Monday, December 10, 2012

The Deplorable State of Adjunct Faculty Compensation

It is not just K-12 public school teachers who are getting squeezed by budget cuts, stagnant pay, declining working conditions and attacks on tenure. Today, nearly 70% of all college and university faculty are non-tenured, part-time adjunct faculty (according to a recent piece in Truth Out), with no job security and generally lower pay and fewer benefits than their tenured colleagues.

Many of these professors find themselves having to accept teaching positions at multiple universities and colleges just to make enough to support themselves, sometimes having to commute to two or three different campuses in one day. It is not uncommon in the community colleges for adjuncts to earn as little as $2,500 per class. For adjuncts teaching 3-4 classes per semester, this translates to $15,000-20,000 per year, often without any benefits.

Some adjuncts make good money. At UCSF, for example, adjunct professors can earn six-figure salaries. However, their job security is based entirely on their ability to compete for scarce research grants, as the university provides them with little or no additional funding and makes no commitment to support them if their grants run dry.  These adjuncts, who must constantly contend with the threat of losing their labs and their income, often put in 60-80 hour weeks just to keep their grants flowing and, consequently, suffer an incredible amount of pressure and stress.

A number of factors have been contributing to the problem, including the nation’s economic crisis, which has exacerbated many states’ existing budget difficulties. In order to close their deficits, universities have not only been cutting classes and raising tuition for their students; they have also been squeezing their employees by cutting wages, benefits and teaching assignments. At the same time, the number of college graduates competing for these jobs has been rising. This may be part of the reason why the number of people possessing PhDs who receive public assistance has tripled over the last three years. Between 2007 and 2010 the number grew from 9,776 to 33,655.

However, the decline in tenured faculty positions started well before the current economic crisis. The New York Times reported in November, 2007, that tenured faculty had already become the minority on campuses across the country. 30 years ago, adjuncts made up only 43% of faculty nation-wide, whereas by 2007 they comprised 70% of faculty. The Times attributed the trend to administrators’ desire to save money and have greater “flexibility.” What this really means is greater ease in manipulating, coercing and firing, since part-timers and adjuncts, in general, have little or no job security and must toe the line and keep their mouths shut if they want to keep their jobs.

It also means more money is available for executive compensation, which has been on the rise even as tuition has climbed and employee compensation has declined. The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that executive pay at the nation’s private colleges climbed 2.8% between 2009 and 2010 (the last year in which records are available). The median compensation for the nearly 500 presidents of private universities with budgets of at least $50 million was nearly $400,000, with 36 executives earning more than $1 million annually. However, executive compensation at public universities has also been rising rapidly. California Senator Leland Yee recently introduced legislation that would bar the state’s UC and CSU systems from giving any raises or bonuses until two years after the latest fee hikes.

As with many aspects of the education system, the interests of teachers are linked to the wellbeing of students. Several studies have found that freshmen taught by part-timers are more likely to drop out. This is probably due to the fact that part-timers and adjuncts, in general, have more work to do and less time to do it, forcing many to reduce or abandon office hours. They are more likely to accept excessive or unreasonable course loads in order to increase their salaries or to be eligible for benefits. They also are less likely to advocate for better conditions for themselves and their students out of fear of getting fewer (or no) classes in the coming semesters.

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