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Opinion | Alissa Quart

A bigger scandal at colleges — underpaid professors

(Photo illustration by LEsley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe)

Shameless indeed.

Last week, we discovered that Felicity Huffman, among other wealthy and famous parents, allegedly paid $15,000 to get her daughter additional time to take the SATs, with the promise that a bribed proctor would correct her answers; while Lori Loughlin, of “Full House,” allegedly paid bribes that pertained to her daughters faking that they played a sport.

As shocking as this scandal may be, I can’t help but entertain what is also shocking: What these folks did is not the worst thing happening in our educational system. Another scandal is not what is done illegally in the name of higher education, but what is done legally.

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Despite the $500,000 bribes and $2.5 million donations (looking at you, Jared Kushner), our whole university system runs on severely underpaid adjuncts and nontenured faculty. Many of our colleges are veritable intellectual sweatshops. One study found that only about 17 percent of college professors are tenured; contingent faculty compose the majority. A 2015 survey found that 62 percent of adjuncts earned less than $20,000 a year. Their median pay per course, as of 2014, was roughly $2,700. This army of educators often lacks health insurance as well.

Instead of praying at the altar of the colleges that have been dubbed desirable, parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids might do us all a favor and scan the (usually low) percentage of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track professors and choose to complain about it. They might then choose another university for their kid to attend.

The University of Southern California — the college that was the object of desire for Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who paid a startling amount to get her Instagram-“famous” daughter into it — leans heavily on its underpaid adjuncts. According College Factual, a startling 40 percent of their professors are adjuncts. The rise in nontenured faculty has been accompanied by an astronomical rise in the number of administrative positions at USC. And the adjuncts are paid poorly. As one former adjunct wrote, “I taught as an adjunct instructor at the University of Southern California for six years. At one point, I did the math on my pay and the average USC tuition and figured out that my pay for teaching a course was less than the tuition that just one student was being charged for just that one course.”

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While the college admissions scandal is being sorted out in a court of law, the cruelty and sloppiness of rich colleges’ overreliance on underpaid adjuncts has clear solutions as well. One of them is what I call the Fair Labor Seal, which is the equivalent to LEED certification. If colleges adopted the seal and it was given to a particular institution, the seal could serve as proof that the colleges paid their adjuncts at least $7,000 per course, provided them health insurance at some juncture, and let them participate in department decision-making with their colleagues. Other fixes include the admission of adjuncts into academic unions and limits on the number of new administrators that are hired.

Today, as we all gloat over the new lows that stars with beautiful ash blonde hair and a weakness for name-brand — albeit sometimes second-tier — universities have fallen to, we should also question why we are so horrified by their acts. Why are we not distraught by the ordinary scandal of adjunct mania at universities?

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Instead of standing in our glass houses sneering at the corrupt desperation of a real-life desperate housewife, we might be outraged on behalf of the many hard-working and well-trained professors toiling away for close to minimum wage, teaching America’s young adults. And then we should put our pain and disgust into advocating that these institutions pay their professors a living wage.


Alissa Quart is the author of “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,’’ and the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.