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#4 Adjuncts and Higher Education with Jacob Richman
Episode 45th October 2020 • Terminal Value • Doug Utberg
00:00:00 00:27:27

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The state of higher education is changing dramatically.

The 'adjunct' role in teaching classes is becoming an item of necessity for Universities to stay cost competitive. Unfortunately, the rate of pay for many adjuncts is extremely low.

Doug and Jacob explore the situation and impacts to the broader health of higher education.

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Welcome to the terminal value Podcast where each episode provides in depth insight about the long term value of companies and ideas in our current world. Your host for this podcast is Doug Utberg, the founder and principal consultant for Business of Life, LLC.

Doug: Okay, everybody welcome to the terminal value podcast. I have Jacob Richman on the line here. And so the way that I know Jacob is we're actually both adjuncts at Portland state university. He probably adjuncts more actively than I did because I taught a class on finance information systems a couple of years ago. And then Jacob reached out to me to help with observing for the labor negotiations with the Portland state faculty. And he's actually a really, really interesting guy. He, in addition to his adjuncting, he's also done quite a bit of work with homeless advocacy and community art. And because one of the things that I really like to do with terminal value is just to bring a light onto just the uniqueness that people, you know, the uniqueness of people because I think that a lot of times there's a tendency to categorize people into you know, sort of one pigeonholed in one box or another, and there's not really any boxes everybody's really unique. And I think that it's, it's really illustrative to learn about that uniqueness. So Jacob welcome.

Jacob: Well, thank you for having me, Doug. It's I'm so glad to be here.

Doug: Yeah. And now I have to say, just speaking for myself, I found it a very unique and illustrative to be observing the negotiation process between the adjuncts and the faculty, because of course, right. You know, and in my semi simplistic mind, I think, okay. You know, Portland state, you know, progressive university, they're probably going to be really, really in favor of making sure that everybody's fairly represented and like, you know, but it is, you know, that is not the way that it works at all.

Jacob: No, unfortunately not.

Doug:  Yeah, there, there, you know, there, there, there was very much an upstairs and a downstairs in effect here.

Jacob:  Absolutely. And it's a little illustrative of the whole American higher education system as that the adjunctification of faculty throughout the country. Um, so I don't know if it's, if it's worth giving a sort of heads up, if folks have no idea what an adjunct faculty person even is or.

Doug: Jacob the Floor is yours. Yeah. Take the next two minutes. 

Jacob: Sure. Well, an adjunct faculty at a university or college is a part-time faculty person somebody who teaches a few courses or teach even a lot of courses, but it's through different hourly or credits requirements kept under full-time level. They are generally paid very little. They are almost entirely as a case that they're not paid, they're not, they don't have healthcare or other benefits. And it's not just as a small group. It's the majority of, of courses. And certainly the majority of students cause they tend to teach the larger courses in this country are taught by adjuncts and every university pretty much, and a Portland state our adjuncts teach about 40% of the courses at the university. And so we're, we're at Portland state to have a very active union and we're in contract negotiations with admin right now to just really fight for peanuts. You know, a small increase and our per credit pay an aspect of some greater aspects of job security and at least a path towards healthcare. And that's where I met Doug and, and that's how we came together

Doug: Well. And because the thing that really, really kind of the turning point for me, my mental model was when we were in some of the negotiation prep sessions, where there were the, you know, there were the conversations about the adjunct model kind of shifting from, Hey, you need to have a real job in order to support your teaching habit, to try and to say, well, if we really want adjuncting to be something that's viable, then there has to be a model to where adjuncting can be a career. And that, that was really a shift because I just assumed that you had to have a real job support your teaching habit. And I think that it's been a little eye opening because it's like you said, with Portland state, it's approaching 50%. I think that's by classes by student, it's probably a pretty clear majority nationwide. It's easily a clear majority. There's you there, there's this undercurrent where I think higher education is going to be at a lot of risk, if you can't figure out some way to make this model more viable. I mean, I think it's, I think that, you know, you've had, I think it's just, you have a lot of people who just really don't understand that there's another option. You know, or there's, you know, you have a it's the group is so fragmented that, nobody's really organized, you know, and you know, it's not necessarily, you know, a holding signs pay us more, pay us more, but it's that, you know, if you want, you know, if you want to have a reliable quality, you know, reliable quality people filling these adjunct roles, you're going to have to put some kind of fair shake together. Otherwise you have a lot of one and dones, you know, which is, which is kind of where I'm sort of at right now is I'm like, okay, does it really make sense to go back and adjunct? But a lot of times you're retaining those people is really important for your long-term viability. I don't let, let, let me get your thoughts. I don't want to steal too much of your thunder.

