Wage Theft in Academia

Janine Giordano Drake

Every winter, faculty fill out forms to officially register their research with their institution. University administrators aggregate this information to celebrate the total number of publications, awards, grants and accolades which their faculty have earned over the previous year. Once faculty report this work, the university claims it as theirs. However, what about the work of those of us who are term faculty, especially those of us for whom research falls outside of our official job description? Are we donating our research to our institutions for free? Are we propping up the “research productivity” and “public engagement” of our research institution without being paid for it?

Labor lawyers use the term “wage theft” to describe the pattern within which industry standards require workers to do uncompensated work outside one’s official job duties. Healthcare providers use this term when they have to meet with patients in quick succession throughout their shift, requiring them to do their charting after their shift has ended. Teachers use the term to describe the uncompensated hours of professional development workshops which they are required to attend in order to retain licensure. People who work in food service talk about they are often required to stay and clean up their work space after their shift has ended. Workers continue to do this unpaid work because they are required to do so by law or by the standards of their professional guild.

While some of us like to celebrate the “humaneness” of the new job categories in academia (the replacement of part-time positions with full-time positions called “Instructional Professors,” “Clinical Professors,” and “Professors of Practice”), I’ve been thinking about this proliferation of job categories differently. In many institutions, including my own, these new, non-tenure-track faculty lines are compensated at one half to two thirds of that of a tenured or tenure-track faculty member of equivalent rank. Ostensibly, this is so because academic research within one’s field is explicitly outside of one’s official job duties. Ostensibly, faculty in these lines forego the “high pressure” required within the research expectations of the tenure track and are compensated accordingly.

In practice, I would argue that many of these job categories participate in the vicious culture of wage theft. For historians, an active research agenda is indispensable to maintain the professional standards for teaching and service in our profession. Even while an employer can claim that research is officially outside of an employee’s job description, it would be a violation of our responsibility to the guild to follow the letter of our job descriptions and ignore all new research within our field. Perhaps even more importantly, our institutions require all of us to report our research, service, and public engagement to our institutions on an annual basis, even if this research or public engagement is outside of our job descriptions. Institutions take an accounting of all the work we do on an annual basis because they will go on to take credit for this work as if they paid us to do it. Effectively, many of us are paid $20,000 to $30,000 less per year because the actual work required to do our jobs to the standards of our profession requires work that is officially “off the clock.”

In a way, the OAH has already taken a stand on this problem in the “Standards” of the profession which they announced last year. In that document, the OAH endorsed language that contingent faculty should be paid “fair salaries, equal to TTT faculty compensation for comparable teaching, advising, service work, and research work.” As a member of the committee that authored that document, I interpret this as an effort to define industry standards for compensation in order to protect the future of the industry as we know it. In the field of history, active participation in scholarly discussions is essential in order to keep one’s teaching current. I would like to believe that the endorsement of this document by the OAH Executive Board is an effort to discourage the temptation among university personnel to turn all TTT jobs into term faculty jobs.

Many will remind us that history departments are not and never have been employers. It is tempting to acknowledge this and throw up our hands, deciding there is nothing more we can do except make statements like this. However, the nursing station at your local hospital has also never been an employer; that has not stopped nurses from acting collectively, as professionals, to demand better professional expectations. Just because college dean’s offices and human resources formally set job categories, job descriptions, and salary scales does not mean that the historical profession cannot take a stand as a guild. One glance at the history of the American Medical Association reminds us that professional associations have worked throughout history to protect the independent judgment and status of their members, on and off the clock. We, too, can act collectively as a profession to define the parameters of what historians do when they work at universities. We might start by refusing to authorize job descriptions that participate in wage theft.


Janine Giordano Drake works at a large midwestern research university as a labor historian, teacher, administrator, and specialist in “Woke Christians.” She is author of The Gospel of Church: How Mainline Protestants Vilified Christian Socialism and Fractured the Labor Movement and coeditor of The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class. Email her at [email protected].