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Contingent and adjunct faculty facing a national crisis

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By Madeline St. Amour

Associate News Editor

[email protected]

   The higher education system has been facing a quiet crisis.

   For decades now, adjuncts have increasingly become the majority of the teaching faculty at most colleges. They teach and are paid on a class-by-class basis, and, according to a study done by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), the median pay received from teaching one course in the fall of 2010 was $2,700.

   Assuming a teacher were to teach four classes per semester, that would come out to $21,600 per year.

   A study done by the U.S. Department of Education followed the trends in employment for teaching in higher education between 1975 and 2011. In 1975, less than 25 percent of instructional staff was part-time. By 2011, the amount of part-time staff had increased by over 300 percent, breaking the 75 percent mark in many universities.

Photo from albany.edu.
Photo from albany.edu.

At the University at Albany, the difference is less extreme. Dr. Bret Benjamin, the president of the UAlbany Chapter of United University Professions (UUP), says that currently between 40 and 45 percent of instruction is done by part-time faculty. About 500 faculty members at UAlbany are adjuncts, and according to UAlbany’s website, there are around 1,200 total faculty members.

   This number increases, however, if contingent faculty are included, he says. Contingent faculty are people that have full-time, non-permanent positions. This would include teachers that teach full-time but who’s contracts have to be renewed at the end of each year. There is also no consistent minimum salary attached to the title, Benjamin said, which is something UUP is trying to change.

   “[The percentage] is less at a university like this one, in part because it’s unionized, in part because research universities have to maintain a set of full-time faculty,” he said.

   An adjunct position in the College of Arts and Sciences at UAlbany, for an entry level professor, would start at a base pay of $2,800 per course, Benjamin said. Adjuncts can teach up to two courses per semester. Most adjuncts do not receive health benefits, however, adjuncts who do choose to teach two courses receive the benefits, which was negotiated by UUP, he said.

   Still, adjuncts often need to teach courses at multiple universities each semester because of the course limits and the low pay, he said.

   “What that then means is that you have a faculty member who’s driving between three campuses, who is teaching an extraordinary number of students . . . It seems to me that by necessity, it decreases the quality of education that can be offered – not because these are bad teachers . . . but because of the nature of the labor demands that they are placed under, the quality of the instruction simply has to diminish,” he said.

   Benjamin also said that contingent faculty don’t have the same measurement systems to go by for their performance as tenured faculty do. A standard way to measure how the contingent faculty are doing would be necessary to decide on who should move into full-time positions.

   Adjuncts also face “alienation” and a “lack of inclusion” on the campuses where they work, he said. Sometimes they don’t have offices or a listing on schools’ websites. Some of those problems are easy, and virtually free, fixes, Benjamin said.

   Dr. Bradley Russell, an adjunct professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany and chairman of the adjunct faculty union, echoes this feeling, saying that they rarely have their own offices to meet with students.

   The crisis with adjuncts in universities affects nearly everyone that goes to college. Adjuncts are most likely to teach introductory classes that are required for every student to take, so almost every student will pass through a pipeline of adjunct teachers that may be barely living over the poverty line.

   In an article James Hoff, an adjunct professor, wrote for The Guardian titled “Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?”, he noted that when more people began attending college that wouldn’t have before: people from poor families, people of color, first generation college students, etc., public funding was constricted and the use of adjuncts started to expand. Just when college became seemingly open to everyone, the quality of the education began its decline.

  The union at Saint Rose created a graph comparing the federal poverty lines to how much an adjunct professor at Saint Rose makes. An adjunct teaching four three-credit classes would make $9,600. The federal poverty line for one person starts at $11,670.

   Benjamin says that the problem also affects tenured faculty. Basic duties like advisement and running committees that would have been spread around the 75 percent full-time faculty in 1975 are now all constricted to the 25 percent that are left. Along with the decrease in full-time faculty, enrollment has also been increasing, which means that there are more students to take care of and less teachers with the time and support to mentor and advise them.

   “This problem of contingency is sort of thoroughly woven into the fabric of the university,” he said.

   UUP, both statewide and at UAlbany, is proposing a number of ways to improve the situation. UUP is the union for the State University of New York system and represents over 35,000 people throughout SUNY.

   UUP created a proposal in response to Gov. Cuomo’s performance-based budget system, suggesting that schools be rewarded for creating more full-time positions for currently part-time professors and helping SUNY-employed staff get student loan forgiveness. UUP also proposed creating a higher education endowment fund for SUNY so that it would not have to go back to the legislature each year to ask for money.   

   Raising the amount of pay per course to at least $5,000 is another important point for UUP. Benjamin says that the Modern Language Association (MLA) recommends paying adjuncts $7,000 per course. More importantly, he said, they will advocate for more full-time positions and longer contracts. UUP proposes a step system, in which if a professor shows commitment for a certain number of years, they can move from a part-time position into a full-time one, and then from a yearly contract to a two-year one, and so forth.

   “We have a number of people who have been teaching part-time at this university for 20 years, 25, 30 years. They’re permanent, they’ve been here for their entire careers effectively. We want to try to find ways to move those people into full-time positions . . . We obviously need them every year,” he said.

   UAlbany has established a panel headed by Provost James Stellar that will look into the problem of contingency.

   Benjamin says that the emphasis of what a university is has to be refocused to academics, which means focusing funding on faculty and paying faculty living wages, and ultimately bringing more funding to universities. We have to “defend” the nature of universities or see the quality continue to decline, said Benjamin.

    “What are the priorities here? Where’s the heart of the university? To my mind that’s in faculty who produce new knowledge in their disciplines and who teach students to be able to live in the world with the critical capacity to be engaged citizens,” he said.

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