Being an Adjunct is a Fun Change of Pace, Says DeDominick

Allison DeDominick, an adjunct professor of art history at SUNY Cortland, works at a local cafe.

Adjunct professors usually have the “terminal degree” in their fields, which is to say a master’s degree or Ph.D., just like a professor on the tenure track. But while the average salary of a full-time tenured professor is over $84,000, adjuncts are paid per course- on average $2,700 - according a national study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Today over 75 percent of college instructors hold positions that are usually part time and not on the track to tenure. This is a complete reversal from the ratio in the early 1970s. 

Adjunct professors commonly teach two or more courses per semester. Since the per-course pay is low, they may teach courses at several institutions; according to the Adjunct Project, a website of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an online data-gathering site for adjunct faculty, many adjuncts lack an office space and time to meet with students. They do not qualify for benefits, and in the worst cases adjuncts can teach for many years without job security or advancement. After national attention focused on the death in 2013 in Pittsburgh of an elderly adjunct professor, Margaret Mary Vojtko, adjuncts around the country have begun forming unions, some under the aegis of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne University for over 25 years, collapsed and died after her heat was shut off; at age 83 she had no benefits, and could not pay her bills when the university cut her courses.

Adjuncts who are hired on a contract, work from year to year without knowing if next year their contract will be renewed. While many adjuncts view their contract jobs as a stepping-stone to advancement, there are far fewer tenured positions than there are adjuncts to move into them. Many put up with the job insecurity because teaching is what they love to do. 

“Many contingent [adjunct] faculty members are excellent teachers and scholars,” said the AAUP study, “but no matter how qualified and dedicated, contingent faculty members are hobbled in the performance of their duties by lack of professional treatment and support, and lack of offices, computer support and photocopying services.”

There are five institutions of higher education within an hour of Ithaca. They all pay their adjunct faculty better than the national average, but the percentage of the faculties that are part-time adjuncts is also below the national average. That is, if you get a gig in the Ithaca area you will be paid more, but it is also relatively hard to find a job.

Nationally, there is a growing concern over increasing prevalence of part-time adjunct instructors hired for the short term at universities and colleges. Professional organizations like the AAUP and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) are doing surveys and writing reports that are expressing concern about both the economic straits of the adjuncts and the effect they may be having on the quality of higher education.

The AAUP has documented that most adjunct faculty don’t have professional careers outside of their university appointments. Adjunct instructors who are, for example, attorneys or architects, who happen to teach a course or two, are the exceptions, not the rule. According to the report, part-time faculty often commute among several institutions, prepare courses on a grueling timetable, and make enormous sacrifices in order to maintain interaction with their students.

Although untenured faculty members at Cornell, Ithaca College, Wells and SUNY Cortland were interviewed for this story, only one of them agreed to speak on the record. The rest were worried that publishing their names would affect their job security. Even one tenured faculty member was afraid of speaking out: “I don’t want them to have any reason to say, ‘This person is not promotable’,” they said. This, according to Risa Lieberwitz, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Labor Relations, Law, and History in the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell, is the heart of the problem: the universities are accumulating a roster of instructors who lack academic freedom.

“The relationship of academic freedom to tenure makes academia unique,” said Lieberwitz, who also serves as general counsel for the AAUP. “But the universities have increasingly adopted a corporate model.”

In March the Cornell Daily Sun reported that Cornell is defying the national trend: 79 percent of its faculty are tenured professors. According to the AGB research, nationwide only 33.5 percent of all faculty are tenured. (Given the AAUP numbers, the AGP number may have decreased since they collected their data.)

At Ithaca College, 217 of 710 “instructional staff”—31 percent—are part-time adjuncts. However, if you add in the full-time adjuncts this rises to 48 percent. (These numbers are drawn from a website called collegefactuals.com.) Ithaca College faculty point out that jobs filled by adjuncts on South Hill can be filled by graduate students on East Hill—since Cornell gives advanced degrees, it has grad students to carry the teaching load. In fact, learning to teach is part of graduate education.

