Why We Won’t Be Seeing an “Adjunct Spring” Anytime Soon

By Elayne Clift

Is there any hope for college adjuncts?

It was never my intention to teach when I was in the throes of my career as a health communications and gender specialist. But when I was invited to be a lecturer at Yale University’s School of Public Health I discovered I loved teaching, and was pretty good at it. From there I went on to various teaching gigs at institutions as diverse as community colleges, Ivy League schools and Thai universities. Not having a Ph.D., I was relegated to the world of adjuncts, but never having aspired to the academic world of “publish or perish,” I was happy.

As time went on, however, I began to experience the drawbacks of being an adjunct. Frustrations began with being paid a pittance for extremely labor-intensive, high responsibility work. While private universities paid about $5,000 (plus expenses), state institutions were offering $2,000 or less a semester. Given today’s cost of living, that’s gas money, or if you are burdened with oversubscribed online courses, the bottle of hooch you need to get through the week.

Beyond pay scales there were other issues. For example, most adjuncts cannot collect unemployment if the semester they were promised falls through. If classes are undersubscribed they may have to accept pro-rated payment (make that half a tank of gas). They have no office space, no benefits or salary increases unless they’re unionized, no hope of professional development funds, and no job security.

And yet, adjuncts comprise a large percentage of faculty in institutions of higher education, sometimes approaching 50 percent of teachers at public institutions. We bring special expertise and often years of experience to the classroom. We could bring those skills to committees too if we were incentivized to do so. We are skilled professionals who spend hours planning and delivering courses, evaluating, mentoring and counseling students, and responding to administrative demands.

I thought things might be looking up for adjunct faculty when, a while back, I received a letter from the new president of a college where I was teaching. His letter was a call for better recognition of adjunct faculty.

“The need for an accessible, quality education has never been greater,” he wrote. “Your willingness to give your time and share your experience makes a tremendous difference in the lives of students we serve.” With that in mind, the president, a former adjunct himself, announced a “new model for part-time faculty that better recognizes the role (they play).”

But things don’t look so hopeful these days. Another college where I’ve taught — part of the same state system in which the new college president works — has begun a rigorous campaign to remove long-time, unionized adjuncts, replacing them with less qualified “newbies” burdened with ever larger classes.

A recent article posted on AlterNet questioned whether we are about to see an “Adjunct Spring.” It pointed out that over the last 30 years colleges have grown more reliant on adjunct faculty as a way to cut costs while simultaneously trying to stop them from organizing for better pay and benefits. But work conditions are often abysmal. For example, office space is small and shared and there is no clerical support.

There is some pushback in the face of lowering standards and unfair labor practices. One adjunct lecturer has started an online presence called the Adjunct Project. According to AlterNet, its documentation of adverse conditions has resonated with faculty around the country. After several weeks the database had more than 1600 entries about pay, working conditions and personal experiences. It’s the Angie’s List of Academia.

Education, as we know, is in crisis in this country. When we talk about that crisis, we emphasize K-12. But an invisible crisis exists in colleges and universities and it’s getting worse. Just compare where we are with higher education standards and practices in other industrialized nations. In the U.K., for example, students not only know how to write fluently in English, they also tend to speak another language.

They are taught how to argue logically based on research and empirical evidence. Our students prefer easier methods of learning, which overburdened teachers often yield to in the interest of their own sanity.

Respect for, rather than exploitation of, part-time faculty can go far to improve academic standards, provide quality learning environments, and guide students toward successful futures. Our kids deserve that. So do our teachers.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that much.

Originally published in the Keane Source-Sentinel. Reprinted here with permission.


2 Responses to "Why We Won’t Be Seeing an “Adjunct Spring” Anytime Soon"

  1. Jack Longmate   July 9, 2013 at 1:24 am

    As an adjunct advocate for about 15 years, I can identify with a number of Clift’s statements. Holding a Masters, I once naively thought that if I were to earn a Ph.D., I might be able to land a tenure track job and be done with the struggle. But then I realized that there are armies of Ph.Ds who are contingent too.

