That “Volunteer Professor” Ad

What a sweet program for Mormon retirees tells us about the state of the adjunct universe.

Beleaguered professor.
That so many Ph.D.s believed a “volunteer professor” ad was aimed at them says a tremendous amount about the precarious state of the American university.

Photo by Peter Bernik

Last week, I suggested that “assistant adjunct” might just be the worst job title in academia. It sounds like someone who DustBusts the crushed Bugles out of the regular adjunct’s 1990 Toyota Celica. But I realized I might have been wrong about that title when I came across this job ad for a “volunteer professor” at Southern Virginia University. Yep, professors who work for free. Well, not 100 percent free—they get “complimentary apartment-style housing and five meals a week.”

This ad has ripped across the digital universe of beleaguered Ph.D.s, many of whom work close-to-voluntary wages as it is. Some are in disbelief. (“Have we reached a new low in academic labor?” asks the University of Houston’s Dave Mazella.) Others are unimpressed. (“A benefit of volunteer teaching is to bring your own food to eat with other volunteers!” bemoans McGill’s Susan Rvachew.) Still others are resigned to it; one reader even told me she’d consider applying, just for the affiliation and library privileges.

Let’s be clear: That ad is not aimed at your garden-variety desperate recent Ph.D. (and more on that in a sec). But that so many people of about my age and qualifications believe “volunteer professor” is aimed at them says a tremendous amount about the precarious state of the American university. Reaction to the ad belies a culture in which the Life of the Mind is considered a higher calling too lofty for such déclassé considerations as remuneration. This mentality is what helps create the vast “oversupply” of Ph.D.s cramming into near-voluntary part-time work, for which they are supposed to genuflect silently in thanks.

But let’s get to the facts on that “volunteer professor” ad. Southern Virginia University is a tiny (729-student tiny) liberal arts college that is 92 percent Mormon and, while unaffiliated with the LDS church, “serves Latter-Day Saints and those with similar values.” As part of this environ, 5 to 7 percent of the faculty and about 5 percent of the staff is volunteers performing service. Almost all of them are retirees, many of whom are engaging in a second mission of sorts, as is common in the Mormon faith. The posting was never meant to appear on a publicly searchable jobs database at all—a job-aggregating website picked it up without SVU’s knowledge or consent, according to Chris Pendleton, SVU’s director of communications.

Pendleton explained in an email that the volunteer professor program dates back to 1996. At that time, the school—then called Southern Virginia College and not religiously affiliated—had lost its accreditation, and its new trustees, all LDS church members, instated the program out of financial necessity to keep tuition comparatively low (it’s currently $14,600 a year). As Pendleton says, “It is also grounded in the long-standing Latter-day Saint tradition” of volunteerism. “The handful of volunteers who serve each year have become part of the [school’s] rich fabric of life. Their commitment and sacrifice enriches the campus environment and creates an unselfish spirit of service.”

SVU’s provost, Madison U. Sowell, spoke reverently of the program’s participants. “This past year our students were enraptured by courses on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by a retired professor of Russian … and in Greek and Latin by another retired professor,” he wrote to me. These and other volunteers, he continued, “loved living in Virginia and exploring the historic sites on the weekends and attending concerts and plays in the evenings.”

So nobody comes to volunteer at SVU straight out of grad school, and SVU doesn’t expect anyone to. Things are not that dire—yet. But since this ad couldn’t outright stipulate SEEKING LDS OLDS for reasons I hope are obvious, it gained quite an audience in the underemployed professoriate.

Indeed, it’s refreshing to find at least one university that believes retired scholars shouldn’t be made into shoes. The problem is that the employment situation for professors in this country—especially in the liberal arts—is so dismal that frantic job hunters, already used to seeing ads for “non-stipendiary residencies” and positions where one person is blatantly supposed to do three people’s jobs, would see “volunteer professor” and go, Well, I guess that’s the next logical step. People tell humanities and social science Ph.D.s that what they do is worthless every single day—just take a peek into the comments of pretty much every article I have ever written. It’s not a surprise if many have internalized that sentiment.

Listings that ask professors to do far too much for far too little are part of a long history of devaluing certain professions, almost always those that are considered “feminized.” Just as housekeeping and childrearing are supposed to reap spiritual rewards that far outpace the material (and last night I may or may not have slept in a small puddle of baby urine, so I should know), so should nursing or social work or teaching. These are not mere occupations—they are vocations, and daring to ask for money signals that one is not worthy of the literal “calling.” Even within the teaching disciplines, some fields are considered more “feminized” (composition; introductory foreign languages; biology), and pay accordingly worse.

This is not to say that every academic must forthwith consider his career a Brotberuf, as the Germans would call a day job, literally “bread job” (Franz Kafka’s was working as a high-ranking insurance executive). There has to be some sort of Golden Mean, where professors can admit to a passion for research and teaching that does often transcend how many people feel about their day jobs, but that also acknowledges that being a professor is still a job, still requires labor, still adds value to the university, still deserves the dignity of an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work.

Obviously, exceptions should exist: for adjuncts teaching a class or two for fun—adjunct to their regular employment elsewhere—and, yes, for sweet 80-year-old Mormons spending their retirement enthralling students at a tiny college in Virginia. The problem isn’t that adjunct positions exist at all. This particular volunteer professor ad isn’t pernicious in the least. The problem is that so many desperate Ph.D.s would answer that ad in earnest.