The army of part-time professors teaching at the region’s colleges are merely working stiffs at the bottom of an enormous and lucrative enterprise.
One Thursday afternoon last spring, I was wrapping up my expository-writing class at Bentley University when a woman walked into the classroom and strode straight up to me. Judging from her looks, I thought she might be a sophomore or junior. “Hi, Professor Becker!” she said, sticking out her hand. As my students shuffled out around us, she told me that she was from Adjunct Action, a campaign run by the Service Employees International Union. From a recent email, I knew she and her ilk were trying to organize adjuncts like me. Together with the SEIU, they had already successfully organized adjuncts at several Washington, DC–area colleges, and the Boston group had made inroads at Tufts, Lesley, and Northeastern.
“How much money do you make?” she boldly asked.
I stopped stuffing my laptop into my bag, tucked my hair behind my ears, and briefly studied her lineless face. Given that she was stalking me, I suspected she already knew the answer, but when the room was empty, I told her: “Five thousand per class.”
“How do you live on that?” she asked.
Her question pissed me off. How could someone so young ask me something so audacious? I was also secretly embarrassed. In truth, no one can really live on my pay. She continued pelting me with personal questions: “What are you doing about benefits? Do you teach anywhere else?”
I didn’t have time to hang out and talk—I needed to tear out of there to meet my boys after school. I told her I had to leave and tried to nonchalantly walk past. She kept stride and continued, “You don’t have 10 minutes to talk about how to make life better for adjuncts?” Obviously this chick didn’t have kids and never had to meet an elementary school bus.
Truth is, I never thought I had much use for unions. I once joined one to teach high school English in the late 1990s, but that’s because I would have been charged a fee to opt out. Instead, I’d set out to become a professor, someone who had no need for striking and sign waving. I earnestly built a portfolio of published pieces, got a second master’s degree, and jumped at the chance to teach an introductory journalism course at Boston University. I expected that I’d eventually land a full-time professorship and continue writing.
It didn’t turn out that way. I’ve been an adjunct for seven years, teaching what many schools consider a full course load: two or three classes per semester. Last school year, I spent 30 to 40 hours a week planning, teaching, meeting with students, writing recommendations, and grading for my gigs at Bentley and Boston University. In that time, I made a grand total of $27,300.
In spite of my paltry salary, whenever I saw that union rep on the Bentley quad, deep in conversation with a small crowd of adjuncts, I kept on walking, even though her pointed questions back in my classroom, within earshot of students, had touched a nerve. I was already self-conscious about my underpaid, unrecognized, non-status job. When people learned what I earned, they’d return a polite smile and silently compare my teaching career to their kids’ summer job. But it’s not like I wanted to talk to a stranger about it. Or did I?
Here it goes: My name is Lisa Liberty Becker, and I’m an adjunct professor. Everyone understands the professor part of my title; teaching is my passion. But the adjunct part (as in “add-junk”) removes all dignity from the equation. It classifies me as a contingent worker—hired and paid by the course, semester to semester, with no job security or paid benefits. If you’re into etymology, the word adjunct refers to something added to another thing, but not essential to it. Just like me.
And yet, adjuncts now make up the largest chunk of the university-level teaching force in America—an impressive 41 percent, according to the most recent report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Although they are critically important to the country’s educational system, adjuncts are widely treated as disposable employees who aren’t entitled to basic job protections or support. They are “the underclass of the academic world,” says Claudia Dreifus, a longtime adjunct, New York Times writer, and coauthor of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. She says that the way the majority of adjuncts are paid and handled may just be the biggest dirty little secret of university life. “It’s not like the normal work world, because experience doesn’t get you anywhere,” she says. “And there are so many people willing to work for so little.”
The issue gained widespread attention last September, when the newswires picked up the story of longtime Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died at age 83 in September. Vojtko had recently been let go by the university after making $10,000 in her last year of teaching and living in poverty without health insurance. Her death sparked national outrage, and the hashtag #iammargaretmary began trending on Twitter.
California Congressman George Miller began investigating the working conditions of contingent faculty, and in January, he released a report finding that “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.”
That’s why union organizers have targeted adjuncts, advocating for higher pay (including a pay scale in some cases), a guaranteed number of courses per semester, continued employment, benefits, and representation in the faculty governance. But they’re up against vast, well-funded institutions that have become systemically reliant on maintaining a subclass of underpaid instructors.
Here in Boston, unions claim that local universities are ruthless in blocking the SEIU’s efforts to organize. Last May, UMass Lowell told Ellen Martins, adjunct-faculty-union president through the UAW Local 1596, that her contract would not be renewed to make way for a full-time faculty member. After filing a complaint that she was let go because of her union post, she was reinstated in the fall. Northeastern hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to squash unionizing efforts, and it now appears that the heavy-hitting firm Mintz Levin wants a piece of this action. Last month it published an article on the legal-intelligence website JDSupra Business Advisor advising universities of the “tell-tale signs” adjunct faculty may be looking to unionize.
But consider this: Higher education would collapse if all of us decided to strike.
