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Adjuncts the underclass of higher education

Few benefits and a sliver of full-timers’ salaries

Sunday, September 22, 2013
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— Jennifer Marlow worked as an adjunct professor for 12 years, teaching at colleges and universities in the Capital Region, Michigan and Vermont.

Like other adjuncts, she was paid by the course and received no benefits. She often taught at more than one school in an attempt to make ends meet.

Years ago, while commuting to Schenectady County Community College, she suffered an emotional breakdown while contemplating her tenuous financial situation.

“I was being paid less than $2,000 a course,” Marlow recalled, “and I realized that I was losing money driving back and forth to Schenectady.”

Today Marlow is a full-time faculty member at The College of St. Rose, where she is an assistant professor of English. But she considers herself lucky: Most adjunct professors never are hired to fill full-time, tenure track positions and often struggle to earn a living wage.

Marlow and a colleague, Megan Fulwiler, are putting the finishing touches on a documentary looking at the growing use of temporary and part-time labor in higher education. Called “Con Job: Stories of Contingent and Adjunct Labor,” the film features interviews with adjunct professors in the Capital Region and beyond.

“This is a growing national issue,” Marlow said.

Over the past couple of decades, the number of contingent — or non-tenure track — faculty positions has increased dramatically throughout the U.S., while the number of full-time tenure track positions has fallen.

The trend prompted the American Association of University Professors to highlight the issue in its 2012-13 annual report, which notes “More than three out of every four instructional staff positions (76 percent) are filled on a contingent basis.” Between 1975 and 2011, part-time faculty appointments “increased in number by more than 300 percent,” while “the number of faculty members in full-time tenured or tenure-track positions grew by only 26 percent during the same period.”

“The move to contingent, part-time faculty represents a shift in higher education,” said Bret Benjamin, president of the University at Albany’s chapter of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY employees.

Benjamin said the organization is “getting more involved” in issues related to contingent faculty.

“The faculty who teach [as adjuncts] make a pittance,” Benjamin said. “They make $2,800 per course, and they are almost never hired to teach more than two courses. These are people with Ph.D.s, and they’re making $11,000 a year. I don’t think that’s a livable wage in Albany or anywhere else.”

Necessary evil

Karl Luntta, a spokesman for UAlbany, described adjuncts as “an essential part of the university family. They’re often able to offer skills that are hard to come by in the full-time faculty. They’re practitioners who bring skills to the classroom.”

Many adjuncts have non-academic careers and jobs and teach on the side, he said.

Through the use of adjuncts, “we can offer a wider range of classes at a wider range of times,” he said.

Unlike contingent faculty at private colleges and universities, UAlbany’s contingent faculty have union representation because they teach at a public university. They can participate in the school’s health insurance plan, and accrue sick leave.

In the fall of 2011, about 45 percent of UAlbany’s faculty was part-time, a figure that does not include teaching assistants or graduate assistants. There were 591 full-time faculty and 485 part-time faculty; in the fall of 2010, there were 625 full-time faculty and 442 part-time.

One of the adjunct professors featured in “Con Job” teaches at two Capital Region schools and estimates she earns less than $20,000 a year. She said she doesn’t receive benefits and pays $276 a month for health insurance through the state’s Healthy NY program.

“Money is a big concern,” she said. “I’m always thinking about how I am going to make it. How am I going to pay for groceries? ... I understand that schools want to save money, but it is shocking how little we are paid.”

The woman, who asked that her name not be used out of concern for her job security, has master’s degrees in teaching and English. She teaches writing and English.

“I would like to teach full-time at the college level,” said the woman, who is 38. “It used to be that you could go to a [small liberal arts college] with a master’s degree and get a job. But now the market is flooded with people with Ph.D.s.”

Terry Weiner, provost at The Sage Colleges, said Sage has moved many adjuncts who teach more than three or four courses a year into full-time positions so they can receive benefits.

Weiner said there are good reasons to use adjuncts, such as to teach a specialty course the full-time faculty lacks the expertise to teach, to teach in professional programs where real-world experience might be helpful and to expand faculty diversity. But there are also “weaker reasons” to use adjuncts, he said, such as bringing down costs, reducing the power of the full-time faculty and reducing the pressure of benefit costs. He said Sage has used adjuncts to bring down costs, but “on a limited basis.”

