You may have heard about the Duquense University adjunct who died in dire poverty in 2013. Well it’s happened again, this time to a long-term adjunct at Seattle University.
When visitors walked into the dilapidated boardinghouse where Dave Heller lived, the smell alone could transport them back to their college days.
“It smelled like grad student,” jokes Charlie Fischer, a friend. “Like years of boiled noodles and rice.”
Except Heller was 61 years old and a philosophy instructor at Seattle University. Yet he lived in a room in a tenant group house in Seattle’s U District, with nothing but a bed, a fridge and his library of 3,000 books.
When he died earlier this year from an untreated thyroid condition, Heller was making only $18,000 a year teaching philosophy on a part-time, adjunct basis, his friends say. That’s about one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle, and barely above the federal poverty line.
“He had a beautiful life in that he lived exactly what he wanted, which was the life of the mind,” Fischer says. “But it had a cost. It was sad to see how little value society places on what he did.”
Fischer, who teaches English on a contract basis at Everett Community College, wrote an account of Heller’s life and death in Seattle Magazine earlier this month. Heller was described as being part of the nation’s “invisible faculty” — part-time or adjunct professors who increasingly do the teaching work at colleges but who often are paid little better than the cleaning help.
The pay adjuncts receive is deeply immoral, not allowing people to live lives of basic decency. And while I have stated before that people should not become long-term, full-time adjuncts because it puts you in a position to be exploited, the problem is not with the person who wants to live the life of the mind (if teaching freshmen writing 4 sections a semester for your whole life can be called that), but an exploitative academic system that relies on cheap labor to do the dirty work of teaching while creating ever larger and more well-compensated administrative positions that effectively recreate the university as a corporation, with all the economic inequality that implies. Unions for adjuncts is part of the solution, but only a part, as it’s not like unions of part-time faculty have the ability to raise wages to something someone can live on, at least not without a lot of outside help.