The daily struggles of adjunct profs

By Tom Kozlowski
Editor-in-Chief

Nordquist shares a corner office with several other adjuncts. (Tom Kozlowski / Editor-in-Chief)
Nordquist shares a corner office with several other adjuncts. (Tom Kozlowski / Editor-in-Chief)

Adjunct professor of philosophy Jeanine Thweatt-Bates juggles motherhood and teaching seven days a week. Driving back and forth from her home in Newark to the College, Thweatt-Bates must care for her two young children while catering to the needs of her students, all while shouldering the burdens of life as an adjunct.

In her position, Thweatt-Bates barely receives a living wage. During spring semesters, she shoulders additional coursework from other schools in order to support a family. She scarcely has time to research and has even less time to spend with students. Adding children into the mix, these commitments are bound to conflict.

The graphs break down the percentages of adjunct, tenured and other professors who teach at the College.  (Photo courtesy of Dave Muha)
The graphs break down the percentages of adjunct, tenured and other professors who teach at the College. (Photo courtesy of Dave Muha)

“More than once I’ve brought my 8-year-old daughter, Clare, to class with me because her spring break doesn’t coincide with TCNJ’s, and there was simply no alternative,” Thweatt-Bates said. “This semester I brought my youngest 3-year-old with me for the same reason. I’ve had very few office hours available to students, typically, because of the need to commute back up to Newark in time to pick them up for school. That’s one of the things that does immediately impact students.”

While this balancing act befalls plenty of educators, it lands the hardest and most consistently on adjunct faculty, academia’s so-called “casual” labor force that’s increasingly become the backbone of college education. The College, compared to the cutthroat national attitude, has treated its adjunct faculty better than most, according to professors and union leaders at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2364. And yet there is still much to be done to improve the working conditions of adjuncts on campus, both for their benefit and ultimately for the students they teach.

The Adjuncts of America

Around the country, adjuncts are being asked to teach more with less, and observers worry that higher education has suffered for it.

Colleges and universities, in an attempt to compete with trimmed budgets, have reaped the benefits of cheap labor. Nationally speaking, a 2010 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that more than 1.3 million faculty members (or 75.5 percent) were “employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty

members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members or graduate student teaching assistants.” These positions require far less pay than tenured faculty and often go without benefits, voting power within departments, job security or proper office accommodations.

“In many cases, adjunct faculty is being exploited,” said Ralph Edelbach, soon-to-be retired president of AFT Local. “There is no doubt that adjunct faculty over the years have been brought in because of some specific, unique expertise, and they bring that into the classroom as a benefit to the students. But unfortunately, that’s not the motivating factor on most campuses.”

Adjuncts are a different animal than other positions, though. Not only are the vast majority of adjuncts around the country non-unionized — leading to more vulnerable careers — but their pay scales for doing proportional work to that of full-time or even part-time faculty are skewed.

“People who aren’t knowledgeable about how the system works often get part-time employees confused with adjuncts,” Edelbach said. “Part-time employees and faculty are paid a percentage of salary. So half-time receives half-pay, as opposed to adjunct faculty members who receive smaller, fixed amounts per number of classes taught.”

This means that, as of January 2015, new adjuncts at the College receive $1,300 per course. In addition, adjuncts are capped at teaching just two courses per semester and four a year, adding up to objectively dismal compensation.

What’s striking, or perhaps alarming, is that the College pays its adjuncts better than most, according to Michael Nordquist, adjunct professor of political science. This is, in large part, a consequence of being a public institution; being covered by the union contract, which is “much better than those of private institutions;” and the fact that the “contract augments adjuncts’ salary pay due to the enhanced nature of the courses at TCNJ.”

Adjuncts also come from a wide breadth of backgrounds. A minority consist of retired professors or individuals who specialize in other professions — such as Reed Gusciora, an adjunct professor of political science at the College who primarily serves as a New Jersey General Assemblyman. Gusciora teaches a class issue-specific to his work in the Assembly each semester, but his other career remains the priority. Adjuncts who teach for their love of academia, on the other hand, tend to get a raw deal.

Many spend as much as a decade grinding in strenuous Masters and Doctorate programs, accruing massive student debt along the way. Adjunct faculty positions are often all that’s available to graduates, particularly in an ever-shrinking and volatile market for full-time professors. And unlike the assumptions made by students, these positions have little breathing room.

The reality is that adjuncts “do not live the the idealized version of full-time professors, who have more freedoms to research, write and publish the work they build their careers on,” according to Nordquist. Instead, they spend a substantial portion of time teaching multiple courses at various schools, traveling, finishing PhD programs and grading in order to cobble together a living wage.

In other words, teaching may temporarily pay the bills, but the stresses that come with it present a dangerous trade off.

“Anxiety was a conversation topic all throughout grad school,” Nordquist said. “Even when you enter the market, and even if you manage to land your academic position after the interview process, there’s huge pressures to publish, be a great teacher, be around on campus, be both an academic and personal adviser, make sure your students are happy and, on the side, fulfill your personal obligations. For many adjuncts, especially at low-paying institutions, it’s difficult to see the situation as anything but bleak.”

TCNJ: A Temporary Oasis for Adjuncts

No institution of higher education is exempt from the problems that plague adjunct faculty — these appear to be too ingrained in the nature of the industry. Nonetheless, the College has striven to deviate from the norm, working to strengthen the relationships between the union, faculty senate and administration; keep adjunct turnover low; and treat adjuncts with a sense of respect.

