by Mary Ellen Flannery
Zdenko Juskuv teaches five courses on at least three different campuses for two different Rhode Island colleges, and spends 40 to 50 hours a week, sometimes even 60, grading papers, advising students in person and over email, planning and preparing new course materials, and more.
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For all this, the Master’s-educated adjunct professor earns about $24,000 a year, without health benefits or job security. And still, he says, he loves it. “I really enjoy working with the students, building relationships with them… seeing them succeed in life and better themselves.”
In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama promised action on the issue of income inequality in the United States. “Those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”
Those words ring especially true on college and university campuses, where a growing number of adjunct or contingent faculty members like Juskuv earn poverty wages, and struggle in working conditions that often undermine student learning. For many, forming or joining a faculty union is the answer.
In a report entitled, “The Just-in-Time Professor,” released this week by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff [ed note: pdf link], the authors write, “While the occupation of ‘college professor’ still retains a reputation as a middle-class job, the reality is that… their story is another example of the shrinking middle class and another data point in the widening gap between rich and poor.”
More than 75 percent of the instructional workforce in higher education, or more than 1 million faculty members, is now contingent labor, compared to 18.5 percent about 40 years ago. In summarizing responses from more than 800 educators, including many NEA Higher Ed members, the House Democrats found that contingent faculty’s median annual pay is $22,041. More than half have Ph.D.s, and most have been teaching under these abysmal conditions for more than 10 years.
Wrote one respondent:
During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for my daughter’s daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty.
Juskuv has colleagues who supplement their academic income with part-time gigs at Home Depot, restaurants, bookstores, and more. He usually works summers on his in-laws’ farm.
In short, the report’s authors write,
Adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country.
To cobble together enough wages to pay for food and rent, many drive hundreds of miles each day to teach on multiple campuses, from morning to night. Adding to their economic stress, an overwhelming 95 percent said they had zero job stability and less than a third have health benefits. (One answer to that, say House Dems, is the proposed Part-Time Workers Bill of Rights Act, which would require employers to provide health benefits to part-time workers.)
Additionally, adjunct faculty often are hired (or fired) days before classes begin, denied email access to students, not provided with textbooks or library support, and cut out of professional development opportunities for tenure-track or tenured professors on the same campuses. (Many of these instructional issues also have been outlined in a recent Campaign for the Future of Higher Education report, entitled “Who is ‘Professor Staff,’ and how can they teach so many classes?”)
And still, these underpaid, overworked educators persist, they say, because they love teaching and they want to help their students learn. Despite their own personal stories, they still believe a college degree is a pathway to the American Dream for their students.
For many, including Justuv, the answer is unionization. Contingent faculty who belong to unions earn more — 25 percent more per course, on average, according to a 2010 survey — and they’re also more likely to have health and retirement benefits, and contractual provisions around job security. For Justuv, who belongs to a faculty union at one institution and is working on organizing one at the other, the difference is clear. And it’s not just about salary, he said, it’s also about transparency in course assignments.
Although some research shows that students who take more classes with non-tenured professors are less likely to graduate and more likely to earn lower grades, Juskuv disputes the idea that there is any difference in quality of instruction between his part-time and full-time colleagues. “I don’t buy the theory that adjuncts deliver substandard education,” he said. “Everybody I know really, really cares, and they deliver for their students. They don’t cut corners.”