A Letter to American Academics


Dear Fellow Academics,

I am a Canadian, presently residing in our capital.  For over a decade I have been a “part-timer,” an “adjunct professor.”  I am writing to the majority of American faculty, lecturers, and instructors who find themselves in similar employment circumstances.  This is not to say that the minority might not also find my correspondence of interest.



During study for a Masters in philosophy my mentor and I began less cynical discussion of the persistent and portended troubles of the university system, including how one might contribute mitigation or even correction.  This letter is a pitch of our resolutions, adjusted to your current affairs. 

I offer it out of collegiate and civil duty, with the hope that ultimately it provides a measure of relief to your pathetic numbers. 

To begin, most of us are familiar with the term, “full time equivalent” (FTE), as it applies to higher education accountancy.  Each FTE student represents an individual who attends a 4-year, Title IV Institution taking 5 full credit courses in a 9 month period of study, while each FTE professor is a statistical amalgam of the institutional labour devoted primarily to instruction and research based on a standard 40 hour week.

In the US there are 13m FTE students taught by a FTE faculty of 420,000, resulting in a national FTE student/faculty ratio of 31:1.  Less additional mandatory student fees, the national average tuition is $8200 per annum, making the cost per full credit course $1620 (based on the 5 course FTE measure).

With these figures we can determine that each of you on average generates roughly $250,000 per annum in tuition fee revenue for your respective institutions.  It is important to fully appreciate this figure.

It is derived from the simple multiplication of FTE students (31) by their annual tuition ($8200), or the total number of full credit courses 31 FTE students demand in a year (155) by the cost per course ($1620).  Further, the latter method brings into focus an indicator of teaching load, understood as the number of enrolees serviced per year.  If each FTE student represents 5 full credit courses, then the ratio of course enrolments (or purchases, if you will) to faculty would be 155:1.  

Now I ask that each of you determine personal enrolment (purchase) ratios and calculate the revenue your expert labour generates your employer.  I reviewed my records and in 10 years I provided service to an average 215 enrolees per year.  Using US (FTE) figures, with a course enrolment ratio of 215:1, this is annual tuition fee revenue of $348,000.  Perhaps your figure is more or less.  The American national average is $250,000.

Indulge me further and suppose that this revenue were paid directly to you, essentially converting tuition fees from a source of institutional revenue to personal income.  Could an individual earning $250,000 (or $348,000) per year independently operate a practice offering expert higher education and research services in areas such as the Humanities, Education, Business/Commerce, Law, Fine Arts, and “Soft” or "Formal" Sciences? My answer is unequivocally, yes.

Having been married to a personal injury litigator for 6 years I assure you an independent, professional legal practice can successfully operate on this sort of gross annual revenue, while maintaining a respectable personal income.  A professional academic practice could likewise provide a respectable income and certainly more than the national faculty average of $75,000/annum. 

I ask of you this final muse, what if on Monday you were to return to your office (assuming you have one or share one!) not as a union-represented, government-compensated, university-employee, but as a member of a newly recognized professional academic society, independently (or in partnership) offering your hard-won, crucial expertise to a consuming public? 

Logistically and academically not much need change.  What I am suggesting involves a conversion in vocational status and a consequent shift in financial model.  It describes a change in the paradigm or model for the delivery of higher education, not higher education itself.  It does not even call for the wholesale displacement of our established post secondary institutions.  

That being said, it is important to remember that the disciplinary content, curriculum, pedagogy, and research characteristic of higher education is utterly distinct from its current carriage – the functionary legal entity we call the modern university.  The introduction of a similar legal construct - namely, a formal profession - is thus not so much a radical leap in paradigms as it is a bureaucratic and administrative shuffle.

Higher education is indeed a valued social good, perhaps particularly to us academics.  But the same is at least equally true of the legal, financial, healthcare, and engineering services routinely provided under the professional service model. If we entrust the health, financial solvency, and safety of our children to independent, qualified practitioners operating within a professional society and social contract, then surely we can do the same for their higher education.

As peripheral academics we all have our stories. I part with one of mine.

Soon after my mentor and I began our ruminations on higher education, with MA in hand, I taught my first university course – a half credit with 85 enrollees   Early into this spectacular experience it dawned on me: Collectively the individuals in this one class represent over $50,000 in tuition fee revenue (at the time) and I am being paid roughly $3000.  The realization burst out of me and I informed the class.  A moment later a business major could likewise not contain himself, declaring my wages are about 5% of revenue and asked, "What happens with the rest?!” 

Indeed, I have until now been discussing the revenue from tuition alone.  But as we all know this represents a portion of the revenue sources tapped by universities, including their largest contributor, the American taxpayer.  This brings me to the civil impetus for my correspondence.

Even in the absence of a formal profession and social contract academics hold a trust with society.  The keystone of this trust is our vocational product – our academic expertise.  We generate, reposit and disseminate knowledge and so are crucial to collective and individual advancement.  The recognized professions hold a similar trust based on valued expertise – originally provided by academics, as part of our implied social contract.

I am not an expert in any aspect of higher education, but I have a proposal that I think warrants your review - if not for personal gain, then to earn the trust society places in us.

In the latter case higher education has been and continues to be heavily subsidized by the public.  If it were possible to offer higher education (in most subjects) under the protection and direction of a profession for the price of tuition alone, then billions would be saved annually by taxpayers.

The liberation of these funds could be used by society for any number of more worthy enterprises than the subsidy of a profession populated with individuals earning a quarter million dollars a year.

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