The Underpaid Professor
Visiting Professors’ contributions are underappreciated
This is Professor Dionne Bensonsmith’s last semester teaching “Race, Gender and Welfare Politics” at Scripps College. Without her presence on campus next year, privileged students will not likely learn the shocking history of the welfare system, which they have never needed.
But Bensonsmith’s absence next fall raises a more fundamental question about reliance on temporary professors at the Claremont Colleges. On a national scale there has been a decrease in the proportion of full-time, tenure track faculty positions, as schools find it more economical to employ visiting professors whom they can pay class by class. Today, three-quarters of all faculty appointments at colleges and universities are non-tenure track positions.
Bensonsmith will be unemployed when this semester ends. “I have a Ph.D. but…I make the same amount of money as a friend with a high school diploma. We have reached a very perverted point in the system. I don’t know if having people visit [non-tenure track professors] is the problem. The problem is that the pay is very low,” she explains. “Nobody talks about being economically insecure.”
A single mother of two, Bensonsmith makes $7,000 per class, plus a little extra for being a thesis reader, coming in at around $30,000 per year, a large portion of which goes to paying her health insurance. For non-tenure track professors who teach part time – less than four courses – health benefits are not guaranteed by Scripps. In comparison, an article in the February 2012 issue of the Port Side found that Scripps’ highest-paid professor makes a base salary of $142,939.
Claremont students have shown an interest in the pay rate and working conditions of dining hall workers. However, students are mostly unaware of the realities of life for visiting professors. At bigger institutions like NYU, this issue is far more visible as adjunct and part time faculty have unionized. Bensonsmith can tell that students fail to understand the difference between temporary and permanent professors in everyday interactions, when students assume that people like Bensomsmith are just like any other faculty member. She gives the example of the number of students who ask her questions about aspects of college life she knows or cares little about, such as the registrar’s deadlines.
“California has the freeway professor – picking up classes at a lot of different schools. When I had a tenure track position [at a previous institution] of course I knew the registrar’s deadline and who to call for suicide prevention, etc…all the things I’m supposed to know as part of the institution. But here…I’m just hired to come teach your class; I’m not paid to be intertwined in the institution. I’m not being rude – I’d really like to tell [students] all of these things, but I have to find another job,”says Bensonsmith.
And it is not only the details that she does not have time to assist students with. Bensonsmith explains that students lose out in other ways when professors know they will only be at an institution for one to three years. Full-time faculty, she says, will be more willing to write grants for students to do research with them, invite students to conferences, mentor them and introduce them to professionals in their field of study. “You’re going to suffer for it. I’m going to leave and you’re going to want a recommendation, you’re going to want to keep ties,” Bensonsmith says of her students.
In other words, students benefit from secure faculty who no longer have to spend time job-hunting, who put down roots in the community and who can afford to invest extra time in students. Temporary and visiting professors often have the same level of education as tenure-track professors. Bensonsmith was previously a tenure-track professor at Grinnell College, in Iowa. But she left that job because she didn’t like the institutional environment. Bensonsmith then took what became a string of jobs being a visiting professor at various colleges. She has moved several times with her two children and lives several states away from her partner, both of which are common downsides to her profession.
Bensonsmith says, “It’s a two-tiered system.” Once a professor is labeled a “visiting professor,” they often can’t find a tenure-track position: “When you take a tenure-track position, you take what you can get because you’re not going to get another one.”
Bensonsmith contradicts this dismal picture herself, even in giving up an hour and a half of her time for this interview while her mother watched her children at home, her four courses await preparation, and a job remains to be found. When asked about the next step for her career, Bensonsmith revealed, “I don’t have the ability to do this for much longer. It’s demoralizing. I love teaching, I am remarkably dedicated to the craft, but not to the detriment of my children’s future and not to the detriment to my own health…I don’t have a problem leaving academic teaching for something else.”
Katherine Norwood SC ‘13 took Bensonsmith’s “Gender Politics and Public Policy” class last semester. “Her class offered something to me – it could have been better in a lot of ways but I was interested in the material and her background…I always thought it was so cool that she played basketball at Notre Dame. I remember writing a paper for her class about Cheryl Swoops, the first WNBA player to come out…it’s hard for me to find humanities classes that have topics that I’m interested in writing about.”
Emma Brillhart SC ‘14, who has taken two classes with Bensonsmith, said that she believes the temporary nature of her professor’s position had a negative impact in the classroom: “I think Bensonsmith tread very carefully with a lot of the stuff she said because she wasn’t in a tenure-track position… I think she felt like a bit of an outsider in the community…it was not the best for her. The fact that she didn’t feel as secure in her position meant that she didn’t give us her very best teaching performance which was too bad because she has a lot of interesting stuff to say.”
Many blame the college ranking system for providing incentives for institutions that do not necessarily serve the students. The 2012 U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings considered the proportion of faculty who are full time to be worth just 0.8 percent of a liberal arts college’s total value. If it is true that administrators are making decisions based upon national rankings, however, then perhaps it is time for a different ranking system.
Bensonsmith agrees, and adds that she believes factors like student body diversity and faculty of color are also notably missing from the current methods used to judge schools.
Norwood says she would not worry about the number of visiting professors a school hires, “unless the majority of professors are visiting professors. Then that might be a little iffy…you’d think there isn’t much stability there. That might not be the best learning environment.”
Referring to the nationwide increases in the proportion of visiting professors employed at colleges and universities compared to tenure-track faculty, Brillhart comments, “I’d like to think that schools aren’t just [hiring more visiting professors] based on the rankings. The economy probably has much more to do with it. There are upsides and downsides – I mean at least [visiting professors] are getting a salary even if it’s not one with benefits.”
Pomona was the only college to respond to the Port Side’s inquiry into how many visiting professors each college employs and what sorts of benefits are available to them. Pomona employed seventy-five visiting professors this year. Professors who had at least half time status were eligible to participate in the college’s benefit plan.
Students should demand transparency from the administrators about how many visiting professors the schools hire from year to year, because if the proportion is increasing, we are ultimately the ones who will lose out if our professors have less time for us.
And if we do not like the colleges’ answers, we must voice our concerns. “The one thing that administrations and boards respond to is consumer preference,” Bensonsmith suggests.
Professor Bensonsmith emphasized how much she loves teaching at Scripps several times during our interview. It is clear that she is disappointed to be leaving. But she wasn’t misled by the administration when she was hired–she was fully aware that her appointment was temporary and that it would not lead to a permanent position. Brillhart wants the schools to make a greater effort to include student input when it comes to hiring visiting professors: “If the professor has a knowledge base that students are really excited about the school should make a greater effort to either: (a) hire that person or (b) hire a professor with a similar knowledge base, because it’s unfair for students to receive the kind of knowledge they deem valuable for only two years.”
When asked if she thought Scripps should hire Bensonsmith, Brillhart said, “She has a lot of expertise professors at Scripps and even across the 5Cs don’t have. It comes down to the resources the school has. I’m not really sure what’s going on with that right now, but if they have a position available, she certainly has a lot of really valuable knowledge to provide.”