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Adjuncts deserve more than table crumbs.

Picture the scene: the fall or spring semester at one of the nation's 4,600 junior colleges, colleges and universities. In one classroom, a tenured professor is teaching a seminar with 15 students seated around a teak table. Across the hall, an adjunct professor is teaching 60 students seated six rows deep.

In addition to an annual salary above $120,000, the financial package of the tenured professor includes health insurance and retirement benefits. Other pluses include an office, free parking, a teaching assistant to read and grade papers, access to the campus gym, and job security.

For the adjunct, the pay is $3,000 for the course--with no office, parking, TA, gym privileges, health insurance, pension or job security, and about as much chance of being tenured as winning the lottery

After class, the tenured professor takes a seat in the quad to ruminate on how to use the upcoming sabbatical: Do some research in Barcelona, Paris or Monaco?

After class, the adjunct hies off to the freeway to make it to the next class at the next university, where the pay is $1,750 a course, and while driving thinks about the third class at the third school, where the pay is $2,000. The total fall semester salary: $6,750. If both semesters are similar, and no last minute cancellation occurs and hopes to add a fourth course fail, the annual pay is $13,500--a sum that is well below the national poverty line and qualifies for food stamp benefits.

The maltreatment of adjunct professors is the darkest of clouds hovering over American higher education, whether the school is a degree factory with 40,000 students, or a community college with less than 1,000. According to the American Association of University Professors, 50 percent of the nation's faculty are part-time appointments, a number consistent with surveys from both the Department of Education and a congressional committee. The median salary is $2,700 per course, with pay scales fluctuating from school to school and course to course. The Washington Post reported recently that Virginia's community college system retains 7,400 adjuncts but only 2,852 full-time professors.

The availability of cheap labor, many of whose members travel like migrant workers from one campus to another, puts academia in the company of Wal-Mart, McDonald's and other corporate exploiters of low-paid hired help. Fittingly, it is the Service Employees International Union, whose ranks include janitors, maids, fast-food workers and others at the payroll bottom, that is currently attempting to organize adjuncts into a collective power to gain economic equity.

In Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, Keith Hoeller, an adjunct at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., writes, "Throughout the country, college administrators, often with the collaboration of academic unions, have gone to great lengths to keep their increasing numbers of adjunct faculty secret from students, parents, legislators, accreditors, foundations, and the public."

Not all adjuncts are teetering just above penury. They have off-campus incomes, leaving them with low pay but high satisfaction from the enjoyment of teaching and the company of students. They are known as "hobby profs." I've been in this group for three decades, currently with two classes at the University of Maryland, one at Georgetown University Law Center, one at American University, as well as two public high schools. In all, my university pay for two semesters is $28,300. If that were the salary over 52 workweeks, it would amount to about $13 an hour.

Compared with adjuncts whose sole income is from teaching at three, four or five schools, we hobbyists are in the minority. Most teach but one course, enough to get out of the office or house a few hours a week. Georgetown Law has a stable of several hundred adjuncts, with fewer than 50 full-time professors. A Georgetown adjunct in one class can be making $10,000. Down the hall, another gets $1,500.

In a third but small category are the celebrity profs--as when Oprah Winfrey dabbled at Northwestern University teaching business and marketing to aspiring capitalists. Al Gore took to the classrooms at Fisk University, Bill Bradley at Notre Dame, George Stephanopoulos at Columbia, Madeleine Albright at Georgetown. Having Professor Famous on campus provides a sheen for self-promoting universities, whether or not the celeb profs actually have any teaching ability beyond their war stories.

Single-income adjuncts tend to be a scattered lot, ones difficult to organize because they are at multiple worksites with multiple obligations and scant time for much else. By their numbers alone--tens of thousands across the country--adjuncts could conceivably take to the picket lines and bring higher education to a halt until minimum wages became living wages. It's all but a fantasy to expect a nationwide strike.

The work of Adjunct Action Network, the outreach arm of the Service Employees International Union, offers promise. One of its leaders is Rebecca Schuman, a St. Louis-based former adjunct who is an education writer for Slate.

"Nobody but adjuncts," she argued in a recent online documentary, "are going to help adjuncts. We might have a tenured ally here and there--'I love you, you're great'--but in order to really affect change, every single victory that has been won for adjuncts in the last few years has been won by adjuncts. It's when adjuncts got together, spoke with one voice and demanded collective actions and demanded collective bargaining. That's the only thing that has given us what we need."

Victories have been small: getting office space, a raise or two rarely above 20 or 30 percent.

What do adjuncts need? First off, money--more money, adequate money. As unseemly as it may be for professors --held high as dispensers of wisdom and molders of youth--to be crassly talking about cash on the line, it's either that or keep quiet while accepting table-crumbs pay and enable the operators of colleges and universities to get away with it.

Schuman says, "Adjuncts deserve to be paid a pro-rated version of what full-time faculty get paid to do exactly the job that we are doing. Period. Whatever the average full-time faculty gets paid per course at our institution is what we need to be paid per course." And include the non-classroom work of reading and grading, mentoring and counseling.

Little evidence exists that the harsh treatment of single-income adjuncts has led tenured faculties to pressure administrators to end the shameful ness of pay inequality The professoriate that was once vocal in the movement against Third World sweatshop labor, with its products sold in campus stores, is all but silent when its own hallowed halls are an academic sweatshop. Perhaps the soft life of the tenured causes the indifference. How soft? Professors teaching two 14-week semesters are working only 28 weeks a year, even as they speak in harried terms about their teaching "loads."

Little help for adjuncts has come from boards of trustees, active as they are in lavishing money on college and university presidents. Pay packages above $1 million are now common, with laggards getting by with $500,000.

The closest allies that adjuncts might rally are their fellow oppressed: students, the pre-unemployed staggered by money problems of their own as loans pile up and job markets tighten.

If solace can be found, it's that 10 years ago adjunct abuse was all but a non-issue.

With the SEIU now organizing campus to campus, and groups like Adjunct Action Network and the Akron, Ohio-based New Faculty Majority in the game, at least a tailwind can be felt.

Caption: Students demonstrate for adjunct professors' right to organize at American University in Washington, D.C., in February 2012. The adjunct union reached a collective bargaining agreement with the university in June 2013.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. Last April, he won the outstanding adjunct teaching award at American University.]


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Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 27, 2015
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