    I was glad to see mention of unemployment for adjuncts. Filing for unemployment is possibly the best way to counter the exploitation/cost savings I think way that contingents can counter. I’m not sure about the accuracy of the statement that ” most adjuncts cannot collect unemployment if the semester they were promised falls through.” To quote Joe Berry, Beverly Stewart, and Helena Worthen in “Access to Unemployment Benefits for Contingent Faculty,” most adjuncts do not file for unemployment “because of ignorance, fear, and an unwillingness to invest the time for a limited payoff. Almost without a doubt the largest single factor is that contingents are not aware that they are … eligible for unemployment benefits because they are truly unemployed, without income, and without reasonable assurance of reemployment virtually every time they walk out the door after having given their last final exam, and turned in end-of-term grades” (p. 18).

    About adjuncts organizing for “better pay,” in Washington State, adjunct pay has increased; in 1997, adjuncts earned on average 43 percent of what a full-time faculty would earn. Now it is about 60 percent. However, one thing must be disclosed about this “success”: when full-time faculty teach overloads (overtime), they are paid at the adjunct pay rate; that is, it’s advantageous for tenured faculty if there is an increase in adjunct pay. But there has been no parallel improvements in other workplace basics, like job security, recognition of professional standing, etc. Not coincidentally, it was in 1997 when Keith Hoeller and Terry Kundsen founded the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and began publishing editorials in daily newspapers around the state which drew attention to how dismally paid the majority of faculty in the state’s community and technical college system truly were.

    The Adjunct Project has touched a nerve in part because it is so common for adjunct working conditions to be avoided in workplace studies. (The NEA, for example, publishes annual reports of faculty salary, but it does not include adjuncts, who, at least in the Washington community and technical college system, make up the majority of instructors. The Adjunct Project has also touched a nerve because it provides a vent for the frustration that is so commonly felt by NTT faculty members who see no avenues for improvement. Unfortunately, self-reported data is not always trustworthy and the data itself is nothing new. As scholars, we have this idea that if the general public only knew the reality behind adjunct employment, working conditions would be promptly reformed–as if people really knew the dangers of smoking, surely they would stop at once. The poor pay, lack of job security, lack of professional respect, etc., are well known. As John Hess once remarked long before the origin of the Adjunct Project, an adjunct is never more than 15 seconds from total humiliation.

    What has encouraged me was discovering that in this hemisphere, in the colleges of British Columbia, a single pay scale is the norm, that is, full-time and part-time faculty are paid on the same pay scale; those who teach at 30 percent or 60 percent of full-time receive 30 or 60 percent of the income. What’s more, at Vancouver Community College, among others, there is a pathway to permanent, tenure-like employment, called regularization for those part-timers who establish themselves as capable educators, and seniority is important. At most U.S. colleges, adjuncts do not accrue seniority. An attempt to create a roadmap for activists to transform our bifurcated two-tier system into a single tier like that which exists in Vancouver is the Program for Change, which is posted at the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association website. The May 2013 revision is at http://vccfa.ca/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Access-the-Program-for-Change-May-2013.pdf.

    Also encouraging is the fact that the British Columbian faculty unions see equality for adjuncts as an important priority. U.S. faculty unions are dominated by tenured-faculty priorities and tend to concern themselves with adjunct issues to the extent that they may benefit full-timers at the same time.

    Jack Longmate
    Adjunct English Instructor
    Olympic College, Bremerton, WA

  2. TL MackPico   May 19, 2013 at 12:11 am

    I understand the sense of futility, the realization that our BOSS in academe will not be easy to battle. Yet, I disagree that we cannot, will not rise, unite and join stronger together to demand adjunct equity. Let’s have a conversation about just how we might do this here in New York.


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