It wasn’t always this way. When tenure was introduced early in the last century—designed to encourage academic freedom and protect big thinkers from the whims of university bureaucrats—an elaborate and increasingly impenetrable caste system formed in its wake. At the top sat tenured and well-paid professors with their comfortable, ongoing contracts. Tenure-track positions, known as assistant professor and associate professor slots, were a step down. Below them were the full-time, non-tenure-track positions, often called instructors or lecturers. And at the bottom were grad students and adjuncts. Created to fill single-course gaps, adjunct positions were originally given to experts in their fields, often near retirement, who wanted to teach merely to keep a foot in academia or supplement their income, not as a full-time career. They could come and go as they pleased.
The astounding expansion of higher education over the decades solidified this hierarchy. Annual enrollment at American universities hovered at 1.5 million students 75 years ago, but when the GI Bill and the civil rights movement pushed a wave of new students into private universities, fledgling state and community-college systems expanded wildly. As more students enrolled, universities began bringing in part-time teachers to help fill in the gaps. By 1969, part-timers made up 18.5 percent of university faculties.
In the 1980s, the use of adjunct faculty grew exponentially when federal funding for higher education was slashed, enrollment numbers declined, and the U.S. fell into a recession. To cope with such economic uncertainty, universities brought in more contingent faculty, says Dreifus, the writer and adjunct professor. And then they were hooked. As the economy recovered, those same universities realized that relying on a corps of adjuncts freed up big money for blue-chip faculty. Thus began an academic arms race for prestige: Schools dangled dollars in front of big-name professors, brought in legions of staff to manage operations, and began paying college presidents like CEOs. “Tenured professors started getting huge salaries and huge perks,” says Dreifus, who argues that universities now focus more on rankings, fundraising, and facilities than they do on curricula. There are now one million people working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, since 1985, tuition has risen by more than 500 percent.
Nonetheless, a college education remains an integral part of the American dream. Last fall, 21.8 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. Today, those students are leaving school burdened with debt, and entering an economic landscape in which wages have grown stagnant and jobs are scarce. This same educational system is also turning out more than double the number of Ph.D.s it did 50 years ago—60,000 a year—despite the fact that a doctorate no longer guarantees the possibility of full-time work. The survey of adjuncts released by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in January found that 62 percent of its respondents had or were working toward their Ph.D.
What started as a short-term solution has turned into an epidemic of part-timers, which universities both depend on and exploit. Father James Keenan, the Founders Professor of Theology at Boston College, is writing a book on whether universities, structured as they are, can be ethical; he devotes an entire chapter to adjuncts, whom he calls “indentured servants.” He says their proliferation gets to the heart of so many problems that universities now face: overspending, cost-cutting, supply and demand, and a big-business mentality that is co- opting the way they educate.
In spite of the evidence, the idea of the ideal adjunct—the dilettante, someone teaching for his or her own edification—persists. It’s the model that makes the university administrators feel better about paying so little. But now there’s a strong classist bent against those who lack full-time status. Contingent faculty members linger in the shadows of the departments where they teach. That was the case with 44-year-old Daryl Morazzini, who has nearly a decade of teaching experience but was immediately shunned when he tried to attend a faculty meeting at one of the schools where he worked. “One of the full-time faculty came over to me and let me know that the meetings were for full-time faculty only,” he says. “There was definitely that divide of, ‘What are you doing here?’”
At the time he was juggling 11 classes at five different institutions, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and his wages worked out to about $11.50 per hour. A maintenance worker at Wentworth makes $26 per hour. They have a union.
Morazzini was forced into this manic schedule in 2011, when Emmanuel College, where he’d been teaching for five years, yanked him from two online classes just days before the semester began. He was told the faculty senate had decided that full-time teachers got first dibs on Web courses, and someone had wanted his spot. “I even wrote them and said, ‘I have no way to pay my rent. What am I going to do?’” Morazzini says. “No replies. I then wrote people at the school who were full-time faculty, who I knew—we went on trips together, we hung out together—and said, ‘What am I going to do now? You people voted on this…. Now I’ve been cut loose.’ And the only answer I got was, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Hopefully that’ll change in the future.’”
Teaching two classes fewer left Morazzini struggling to make ends meet, so he decided to supplement his income with a part-time, per diem position at a homeless shelter. He eventually grew so frustrated that he quit teaching altogether, choosing to go on food stamps instead. Homeless for three months, he couch-surfed and sometimes ate food from the shelter. “I will never turn down another teaching gig again,” he says. This past January, he managed to land a full-time job at Regis College’s Writing Center that pays $48,000. “All those years of being an adjunct, all I went through?” he says bitterly. “It wasn’t worth it at all.”
Another part-time faculty member who requested anonymity had been teaching for 10 years when a university offered him a full-time position, then reneged. When he asked why, he was told that the department decided it didn’t need to hire him full time, “because you’re not going to leave.” They were right. Last semester he taught six classes at three schools.