Kim Middleton, interim dean of The College of St. Rose’s School of Arts & Humanities, said the school relies on adjuncts to meet the demand for English composition courses, which all students are required to take, but it also uses them for more specialized subjects. One adjunct, she noted, comes to campus to teach a course in harp.

“We’re very happy that we have talented and generous faculty coming in to teach one or two classes,” Middleton said.

St. Rose is in the process of learning more about its contingent staff. Both Fulwiler and Marlow belong to an ad hoc committee on contingent labor that is studying the use of adjuncts there.

“We want to figure out what the situation is on our own campus,” Fulwiler said.

Failing students’ needs

Fulwiler believes the growing reliance on contingent faculty has dire implications for higher education. Though adjuncts are often good teachers, many lack offices and phones and face greater logistical challenges in helping and connecting with students as a result.

“They often don’t have the resources necessary to do the best teaching,” she said.

She noted the rise in non-tenure track labor has coincided with sharp increases in tuition and student loan debt.

“It poses an interesting question,” she said. “Where is that money going? If students are graduating with huge debt and that money is not going to the faculty, where is it going?”

In recent years, a growing number of faculty and educational groups have started speaking out about the working conditions of adjuncts. One is the New Faculty Majority, formed in 2009.

“We are trying to improve the quality of education in the United States by focusing on the consequences of contingent employment,” said Anne Wiegard, a lecturer in English at SUNY Cortland who helped found the group. “We’re doing this not as a union that’s trying to secure benefits for employees, but as a nonprofit that’s concerned about the future of our students. When faculty are not compensated fairly, they cannot give their students everything they would like.”

Josh Boldt coordinates The Adjunct Project, a website run under the auspices of The Chronicle of Higher Education that gathers information about pay and benefits for adjuncts at schools throughout the country. Boldt, who serves as an adjunct professor of English at the University of Georgia, said he started the website because “I was curious to see how my pay relates to pay in other states or regions.”

Adjunct pay varies at Capital Region schools. At St. Rose, adjuncts receive $2,400 per course, while at UAlbany, the pay ranges from $2,100 in psychology to $5,000 in mathematics and statistics. At Union College, adjuncts receive $3,600 per course, while adjuncts at Schenectady County Community College earn $2,580.

“People adjunct for lots of different reasons,” Boldt said. “That’s why it’s so hard for universities to say this is what adjuncts want and what they need.”

Boldt, who teaches two classes a semester and has started working on a contractual basis for The Chronicle of Higher Education, said he doesn’t want a tenure track teaching position. Still, he said, “I’d like to see the pay be a little better. ... My goal all along has been to figure out a way to make a living and teach on the side. But that’s not the case for a lot of adjuncts, and I wouldn’t suggest that that’s a path for everyone.”

Many adjuncts, Marlow said, mistakenly believe if they work hard and do a good job, they’ll be hired full time. What they don’t realize is the labor market for tenure track positions is extremely tight, and if they adjunct too long, they might not be viewed as tenure track material.

The terminology used to describe non-tenure track faculty varies from campus to campus. Marlow said “contingent” is a good “umbrella term” for “faculty who are off the tenure track, in visiting positions.”

Different perspective

Fulwiler, an associate professor of English who serves as coordinator of first-year writing at St. Rose, works closely with the adjunct professors who come to campus to teach writing.

“Adjuncts teach the majority of writing courses,” she said. “We offer so many of them. They’re required for first-year students.”

Until she met Marlow, she said she had never given the daily lives of adjuncts much thought.

“Through Jenn, I got interested in the working conditions of adjunct professors,” she said.

Because she had never worked as an adjunct, “it was easy for a long time to not be aware of [the issue] or the scope of the problem,” she said.

An essay called “Death of an Adjunct” was widely circulated among college faculty last week. The piece, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, told the story of a longtime adjunct professor in French at Duquesne University who was nearly destitute when she died of a heart attack at age 83. The professor, Margaret Mary Vojtko, had recently been let go from her job and was given no severance pay or benefits, according to the essay, which was written by Daniel Kovalik, a senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union.

“As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet,” Kovalik wrote. “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”

Duquesne officials criticized the op-ed piece as misleading and exploitative.

 
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