and while you’re masticating, think about how these numbers have surely bloated in the last five years):

“Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers. Over the past four decades, though, the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents”—that is, slots filled by two or more part-time faculty members whose combined hours equal those of a full-timer—increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this imbalance—between those who interact with students and those who do not—is messed up. I could go on for 200 pages about it. Instead, I suggest you read this and this and this.

In the end, most adjuncts hustle. To make ends meet, they copyedit and write, teach at two, three, or four colleges.

So, yeah, like full-time faculty, they work hard.


I am bracingly aware that there are about 50 million more pressing issues in the world—racial injustice, climate change, mass shootings—but in the end it comes down to this: teaching is important.

And teachers—whether they teach elementary, middle, high school, or college, whether they teach in a charter, private, or public school—should be paid well and fairly.

Lately, it is in vogue for legislators to declare open season on teachers. Some legislators turn red in the face while pointing out that some teachers make up to $80,000 a year. Yeah. Some do. But the majority of teachers and professors make nowhere near that.

And, on top of that, legislators are increasingly making it their business to micromanage our jobs.

Take for example, Wisconsin has approved proposals to limit the faculty’s role in shared governance and eliminate laws protecting tenure. And Iowa Senator Mark Chelgren’s Senate File 64 stipulates that any faculty who fails “to attain a minimum threshold of performance” based solely on student evaluations would be automatically fired regardless of rank or tenure.

This is beyond absurd and smacks of schoolyard bullying. They also divert our attention from the real issues, issues that could actually improve education.

And the majority of teachers—at all levels—are terrified of this political climate, a political climate that demonizes teachers as highly-paid sloths. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This kind of wrongheaded political leadership trickles down. In the past decade, many (but not all) upper-level administrators have stopped listening to faculty. They marginalize dissenting voices and reward those in lockstep with their plans.


You might have heard that Chicago is hunkering down for another epic battle between the Chicago Teachers Union and, well, just about everyone else. In December of last year, 88% of the approximately 27,000 teachers in the City of Chicago, who serve over 400,000 students and their families, voted to back a strike.

Picture this: Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and CPS teachers taking on many (but not all) CPS parents, politicians including Governor Rauner and Mayor Emanuel, Emanuel’s handpicked CPS School Board, and charter school operators.

In terms of power, that’s like Spartacus and his motley crew taking on the Roman Empire.

As if that wasn’t enough, add the very powerful “education philanthropists” or “venture philanthropists”. They’re investors who have a hell of a lot of sway with our elected officials because, increasingly, when it comes to education, money talks.

“Venture philanthropists” want to make educational systems look like well-run corporations. They want education to hum. They don’t like messiness (even though the learning/creative process is inherently messy). They propose turning education systems around the same way a corporation can be turned around (read this article about how millions of philanthropic dollars slated for Newark Public Schools went to consultants instead of students). But, in too many cases, well-meaning philanthropist dollars are squandered, with little money actually making it to student-centered programs.


And don’t forget this lovely little diversion: Politicians are always talking about giving parents and students choice.

Isn’t that thoughtful? No.

Choice is code for charter schools. And, just for the record, a charter school is not a private school. What’s the distinction? Charters take our tax dollars in the form of subsidies. Private schools do not. Charter school companies are often big contributors to political campaigns. Chicago Public School students do not, generally, contribute to political campaigns and that significant fact, it seems, puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to common sense public policy.

As it currently stands, this is a wrongheaded idea all around. Charter schools, subsidized by our tax dollars, are not held to the same standards as public schools. Unlike public schools, they can pick and choose which students to accept. In other words, they can turn away children with special needs because those children will bring down their overall test scores. And even though charters exclude the neediest students, they happily accept all public tax dollars.

Again, it is worth repeating, many charter schools contribute heavily to political campaigns.

