Photo by Donald Williams

May 21, 2014

Gross income

The plight of adjunct instructors in Kentuckiana

For decades, well-educated — and expensively educated — adjunct or “contingent” faculty have slogged it out in American colleges and universities, public and private, for scant recognition, minimal pay, no departmental support and an increasingly tenuous existence entirely dependent on the whims of colleges, student enrollment and money. All too frequently, adjuncts have no access to computers or no office space at all, and it is rare for an adjunct to have any form of health benefits, let alone retirement plans. The very existence of these part-timers — many with PhDs — has largely gone unrecognized. The tragic case of Mary Margaret Vojtko changed all that.

Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct instructor of French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, worked for 25 years for marginal pay until she was diagnosed with cancer. Her yearly income was below $10,000, and she had no health insurance. She could not afford the upkeep on her home, was undergoing radiation therapy and, incredibly, Adult Protective Services was threatening to turn her over to Orphans’ Court. Nearly homeless, as her house was caving in on itself, she took a second job at Eat’n Park, and, when she was found sleeping during the day at her Duquesne office, was terminated by the university without any form of severance. She never missed a day of work in 25 years and had glowing student reviews. The next day, she was found dead on her front lawn from a massive heart attack. She was buried in a cardboard casket.

Vojtko’s story went viral. Stories circulated in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate and NPR. Gary Rhoades, in an op-ed for CNN, called adjunct professors “the new working poor.”

My own experience as an adjunct instructor is markedly better than what many others have endured. In March of 2010, I accepted my first position as an adjunct instructor of composition. I’d been teaching high school and was looking to get out, and in the course of my job search found that Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, about an hour south of Louisville, needed instructors. I applied and was offered a class to teach. I was never formally interviewed. I simply did what I’ve done countless times since: show up to meet with a department head, where I was given textbooks and a vague outline for the class. I accepted gratefully, as I felt this would be the beginning of what I’d wanted for years — a career teaching college.

The class I taught was held two evenings a week at the school’s satellite center at Fort Knox. Known as a “bi-term,” the class was essentially a full semester taught at a breakneck pace in only eight weeks.

I would promptly leave my high school job in the afternoon and drive straight to Fort Knox. The office for ECTC at the base was small, housed in an old schoolhouse shared with other campuses that had extension centers there. I had no office space of my own, but was not surprised, given the size of the space the secretaries and faculty — what few there were — had to share. There was a worktable that doubled as a place to eat dinner and plan for the class. I had a mailbox slot. I made do.

Despite the fact that I had to figure things out as I went, reading the textbook and designing Power Point presentations weekly — in short, keeping a step or two ahead of the actual students — the class seemed enjoyable; the students, largely wives of soldiers, were amiable. When ECTC announced a full-time position opening, I applied and was interviewed. I didn’t get the job. Instead, I was offered more courses to teach, both at the actual Elizabethtown campus and Fort Knox. For the fall 2010 term, I was given five composition courses, essentially a full-time load. However, I was considered “part-time” faculty. Again, I accepted, figuring that with diligence, I could get the needed experience to be eligible for a full-time position that would invariably come up later.

The fall semester was excruciating. Five classes proved a heavy load. I taught more classes than a typical university professor for whom “full-time” or “tenure-track” can mean as little as two classes plus ample time for research — not that a community college can afford such a position. Even an assistant professor at a community college receives perks I didn’t get: health insurance, certainly, not to mention ample pay and job security.

I was compensated $1,650 per class per semester for a class that contained — at the outset, at least — no fewer than 24 students, sometimes more. This meant I received slightly less than $70 per student to teach them, meet with them and evaluate their work. The lack of health benefits was especially problematic, as the sheer stress of the job, coupled with enormous amounts of sitting time, both in the car and behind desks, developed into severe back spasms that would leave me incapacitated for days.

And to say “desk” is misleading. I still had no desk, no office. There was a single computer in a small foyer I could use — if no one else was using it. I had no adequate place to meet students, though I did have a room that was formerly a bathroom: tile floor, sink, soap dispenser, the works. All that was missing was the toilet, the absence of which was indicated by holes in the floor and wall. A small table was put in there, a few ratty chairs. If I didn’t meet there, I met with students in the adjoining room, which was actually the faculty dining area. Faculty went in and out making their lunch while I discussed student essays. I had no phone.

The next term was slightly better. I took on only four classes and had to come to campus only twice a week. By then, there was a small room adjoining another kitchen space that adjuncts could use as a workspace. There were two computers and two mismatched desks that were shared by numerous adjunct faculty. The office also adjoined a classroom, and I was reprimanded for talking too loudly at times and disturbing their class — reprimanded for conversing with my students.

