Pity professor poverty?

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When most of us think of the typical college professor the image of a tweed-afflicted, leather-patched, overly facial-haired dude with a penchant for pipe smoking and an inability to locate his housekeys may come quickest to the mind. But these days when the real college professor stands up, he may look more like an overworked, overtired "migrant worker" of the fields of academia that the new economy is encouraging than the lovable Mr. Chips of memory. The advent of the adjunct professor has created a new class of overeducated poor in America, and nowhere has this category of exploited worker been more apparent than within the extra-hallowed halls of America's Catholic universities. More to our shame.

Recent editorials in both the Seattle Times and the Milwaukee Tribune have noted with unease the growing reliance of public and private universities on adjuncts who typically work at an alarming fraction of the pay-per-class that associate or full professors receive and completely liberated from benefits of any sort. The Milwaukee Journal reports that since 1975 colleges and universities have moved from mainitaining a training pool of perhaps 30 percent adjuncts to a resent-filled crowd of 50 percent.

The move to adjuncts has helped many institutions cut spending. It costs up to 80 percent less to hire a part-time faculty member than a full-time faculty member, "but the trend has raised questions about equity and the impact on students," according to the Journal.

At the Jesuit Marquette University in Milwaukee, fellow academics have pushed to call the question. Last year the theology department unanimously passed a motion demanding health care benefits for all professors teaching at least two classes. "Marquette teaches Catholic social doctrine which includes the principle that basic health care is not a luxury but a basic human right which must be honored," Daniel Maguire, theology professor and creator of the motion said at the time. "We looked at Catholic teaching, looked at what we're doing, and all agree that we must fight to change it."

The matter is heading for a full vote before the university academic senate on Monday. When it comes to matters of workers' rights and employers' responsibilities, the Catholic church has long said all the right things. But just ask any Catholic hospital employee or primary or secondary school teacher about how frequently we misfire when it comes to actually doing right by people who work for the church or its institutions.

It will be interesting to see if Marquette's academics can harness Catholic social rhetoric to power some practical social justice for adjunct professors. I think I can recommend some encyclicals they might want to pore over first.