While education may not be a “fundamental right” under the Constitution, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires that when a state establishes a public school system (and every state has a public school system), no child living in that state may be denied equal access to schooling. That essentially means that all kids in America be given equal educational opportunities no matter their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen. Public education—in any country—is a powerful and profound equalizer. An informed and educated public that can think critically is one of the best investments we can collectively make.


But what do the adjunct issue and the broken state of higher education have to do with a public school strike?

Everything.

Remember that education reform, as it has played out over the past few decades, has very little to do with students and everything to do with business. Many colleges and university administrators were sold a bill of goods from education consultants. These same education consultants have turned their gaze to public school systems. They, in turn, talk politicians and administrators into implementing tired and outdated business models. These include hiring more highly-paid administrators, consultants, and teams of lawyers to fight established unions. They then roll out a restructuring plan with little to no authentic input from faculty, parents, or students.

Take this for example: A few years ago in Chicago, our handpicked (appointed by Mayor Emanuel) school board approved a no-bid $23 million dollar contract pushed by the former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (also appointed by Mayor Emanuel). This contract, to hire an outside consulting firm (to do something … no one was really sure what … principle training …), a consulting firm where Byrd-Bennett formally worked, was a monumental hoax on Chicago taxpayers. It is alleged that Byrd-Bennett hired this consulting firm on the condition that she receive a 10% kickback.

How did Byrd-Bennett plan to—allegedly—use that money? To pay for her grandkids’ tuition … and a few casino visits.

Of course.

In lieu of the 2013-2014 Chicago Public School closings of over 50 schools, imagine how many ways that $23 million could have been spent wisely?

It’s enough to make a taxpayer sick.


In the end, the issue comes down to respect. The people doing the real work, the slow and often frustrating but glorious work with students, are being marginalized, their dignity and pride stripped; and folks who want to bilk the system are bilking to beat the band.

Big time.

Will our elected officials and top-level administrators treat teachers respectfully? Engage in meaningful dialogue? And if they do engage, will they listen? And if they listen, will their actions reflect that understanding?

Just last week, and despite the lack of an Illinois State budget, our Governor and the GOP proposed an agenda to allow for an emergency financial authority, appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education, to take over Chicago Public Schools in the wake of a $500 million funding shortfall.

Takeover? The State of Michigan appointed an emergency manager to right the Detroit Public School budget six years ago. Since then, the Detroit Public School budget has fallen even deeper in the red.

These appointees, often with no public policy experience, are given carte blanche to make important decisions that impact hundreds of thousands of people. This kind of appointment is fundamentally undemocratic, allowing unelected officials to make big decisions. (Note: Flint, Michigan’s water crisis happened under the watch of a State-appointed emergency manager. Read this excellent article by MLive’s John Counts about the crisis here.)

If it comes down to a State takeover of Chicago Public Schools, will Illinois Governor Rauner’s appointee be a person who knows how to run a business? Or someone with public policy and education experience?

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of faith in Rauner. Just yesterday, news broke that, while there has been a six-month budget crisis and crucial funding for the neediest Illinoisans has been slashed or cut completely, First Lady Diana Rauner hired a “chief of staff” for $100,000 a year.

This fact illustrates the disturbing disconnect between our businessman-Governor and the taxpayers of our State.


Be vigilant. Question rhetoric. Is it coming from those who are looking to personally gain from education reform? Or those genuinely interested in helping students? Listen to sensible reformers. If you chip away at the status quo and peel back the rhetoric to focus on the problem, you’ll see that the teachers are just trying to do their job.

Let’s help them.

 

Christine Rice

Christine Rice is the author of Swarm Theory, published by University of Hell Press. Her stories have been published in Roanoke College's Roanoke Review, American University of Beirut’s “Rusted Radishes,” Farleigh Dickinson University’s The Literary Review, and online at Bird’s Thumb. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, The Good Men Project, The Urbaness.com, CellStories.net, F Magazine, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. Christine is the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine and the director of Hypertext Studio Writing Center. She has been an adjunct professor since 1992 and was recently awarded the 2015 Ragdale Rubin Fellowship.

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