Unlivable teachers’ salaries put Catholic higher education in existential crisis

In 1955, Mgr. John Tracy Ellis, sometimes called the unofficial dean of historians of the American Catholic Church, commonly accused American Catholic colleges and universities of second-rate intellectual scholarship standards. Her review struck a chord and brought about self-reflection and some change.

Of course, a lot has happened since 1955. Sadly, however, urgent questions arise as to whether much of American Catholic higher education is again in second-class status in general and is not even reaching it. to foster excellence in the areas of traditional Catholic learning in particular.

Consider the extraordinary dependence on adjunct professors and other contingents. What does this dependence mean for Catholic identity and for intellectual excellence, especially in the fields of the arts and the humanities? As Gerald J. Beyer reports in his recent book, Fair universities: Catholic social education Confronts corporatized higher educationAccording to data from the American Association of University Teachers, 71% of all college teachers are now occasional professors. Only 14% hold a mandate, while in 1969, three quarters were holders. About 75% of auxiliaries do not have a job outside academia and really want a career in higher education. But can they afford it?

Obviously, they can’t afford it. The national median salary, according to Beyer, for a three-credit course in 2010 was $ 2,700, and when auxiliaries were successful in unionizing, there was a premium of about an additional $ 600 per course. In 2019-2020, the average salary only increased to $ 3,556. As Beyer notes, the annual salary of auxiliaries is “on the verge of poverty,” according to the House Committee on Education and Work.

This precariousness of the university workforce is, not surprisingly, considered to be the most serious problem in higher education, and it is more acute in Catholic institutions. During all the years that I was an administrator at one of these Catholic colleges, a lingering concern was how to ensure that students were taught by auxiliaries who truly supported the mission values ​​of the college. We needed instructors. The instructors wanted jobs. Inevitably, there was a “drift” in the values ​​of the mission. With such a shift in mission, what confidence can donors have in the future mission of these schools?

We can also ask ourselves who, then, wants this career? I have a son who, after years of successful teaching in a Catholic high school, enrolled in the doctoral program at the Institute for American Studies at Harvard. After five successful years, he left because at the time the only vacancies were in Louisiana and Montana, and he had promised his wife that they would return to Northern California. My son said to me, “Dad, as an assistant, I would teach here one morning, another college in the afternoon, and yet another tomorrow, living in the trunk of my car, with no health care or retirement benefits, and no job security semester to semester, and little hope of ever getting a permanent position. I cannot be successful as a husband and father in higher education Unfortunately, he was right. If this story is reproduced, and it is, then what is the future of Catholic higher education if there are no “enclosures” for aspiring academics to pass? their life in critical intellectual work?

Could unionization help occasional teachers build stable relationships? Unionization is currently not possible under existing legal precedents. These unfavorable precedents were won, unfortunately, by Catholic colleges, including Duquesne (spiritual), Manhattan (Christian Brothers) and Saint Xavier (Sisters of Mercy). Although unionized for several years, St. Leo (Benedictine) University in Florida has just used these unfavorable precedents to withdraw from any collective bargaining relationship, leaving its faculty to the suffering of a board of administration more keen on a dictatorial operation.

This opposition to unionization was encouraged in briefs from friends of the court by the two associations representing American Catholic colleges and universities, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. This opposition from the latter is particularly disappointing in view of the Jesuits’ attachment to “justice”.

Money, of course, is the engine of this opposition. Whether the motive for opposition is a concern for good management or one more associated with crass and capitalist business instincts, the result is the same for the faculty: no hope of coming together for better wages, hours and more. conditions. Assistants, for example, would like to negotiate for better wages, for at least pro-rated benefits, and for processes that would lead to tenure and career positions.

The reader will no doubt have already wondered how this opposition of Catholic universities and the associations which represent them can be reconciled with Catholic social doctrine. The short answer is he can’t. The boards of these institutions – comprising businessmen who are probably ignorant or even hostile to Catholic social teaching, their leaders and associations – simply do not accept the teaching of the church and prefer politicians. anti-workers.

How can these colleges and universities claim to have a future dedicated to Catholic identity and serious Catholic intellectual research and teaching if they cannot themselves be righteous in pope-led paths in social teaching? Catholic ? Isn’t their very claim to Catholic identity and to all the lofty aspirations of their respective mission statements hollow and even deceptive enough?

The unsustainability of the tuition fee hike leads to another question: should some of these institutions even continue to operate if they can only do so at the expense of an undervalued and subservient contingent faculty? The Holy Spirit does not guarantee their continuity.

If philosophy and theology are no longer taught beyond perhaps a small assortment of religious studies offerings, what is the point of continuing? Can we justify the huge expense to train students for jobs in today’s economy when it may be without moral and religious values ​​associated with Catholic intellectual tradition? Could we not better follow the oratorical model of the previous experience of Cardinal John Henry Newman and center quality institutions of philosophy and theology around secular universities? Wouldn’t that at least provide a contribution of the Catholic intellectual tradition to higher education without doing so at the expense of cheap labor at odds with those same Catholic values?

In his bestselling 1955 article, republished as 1956 American Catholics and intellectual life, Ellis concluded with an expression of his personal hope for what he called the “exalted mission of the intellectual apostolate on the part of the Catholic scholar”. Quoting historian and political scientist Clinton Rossiter writing in Yale Review, he envisioned that Catholic higher education could “rest its own strong faith in constitutional freedom and democracy on the foundation of these traditional, even eternal values: religion, justice, morality ”.

Of course, our times have changed and a more ecumenical apostolate is necessary and desirable. His question today might be whether our Catholic colleges and universities are simply competing without any distinctive contribution from Catholic tradition. As long as they cannot themselves “do justice” to those who carry out their daily mission, this existential question remains painfully open.

We need another period of reflection and change, analogous to 1955. Will someone lead it before consumers decide the product is not distinctive enough to be worth teaching? ?

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