Whereas competing schools have pushed for higher ratios of adjuncts to full-time staff, the College has maintained a relative balance between the two in the past several years. According to statistics provided by David Muha, vice president for Marketing, Communications and Brand Management, the percentage of seats taught by full-time faculty “has been relatively consistent at 55 percent” since 2009. Seats taught by adjuncts rose from 29.2 percent in fall 2009 to 34.91 percent in spring 2014, though some of the difference can be accounted for in the reduction of total seats from 31,366 in 2009 to 27,221 in 2014. In short, the numbers don’t lie: Full-time faculty and adjuncts are sharing the workload.

Edelbach believes President R. Barbara Gitenstein has been a stalwart defender of the ratio in spite of “what her counterparts on other campuses have done.” But he also sees concerns across all faculty members, too.

“I think faculty are very concerned about the ratio, if only because they feel having stable, full-time contingent teaching means the workload in the department is shared more equitably,” Edelbach said. “Adjunct faculty are not involved, don’t have to have office hours and don’t have to advise students. More adjuncts in a department means fewer and fewer full-time people to do those things. The other thing is that it’s difficult with adjuncts dashing in and out of work for them to work substantively with students because of their other obligations.”

Faculty satisfaction is equally essential to maintaining good relations, and at the College, adjuncts are generally pleased with their accommodations compared to the horror stories of other institutions.

“TCNJ compensates adjunct faculty better than the typical institution, and I know that some credit for that goes to the work (Edelbach) and AFT have done,” Thweatt-Bates said. “In addition, I’ve found the Philosophy Department a very welcoming and collegial place.”

What adjuncts like Thweatt-Bates cannot control, however, is the instability of their contracts. When these expire in June, there’s the imminent possibility that Thweatt-Bates and others might be jobless at the College.

“As of now I’ve filed applications with other adjunct positions at local colleges/universities, a summer ESL program, various nonprofits, government work, private tutoring (as an individual as well as putting in apps with tutoring companies), administrative assistant positions, Panera, Trader Joe’s, Staples and the local diner,” Thweatt-Bates said. “Not kidding, even about that last (my only other lengthy work experience other than teaching is waiting tables)!”

With this June’s contract negotiations on the horizon, AFT Local is beefing up for another round of debate with the state. The concerns of the union remain much of the same, however, as the state and the union engage in a seemingly everlasting gridlock over teachers’ rights.

“Over the years, when every contract comes up for negotiations with the state, (AFT) pushes for pay equity with full-time faculty, benefits, office space, a computer,” Edelbach said. “But every year the state says no, and it’s something that we have not been able to make gains on.”

Two lingering obstacles exist for AFT. On the one hand, it’s difficult to incorporate adjunct faculty into critical union matters. Adjuncts, by nature, rush from school to school and often cannot be persuaded, let alone contacted, to join the fight. And because “things so often go okay” on the College’s campus, catalysts for increased union participation are few and far between. Faculty members devote their attention elsewhere and “don’t pay attention to the activities of the union, at least until there’s a threat,” according to Edelbach.

On the other hand, AFT negotiates its contract alongside other unions across the state, all of which have personal and divergent agendas. What would ideally be a unified rally for teachers splinters into disarray.

“I’ve attended state meetings with hostile unions and heated debate, and while we try to say we’re all in this together, the reality is we’re not, and the state uses a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy to their benefit,” Edelbach said.

Because pushing for financial issues like pension reform would be a quixotic task, Edelbach suggests AFT will focus this June on more casual campus concerns, such as information sharing, increased faculty participation in campus operations and a more equitable process for reporting faculty grievances. None of these require increasing the budget or threatening to strike, the nuclear option for AFT that’s lost its value in today’s labor environment. Instead, AFT will push for more internal organization that may help streamline the work of daily adjunct ife.

Adjuncts and the Future of Higher Ed

In the increasingly competitive and corporatized industry of higher education, adjuncts have and will continue to play dominant roles in students’ lives. This is not all for the worse. As chair of the Department of Music at Columbia University Susan Boynton writes on Talking Points Memo, “adjuncts are among the finest, longest-serving instructors in many universities, and it’s well known that their lasting contributions can transform the lives of their students.”

Even at the College, where — according to Nordquist — over a quarter of all classes are taught by adjuncts, students rarely differentiate between full-time and adjunct faculty because the quality of work remains generally equal.

That said, a heavy reliance on adjunct labor is a double-edged sword. For adjuncts themselves, the orthodox academic life they desire often remains off in the distance. In its place, the demands and constraints of their positions maintain a stranglehold on their lives in the present. For administrations, adjunct labor yields both money saved and diminished quality when faculty are spread thin. And for students, not to be forgotten, their education hinges on the decisions of their schools and the limits of what their professors can do.

For the College, enrollments rates are predicted to increase in the near future. AFT remains hopeful that the College will continue to balance its full-time and adjunct labor, but as with the future of higher education altogether, no one is certain what will happen.

“I’ve been told the College is bringing in new freshmen next year,” Edelbach said. “Was the question asked how those extra students are going to be taught? You have more students coming in — are you putting more students in every class? Or are you hiring new faculty? Are they full-time, part-time or are they adjunct? These questions weren’t asked, but they need to be. We need to be concerned not just where we’ll house these students, but more importantly, how we’ll teach them.”