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Professors, media denounce ‘unpaid’ UCLA teaching position, university backtracks

Academics questioned ethics and legality of the job as described

Academics and media denounced an allegedly unpaid job posting in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, likening it to an unpaid internship or even slavery.

Historian Brooke Newman at Virginia Commonwealth University posted the position on Twitter on March 18, asking, “Is this a joke?”

Mildred Cho, professor of pediatrics and of medicine at Stanford, tweeted, “Is this even legal? we’re not even allowed to have unpaid summer interns.”

UCLA media spokesperson Bill Kisliuk told The College Fix via email on March 29, “The job posting by the Chemistry Department regrettably contained errors and a lack of context. We have taken down the posting and will make sure that it is appropriately rewritten and reposted. We always offer compensation for classroom teaching and our positions are open to all applicants.”

The original post on UCLA’s recruitment website read: “The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA seeks applications for an assistant adjunct professor on a without salary basis. Applicants must understand there will be no compensation for this position.”

The posting sought applicants with a “Ph.D. in chemistry, biochemistry, or equivalent discipline,” as well as “significant experience and [a] strong record in teaching chemistry or biochemistry at the college level.”

Three to five letters of reference were among the application requirements.

Inside Higher Ed detailed the controversy in its March 21 article “UCLA Pummeled Over Adjunct Job Without Pay.”

It reported that “the reaction to the job description, posted March 4, was intense. Angry emails flooded the inbox of the chemistry department at UCLA.”

A column at the Los Angeles Times was titled, “UCLA advertised a faculty job that pays nothing whatsoever.”

Business columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote, “For those bemoaning the systematic devaluation of university teaching as a career and a calling, UCLA just put a hard number to the complaint.”

“The number is zero.”

UCLA professor: ‘This is not what people are claiming it is’

Matt Lieberman, a neuroscience professor at UCLA, tweeted March 19 regarding the controversy: “This is not what people are complaining it is.”

He went on to state: “This ‘job’ is for a person with a successful non-academic career who asked if they could teach a course for free. Had to post this for administrative reasons.”

Lieberman stated in a subsequent tweet that the line about “no compensation” actually served to “prevent anyone from wasting their time applying.”

“In a sensible world, no job posting would be necessary, but that’s not how things work at UCLA,” he wrote on Twitter.

He added, “also, my understanding is that what is called an ‘adjunct’ in the rest of the world is called a ‘lecturer’ at UCLA. Our adjunct positions are a weird class that exist for these volunteer non-paid appointments.”

The College Fix reached out to Lieberman for comment but did not receive a response.

Still, some might disagree with Lieberman’s interpretation. The March 21 Inside Higher Ed story quoted historian Timothy Burke from Swarthmore College, who posted on Facebook:

“I’m seeing a lot of people coming up with explanations that attempt to rationalize this: it’s for an internal candidate who has a funding stream elsewhere, it’s an attempt to help a candidate coming over from industry gain the teaching experience that will make them competitive, it’s some other insidery plan, it’s union-busting.”

“Even the ‘innocent’ explanations are disgusting,” he continued. “It’s corrupting: it legitimates the concept of asking a Ph.D. to work for free.”

UCLA has had at least one other unpaid position, which was revealed in the course of an unlawful dismissal lawsuit by Professor James Enstrom against the university. Court documents for that case stated that “Dr. Enstrom’s position was self-funded, with his salary funded by grants obtained from numerous external sources.”

MORE: Faculty put off guaranteed raises to temporarily save jobs of adjuncts

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About the Author
Jacob Shields -- University of Maryland, College Park