In Memory of Thea Hunter: Beloved New Yorker, Scholar, and Adjunct

Previously published in The Campus

“To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues,” Adam Harris writes in The Atlantic, eulogizing Thea Hunter.

Hunter, who passed in December of 2018 at the age of 62, taught part-time in the Black Studies and History Departments here at CCNY. A born, raised, and lived New Yorker, Hunter fell victim to a system engulfing academics across this nation: the adjunct crisis. Currently, CUNY adjuncts earn in the ballpark of $3,000 per course. Even if they instruct 4 courses a semester, which in and of itself is a feat, adjuncts would earn a maximum of $24,000 a year. For reference, the median individual income in New York City is $50,825. Particularly potent for women of color, adjuncts, lacking tenure, security, health insurance, and other benefits, often exist in a constant state of financial strain. While teaching in New York City, with its high cost of living and competitive job market, this struggle amplifies ten-fold. Hunter’s story is no exception. Although the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY is persistently advocating for “7K Per Course,” adjuncts today remain underpaid and undervalued.

After graduating with her Doctorate from Columbia, the scholar, who specialized in the history of slavery, taught in and out of different academic institutions on the East Coast. She most recently instructed students at this university before her life was cut short. Hunter suffered from asthma, but, without a steady income or access to affordable health care, she dealt with its impacts primarily on her own. Then, over a weekend in December, when she thought her asthma was acting up, she inhaled an entire can of albuterol to control her ailments. Once her interventions were not effective, Hunter eventually went to the emergency room.

Harris explained, “The doctors ran tests and her bloodwork showed that she had multi-organ damage […] [They] worked on her for 45 minutes and saw signs that she was trying to breathe, but after a while it became too much work for her body to handle.” Higher education activists and scholars alike are posing the questions: If Thea Hunter had been tenured, equipped with health insurance, and able to live without financial strain, would she have been diagnosed quicker? Would her life be saved? Today, we remember her commitment to the students she taught, the concepts she researched, and the hopes she had for the future of professorship in higher education.

Design by Loretta Violante