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Dismantling the professoriate

On Campus
September/October 2012
Feature Story

Institutions are failing to support their instructional staff. What message does that send students?

Catherine Barnard has been a college psychology teacher for 29 years, the last 16 of them at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. When she started there, she earned $1,800 per three-credit course. Now, after her years of service, she's worked her way up to $2,478 and holding—and holding and holding and holding.

About 13 years ago, she mentioned to the human resources director that she had completed her doctorate. That's nice, she was told, but don't expect a pay increase because of it.

The subject of relative pay for work actually has come up in Barnard's classes, she says, where "students have said, 'Hey, you get megabucks for helping us here. We only get minimum wage!' I can tell them that, for what I do—preparing for courses and class, teaching in class, grading—those in minimum wage jobs make more than I do. 'If you're looking at me as a highly esteemed faculty member,' I say, 'think again.' Their jaws drop."

Working without resources

Colleges and universities are relying ever more heavily on part-time faculty while failing to support them adequately. The extent of that failure—and its impact on the majority of the higher education instructional workforce—is documented in a new survey long in the making and released this summer by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce.

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) is a group of higher education associations, disciplinary associations and faculty organizations committed to working on the issues associated with deteriorating working conditions for faculty and their effect on the success of college and university students in the United States. The AFT is a leading member of the group and was a chief supporter of the survey.

Currently, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 1.3 million of the 1.8 million faculty providing instruction in two- and four-year institutions are part-time or adjunct faculty, teaching off the tenure track. 

Yet, according to CAW, higher education employers pay part-time faculty poorly, fail to provide them the kind of academic and work supports that most professionals rely on to do their jobs, and don't attach rewards or incentives to the credentials their academic employees hold or earn. They also continue to offer part-time employees work deemed "temporary," despite the fact that their reliance on part-time faculty seems to be a permanent trend. 

The CAW survey, "A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members," was conducted during the fall semester of 2010 and was open to any faculty member or instructor who opted to complete a questionnaire. CAW received 28,974 responses. Faculty members in part-time positions made up the largest group of respondents, providing 10,331 of the 19,850 valid responses by contingent faculty members and instructors who were teaching at least one course in fall 2010.

The survey's key findings include:

  • The median pay per course, standardized to a three-credit course, was $2,700 in fall 2010, and ranged from a low of $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.
  • Part-time faculty respondents saw little, if any, wage premium based on their credentials.
  • Professional support was minimal for part-time faculty members' work outside the classroom and for their inclusion in academic decision-making.

Seeking respect

"Clearly, part-time faculty are undersupported," says Bonnie Halloran, president of the Lecturers' Employee Organization at the University of Michigan. "Part-time faculty [at the University of Michigan] have phones, offices and access to support staff through our collective bargaining agreement. But we have less access to professional development opportunities, even though we make up 33 to 50 percent of the faculty across the University of Michigan's three campuses."

At Kalamazoo Valley Community College, part-time faculty comprise 60 percent of the teaching force. They recently formed the KVCC Federation of Teachers and voted to affiliate with AFT Michigan. While salary was one reason to organize, the desire for respect was another. Barnard says her doctorate gives her clout in her profession, but not so much at the college.

"Ironically," says the CAW report, "it appears that those increasingly responsible for educating the undergraduates who reap this earnings premium are themselves excluded from the economic benefits of advanced educational attainment." They've been sucker-punched.

Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position. More than 80 percent of respondents reported teaching part time for more than three years, and more than half, for more than six years. And 75 percent of respondents said they have sought, are now seeking or will be seeking a full-time tenure-track position.

Andrew Jeffery's teaching career shows the pattern: He completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Washington in 1994. He interviewed for full-time positions around the country but got no job offers. He started teaching part time at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., in 1995. Not including a break to teach a half-year full-time stint in Pennsylvania and another yearlong full-time stint at the University of Washington, Tacoma, he's been aiming for an average annual load of 13 classes at GRCC and other local colleges and universities for nearly 20 years.

He's 52 and is still looking for that tenure-track gig. "I'd take the full-time position anywhere in the country for added job security and the way banks look at you."

In addition to gathering information about their academic background and other personal characteristics, the CAW survey asked part-time faculty respondents to provide data for each course they taught—a total of 19,615 courses. Course loads varied significantly among respondents. Slightly more than half taught one or two courses during the fall 2010 term, while slightly fewer than half taught three or more courses.

Exposing the problem

One of the primary features of the academic staffing crisis, says CAW, is that information available on the working conditions of part-time faculty is minimal. The Department of Education used to collect significant data on faculty, but funding has dried up. As a result, the large and growing majority employed in contingent positions are rendered largely invisible, both as individuals on the campuses where they work and collectively in the ongoing policy discussions of higher education.

"In order to a solve a problem, you have to understand it," says Sandra Schroeder, chair of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council, president of AFT Washington and an AFT vice president. "The plight of contingent faculty is one of the most urgent problems we face in higher education. This survey will give us crucial information about the next steps to take toward systemic improvements so that students are better served in our colleges and universities."

"I do love to teach," says Jeffery. "I love the ideas I work with. I love sharing them with others. It's all I ever wanted to do."

He adds: "I don't have a plan B."

—Barbara McKenna

(Download the full report at www.academicworkforce.org)

Reprinted from the September/October 2012 issue of AFT On Campus.