Today is my second day on a business trip to the great state of Nebraska, where I am consulting with York College, assisting in building a museum of ancient history. The project has been funded by a dear friend of mine who is an example of a very generous and righteous person who knows that his wealth was meant not only for him, but that he is the steward of wealth given to him by Providence in order to improve the world. I am grateful to consider him a friend and to have the opportunity to be part of this project.
While I have been here, receiving the gentle hospitality of the Nebraskans, I have come across aspects of the culture that I would never have imagined. I did already know that home prices in the Midwest are significantly lower than in the coastal cities I am usually associated with (L.A. and N.Y. to be specific), but I never knew how nice a home you could buy for a pittance. Our host, the kind and generous president of York College, informed me that one could obtain a decent home here for about $45,000. During our evening drive around the Town of York, and its environs this evening, the largest and most beautiful house we saw he estimated at around $300,000. One cannot even get into a “decent” house in the most run-down areas of L.A. for one tenth of the price they are here! Even after the housing bubble burst, home ownership is still way out of reach for most average earners. Why? Because we have been convinced that that’s what they’re worth, and someone is willing to pay it. In Nebraska, the same house, with much more property, in a safer area, with a slower paced lifestyle, in an area with a significantly lower cost of living—valued at one tenth the amount of its L.A. counterpart, just because of the popularity of the latter’s location. Sounds like a big con game to me.
And that’s just what I’d like to focus on in this post: con games. When I asked Dr. Eckman how many of the 35 faculty employed at York College were full-time, and how many were part-time adjuncts, he replied that about 31 of them were full-time. “Very few of them are part-time,” he replied. “It’s difficult for us to find qualified adjuncts here.” He then mentioned one or two who worked for them, among them a medical doctor and another, a physicist, who had just passed away. The impression I got was that they were “traditional adjuncts”, experts in their fields who were eligible to teach part-time to expand the students’ horizons and to give them knowledge that they would not otherwise obtain from full-time faculty. I told him that I found this admirable. This reminded me of something pointed out to me elsewhere: that often it is difficult for smaller colleges in rural or remote areas to fill their faculty with adjuncts, as more urban colleges do—and particularly more established and financially stable ones. It is these larger schools, in areas with a larger population of adjuncts to draw from, that seem to deliberately manufacture a cover story—crying poverty, or a need to be “more flexible”—and exploit the local population of scholars, who are more numerous in that area and are more susceptible to big business practices. In more rural areas, they cannot afford to be that dishonest and, perhaps, they realize that it is neither in their best interest in the long run, nor is it a just and admirable practice.
So, a school like York, with only 500 students, can afford to keep a faculty to student ratio of approximately 14 to 1 and not rely excessively and exploitatively upon adjunct labor? Good for them! So, if they can do it, why can’t larger schools, like USC or even my own employer, Loyola Marymount University? This, of course, made me think about the current campaign to unionize the adjunct faculty at LMU, of which I am among of the leadership. Perhaps York would be an example of a place that did not need a union. They appear to treat their faculty well. Of course, I am an outsider, and I cannot speak about what I do not know first-hand. But with the resources they have, certainly more limited than LMU or USC, they keep their focus where it needs to be: student learning conditions. And as many of us in this growing national movement to reform higher education and stop “adjunctification” of higher education have said, “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.” Perhaps our big city schools can learn something from these small town, Midwestern colleges. But my eye-opening experience did not stop there.
Not only does the Town of York have an extremely low crime rate, and affordable housing, but Dr. Eckman noted numerous instances in which the students regularly volunteer their time to better the lives of the residents, not least of which were their yearly excursions to paint the houses of the local elderly and infirm. And a number of Christian sojourners (retired missionaries and preachers) annually volunteer their time to paint and do other service at the school. This, dear reader, is Christianity at its best. A Christian school that sets a positive example to the community and students, and really takes care of its most susceptible.
But what’s more is that I learned that the great state of Nebraska has banned corporate agriculture. Any large farms must be farmed by families, not big “agri-business”. At first, I thought I misheard Dr. Eckman. Could it be? A statistically Republican state putting limits on big business?! The only down side is that many farmers are forced to farm plots two and three times the size of those farmed by earlier generations—in order to make ends meet—on account of the cost of the machinery involved in modern farming operations. But to combat this, there are things called Farmers’ Cooperatives. As a big city Los Angeleno (neither by birth or by choice, of course—transplanted New Yorker that I am), these are phenomena that I would know nothing about. But the president explained to me that these cooperatives, which are popular with some modern farmers, help to empower the individual farmers by sticking together with their neighbors and negotiating better selling prices for their produce, and better buying prices for their equipment and supplies. Gee, that sounds a lot like a union! Another thing that is traditionally rejected by conservative Republican platforms.
So here we are, “enlightened” (yes, those are scare-quotes) academics of the big cities, being told by bloated university administrations that we don’t “need” a union; that we can deal directly with the administration; that they cannot afford to pay us living wages; that they need to employ so many adjuncts to teach core courses in order to maintain “flexibility”; that this is just the way things are and we shouldn’t have gone into teaching if we wanted to earn a living wage. And the worst of it is that their rhetoricians keep telling us that we don’t need “some third party” coming in and telling us what to do—as if the union were a third party. Is the farmers’ cooperative a “third party”? No. It is the collaboration of a group of farmers, joining forces to ensure proper treatment in the face of bigger, profit-driven corporations—entities that Andrew Jackson repeatedly warned us about at the inception of the phenomenon; entities that are only as compassionate as the robber barons running them. And it is the lifeline of many smaller farmers. So, is a teacher’s union a third party? No more than a farmers’ cooperative is.
Maybe these big, urban universities could learn a lesson from their small town cousins. Maybe these rural farming communities can teach us something after all about the dignity of human beings and about community and justice. Thank you, Dr. Eckman, for teaching me about the dignity and the example of small town life. Maybe if they paid us a living wage, and treated us with the dignity with which these small town colleges are treating their faculty, our urban schools would not currently be living in fear of having a union.