“Adjuncts are what my department uses,” said Chip Gagnon, an associate professor in the IC politics department, “Although we try to avoid it. They’re paid $3,900 per course; they should be paid at least $5,000. That would be proportional to the work they’re doing. Two years ago we asked the provost to look at increasing the pay of the adjuncts before that of the professors, but nothing came of it.”

This failure of administrations to heed the recommendations of their faculties is another of Lieberwitz’s concerns about the state of the academy. The change, she said, is ideological.

“The trend toward privatization began in the Reagan era. The market drives everything; government is bad, and the market is good. The university should serve business.” Universities, said the tenured ILR professor, have over the years “fused” with industry and as a result become more corporate themselves, with a growing emphasis on looking at the bottom line. Their labor practices have increasingly followed a corporate model too.

As Gagnon points out at IC: “The controversy is that more and more are being hired per course. They are not eligible for benefits, and here they are not allowed to teach more than two courses per semester, because then they would be eligible for benefits.”

“A full-time load at IC is seven courses,” he continued. “It’s been eight in the past, but now it’s seven.”

•     •     •

So why does anyone become an adjunct? One local contingent faculty member—who did not wish to be identified—said that they were aware of three different categories of adjunct. The first type, they said, acknowledged that the pay is low, but they do the job because they love teaching. The second type teach because that was part of their training during graduate school, and they like the flexibility of changing semester schedules. They can build the rest of their activities around their teaching. (This particular adjunct is this category.) 

The last type represents the best-known and most put-upon variety. These are the people who want a full-time position somewhere, and they are working on multiple campuses to make ends meet and accumulate enough experience. The local adjunct acknowledged this was a difficult existence, especially because it left little time for an academic to produce professional publications, a vital contribution toward achieving a tenure-track position.

Allison DeDominick also falls into the second category as defined above. DeDominick was hired in July to teach art history at SUNY Cortland. Like most adjuncts she is beginning with a large (75 students) introductory course. But, unlike many adjuncts, in the spring she will have the opportunity to teach two more advanced courses in her own specialty, Mannerism and Baroque art and 15th to 16th century art of northern Europe.

DeDominick is an art promoter with her own business, ARTe, dedicated to getting shows in non-traditional spaces for a roster of regional artists. She received her undergraduate degree from Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence and went on to a master of science degree in adult education and academic programming from Elmira College.

“The job at Cortland just kind of happened,” she said. “I’m busy during the warmer months because a lot of the work I do is tied to tourism. [Cortland fine arts professor] Kathy Kramer asked me to teach three courses. I had been working with her on other things.” DeDominick, 28, has previously been a guest lecturer at local colleges and has mentored students, but this is her first teaching appointment. 

“I’ve had curating gigs and exhibiting gigs,” she said, “so this is a fun change of pace, and it is still within my field.”

The art promoter said that her being in a fine arts department would also benefit the artists that she works with in her business. She would be learning associating with more experienced artists there and also, she hoped, working with student artists.

DeDominick has not yet received her first paycheck and is not sure how big it will be. It is clear that she is getting into the academy primarily for the experience and not the money. “When I decided I was going into the art field,” she said, “I knew that it was not because I wanted to be a bazillionaire.” 

In fact, SUNY Cortland pays the lowest adjunct salaries—$2,016 to $3,000 per course—in the region. According to the Adjunct Project (adjunct.chronicle.com), Tompkins-Cortland Community College (TC3) pays its contingent staff between $2,505 and $3,504 per course; Ithaca College pays between $3,400 and $4,200; and Cornell University pays between $6,300 and $20,000 per course. Wells College is listed as paying $3,000 for the one course that was reported. 

DeDominick is sharing a large office with another adjunct, which she considers luxuriously large. (For her business she often spreads out her computer and paperwork in a public café.) She has been pleasantly surprised by the respect she has been accorded by both her fellow faculty members and the SUNY students, in spite of her youth and contingent status. (In addition, SUNY is also including benefits with her appointment. Cortland would seem to be a welcoming place compared to stories and statistics from other campuses around the nation.)

“I am not expected to go to faculty meetings,” she said, “but I will be going to department events [exhibition openings and guest lecturers] because I am trying to get my students to go to them.” She is on campus two days a week, but she is there most of the day, giving her time to meet with her students outside of class.