At the end of that year, I applied for another position at the college that had opened up. I was not interviewed. I did not teach there again, instead taking three classes at Indiana University Southeast, which paid better at about $2,700 a class per term, and the whole process began again.

What is an “adjunct” instructor? First, they are not a professor or even assistant or associate professor; as such, they are not eligible for tenure, which would mean job security. Instead, they work on a term-by-term basis, usually signing a contract paying a flat rate, which could be anywhere from less than $1,000 to upwards of $4,000. “Contingent faculty” are just that: Everything is contingent upon a number of uncontrollable factors.

Adjuncts can be offered classes with only a few days notice before a term starts — they have virtually no time to draft a syllabus and prepare for a 16-week course. Likewise, they can have classes taken away with just as little notice if enrollment in a full professor’s class is low. All of this makes a personal budget for part-time faculty nearly impossible.

This means the problem is not only that these trained professionals — teachers, after all — are being treated with profound indignity, but also that the ultimate beneficiaries, i.e. students, are missing out on an education.

Ian Scullion of the San Francisco Foghorn answers a pertinent question: Why, if the pay is so low, do people work as adjuncts? For income, of course, because they cannot find any other available occupations. But he also zeroes his attention in on the treatment of said adjuncts; according to Cassandra Millspaugh, adjunct Spanish professor at the University of San Francisco, adjuncts feel they are “treated as children, or second-class citizens” who are not allowed to vote on departmental changes — in other words, are not allowed a say in their professional destiny and, thus, denied a certain dignity we often assume goes with a university job.

Maybe it’s enough to simply look at the math. As Nicole Braun wrote for the website Speakout, “Say I have 30 students in the class, and they each pay $3,000 in tuition. The amount of money brought in to the college is $90,000. Then, take the $90,000 and subtract my salary of $2,700. This equals $87,000.” Obviously, the colleges in our area don’t charge that much, but the point is made. For example, a student at IUS, where I taught for nearly three years, pays just over $600 per class for composition. Yet, what I am paid from that lump sum is about $120.

Consider that University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto makes a base salary of $500,000. Or that UK’s Division I NCAA men’s basketball coach John Calipari recently signed a contract guaranteeing him $5.5 million annually — with additional benefits.

Steve Bowman has taught at IUS since 2001; he’s also taught at Ivy Tech State College. His official title is adjunct lecturer of English (“Though it feels,” he says, “like they’re trying to phase out the word ‘adjunct’ and change it to ‘part-time’”). He is serving a second term as adjunct representative to the IUS faculty senate and has recently been trying to get the “part-time faculty association” off the ground.

“Because we are part-time,” Bowman says, “adjuncts are paid per class instead of salary. This works out to roughly $2,500 per class (with small yearly increases) and no benefits. The problem with this, especially now that the IRS has restructured full-time working hours, is that many universities have reduced the amount of classes adjuncts can teach per semester. This is typically determined by the amount of credit hours rather than the number of classes. Those who teach three-credit hour classes have been reduced to two courses per semester. Those who teach five-credit hour classes (often in the sciences) have been reduced to one course per semester. This means most adjuncts are earning (before taxes) roughly $5,000 per semester, and, if they can get one summer class in each summer session, roughly $15,000 per year. These dollar amounts can vary widely from school to school, so my calculations are not exact.”

The IRS problem mentioned has to do with the Affordable Care Act, which stipulates that employees who work full-time hours must be paid health care. To alleviate — or, deviate from — the problem, many colleges in our area (including IUS and the KCTCS system) have made sure no one will get health care by taking away the available classes to teach. In short, part-timers are made even more part-time. As Bowman is blithely aware, adjuncts who want to make more money must teach at numerous colleges, which can result in substantial commute times. It’s not unusual for a teacher in Louisville to commute as far as Georgetown or Lexington.

“This divides the adjuncts’ time and attention and causes them to become something more like placeholders, rather than scholars,” says Bowman. “This lifestyle seriously cuts into the amount of time we can meet with students before and after class. It also makes it harder to prep for those classes, be that lesson planning or grading. It impedes professional development. We adjuncts are constantly on the move, with little downtime.”

I can attest to this. The fall 2013 semester, for example, found me teaching the maximum allowance of two composition classes at IUS and three composition classes at JCTC’s southwest campus. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I would show up in Indiana at 7:30 a.m. for my two-hour office hours (a stipulation in the contract), then teach from 9:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. At that point, I told students I could not meet with them after this class, because I had to drive 30 miles to get to my 1:25 p.m. class on time. I ate my lunch behind the wheel. I was admittedly grateful that JCTC requires no office hours, though I met with students when they requested. For this schedule, I was paid $10,900 with no benefits.

