A philosophy professor who died earlier this year was making so little money at age 61 he lived in a room in a dilapidated boardinghouse. The story of Dave Heller is focusing attention on the plight of the temp college teacher.

Share story

When visitors walked into the dilapidated boardinghouse where Dave Heller lived, the smell alone could transport them back to their college days.

“It smelled like grad student,” jokes Charlie Fischer, a friend. “Like years of boiled noodles and rice.”

Except Heller was 61 years old and a philosophy instructor at Seattle University. Yet he lived in a room in a tenant group house in Seattle’s U District, with nothing but a bed, a fridge and his library of 3,000 books.

When he died earlier this year from an untreated thyroid condition, Heller was making only $18,000 a year teaching philosophy on a part-time, adjunct basis, his friends say. That’s about one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle, and barely above the federal poverty line.

Most Read Stories

Sale! Get 90% off digital access.

“He had a beautiful life in that he lived exactly what he wanted, which was the life of the mind,” Fischer says. “But it had a cost. It was sad to see how little value society places on what he did.”

Fischer, who teaches English on a contract basis at Everett Community College, wrote an account of Heller’s life and death in Seattle Magazine earlier this month. Heller was described as being part of the nation’s “invisible faculty” — part-time or adjunct professors who increasingly do the teaching work at colleges but who often are paid little better than the cleaning help.

Heller’s story is that he was a gifted teacher but had achieved only the level of a master’s degree, in American literature, from the UW. That made it difficult to get on the full-time tenure track. After years of paying back his college debts by working at Magus Books in the U District and teaching composition classes at community colleges, Heller finally scored an adjunct teaching gig at Seattle University.

The syllabus for one of his classes reads: “In this course, we will follow Socrates’ injunction to be perplexed about the most important matters.”

During 11 years his students mostly raved about him.

“If you look for ‘easy’ then don’t bother,” one student wrote on RateMyProfessor.com after taking Heller’s course in the philosophy of ethics. “If you wish to learn, then take his class … His feedback has made me a better writer & thinker in all other subjects, not just philosophy.”

But because he was a contract or “contingent” teacher, he was hired only on a temporary basis and usually for only two classes at a time. According to Fischer, Heller nevertheless logged 60-plus hours a week lecturing, meeting with students and grading papers during the term. That means his wage penciled out to somewhere around $10 an hour.

“He took to living like a monk,” Fischer says. “He couldn’t afford to go out to eat. But I’ve also never seen him happier.”

Still, the poverty took a toll. Fischer doesn’t blame Seattle University: In one sense, the school saved Heller’s life by giving him a chance. But low pay like this and lack of any job security, for adjunct faculty in the humanities, has become a nationwide phenomenon.

Recently there have been stories about contract professors who are homeless or living on food stamps. Research at Cal-Berkeley published in April found that 25 percent of the million part-time college faculty in the U.S. are so poor they are enrolled in a public-assistance program such as Medicaid, food stamps or welfare.

Fischer says Heller was a symptom of the commodification of education. It’s increasingly about measurable outcomes or monetary results. Because an engineering degree has so much more economic value than one in say, literature, the former is supported while the latter is slowly devalued.

“Dave was like an itinerant philosopher,” Fischer says. “There’s almost no role anymore for people like him.”

In his story, Fischer quoted a UW philosophy professor saying Heller was so dedicated “He would have lived in a barrel, if necessary, to devote himself to teaching.” That’s a great tribute to the man, but an indictment of the system that it almost came to that.