•     •     •

It is no coincidence that DeDominick is having a good experience and is also willing to go on the record, while others are not. Much of her account—aside from the usual low pay—is diametrically opposite to what is being reported—by AAUP, AGB, the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, the professional literature and the mass media—as the general experience of contingent faculty.

A local professor—who did not wish to be identified—lamented the existential effects of filling the academy with part-time contractors.

“To me one of the most profound effects that adjunct faculty have is they create this kind of guilty space; a sense among the other faculty that ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I have job security, but it’s very easy for those of us who are tenured to turn a blind eye to the situation with adjunct faculty, who are being exploited by the same employer that may be paying us really well.” 

“This is a moral issue,” the professor continued. “Full-time faculty [and] staff need to see it as a moral issue and stop glossing it over as a business issue.” 

Lieberwitz spoke of the need to build closer relations between the tenured and non-tenure track faculty.

“That’s a challenge,” she said. “It’s hard because there are both immediate issues and then the long-term goal of reinvigorating tenured positions.” The immediate goals include getting better wages and benefits for contingent faculty members. Lieberwitz said that unionization is potentially effective. “But what do they bargain for? Well, better wages,” she said. “But the more difficult question is what they can do to bargain for the traditional right of academic freedom that comes with tenure. How do we reinvigorate the link between job security with tenure and academic freedom?”

While Lieberwitz sees the corporatization of universities in general as being behind the growth of the army of adjuncts, the anonymous local professor also saw historical processes at work outside the university.

“Baby Boomers,” they said, “who were tenured were not able to retire—due to the recession—the way we were told they would. [That] is some of it. Another part of it is that you have only so many positions, but the graduate schools keep producing more people. At the same time the universities and colleges moved covertly or overtly to a profit model. Long-term professorships don’t get converted to another; after the professor retires, their job is filled by several part timers.” 

“There’s no security,” they continued. “Even with a union presence to protect them, an adjunct can’t trust that if they were suddenly to be told their contract wasn’t being renewed, that it wasn’t because they were involved with the union.”

•     •     •

Finally, the AAUP report worries that having too many contingent faculty coming and going on campus has a negative effect on the students and on education.

“From the students’ perspective it’s not great,” said Gagnon at IC, “because they develop a relationship with them, and then they’re gone. In my department we try to minimize the usage of [adjuncts]. If we have to, we try to use grad students.”

The high turnover among contingent faculty members, the AAUP states, means that some students may never have the same teacher twice, or may be unable to find an instructor who knows them well enough to write a letter of recommendation.

The University of Southern California has established The Delphi Project to study the effect of adjunct professors on the academy. One of their more startling conclusions is that there is a correlation between high number of adjuncts in the faculty ranks and lower graduation rates.

But this statistic should not really be used to cast aspersions on the corps of adjunct faculty. It is clear that they often are overworked in order to make ends meet. Research cited by the Delphi Project (thechangingfaculty.org) puts it numerically: “Full-time non-tenure-track faculty typically make 26 percent less than tenured faculty, but part-time faculty earn approximately 60 percent less than comparable full-time, tenure-track faculty when their salaries are expressed on an hourly basis.” In other words, part-time faculty work longer hours for lower pay. They spread themselves thinly and sometimes their teaching may suffer.

Gagnon expresses his frustration with the situation at his own institution. “In academics in general they can exploit the labor because we love what we do.”

“If I were to write this article,” he said, “the focus would be the injustice of people doing the same labor [as tenured faculty] without equivalent pay. There are some people working at three or four different places—if you’re going to hire people part time, you should treat them right.” •

In the print version of this story, DeDominick's photo appears above the headline "Servants of the Academy". In a tweet, DeDominick said the headline does not speak to her situation. "Nice editorial in the Ithaca Times," she wrote," yet I don't think I am a 'servant' for my institution; I am well respected & paid."

The online version of this story includes a clarification from Chip Gagnon about the distinction between "n-tens" (non tenure-track faculty) and part-time adjunct instructors. The former are full-time faculty with multi-year contracts and benefits. The latter are given neither.

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