“The absence of benefits exacerbates the income problem,” Bowman explains. “Because we cannot count on benefits nor a discount to insurance, we must work as much as possible to afford the cost of insurance plans that regular full-time employees take for granted. With the high cost of insurance these days, it is hard to make ends meet when paying all the bills.”

Considering it all, he says, one wonders if it’s worth it.

“That is the silver bullet right there,” Bowman continues. “Most of us adjuncts are doing this because we love teaching, because we love helping students learn these important life skills. Our passion is the chain that keeps us tethered to this inequitable, often near-poverty-level lifestyle.”

Joshua Mills-Knutsen, Ph.D., who teaches in the IUS philosophy department, sees the issue not so much as a financial problem as an affront to dignity. “In our culture, what a person is paid is a sign of what they are valued,” he says. “I have the most advanced degree my field can provide. I am an expert in a field that has been a hallmark of human existence for more than 2,500 years. Our society encouraged me to borrow money in pursuit of my degree on the assumption that it is socially worthwhile. Students are only here because people like me teach, and yet I am afforded fewer financial compensations than any full-time administrator whose salary and benefits my labor make possible.”

Mills-Knutsen’s classes generate in tuition alone around $75,000 per year for the university. For this labor, he is paid $11,500 — which means his work provides the university with at least $63,000 in excess income. This says nothing of the per-student reimbursements the university gets from the state, nor does it assume any student pays out-of-state tuition.

“Many of these positions are necessary for the functioning of the university, but it is insulting when the university turns to me, one of its most valued moneymakers, and says, ‘Sorry you can’t earn a living wage,’ or ‘Sorry, there’s no money for benefits,’” he says. “I wonder who gets to see a doctor because I prepared a lecture? Who gets to pay a mortgage because I graded those papers? The university functions only because it doesn’t treat adjuncts fairly. Without the abuse of adjuncts, there would be no money for the university.

“All I want is my fair share — to be treated like the valuable member of the community that I am,” he continues. “My work generates the income the university runs on. Without me, there is no university. It would be nice if the administration and tenured faculty alike recognized that — not with appreciation dinners, but with living wages and benefits.”

At this point in academic history, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, or vice-versa. After World War II, America saw a boom not only in its economy but also in its higher education system. Some 10 million veterans had their education funded by the G.I. Bill, and then those veterans went and had kids. The 1960s and early ’70s saw such a boom in student enrollment — which saw a substantial increase, as well, in female, minority and so-called “nontraditional” students — that colleges began to multiply, with the attendant increase in faculty. But when the ’80s saw a reversal in fortune, including withdrawn federal funding, increasing tuition and a lack of public support for the university system, higher education turned to part-time labor. Is there an answer?

“Decisions about funding are essentially a reflection of our institutions’ priorities,” says Colleen Flaherty in an article for InsiderED. “If we want to invest in student success, then we need to invest more heavily in the faculty.”

At the same time, part of the late-20th century education “bubble” is also a result of a massive system (for example, the state university systems of California, New York and, alas, Indiana) that needed more administrators. As the Cape Cod Times points out, the rise in administration jobs, many of which are concerned with increasing enrollment, is growing three times faster than student enrollment, and those rising wages lead to higher tuition, which leads to less student enrollment.

“Everyone speaks well of justice until they start to see that being just threatens the system that allows them to prosper,” says Knutsen-Mills. “The game is basically, ‘I’ll care about adjunct issues so long as I am not tenured, but once I get that job, then I’m off to care about other things.’ The fault ultimately is on adjuncts. You can’t ever expect anyone to give you anything. You can’t rely on those in power to be fair or just; you must force their hand.”

Which brings us back to why, ultimately, people would choose to be an adjunct.

“There are far too many people working as adjuncts who are happy as adjuncts,” Knutsen-Mills believes. “Sure, they’d like higher pay and benefits, but all in all, they don’t want to do anything to threaten the use of adjuncts because they are unqualified or unwilling to be full-time faculty. Adjuncts are essentially scab laborers. Being tenured is like having a union job. No one will ever be able to get rid of scab laborers if they have no interest in something better.”

As for me? In all, I adjuncted for nearly four years before I was offered a full-time job as a copywriter at a business downtown. It is unlikely I will teach again.

I am not the only one who’s vacated a position. My friend left the dingy adjunct office in the Seminary Building of the downtown JCTC campus for a corporate job. Another friend, a poet, stopped commuting to Lexington in favor of an editorial job he can do largely from home. As with public schools, the turnover rate threatens to increase the already unstable community of colleges.

But in the end, it is the students who suffer. Until a change is made, students can expect much of their early college experience to be taught by underpaid, time-constrained, health-strained professionals who live as jugglers.