THE BLOG
12/16/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Bah, Humbug: 14 Facts Everyone Should Know About College Adjuncts

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This past week, I received an email from the Vice President for Business and Finance at the small, private North Carolina college where I teach as an English adjunct: "If you were unable to attend the Faculty/Staff luncheon today and receive your holiday bonus check, please stop by my office this afternoon to pick up your check."

At last. After six long years of part-time employment, of continually going above and beyond what was required for my job while receiving nominal pay, I was finally going to receive a morsel of validation in the form of a bonus check. However, my enthusiasm was quickly nipped in the bud when my adjunct colleagues and I were told this email pertained to all full-time faculty and staff members but not to us.

Then why did we receive the email? We were told it was too "difficult" to exclude adjuncts from the group email list. And when my colleagues and I questioned the decision to not give bonuses to the employees who clearly most needed the money, we were told that after some "discussion," university officials ultimately decided that it would be imprudent to offer adjuncts bonuses since the college had "many temporary employees, including student workers that would have to be considered in order to not present a discrimination issue." A discrimination issue.

Perhaps this was an unintended comparison -- equating professionals with years of teaching experience with undergraduate students who work on campus. Perhaps it was just bad writing. Or, perhaps, it was simply one more indication of the lack of value colleges and universities place on part-time faculty members.

Years ago, when I was a college student, adjunct instructors were people who wanted to teach a class here and there, but who were not interested in full-time employment in academia. However, in recent years, what were once full-time positions have been divvied up among multiple individuals, skirting the intent, if not the actual letter, of contemporary labor laws.

In 2013, the plight of adjuncts received nationwide attention when 83-year-old Margaret Mary Vojtko, a long-time adjunct French instructor at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, collapsed on a street corner near her home and subsequently died. Vojko, who had been battling cancer, had no health insurance, and her medical bills had left her destitute and essentially homeless. According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Vojko had been paid around $3,000-$3,500 per course throughout the course of her career -- which is, incidentally, nearly double what my adjunct colleagues and I make.

Since Vojtko's death, efforts have grown to raise public awareness about the low compensation for adjuncts. In states with strong unions, such as Illinois, universities can only hire temporary employees for a short time without offering a full-time contract, and even temporary employees receive competitive wages. In other states, such as North Carolina, colleges still routinely hire adjuncts without offering salary increases, benefits, or permanent employment.

In my job, I work with many gifted and kind faculty members, individuals I like and admire. However, I also work within a broken system, a system which benefits colleges financially while shortchanging students and putting many professors in the ranks of the new working poor.

In Pennsylvania, where Vojtko taught, the United Steelworkers union has recently begun championing the cause of adjuncts. In North Carolina, the outrage needed to begin a labor movement has yet to take shape. However, because exploitation of workers is something we should all be concerned about, here are some facts about adjunct professors everyone should know:

1. An adjunct professor is usually one of two or three people hired to do one job.

2. Adjunct professors are paid a set amount based on the number of "contact hours" the university allots for each course. These "contact hours" do not come close to representing the amount of time adjuncts actually spend grading, preparing, and planning for class, and at times, this may mean that university professors make at or below minimum wage.

3. Adjunct professors rarely receive health insurance or any other benefits.

4. Adjunct professors are often hired at the last minute, sometimes weeks or even days before classes begin. This necessarily limits the amount of time they can spend preparing for class.

5. Although adjunct professors are required to hold advanced degrees in their fields, they often do not make as much as first-year public school teachers--not even here in North Carolina where teachers' wages are among the lowest in the nation.

6. An adjunct professor may or may not have an office, but he/she is unlikely to have a private office. This is an issue when students need to meet with professors and when professors need to prepare for classes.

7. At many colleges, custodians make more than the adjunct professors. Custodians work hard and deserve to be paid well; college professors work hard as well.

8. Adjunct professors rarely receive raises, including cost-of-living increases. Despite excellent student evaluations and a strong history of publishing, I make the same amount per course that I made when I began teaching at my college seven years ago.

9. At most colleges and universities, adjunct professors are not eligible for funds for continuing education courses, conferences, or workshops. This necessarily impacts the quality of classroom instruction.

10. Adjunct professors may have multiple jobs at multiple schools. They may travel miles between schools and juggle hundreds of students per semester just to make ends meet.

11. Adjuncts have no job security. They may be employed year to year or even semester to semester and may, by mid-September every fall, be searching for job opportunities for January. This, of course, takes time and energy that could be better spent meeting with students and preparing for class.

12. The contract I receive from my college each semester says I will be paid $1,900 per course for rendering "supplemental services." This semester, my three English adjunct colleagues and I taught a total four sections of freshman composition (one full teaching load). Freshman composition is a foundation course and a prerequisite for all other English courses. It is required for graduation. So while an adjunct professor's services may be considered "supplemental," the material he/she is expected to teach falls into the category of "essential."

13. Adjuncts are often asked to contribute their time, energy, and even money outside the classroom. At the college where I teach, I have been asked to chip in on holiday gifts for custodial and support staff, to bring dishes to department potlucks, to volunteer my time as an editor for the school's literary journal, to attend faculty meetings, to give readings and guest lectures. I have done all of these things.

14. Adjunct professors are professionals. We work hard not to bring these issues into the classroom. However, not only do lack of health insurance, job security, and a sense of belonging impact faculty morale, the way a school treats its employees says something about that school. It is reflective of the school's broader philosophy, of its character, if you will. And in the case of Duquesne, the Catholic university which allowed one of its oldest and most loyal employees to die humiliated and impoverished, a university which claims to educate "the mind, heart, and spirit" of its students, it speaks volumes.