By Christine Burke and Emily Parisi
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – Anyone on the third floor of Dunleavy Hall within the past few weeks has probably noticed the signs hanging on many of the professors’ doors: NU ADJUNCTS DESERVE MORE PAY. The movement to better the treatment of adjuncts is not confined to the NU campus. The American Association of University Professors – the union for college educators – is trying to promote change in the treatment of adjunct faculty nationwide. Unfortunately, NU adjuncts are not permitted to unionize, nor are full-time professors allowed to represent them, a regulation that could lead to even more serious problems.
A position as an adjunct faculty member does not mean a living wage or helpful benefits. “I understand that the adjunct job position started as a sort of ‘Let’s offer someone with professional expertise who is between jobs or is a trailing spouse – let’s offer them a little something to do to keep their hand in the game,’” said Dr. Jeanne Laurel, a full-time English professor and former Chair of the English department. “The pay scale and benefits certainly reflect that kind of assumption.”
Having once been an adjunct herself, Laurel called it a “hand-to-mouth existence.” She named her salary (equivalent to approximately $30,000 a year in 2017 dollars), the absence of benefits, and the excess of travel time as some of the reasons that, were she to find herself in the position to be an adjunct again, she would find another career. Though as another faculty member noted, “even that yearly salary sounds high.”
Dr. John Keller, a full-time Philosophy professor and the next Chair of the Philosophy department, worked out the math for us – an adjunct in the NU Philosophy department with a Ph.D, plus a certain number of years of experience, would typically make between $2,100 and $2,300 per a three-credit course, of which they are only allowed to teach two a semester. For a 14 week semester, that equals approximately
42 hours actually teaching, not counting additional prep time. This may sound like decent pay, but with no benefits, summer pay, or job security, it is hardly a living wage. Many adjuncts, especially those without another job to fall back on, will take on multiple adjunct positions and commute between colleges that may not be close together just in an effort to make a living.
In fact, many adjuncts cannot make a living – as evidenced by the 2013 death of part-time professor Margaret Mary Vojtko. According to NPR and CNN, Vojtko had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, earning a mere $10,000 per year. Her contract was not renewed after that time, leaving her without health insurance, due processes or severance pay. When she contracted cancer, she was unable to pay for her medical bills. She died of a heart attack Sept.1, 2013, impoverished and nearly homeless.
This story is not an anomaly. 49.3 percent of university faculty is part-time (70 percent in community colleges), while another 19 percent are full-time, nontenure-track, amounting to a whopping 68.3 percent, a number CNN’s Gary Rhoades calls “an insufficiently resourced, egregiously exploited, contingent ‘new faculty majority.’”
NPR’s Claudio Sanchez puts the percentage of adjunct faculty even higher, at 75 percent of college instructors, quoting their average pay as between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. One of his sources, the head of the adjunct advocate group, New Faculty Majority, mentions that she knows of colleagues that have had to sell their plasma in order to eat for the week.
An October article by Ashley A. Smith from Inside Higher Ed tells the story of an adjunct arrested at a board meeting for protesting adjunct treatment at St. Louis Community College. A statement from the faculty defended him, saying “He was tackled to the ground for expressing an objection when administration stifled students’ right to voice support for their faculty.” The adjunct in question later said that he teaches eight classes a semester and drives 105 miles a day, for only about $30,000 a year.
The treatment of adjunct faculty is not a problem only for the faculty; it also affects the students being taught. “It’s not fair to the students,” Laurel said, mentioning that one effect of having so many adjuncts is that it dilutes the administrative decision-making contributions of professors. “I think we do our students a disservice.”
“We don’t pay [adjuncts] enough to require them to have office hours,” Keller added. “We pay less than most of the other nearby universities.”
As one petition, an open letter written by members from Tenure for the Common Good and signed by over 200 other professors, states, “A university that mistreats its [non-full-time] employees this way is not giving its students a good education – no matter how much it may pay its few remaining tenure-track faculty members.”
Another professor, who elected to remain anonymous, doesn’t have the sign on his door, claiming that more pay is not the solution to the problem. Laurel and Keller agree.
“There are just so many adjuncts – so many positions are adjunct positions. To me, the overall solution has got to be about reducing the number,” Keller said. “Universities should rely less on adjuncts. While adjuncts do play an important and necessary role at universities like ours, the vast majority of courses should be taught by full-time professors.”
“It’s not always feasible to hire a full-time position,” added Laurel. “But it’s unfair for everyone that we have come to depend so much on adjunct exibility.”
“Professors retire and it’s tempting to think ‘well, it’s just way cheaper to hire an adjunct to do it,’” said Keller. “That might make sense in special circumstances, but in general we should replace retiring professors with other full-time professors.”