Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and Cuba scholar with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She writes on Cuba, American popular culture, identity and higher education. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

CNN  — 

Imagine you’ve spent a significant portion of your adult life, say five to eight years, working toward the career you’ve always wanted – possibly even going into debt to do it, because the average wages are never sufficient to cover your cost of living. There are no guarantees, but you stick with it, toiling away with long hours and intensive training with experts that, to some, resembles apprenticeship. Then, once you’ve invested the time and effort to make it to the next level, you are invited to apply for a position that pays … nothing.

Rebecca Bodenheimer

Can you envision anyone asking a doctor or a lawyer to work for free? It seems ludicrous, laughable even. But it’s not, because it actually happened – to alumni of Southern Illinois University who have Ph.D.s.

Academic Twitter was abuzz last month after noted career coach Karen Kelsky posted a leaked email from an assistant dean in SIU’s College of Liberal Arts. It was addressed to department chairs and requested they help the school’s alumni association in recruiting “qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.” They would join a “pilot program” as “zero-time adjuncts” – in other words, SIU proposed recruiting “alumni adjuncts” with advanced degrees (Ph.D.s) to volunteer for duties including teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses, lecturing, serving on committees, and/or advising students, all for no pay.

SIU interim provost Meera Komarraju told local media that the pilot program would not place volunteers in roles as professors or on committees deciding policy; in her estimation, this would be beneficial for alumni, who “have left and they still have this strong love for SIU and they want to give back.” Whether this pilot program is meant to be a cost-saving measure (i.e., volunteers filling slots normally filled by paid faculty) or, as SIU argues, an alumni relations gambit, the idea of “provid(ing) ‘eager’ alumni an opportunity to give back” when they’ve already sacrificed their peak earning years to pursue a doctorate is insulting.

Ph.D.s will never have the earning power of some other skilled workers. No one enters the academy thinking they’ll strike it rich with permanent job security. And yet, all of this imagining should lead you to the same conclusion that many precarious academics (adjuncts and other faculty who don’t hold tenure-track or tenured positions, which provide job security) have drawn from this proposal: it’s offensive and completely demeans both highly educated professionals and intellectual labor in general.

Parents should be paying attention to this, too, because the numbers indicate that it’s overwhelmingly likely their kids will be in an adjunct’s classroom at least once and possibly many times during college. Exploitation of adjunct instructors – who constitute 70% of the instructional faculty at US colleges and universities – is already a well-documented crisis.

Coming on the heels of K-12 teacher strikes that have spread across the country – the past two months have seen statewide walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado – the lack of adequate compensation for educators is a hot-button issue right now. A recent poll found overwhelming, bipartisan support for addressing teachers’ complaints about inadequate pay, and a willingness to pay more taxes to remedy the situation. Thus, most Americans value (both symbolically and monetarily) teachers and want them to be paid a fair salary.

This makes SIU’s proposal particularly outrageous, not only because it asks people to volunteer to engage in the tough and often thankless work of educating, but also because (unlike with public K-12 education), parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars for their sons and daughters to get college degrees. Presumably, a good portion of those tuition fees go to faculty salaries. I don’t think there’s a parent in this country who would expect a college professor to work for free, and I bet they wouldn’t put much faith in one who would to provide his or her child with a good education.

Proposals like this illustrate the quickening pace of academia’s race to the bottom. I never thought I’d say this, but asking people with Ph.D.s to work for free in exchange for “intellectual interactions” with faculty getting paid to do the same work makes the woefully inadequate course rates paid to adjunct faculty – generally between $3,000 and $6,000 per course – seem not that bad by comparison.

This proposal also betrays the uniquely regressive labor politics in academia – which is, ironically, populated with many tenured scholars who call themselves Marxists and teach and write about class consciousness, but ignore the economic exploitation of adjuncts and other non-tenure-track colleagues. Academic culture and institutions also continually reinforce the privileged myopia that “loving what you do” makes up for not receiving monetary compensation.

Case in point: NYU psychology professor Jay Van Bavel recently tweeted, “Most of us choose to mentor students, update lectures, attend conference (sic), conduct new studies, etc because we love the work. Time flies compared to my prior white & blue collar jobs.” First of all, many professors don’t enjoy many aspects of their jobs, which, in addition to the tasks listed by Van Bavel, also include a large amount of “drudge work,” such as grading papers, attending faculty and committee meetings, and administrative tasks associated with teaching. I don’t know any professors who would choose to do this work because they’re just so passionate about paperwork.

Tenure-track and tenured professors do a lot of what looks like “free labor” to non-academics (writing unpaid journal articles and giving public presentations at conferences for no pay); however, these duties are all theoretically compensated by their salary and by the shine they add to their tenure or promotion files.

On the other hand, adjunct instructors are only being paid to teach one-off courses – usually for low pay and no benefits or permanent office space. If they choose to engage in other activities like publishing research or attending conferences (which they have to do if they want to be competitive for more stable positions), they are either doing it for free or paying out of their own pockets to do it.

Needless to say, this sets up academia to be the opposite of the meritocracy that it so often claims to be: it self-selects middle-class and wealthy candidates and eliminates those coming from poor or working-class backgrounds, which is disproportionately the case for people of color, who are perpetually underrepresented in academia.

Beyond the fact that many academics simply cannot afford to work for free, SIU’s call for volunteers sets a terrifying precedent in valuing the work of people with Ph.D.s at zero dollars. It’s much like writing “for exposure” in the freelance writing sector, and it threatens the labor power of academics writ large. I was disheartened to see a few academics stating on Twitter that they would be open to the possibility of volunteering their services if they could swing it financially.

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    Instead of sending a message to universities that these types of exploitative initiatives are acceptable, and just another consequence of the turn to the “gig economy,” precarious academics should look to the model of K-12 teachers, who are using strikes to successfully push for pay raises and other benefits. Indeed, the past five years have seen a major push toward unionization by adjunct instructors in higher education. As a recent successful strike by Loyola University Chicago instructors demonstrates, collective organizing and bargaining tactics are still the most effective way to counter academia’s regressive labor politics.