Jacob: No, not at all. You hit on it. It's a, it's a real existential quandary because and that's, I, I'm wearing a hat both as an adjunct and as a labor organizer. And the reality of it is that we is that people are making a career out of this because they have to.

Doug: Yeah.

Jacob: Because the market has the market for full-time college. Professors has, I wouldn't even say strong, but pretty much disappeared.

Doug: Yeah.

Jacob: To the point where you have people in all fields who want to teach college coming out still out of universities and graduate schools. And there's just no positions for them because the model has shifted. And these are incredibly talented people. I've never been in a more talented cohort than the one I'm in right now. They're very skilled and a lot of people who are adjuncts really, really have to hustle. So,

Doug: Yeah.

Jacob:  A lot of people do work  other unrelated jobs, everything from working at a grocery store  to like, you know, being a financial analyst and you know, it really runs the gamut. And for a lot of our members, not just of our union, but nationwide adjuncts who are in very economically dire situations. There've been a lot of stories about it and the national press in the past five years, which is good of adjuncts living out of their car of working at three or four universities, which is common. I work at two, I've worked at three at one point and, you know, driving from one university to the other together and trying to piece it together when the pay is really per course, anywhere from, you know, 3,500 to $5,500 for a course. And if you're only kept under full-time, you can, you know, you can work, teach a lot of courses and, you know, that's $15,000, $20,000 for the year. And so it's  very, it's very difficult. And as from a later point of view it's hard to organize because everybody is so scattered.

Doug: Yeah, exactly.

Jacob:  It's a really exhausted labor supply. The teachers are everywhere, they're hard. They can be hard to get a hold of. And we don't meet in the same spot necessarily to be able to organize in that way, but you know, our union as possible because there's people out there and they want to make a better life for themselves and for the folks after us. And so then that brings up the question, is this an unsustainable model? What are we doing advocating for it, for like, you're pushing the margins a little bit. Should we just abolish the whole system, whatever that means. But the reality is that there's people who are struggling now, our cohort has, you know, over a thousand members in any given time at Portland state adjuncts and those people, yeah. Those people need a contract, a better contract now. So, we think that we can, we have our priorities are to provide a better quality of life for our members one, and then to do what we can to push the system of higher education in this country towards a more sustainable model where it respects those who teach its courses, where if it means it has to fire a few, you know, quarter million, dollar, six figure, administrators from its ranks, or it has to readjust its priorities. We're here to, to push that debate along. Let's just say, um, because, you know, we're in it for our, the union's in it for our teachers and all of the teachers are in it for our students. The folks in my I mean Doug and everybody that I've met in my cohort of adjunct faculty at Portland state are incredible teachers and they love their students and they're loved by them.They tend to be more closer to the students age. They're certainly more closer to a state school is still affordable state school, like Portland state's, you know, background in terms of, you know, socioeconomic background and  class and race background. So we are really connected to our students and to, and know what they need to know to try and make it in this, in the society. So we have a lot of value and that value gives us leverage in these negotiations. And we plan on using that leverage to make our situation better for our members.

Doug: And it's funny, you, you brought up a memory when you said socio-demographic background. So I did my undergrad at Portland state. And so as an alumni back when I was going there, we used to call it poor students university because, you know, cause all of us were either trying to get out without student loans or we're trying to get out with as little student loans when we possible. 

Jacob: Yeah. Oh, I believe it. And, and, and we have, I mean there, again, it's difficult because we're all our cohort is can be hard to organize, but we were trying to be more forceful about what our connection is to our students, because those, if you have to think in a purely business way of thinking about it, and that's one way of thinking about colleges nowadays, is that students are the ones paying the bills. 

Doug: Exactly.

Jacob: They're the ones that accruing the debt. They're both the, the, you know. They're the people that you have to appease, or the whole thing falls apart to a certain extent. And we're connected to our students and are concerned about their well being. And I think a way that other cohorts aren't because we also have lots of student debt. We also have many, many adjuncts faculty at Portland State are alumni  and not even that, you know, not, not even that distant alumni, recent alumni. And so we know we know what it's like. And we know that our success and will be tied to students  success, that if we're able to, if, if we're provided with a livable wage and are treated with respect we will be able to do our jobs better to educate our students better and to make sure that the Portland and the state and the rest of the country, has a creative and talented group of folks coming, coming down. So we're really trying to tie our fate in with that of the students in our negotiations. And at a time when, you know, obviously pandemic has been very hard on everybody. We had Ariana and the other folks, Ariana Jacobs. Who's our chief of bargaining. She's doing an incredible job. And the rest of our bargaining team put out a statement to the board of trustees. That did I think, two amazing things to connect our, our union to our core values. One was a connected Portland state to its history as a diverse educational system. It used to be called Vanport. I got that. It was connected to the Vanport neighborhood, the workers in Vanport. And so the statement connected our, our history to that history and also in where the university had raised tuition. And this time by 5%. We requested that they lower tuition and we add enough, you know, we have enough smart mathematicians and statisticians and economists in our cohorts to be able to crunch the numbers and say, here's what we need to do to lower, to at least keep our tuition the way it at the rate it is, or even the lower it  because students are not getting what they want, what they paid for in a full tuition. They're not being able to come on campus for good reason. They shouldn't. Um, But we should cut them a break. We shouldn't be raising their tuition. And we think that that would be tied to a greater enrollment. And that would be able to alleviate some of the dropping enrollment that that prawn state has had, not just during the pandemic, but for years. And so we, we think that we, we feel close to our students closer, I think, than a lot of our other, other cohorts.

