Upon earning his master’s degree in 2010, Ethan Levine immediately began looking for work and fell into post-secondary education.
Two years later, he was teaching 13 classes a year at three different colleges in New York, traveling 500 miles a week.
He received less than $30,000 a year in compensation.
Since the 1970s, colleges and universities across the country have increasingly relied on adjuncts – part-time professors hired to short-term contracts, often without job benefits – as a cost-saving way to fill teaching positions.
Students, professors and administrators agree that adjuncts play an important role in a college education. Working a job in their field while teaching at the same time provides valuable insight, advocates say.
However, some tenured and part-time professors question whether adjuncts are utilized less for their knowledge, but more for the convenience of their cheap pay, turning colleges into something like corporations.
In 2012, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce reported that 75 percent of college instructors in the country in 2009 were part-time professors, non-tenured track professors or graduate assistants.
Just 25 percent of professors were adjuncts nationwide in 1975, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Here at Temple, 43 percent of educators in 2013 were part-time professors, according to the provost’s office. Compensation for Temple’s part-time professors ranges mostly between $2,500 and $4,000 for three-credit courses, according to the faculty union. Meanwhile, tenured professors at Temple, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, earned an average of around $120,000 in 2013.
Though there’s no concrete solution, some adjuncts and professors said unionization might be beneficial. Adjuncts at Temple have attempted to unionize several times in the past, but last called off a bid in 2012 because the university refused to “provide information needed to contact potential members of the new collective-bargaining unit,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Some adjuncts have instead joined forces with the American Federation of Teachers to organize on a citywide level.
The union would provide job security, potential higher pay and work benefits, so adjuncts like Levine wouldn’t have to take on 13 courses, with fear of some being dropped and given to full-time faculty.
“It took me a while to realize how out of control that was in terms of the volume of work I had taken on,” Levine said. “It was a really good awakening to have in terms of college politics.”
What Makes a Professor?
Universities break down their educators into full-time and part-time positions. Those who teach full time are categorized into tenured, tenured track and non-tenured track professors. Part-time professor positions mostly include adjuncts and graduate students who also teach courses, nicknamed “gradjuncts.”
Not all adjunct situations are as extreme as Levine’s. Both administration and faculty agree that adjuncts could be professionals who work by day as journalists, painters, or dancers and teach classes on the side.
Administration and faculty also said there are some who simply have a “love for teaching” – referring specifically to retired professors who come back to universities or colleges to instruct.
“Some part-time adjuncts or faculty teach for free in some of the professional schools,” Chief Financial Officer Ken Kaiser said.
Faculty and administrators agree that these types of adjuncts have valuable, qualified knowledge to bring to the classroom by working in their field of expertise while instructing.
However, some students and faculty said schools like the College of Liberal Arts benefit more from tenured professors who are required to conduct research and publish scholarly work.
Within CLA, 55 percent of professors teach part-time, according to the school’s finance office.
Phillip Yannella, an English professor and former president of the faculty union, said he believes the careers in CLA are in “distress” and graduates of the school are often left with no choice but to adjunct at various institutions.
“If you’re paying people relatively little money to teach courses, you seem to be sending the message that teaching, well, isn’t very important to the university,” said David Harrington Watt, a tenured history professor.
The Integrity of Education
Brandyn Ortiz, a sophomore kinesiology major, registered for a general education statistics class in the fall of his freshman year taught by an adjunct through an in-class computer program.
Ortiz said he didn’t understand the material and approached his professor several times since his grades weren’t posted on Blackboard, and received no help.
“I ended up not going to the class because when I would go there, I wasn’t learning much,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz failed the class and retook it the next semester with a full-time professor.
“Completely different criteria, completely different material, taught in a completely different way and this wasn’t in a computer class, it was in an actual classroom,” Ortiz said.
He received a “B” in the class.
Anthony Bobo, a transfer sophomore and social work major, experienced a similar situation with an adjunct professor, where he ended up withdrawing from the class because of the professor’s lack of professionalism, among other factors, he said.
“There were numerous occasions where she mentioned that she doesn’t get paid enough and how she was overworked,” Bobo said. “I’ve heard of other adjuncts openly complain that they’re not getting paid enough.”
Bobo said when he arranged to meet with the adjunct to discuss his grades, they met in a classroom because she did not have a formal office to herself.
Levine said adjuncts often don’t have offices to work in or meet with students, and if they do, it’s usually shared with other professors.
“I probably didn’t have too many students approach me because I didn’t have office hours,” Levine said. “Even if I did have my own space, I couldn’t have committed to hanging around [campus].”
Levine said full-time professors get to set their class schedules ahead of adjuncts, which sometimes forces part-time professors into classes they aren’t fully qualified to teach.
In an interview, Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Peter Jones said administrators are aware of the problems and have steps in place to assure a quality education, including student feedback forms, peer reviews and mid-semester reports.
“Are there some things that could be improved? Yes,” Jones said. “As an advocate for students, I’d like to think every student in a class has a private space where they can go and meet with an instructor. So the fact that some adjuncts have to meet with students in a hallway or in a public space is not something that I think is good and I wish that we could get enough space so that adjunct faculty could be assigned somewhere where they could do that.”
However, some students, like Antony DiBruno, a junior psychology major, prefer adjuncts to full-time faculty.
He said there have been times when he felt like a contracted professor got comfortable within his or her position, which compromised DiBruno’s learning.
“I know I’m paying to play,” DiBruno said. “As long as I know I’m doing good in the class, I don’t feel the need [to fill out a student feedback form], even if I have to educate myself.”
The Business Model
Yannella said that out of every dollar a Temple student pays the university, about 20 cents goes toward that student’s education.
Tuition and commonwealth funding are Temple’s main sources of income. Kaiser, the CFO, said tuition dollars go solely toward the university’s operating budget. Students are paying for faculty’s salaries and work benefits, Kaiser said.
If an average three-credit undergraduate course has a tuition cost of roughly $1,500, it would take less than three students to cover an adjunct’s earnings.
Professors, both full time and part time, have speculated that the money is going less toward instruction and more toward the administration.
Yannella, who has been at Temple for about 37 years, said CLA consisted of one dean, an assistant and a secretary in the 1990s.
Despite no significant increase in university enrollment, the dean’s office now has roughly 45 employees.
“[Universities] have switched to the business model,” said Dennis Stromback, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Temple. “The administration is getting larger. The bureaucracy is getting larger.”
Stromback said he believes the situation is a “failure of the market system.”
“The product is getting worse,” Stromback said. “It’s an example of how the business model can’t be applied to everything, certainly not education.”
Jennie Shanker is an adjunct in the Tyler School of Art who teaches two sculpting classes.
Shanker was one of the first to join United Academics of Philadelphia, a local organization of the AFT. Together, they hope to organize 15,000 adjuncts in the Philadelphia and metropolitan area.
“People who are in unions have larger salaries, more respect, they have more security,” Shanker said. “There are things in adjunct contracts that I’ve seen that we don’t even know can exist.”
For example, she hopes that “adjunct tenure” will come of unionization, meaning that adjuncts would be guaranteed a certain number of classes while remaining part time. In addition to job security, the union would fight for health, dental and other benefits.
Kaiser said that if the adjuncts wanted to unionize, it’s within their right and the university “couldn’t stand in their way.”
“Temple is like every other school. They’re not different,” Shanker said. “But I think that there are big questions raised when a new city is being developed in front of your eyes and over a large percentage of the faculty are paid and treated so poorly.”
Patricia Madej can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @patriciamadej.