What are you up to nowadays?" I asked my American friend when I called her on a recent visit to New York.
"Trying to organise a union," she answered, not sounding quite as cheerful as she normally does.
"Union as in 'trade union'?" I asked, not sure if I had heard right. She was an academic, a teacher in her early 30s with a Ph D from one of America's renowned universities, and teaching at an equally renowned American public university; I did not remember her being drawn to marching to the support of fast-food workers nor did I remember her saying anything in support of things like Occupy Wall Street when that was a fashionable cause five years ago. But she is an idealist. She could have found a new cause.
"Who are these poor creatures to whose support you are rushing?" I asked.
"Ourselves, people like me, adjunct professors in our university," she replied. "We are demanding that we get medical benefits, like the full-time professors at our university."
When I got off the call I was puzzled. A four-year undergraduate programme in a university like the one where my friend teaches can cost the student at least $100,000. Why were such universities denying their adjunct professors such basic things like medical assistance, considering how expensive medical care in America is?
American universities are seen as the high-water mark of higher education worldwide. I know more than a few Indian parents who have mortgaged their ancestral home, taken bank loans at 14 per cent plus interest for hundreds of thousands of dollars and sent their children to these universities with the firm conviction that education will open not only the door to a great job but also open their children's minds with a great educational experience. Many countries try and persuade these well-known American universities to set up local campuses so more of their young people gain the educational experience that only these universities seem to provide.
Above all, when you think of an American university, you conjure up an image where professors occupy "tenured" positions - which means a "job for life" from which you need to retire only when you want to, with sufficient time for research. The American system of "tenure" is the envy of professors elsewhere in the world. Tenure, as Professor Simon Batterbury explains in an article in the journal, Policy Futures in Education, "originated as a legitimate response by universities to attacks on freedom of speech. These attacks date to the 19th century, but gained momentum during the McCarthy era after World War II. The American Association of University Professors and the Association of American College's joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure was issued in 1940, and is seen as a benchmark in establishing the existing system of tenure as '... a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability'".
A little research told me that the reality was something else. Of the 1.5 million university professors in the United States today, nearly a million, that is to say two-third, are adjunct professors, or "adjuncts". These adjuncts, who have at least a master's degree and often a Ph D, are hired one semester at a time and have no job security, nor do they have a fixed monthly salary - they get paid per class that they teach. Adjuncts typically make about $25,000 a year; by way of comparison, a doorman in a typical New York building makes about $35,000 a year. Recently, The New York Times carried a heart-rending story of Mary-Faith Cerasoli, an adjunct professor, who publicly protested her working conditions on the steps of New York Department of Education wearing a shirt with the words "Homeless Prof" written on it. Apparently, she had been reduced to "sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps".
When you ask around in America as to the larger meaning of this situation and its longer-term consequences, you get different answers depending on who you ask. University administrators say that substantial cuts in state funds to universities in the last two decades have made university finances so precarious that the only way out is the use of adjuncts, who cost a third or half of what full-time "tenured" professors cost. Others blame it on the trend in recent years of American universities expanding the number of executives in administrative functions at private sector-level salaries. All this co-exists with another phenomenon: college tuition is so high that students, after graduation, struggle to repay their loans from the earnings they are able to get from their jobs.
So you now have a paradoxical situation: students struggling to afford an education and professors working as adjuncts not making enough to get by. On another dimension, Elizabeth Segran, writing in The Atlantic, worries that with the vast majority of American college professors being now "adjuncts" fighting to eke out a living by scrambling between multiple poorly paid teaching jobs, the much vaunted research output of American universities may be at risk: producing scholarship is a luxury that these adjuncts cannot afford.
When I called my young friend again to see what she felt about these larger worries, she was much more cheerful: "Don't worry, our union has strong supporters. It has become affiliated to the UAW."
"Isn't UAW, the United Autoworkers Union, the union that represents assembly-line workers in American car manufacturing companies like Ford and General Motors?"
"That's right," she said. "The UAW wants more members and are happy to have us adjunct professors as their members. And we could use their expertise to negotiate with university administrators."
Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age