Doug: Yeah.

Jacob: In the administration. And we need that our fates are connected. And we were trying to make that point as, as loudly as we can.

Doug: Yeah I mean, and I think, you know, one of the things that I keep thinking is that I think the higher education model it's, like you said, it's like, you're saying when we were talking before the interview. The higher education model is going to need to shift just because right now it's, the, the cost is growing so fast. And a lot of that cost is just from the extremely high, you know, high carrying costs of the tenured faculty. And so it's like, you know, I don't know if you'd say you want to completely adjunctify but you don't, but it's like, if you can make adjuncting into a viable model, then I think that that could actually help bend the cost curve for higher education to, you know, to where you don't have you to where you can hopefully slow down the tuition rate increases so you can keep it, get it back in line with inflation, because I think, you know, tuition has been going up at like three to four times the rate of inflation for decades.

Jacob: Yeah.

Doug: That whole thing's going to blow up. I mean, it's all, it's basically already there.

Jacob: Yeah.

Doug: Portland state's and better in a better space state and a lot of places just because it's less expensive. But yeah, well, and I think in the, another thing you said that really kind of tuned us to something in my mind was, you know, you were talking about the importance of helping people to be productive in their lives and that kind of pins on another area of your advocacy, which is for homelessness and, you know, both in terms of awareness and in helping in driving viable strategies. So  for everybody who is from outside the Portland area, Jacob and I both live in the Portland metropolitan area, and Portland is one of the areas where homelessness is most prominent. And I think it's really easy to kind of look the other way or try to sweep it under the rug, but it's, you know, it's a really big deal because you have to, if you're going to have to do something with these folks one way or the other, you know, at some point they're going to get sick, they're going to end up in the emergency room. That's going to be extremely expensive. And the government's either going to be on the hook for it, or it's going to get cross subsidized by high, by higher insurance rates. So we're all gonna pay for this stuff somehow. And so I know you're, Jake has been a really, really powerful leader in helping to really drive some of the both awareness and really trying to find solutions at Jacobs. I'd love to hear a little more about some of the work you've been doing there.

Jacob: Sure. So I'm relatively new in town. I moved to Portland in the fall last fall from Providence  Rhode Island. And when I was there, I had been a co-facilitator for homeless advocacy, music and theater group called the Tenderloin opera company. It was called that because the founder who was my mentor a playwright and teacher named an activist named Eric N who spent a lot of time in San Francisco, worked on homeless advocacy, art, and collaborative art art making with folks, either on the streets and our folks who are advocates, who had been on the streets. And when he moved to Providence, Rhode Island to teach at Brown, he brought the group or at least brought the idea of it with them. And then I met him in a course there, and he wanted to, to start this up again. And we kept the name Tenderloin opera company as an homage to its beginnings. And then he eventually left that place and I continued on facilitating it. And we would, we meet, we still do meet weekly over zoom. Those folks in Providence are continuing the group now, you know, continuing on. But we it's made up of currently and formerly homeless folks, homeless advocates, people come together, tell stories, check in. Those stories become characters arise from those stories, those characters, then all of a sudden have different adventures. They interact with other characters that come from people's lives. Maybe somebody came in and talked about their favorite dog, and then we never saw them again, that dog's now a character in the story that grew and grew. And then we write songs for it. And then it becomes an opera and we perform these operas once a year. And then we perform songs from these operas. They're more like musicals. They're sorta like stories with songs that will break into song periodically. And, you know, we're not all trained, we're all professional musicians, but we did wrong and strong is our motto. And so what it has been for me and for the folks involved as been a great  proof of concept that people from different walks of life, people can come together and make art together, make music together in a way that can build community and in that community can then serve as a as it builds enough gravity where different connections start being made, people started getting connected with resources they need with housing, with transportation, with all these sorts of things, and it makes everything in the community better. So it's not just a kind of advocating, it becomes an active component of it, just the socialness of it, their most important thing for a group like that in any community art group is showing up and being consistent. And then coming here, it was sad to lose that close connection though, pandemic and being over...