News this spring that the University of Massachusetts in Amherst has acquired Newton’s Mount Ida College to establish a presence in Boston probably came as a shock to many people in the local higher education world. The nearly 1,500 students enrolled at the now defunct Mount Ida have been offered a place at UMass Dartmouth. The Boston branch of the University of Massachusetts will remain as is, in their own financially tenuous condition.
The loss of a quiet, independent campus like Mount Ida, over 100 years old and far from the madding crowd, is only another fold in the wrinkled mess that is higher education in Massachusetts and the country at large, which is wrestling with low graduation rates, crippling student loan debt and an emphasis on STEM at the expense (as always it seems) of liberal arts.
News reports of Mount Ida’s closure have focused on the business ethics of the acquisition, the extent of involvement by the University of Massachusetts, and the academic fate of the enrolled students.
Conspicuous by its absence has been the fate of the staff and faculty. All 280 staff and faculty will lose their jobs and become among the many lemmings wandering the city this summer (and indefinitely) looking for a place to practice their professions.
I’m adaptable, realistic, patient and always excited about teaching English and writing, but I’m tired.
Most academics I know, myself included, are used to the instability and unpredictability of life as non-tenured faculty. Those things aren’t troublesome. The problem rests in maintaining even the most minimal sense of hope and dignity.
I have been an academic at various colleges and universities in Boston and surrounding areas since 1998. I’ve worked at Northern Essex Community, North Shore Community College College, Suffolk University, Western New England College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Mount Ida College (from 2002 to 2004) and Northeastern University, where I teach today.
I have worked at institutes, disreputable educational companies that compensated me via PayPal accounts and for-profit schools that promised the moon to my students only to offer hands full of crumbled grey dust.
One of the things I’ve learned from 20 years as an adjunct college English instructor is that survival depends not on perspective, but balance and an understanding that things will just maintain. They won’t really get better.
Nationally, adjunct faculty are broke and desperate and facing increased marginalization. Within the vaulted and esteemed lands of creeping ivy and tenured complacency, we peer from behind half-opened doors, waiting for a spot to open so we can park our things for a while.
So many institutions of higher education rely on adjuncts, including institutions in Massachusetts, that have come under pressure to extend better pay and benefits to part-time faculty. That fact is less a surprise to us, than simply validation of what we’ve always known: We are acquired, minimally compensated, drained of resources and discarded.
What distinguishes me from the other adjunct faculty? I don’t know. The only truth in my profession is knowing that there’s comfort in tired clichés like “there’s no rest for the weary” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I’m adaptable, realistic, patient and always excited about teaching English and writing, but I’m tired.
I’m facing an uncertain summer and an indefinite fall regarding employment. As an adjunct, there’s no obligation to feel allegiance to an institution mainly because it’s never offered to us. We are thrown in a pool and allowed to come out when (and if) we’re ever needed.
Nationally, adjunct faculty are broke and desperate and facing increased marginalization.
Otherwise, we learn to entertain ourselves with the impression that our professionalism and integrity is still strong and respected. Administrations throw at us terms like “Good Faith Consideration” when it comes to offering courses to teach, and like that random line from e.e. cummings, all we can do is stand behind our unions and “bargain for the right to squirm.”
Mount Ida President Barry Brown released a statement in which he seemed to be assuring the college’s tuition-paying students and their families that,
“…we have devised a way forward that ensures the well-being of our students, enhances the academic capacity of the region, and preserves Mount Ida’s legacy and history.”
It’s unlikely any faculty or staff at Mount Ida remembers me from my time there. That’s probably just a reflection of my character and the nature of the position.
Such is the life of adjunct faculty: We come, we work, and then we go.
I recall the beauty of Mount Ida’s campus and the strengths of the students. Now, the faculty and staff have been thrown out of an airplane at 20,000 feet without a parachute or landing plan. Wherever and whenever their feet safely touch ground, I hope it’s in an environment that respects their lives as teachers and professionals.