After writing a letter to a provost complaining about the lack of proportional pay, a third adjunct claims that he was blackballed when he applied for a tenure-track opening. He’d been teaching four or five classes per semester at multiple Boston-area colleges for the past four decades. He had two doctorates: one in philosophy, one in math. “I thought, This will really do it,” he says of his second Ph.D. But it didn’t. He says the administration told the department chair not to even consider him for the full-time position. Was it flat-out discrimination? When we spoke, he asked me not to use his real name or affiliation for fear of losing his jobs. It’s understandable: In 2013, he grossed $47,000; he’s now 62 and has no retirement or savings.
I’ve experienced this prejudice against adjunct-as-wage-earner myself. A couple of years ago, I met with a BU department chair to plan my schedule for the spring semester. I was already teaching writing at both the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Management, but I wanted to break into yet another department to make more money, and was willing to take whatever undesirable class-meeting times it would take to get my foot in the door. We got to the details. You can only give me one class that meets three times a week? No problem. You want me to teach in the morning? I’m happy to take that 9 a.m. class, arrange a complex morning childcare network, and start my commute at 7:30 a.m. Then I mentioned I needed to work around my schedule in another BU department.
“Oh, you’re one of those adjuncts,” she said.
Yes, I’m one of those adjuncts, the kind who needs the money, but not by choice. Not at all. I’d chosen this career to become a full-time professor. But here I am, a permanent part-timer, and I need to feed my kids, pay my mortgage, and save for retirement. So I just smiled.
I taught that one course, but in the fall, the full-timers took all of the sections. In the spring, I was offered the same class, and again, the timing didn’t work with my crazy quilt of a schedule. I decided to risk asking for a better time slot, and sent the department head an email. I never heard back from her, my name got pulled from the schedule, and I started hustling for more classes elsewhere.
It probably goes without saying that benefits are a rarity in the adjunct world. I’m fortunate that I have access to health insurance at Bentley, albeit with no employer contribution. Many, such as Betsy Smith, do not. Smith, who has a Ph.D. and makes $3,300 per class at Cape Cod Community College, where she’s taught since 2000, has become an activist for part-time faculty at community colleges. “We have no health insurance,” Smith says. “We have a pension which is not a pension. They take money out of our paycheck every two weeks and give it to a bank to manage. The bank charges us fees. Neither the college nor the commonwealth contributes a penny.”
By the end of the 2013 spring semester, the desire to organize had caught on at Bentley in spite of the administration’s resistance. As the SEIU’s organizing efforts began heating up, emails from the provost’s office about the vote grew increasingly condescending. A missive sent to adjuncts said simply: “We hope that you will vote NO.”
The university seemed to think that the case against unionization was self-evident, arguing that adjuncts already had representation on the faculty senate. It was a laughable premise, given their treatment of the group’s delegate, Joan Atlas. According to Barbara Nash, another organizing committee member who’s been an adjunct since 2000, Atlas wasn’t exactly a welcome member of the senate. Nash says that when Atlas got up to read a statement at a meeting last year, “People could not have been more disrespectful. They couldn’t wait to get her out of there.”
Atlas, for her part, says that her role with SEIU has led the university to question whether she can continue representing adjuncts at all. “They are actually looking into whether I can be on the faculty senate, legally,” she told me. Her position left them perplexed. “Am I a union organizer or a faculty senator?”
When the SEIU rep had asked how I could live on my pay, I felt demoralized. Now that the administration was weighing in, I found myself growing increasingly unsettled about working for a school that fought so hard against my interests and wanted me to do the same.
On September 21, I got my official-looking union ballot. I checked yes, stuck it right back in my mailbox, and raised the red flag. When it came down to it, it was an easy decision. I couldn’t possibly vote no. In October, the results came in: The Bentley adjuncts voted not to unionize by 100–98. The Tufts vote had passed by 69 percent in September, so the results were unexpected and led to a round of handwringing at other campuses in the city.
Nash, Atlas, and the other organizers considered forming a union of their own, without the SEIU, and emailed the university’s provost and VP of academic affairs, Michael Page, asking for a meeting. Page contacted the university’s general counsel, who made the unfortunate mistake of hitting reply-all in her response, so her email was sent to the entire organizing committee. “These guys just do not quit,” she had written.
This spring, the Bentley organizing group revived the unionizing effort. With the SEIU taking more of a back-seat role, they plan to file for a revote next fall. On April 9, I attended a unionization forum at Bentley alongside my fellow adjuncts, full-timers, students, and administrators. The meeting got a little contentious.
“Adjunct pay is set at market rates,” said Daniel Everett, the dean of Arts and Sciences. “There are too many people seeking too few jobs. There’s no solution to the problem except the U.S. economy.” He continued, “If people are saying they can’t make a living as an adjunct, I’m curious as to why they stay in the profession.” To symbolize his struggle, one adjunct who teaches in the history department held up his food-stamp card.
The most revealing words for me were spoken by a student who asked questions throughout the evening. At one point, he said to Everett, “I’m surprised to hear you talk about two levels of professors, and that you’re calling adjuncts contingent.” Later, he added, “I Googled contingent on my phone just now. The words given are: chance, accidental, unpredictable, random, haphazard, dispensable.”
“Exactly,” Everett replied.
“That term surprises me,” the student countered. “These are people.”