Neighborhood Group Fears “Transient Academics.” Time to Pay Them a Living Wage.

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 5 2014 3:19 PM

Neighborhood Group Fears “Transient Academics”

northwestern_university
Idyllic Northwestern. Not pictured: extended-stay hotel.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Moerman/Shutterstock

The Southeast Evanston Association, official neighborhood buttinskys of the Chicagoland area including and adjacent to Chester “Chet Haze” Hanks’ alma mater, recently circulated an email that has managed to equally offend academics and the home-insecure (two groups that overlap more than you might realize). According to the NIMBY missive, current plans to convert a neighborhood eyesore into an extended-stay hotel have the “eyes and ears” of Southeast Evanston gravely concerned. The establishment, if not kept appropriately posh, might “devolve into cheap housing for transient academics.” The horror.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Just who are these “transient academics”? What makes them such a threat to our peace-loving ways? And why are they (apparently) so prevalent at Northwestern, one of the most elite universities on the current Earth, where the yearly cost of attendance is presently $63,228? The NIMBY missive did not specify what “transient academic” means, but I am guessing the slur refers not to the generally well-heeled undergraduate body, but to graduate students, post-docs and non-tenure-track lecturers, whose earnings start at $20,000, $32,000 and $35,000, respectively.

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This is not sufficient to afford one of Evanston’s median-value homes ($340,000), but a quick search of Craigslist yields numerous nearby apartment shares at under $700 per month. Provided that these “transients” are willing to share dwellings, which the rabble usually are, current area housing appears to fit even their despicable budgets, and thus hardly necessitates the presence of a neighborhood flophouse.

I mock, but the snobbery and insensitivity of this NIMBY hysteria is a serious matter. The “transient academic” is real. Many college instructors today, though they often shoulder course loads equal to or in excess of their full-time colleagues, cannot afford basic necessities, such as food, gas, and heat. They join millions of their fellow American working poor, who put in 10- and 12-hour days at multiple jobs, but still do not earn enough to eke out anything resembling a middle-class existence.

They cannot afford, for example, a security deposit on an apartment, and may have too many evictions to qualify for a lease. Working Americans the country over live today in extended-stay hotels and de facto extended-stay motels—and the reaction to this, unsurprisingly, is not one of compassion or activism. It’s vilification. Poverty is not a condition, we’re told, it’s a character flaw.

Just the other day, Rex Ramsier, the Vice Provost of the University of Akron, told NPR that if his institution staffed courses with only full-time faculty, tuition would have to rise 30 to 40 percent. “The public’s not going to accept that.” Yep, if your tuition goes up, you know whom to blame: not an administration that insists on having a highly-paid Vice Provost in charge of denigrating instructors, but that damn adjunct who just wouldn’t shut up about a living wage.

What I don’t understand is why the public accepts college tuition skyrocketing at nearly four times the rate of inflation while the percentage of non-“transient” instructional staff plummets. But what I do understand is the rush to vilify low-wage workers and the home-insecure, academic or otherwise, as classes dangereuses who have brought all of their misfortunes upon themselves, and need to be kept out of a “good” neighborhood at all costs. I can only hope Chet Haze keeps up with the goings-on in his old neighborhood. Maybe he could rap about it.