For adjuncts, a disappointing academic experience

Two unions are trying to organize Philadelphia adjuncts to improve working conditions

· May 15, 2014, 2:45 pm   ·  Updated May 27, 2014, 10:17 pm

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Mark does not have health insurance. He has no job security and little hope for career advancement. He gets paid around $23,000 a year, enough for “a man of simple means” like himself but not enough to start a family or buy a home.

But Mark isn’t a fast food worker, although he might be better off as one. He is a lecturer at Penn, and he could be your professor.

The replacement of tenure-track faculty positions with adjunct, or contingent, faculty positions at universities has gained significant public attention in the past year. Democrats of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce released a report in January on the trend in higher education of replacing tenure-track positions with “cheap labor” in the form of contingent faculty.

Now, two organizations are targeting the perceived inequity that contingent faculty are facing. The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers are both seeking to organize the estimated 15,000 adjuncts in the Philadelphia area.

“Adjunct professors are a part of the growing low-wage workforce in this country, and they do an incredibly important job,” AFT president Randi Weingerten said. “We say all kids should have a college degree, but the people who are the backbone of that degree don’t have health care, rarely have a voice.”

Calling contingent faculty “some of the most exploited professionals in America,” Weingerten is hoping that by organizing together, adjuncts will be able to negotiate better working conditions and pay. A 2010 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that unionized adjuncts earn, on average, 25 percent more per course than non-unionized adjuncts.

When Mark, who asked to use a pseudonym, got his Ph.D. from Penn, he never imagined that his advanced degree at an Ivy League university would lead to a disheartening string of temporary lectureships as he searched for a tenure-track position — which would mean benefits, a pension and a middle-class income.

Faculty not on the tenure track often lack many of the resources needed to teach and conduct research, Mark said. “You’re kind of trapped in the cycle as an adjunct. It’s getting increasingly difficult to do the things you need to do to get the tenure-track job,” he said.

Tenure is a unique institution in academia which, when granted to a faculty member, prevents their dismissal without just cause and a faculty hearing. “A lot of academics are drawn to a career as a professor because tenure does offer that stability, not just of a paycheck, but freedom of speech to pursue genuine inquiry,” said Andrew Babson, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education. However, tenure-track positions have become increasingly rare. Today, adjuncts make up half of all higher education faculty, up from 20 percent in 1970.

“It leaves professionals pretty exhausted and underpaid. In addition, the students themselves are not getting what they should,” Babson said. “It’s not only exploitative, but it also takes away from the overall mission and ethos of a college education culture.

Mark, like many others, counts himself lucky to have gotten a job at Penn. He gets paid $5,700 per course at Penn, while the median pay per course for adjuncts in the U.S. is estimated to be around $2,700, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. He also gets notified if he is teaching a course several months beforehand so he can prepare and has his own office.

While these perks might seem like basic resources necessary to successfully teach college courses, they are often nonexistent at other colleges and universities.

“I’ve taught at other schools where I use the food court at the student union for my office,” he said. “If the class starts at 1:45, you come in at 1:40, you deliver the lecture and you’ve got to run right out to go to your next teaching gig. You don’t get integrated into the culture in the school.”

The conditions for contingent faculty at Penn are better than at many schools, Mark added.

In response to requests for interviews with Provost Vincent Price and Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen for this story, the Provost’s Office sent a statement confirming Penn’s support for its adjuncts.

“We remain committed to our non-standing faculty,” the statement, attributed to Allen, read. “The University is steadfastly dedicated to ensuring a productive working environment for everyone teaching Penn students.”

However, not all contingent faculty at Penn feel supported by the university, particularly with regards to health care.

Jerry Drew has been a lecturer in the Department of History at Penn for seven years — since he got his doctorate here at age 52. “I’m not a disappointed academic. I’m a pleased academic because I consider myself lucky to have this job,” he said. But he said his case is unique because of his age. “If I was 30, I wouldn’t have the same view of lecturing here. I would feel like a second-class citizen,” he added. “You sort of feel, as a lecturer, like an afterthought.”

He spent the past six years as a senior lecturer, which allowed him to get health coverage. However, faculty are prevented from working more than four years as a senior lecturer without special permission from their department heads. Drew got permission for an additional two years, but this year, he is officially just a lecturer, and lecturers do not get health coverage and are not permitted to buy University health care. Drew estimates that if he were able to buy University health coverage, he would save around $8,000 to $9,000 this year.

Under the Affordable Care Act, large employers will be required to provide affordable health care to employees working 30 or more hours per week — which has led to many universities capping adjunct hours below 30. To address this issue, the Obama administration in February began requiring schools to calculate contingent faculty hours “reasonably,” suggesting a guideline of adding one hour and 15 minutes for every hour of teaching.

At Penn, lecturers are counted as part-time workers, though many spend additional time mentoring students or attending meetings, which can bring their hours to over 30 a week.

The low cost of hiring lecturers and adjuncts to teach courses has made increasing financial sense for schools. “When you make the commitment to give someone tenure, you’re making a multi-milllion dollar commitment,” said Mary, an adjunct professor who asked to use a pseudonym.

At Penn, what are called “adjunct” professors must be appointed by the Provost’s Office and receive health insurance and a pension — as opposed to lecturers, who do not need to be formally appointed and receive fewer, if any, benefits. As an adjunct professor, Mary does much of the same work as tenure-track professors like teaching and research, only with less pay, less job security and less hope for career advancement.

“The whole adjunct crisis has raised a lot of serious questions about what we mean by quality education and what we mean by equity in education,” she said.

To address the issue of equity, the AFT and the SEIU are seeking to unionize adjuncts, but the two groups are still in the early stages of doing so in Philadelphia.

Babson, the GSE lecturer, decided to join the United Academics of Philadelphia, a union within the AFT, because it promised to offer opportunities for professional development. “What the UAP means for me is meeting other people like me from other institutions,” he said, echoing a common complaint that contingent faculty are often alienated from their schools and each other.

Speaking with fellow contingent faculty made Babson conclude that the adjunctification of higher education needed to be changed, he said. “I think theres almost a moral obligation ... to work to make the system better.”

He argued that universities have little incentive to treat contingent faculty better without active outside pressure from contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty and students.

One example is the University of Oregon, where both tenure and non-tenure-track faculty unionized through the AFT last October, leading to university administrators agreeing to more consistent raises, job stability and higher salaries for all of the faculty. At Georgetown University, adjuncts unionized through the SEIU, which was aided by the fact that the university decided not to oppose the unionization.

Mark, though, said he thinks the problems in higher education are too big for unions to solve. Many point to the fact that investment in tenure-track faculty jobs is simply not a priority for most universities. The average ratio of faculty and staff per administrator decreased by around 40 percent between 1990 and 2012, the American Institutes for Research reported in February.

Many schools have also put money into new dormitories and recreational facilities in order to attract students. “These are the things that students and parents want to see when they visit,” Mark said. “If prospective students made it known that [faculty is] a priority for them, then the school would respond to that.”

Facing the prospect of becoming stuck in the “rut” of teaching as a lecturer, Mark is now considering leaving academia. “[A tenure-track position] hasn’t happened yet, and I’ve been trying three years now,” he said. “I’m trying to get off the hamster wheel.”

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