In her State of the State address, Gov. Mills proposed that the state of Maine pay tuition for the first two years of community college for qualified students in Maine high school graduating classes from 2020 through 2023. Though I agree that free tuition should eventually come to pass, currently it is simply immoral to do so.

Why?

Currently, 70 percent to 80 percent of courses taught at our community colleges are taught by adjunct faculty, who do not earn a living wage. In sum, adjunct faculty are allowed to teach 12 credits a semester. Over the course of an academic year, this means – if they are fortunate to be fully employed and teach four classes per semester – they earn around $21,000 (the average pay is $2,650 per three-credit course). Additionally, adjunct faculty have no job security. At the end of each semester, they are fired and then, a week or so before the next semester begins (if enrollment in their scheduled courses is brisk), they are rehired; if enrollment is low, courses are canceled and most scramble to return to waiting tables, freelance writing, etc. Finally, such a demeaning and exploitative system is in place so that the community college system can avoid providing adjunct faculty with health benefits.

A few questions we might pose are the following:

Why do we boycott big-box stores and corporate sneaker companies that don’t grant their employees a living wage, yet, somehow, it’s OK to continue sending our children to community colleges that exploit adjunct professors who don’t earn a living wage? Why did the governor fight to budget millions of dollars per year to ensure that a 22-year-old first-year public K-12 teacher starts at a salary of $40,000 a year, yet, on the other hand, she currently fights our adjunct faculty union’s efforts to secure a living wage? Indeed, dozens of my adjunct faculty colleagues would be ecstatic to earn $40,000 per year and have health insurance to boot.

Granting free tuition, then, is an ethical issue. Quite simply, the economic feasibility of a social good cannot rely on the continued perpetuation of a socioeconomic injustice. Additionally, it is bad government to provide funding for an institution to provide free services when that institution’s majority of employees virtually work for free!

Before granting free tuition, then, I ask that Gov. Mills and Maine Community College System President David Daigler read one of the texts our students read, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” where the connection between social justice and economic systems is explored. Instead of touting how affordable our community colleges are, they need to pause and contemplate the tremendous ethical capital lost if this affordability is creating an environment where over 50 percent of adjunct professors are eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits and other social welfare programs.

Indeed, to continue to ignore this pressing ethical issue and, instead, to praise how much they appreciate our hard work through the pandemic makes them as oblivious to social and economic justice as the plantation owners who praised the high quality and low cost of cotton produced by slaves, who, most swore, were happy and healthy. Unfortunately, such praise, without parallel fair compensation, is hollow and does not do anything to mitigate the costs of inflation for those of us earning less than $30,000 per year.

And one final note: I appreciate how our governor is basing her policies on facts, science and logic; however, it is a tragic irony to see how one who claims such reverence for facts, science and logic is failing so miserably to honor the largest segment of the population that curates and disseminates such learning: adjunct faculty professors. Please pay us, then, before offering our services for free.


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