The poverty crisis in universities today has reached hallucinatory proportions. Fifty-eight percent of students were experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness, in a survey of 200,000 students at 202 different institutions of higher education in the year 2020 by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. At the same time, approximately 40% of the professoriate in the United States is paid poverty wages, with few or no employer-funded benefits, despite empirical evidence that faculty incomes are factors in student outcomes. Graduate teaching assistants and educators on short-term contracts, including approximately 75% of faculty, are in contingent positions. Imposing poverty conditions on educators and students in higher education poses a fundamental threat now that we have limited time to stop climate devastation on earth, and saving our planet depends on educating the electorate. Poverty in academia is remediable, however; a concerted movement of university donations could wipe out poverty as a barrier to educating voters.
The poverty-driven exodus from college teaching jobs has given rise to a copious literary genre called “Quit Lit;” nonetheless, it is virtually never said in academia that the impoverishment of educators and students will have a direct impact on our democracy and our climate. It’s time to start conversations about the threat to the earth caused by poverty in higher education.
You’ve never felt the lack of sustainable healthcare access on campus more acutely than when you’re hiding behind a locked door with a group of students and colleagues while New York City police officers go from room to room in search of an undergrad who posted a selfie on Instagram with a gun and a threat to the community. As people tensely scrolled their phones, I thought about a student whose weekly quiz scores in my Italian class had varied widely in inverse proportion to the work hours imposed by the low-wage jobs that the student needed in order to stay in school. As we waited for the “all clear” announcement, I thought of how, even with health insurance, an injury could devastate a low-income family whose household survival depended on perpetual minimum-wage work.
Not only the students who study until 3 a.m. after working low-paying jobs all day and attending class at night, but, in fact, the vast majority of college students have professors who are, themselves, so preoccupied with food insecurity that they run from campus to a series of second and third jobs. Families of undergrads everywhere should know that an average of 40% of college faculty members are unpaid for grading, writing letters of recommendation, course preparation, curriculum creation, holding office hours, conference travel, professional development, printing papers, membership fees for academic associations, publications, sabbaticals, health insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, unemployment insurance, parental leave, family leave, pensions, and vacation and sick days. For many faculty members, it is physically impossible to spend their weekends writing unremunerated letters of recommendation for their students, like the six letters I wrote for the undergrad who had watched a beloved grandmother die of exposure in a neighborhood left without services for months after Hurricane Sandy. When it comes to finding unpaid hours to get to know students and to write letters for them, most faculty members are too busy trying to make rent.
The institutional silence on academic poverty can mean death, as is painfully evident in so many stories like that of Thea Hunter, who earned her doctorate in history from Columbia during some of the same years when I was there earning mine in Italian, although I can’t remember our paths ever crossing. With scholarship so innovative that Eric Foner sang its praises in a recent memorial in the Atlantic, Thea Hunter gave up a tenure-track position, in part because too many people on campus discriminatorily claimed she was the janitor based solely on the color of her skin. Afterward, she endured years of poverty wages as a contingent faculty member, and she died in 2019 with organ damage resulting from asthma and heart disease. Practically every contingent faculty member has forgone or delayed needed medical testing or treatment, because “sick days” can result in courses being reassigned to substitutes, leaving us with zero income. The Ivies are not immune from involvement: according to the Atlantic, Thea Hunter had a series of contingent positions at my own beloved alma mater, Princeton, before teaching at institutions in New York City. I know of no campus that is immune. In 2019, Columbia’s English Department failed to place a single PhD candidate in a tenure-track job.
We need voters capable of understanding the urgency of reducing fossil fuel emissions. We need voters with effective language skills to spread the word. We need resilience, grit, and empathy in the face of natural disaster. Studying the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites means gaining access to evidence that inspires life-sustaining compassion, evidence that sparks discussion and analysis, evidence that expands our conceptions of the infinite possibility of being, evidence that shows us what we fight for if we fight to save the earth.
To the people who tell people with doctorates to pursue “alternative careers” against their wills, I say that the need for committed college teaching is greater now than ever before. What the world needs now are educated voters. If human life on earth is an experiment we hope to save from climate change and political instability, then we must address poverty as a barrier to educating the electorate.
A wave of university donations could stamp out poverty in academia. University donors could give their names to endowment funds to provide meal plans and housing for low-income students. University donors could also create named endowments to fund salaries and benefits packages for contingent faculty. College giving could eliminate poverty as an obstacle to educating voters who determine climate policies—policies that are our only hope of preventing catastrophic floods and fires.
What world are we leaving to our students? We all have a planet to save. Andiamo!
Diana C. Silverman holds a doctorate in Italian from Columbia University and teaches college Italian courses in New York City.