The real ‘second-class citizens’ of academia

Whatever injustices he may have endured in his career, Cornel West is still part of the privileged class in academia.

Riz Khan - Cornel West
Author and philosopher Cornel West delivers the keynote speech at the 42nd Annual Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative Service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary in Atlanta, Georgia, US on January 18, 2010 [File: Erik S Lesser/EPA]

At the end of February, pre-eminent Black philosopher Cornel West revealed that Harvard University has refused to consider him for tenure, triggering new discussions about inclusivity and justice in academia.

Arguing that tenure is the difference between “first-class citizenship and second-class citizenship in the academy”, West has since announced his decision to leave Harvard for the Union Theological Seminary.

West’s brilliant, four-decade-long career as a leading public intellectual and self-proclaimed “prophet of America’s present and future” has included tenure-stream and tenured professorships at Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, and also Harvard (West left a tenured position at Harvard University in 2002 after a dispute with its then-president. He rejoined the institution in 2016). So it is understandable that he felt like a “second-class citizen” when the higher-ups in Harvard denied him tenure the second time around.

But he also does not know what he is talking about. He has been part of the privileged class for far too long to know what “second-class citizenship” in higher education actually looks and feels like.

By comparison, what West considers as “second-class citizenship” is a couple of hundred steps up from the abyss in which I exist. I am in many academic circles seen as a cautionary tale and a tragic figure. That is when I am considered at all.

My status in the world of higher education as an adjunct (or “ad-junk”, as I have often thought of myself) or contingent faculty? I am merely cannon fodder to the needs of the institutions for which I have worked off and on since 1997 – the last hired, the first to be let go. Even some of my former undergraduate and graduate students see me this way. I have certainly seen looks of pity mixed with contempt in their eyes enough times.

More than 70 percent of all faculty at higher education institutions in the United States are contingent faculty. This breaks down into several categories: visiting professors, postdoctoral fellows, full-time contingent faculty, and part-time contingent faculty. The last two categories dominate the landscape, yet there are so many tenure-track and tenured faculty who have made a point of conflating visiting professors and others with full-time jobs outside of higher education with the rest of the serfs.

“Not all adjuncts are the same,” are what the privileged tell me when I complain about having to teach as many as 10 courses a year at two or three different universities in order to make a living wage. The privileged say such things because they believe their blues are more significant than ours.

In the 17 years in which I have drawn my income solely or primarily as contingent faculty (in other years, I have worked primarily in the nonprofit sector or as a consultant), the most I have earned teaching in any calendar year is $39,000. When a university cancels a class I am scheduled to teach due to low enrolment, I don’t get paid. I am not rewarded with a paid sabbatical or tenure, no matter how well I teach, no matter how many years I have put in. Heck, I am lucky if I get to create any new courses at all. I typically teach introductory-level history classes, the courses most of the privileged class tenures themselves out of.

What the privileged do not understand is that we are all in the same toxic and leaky luxury cruise liner known as academia. Many (if not most) contingent faculty also have doctoral degrees from elite institutions (mine is in history from Carnegie Mellon University, for example). Like many of my privileged colleagues, I have written scholarly articles and I have churned out two books for public consumption. I have also written a tonne of articles for publication for newspapers, magazines, and online news outlets. I have 20 years of teaching experience. I have presented papers at major conferences multiple times over. What really differentiates the privileged them from the unprivileged me are their connections to the rest of the privileged class, and sheer dumb luck.

I am rarely the jealous type. I do not try to compare my burdens, my accomplishments, my gifts and my torments with anyone else. But it gets hard to not be envious when I see privileged faculty complain about teaching four courses a year while simultaneously talking about their next three book projects. Or, with tenured and tenure-track faculty of colour, when they stress about being on meaningless diversity committees, or the burden of too many students interested in working with them. Those “meaningless diversity committees” provide them with a voice, however limited, on lily-white campuses, among many benefits, tangible and otherwise, including popularity with students. The only benefits I possess are through my partner, through genetics, or through God’s grace, but definitely not because of academia.

I would not expect anyone to do what the late constitutional law professor and critical race theorist Derrick Bell did in the last phases of his illustrious career. He took a two-year sabbatical from Harvard Law School over its refusal to grant tenure to any of its Black women faculty in 1990. Bell eventually resigned from his tenured position in 1992, and became a visiting professor at New York University School of Law, where he continued until he died in 2011. Bell had also resigned as dean of University of Oregon Law School in 1985, after that school had failed to hire an Asian American woman to join its ranks. Now, this was a man who truly believed in the principle of “lifting as we climb”.

What I am sure of is that the privileged class in academia will never willingly use their privilege to make higher education less toxic for themselves or the hoi-polloi. The Black privileged class in academia will be both too elitist and too in fear of losing their status to do more than send an encouraging tweet or provide a rare pat on the back. No, contingent faculty like me will likely have to walk out en masse in order to end up with basic protections and rights. And that is why so many of the unprivileged among us possess rage – a quiet, unnoticed, and marginalised rage, but one that exists, anyway.

Cornel West fears “second-class citizenship”, even though he can land a lucrative job anywhere. But for “ad-junks” like me, Dante’s First Circle of Hell would be preferable to the deep abyss in which I and others find ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.