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‘It keeps you nice and disposable’: The plight of adjunct professors

MJ Sharp, seem at a union event last year in Durham, N.C., is an adjunct instructor at Duke University. (Sam Wohns)

MJ Sharp harbored no illusions about teaching at a university. The former photojournalist had heard enough stories about part-time faculty subsisting on meager pay and scant benefits while pouring all their time and energy into the job.

But teaching the next generation of photographers was the reason she had earned a master’s in fine arts.

When Sharp became an instructor at Duke University in 2012, the $7,500 she earned for one course was just enough after taxes to cover her annual health-care premium. She fought for more classes and university health insurance. It took months to secure four classes, but Sharp still had no assurance the university would invite her back from one year to the next.

“There is a feeling that you’re just doing this for the love of it, so you don’t need to be treated like a real employee,” said Sharp, 57. “It keeps you nice and disposable.”

This photo essay shows what it really means to be adjunct faculty

Adjuncts such as Sharp are waging campaigns across the country to improve their working conditions, often comparing their struggle to that of teachers in primary and secondary education who are demanding better compensation and greater respect for the profession.

Their efforts are gathering steam. In the past month, adjunct instructors at seven of Florida’s state colleges filed to join the Service Employees International Union. Now, more than half of the state’s adjuncts, roughly 9,000 people, are organizing or already represented by a union — no small feat in a right-to-work state.

Even as instructors make headway through collective bargaining, their fight remains largely in the shadows. And despite some significant gains, adjuncts still have far to go to achieve parity with other faculty members, experts say.

Hundreds of thousands of part-time adjunct instructors teach at the nation’s colleges and universities, representing two-fifths of all faculty. These instructors sometimes hold full-time jobs in their field and teach a course on the side.

But often, they are faculty members whose primary source of income comes from cobbling together multiple classes, sometimes at multiple colleges. A 2014 congressional report found that 89 percent of adjuncts surveyed worked at more than one college; 27 percent worked at three schools; and 13 percent taught at four or more.

Part-time adjuncts work under the threat of having their classes canceled days before they start. They rarely receive health insurance and have virtually no say in university governance.

Critics of this model say it constitutes a threat to academia. A workforce that can be fired at will is unlikely to pursue research or explore ideas that could ruffle feathers. Transient instructors, rushing from one course to the next, may have little time to counsel students. And too often, adjuncts are sequestered from the rest of the faculty, without a voice at schools that are propped up by their labor.

College and university leaders say they are sympathetic to the plight of adjunct instructors but must rely on them amid budgetary pressures and volatile enrollment trends.

Hiring adjuncts is far less expensive than creating a full-time tenure-track position, they say. Doing so also provides colleges the flexibility to offer new ­courses without significant staffing investment or commitment.

“Adjuncts allow departments to provide the course offerings so our students can graduate on time, while allowing our tenure-track faculty to balance teaching, scholarship and service,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, interim chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They play a very important role.”

Contingent faculty — a classification that includes part-time adjuncts, full-time instructors who aren’t on a tenure track and graduate-student workers — account for nearly three-quarters of instructional staff in higher education, according to the latest available federal data. Part-time teachers alone represent 40 percent of the academic workforce, compared with 24 percent in 1975.

Adjunct professors get poverty-level wages. Should their pay quintuple?

Pay varies widely by region, institution and discipline. Some well-heeled private universities offer as much as $8,000 to teach a semester-long course, while some community colleges provide as little as $1,500 a class. Even with a full course load, some part-time faculty live at or below the poverty line and receive public assistance.

Dennis McDonald, 43, has been living in subsidized housing and receiving food stamps while teaching history at the Wildwood campus of St. Louis Community College and Jefferson College in Missouri. The doctoral candidate has three children and no health insurance through the schools. He delivers pizzas on the side to earn a little extra.

McDonald said he has applied to hundreds of full-time positions across the country, to no avail. Quitting is not an option. He loves teaching. It’s just a difficult way to make a living.

“It’s what I dreamed about doing when I went to college,” he said. “It’s what I look forward to because I love teaching. That part of it’s great. The part that’s not great is the pay is really terrible.”

McDonald said his working conditions are improving. Adjuncts at St. Louis Community College recently approved their first union contract, which boosted McDonald’s pay per course to $1,600.

Collective bargaining has emerged as a path to improving working conditions for adjunct faculty. The Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers and other unions have helped organize tens of thousands of adjuncts in recent years.

“This not a battle of us against the administration,” said Glynn Hayes, an adjunct of natural and physical sciences at Florida Gateway College and a member of SEIU’s Florida Public Services Union. “This is a fight to make education and education funding more visible. We need to move from investing in things back to investing in people.”

Hayes, who has taught up to 22 online classes in a semester at five colleges in Florida, said he and his colleagues want greater job security, better pay and respect for their contributions.

Adjunct faculty at Loyola University Chicago ratify first contract

For Sharp at Duke, the ratification of the university’s first adjunct union contract in 2017 meant a pay raise to $8,100 per course. She also secured a three-year contract and access to money for professional development.

“It really is about power. You have to say, ‘Here’s the diagnoses and here I am with my collegiate army.’ That’s when people listen,” Sharp said.

A recently published book, “Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America, examined 35 collective bargaining agreements ratified between 2010 and 2016 and found greater job stability, higher wages and better benefits. Unionized adjuncts, however, still struggle to earn salaries and benefits comparable to tenure-track faculty.

Even if more adjunct instructors form unions to fight for better working conditions, some higher-education experts say they face an uphill battle.

“Bargaining contracts depend on resources, and those are scarce at some colleges,” said Daniel Julius, provost at New Jersey City University. “Administrators are given defined budgets, and there are pressures on them to be careful with how they spend that money.”

State legislatures have tightened the purse strings while expecting public colleges and universities to educate more students and create more courses to meet changing labor demands. Hiring a cadre of full-time professors is economically untenable, said Martin Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“Once mandatory retirement for tenured faculty expired in 1994, establishing a tenure-track position became risky,” he said. “You’re betting you’re going to need that position for 35 years or so. You can really mess up your roster if you create a top-heavy system.”

At Clark Atlanta University, Provost Peter Nwosu said the historically black institution is cautious about adding tenure-track positions but also mindful not to fill the ranks with part-time instructors.

“You have to think about what really makes an institution a university, where you have faculty building curriculum, working as a community and engaging students in that process,” he said. “When you don’t have that cadre of faculty on campus and when they become all or mostly adjuncts, you lose the vitality of what makes the university.”

Howard Bunsis, a council member of the American Association of University Professors, pushed back against the assertion that a changing economic landscape in higher education is largely to blame for the rise in part-time adjuncts. Some of the largest increases in adjunct faculty happened during periods of economic growth, he said.

At the same time, he said, many schools that reduced spending on instruction by using part-time labor have increased expenditures on administration — a point documented in studies by the American Institutes for Research, a think tank.

“These institutions have too many administrators making too much money,” said Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University.

Julius, at New Jersey City University, said most resources at institutions of higher education go to the full-time faculty, not administrators.

“To keep castigating administrators is unfair and nonsensical and obfuscates the real issue, which is that the full-time faculty are reluctant at best to share resources,” Julius said. “What we need to keep in the forefront of this debate is what is best for students.”