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The Teaching Poor

Adjuncts and instructors at the UO are underpaid and unrecognized
The university ‘can’t get together a respectful offer to those who teach thousands and
thousands of students and run research labs.’  — Michael Dreiling, United Academics

 

“I didn’t choose to teach low-income, first-generation college students because the work was lucrative, but because it was meaningful,” Michael Copperman writes in a letter to the University of Oregon English Department, where he teaches composition to at-risk students of color.

When Copperman took his full-time position nine years ago, he writes, “I made barely $25,000 a year.” 

The UO, like schools across the country, has long relied on part-time and non-career-track faculty, in addition to its full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty, to teach its students, but these adjunct, contingent and non-career faculty — the names are varied and confusing — often make far less money, with little to no opportunity for advancement or job security. 

Twenty-two percent of part-time faculty in Oregon are below the poverty line, according to a study by Faculty Forward, a Service Employees Union International-affiliated group. That’s higher than the 16.2 percent of Oregonians in general that the U.S. Census says are below poverty. 

In addition, Faculty Forward says that 12 percent of Oregon’s faculty working 30 hours or less are near poverty.Combined, that’s 34 percent of the part-time faculty teaching students at Oregon’s colleges and universities who are living near or below poverty.

Most part-time faculty will tell you that while their schedule says they are working 30 hours, they put much more time into their teaching. And full-time instructors, like Copperman, find themselves overworked and underpaid, despite their dedication. 

Now, after union negotiations and collective bargaining between the United Academics faculty union and the UO, Copperman says he got a raise, but “I teach nine classes and pick up another summer class so as to not run out of money in August.”

Karen Creighton, a long-time adjunct instructor in the UO Department of Physical Education and Recreation, says teaching “for 15 years and to be termed adjunct or temporary didn’t feel good.” She says that, until recently, she and her fellow adjuncts in PE, who also taught part-time, didn’t qualify for benefits, though they did get nine-month contracts, unlike colleagues in other departments who teach term-to-term. 

Adjuncts and non-career faculty are underpaid and unrecognized nationwide. At the University of Oregon, United Academics, which is made up of faculty from instructors to tenured professors, has sought to change the status of adjuncts and give those adjuncts and other non-permanent faculty a leg up. 

Recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) seek to improve wages and job stability for teachers across campus who have long taught key courses, often for low wages and little recognition.

Career Poverty

A recent study by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center drew attention to just how desperately poor contingent faculty have become nationwide. It found 25 percent of part-time faculty and their families are enrolled in a public assistance program.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent” faculty includes both part- and full-time non-tenure-track faculty with the common characteristic “that their institutions make little or no long-term commitment to them.” 

In contrast, faculty members on the tenure track have an expectation of continued employment, and if they get tenure their long-term job is almost assured — tenure is intended to protect academic freedom. The AAUP says that, “Non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for 76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.”

At the UO, United Academics President Michael Dreiling says adjunct teaching means you often have people teaching year after year without benefits or advancement. 

In the esoteric world of academia, there are a lot of different words for faculty members; many students don’t know the difference between an assistant professor who has not yet earned tenure or an associate or full professor with all the job security tenure provides. The UO, like colleges and universities across the country, has a number of names for its non-tenure-oriented teaching staff, from adjuncts who teach term-to-term to full-time instructors to post-docs to lecturers. 

Many students also don’t know that some of their favorite instructors are just that, “instructors” with no job security year to year or even from one three-month term to the next. Even the UO keeps that unclear on its admissions website, listing 86 percent of its seminars and 79 percent of its lectures as taught by faculty — but not what kind of faculty. 

According to data provided by Tobin Klinger, UO’s senior director of Public Affairs Communications, in 2013 the school had 719 tenured and tenure-track faculty, 704 non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) and 503 adjunct/visiting faculty. 

Erin Moberg, a graduate teaching fellow in Romance Languages and Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) union vice president for political education, says, “I didn’t know much about adjunct rights and issues” until the GTFF began its own bargaining. “I think that speaks to that the administration silences the role of adjuncts,” she says.

When the GTFF went on strike last fall, Moberg says some adjuncts said they would not picket out of fear for their jobs. 

Ironically, Moberg says, “adjuncts and students form the longest and closest relationships.” She says that in language instruction, a student might have the same instructor for two or more years and “students speak highly of adjuncts compared to faculty who might be working on their own projects.” 

Moberg, a doctoral candidate, soon might face the question of whether she is willing to be an adjunct or non-tenure-track instructor after she graduates, and she says she may not be willing to uproot herself and leave everything behind for a short-term position. But looking into other career opportunities “does mean letting go of the goal of this degree, which is a privilege, but also has been my whole life.”

As with adjuncts, Moberg says grad students can suffer from contract uncertainty, and the GTFF union put language in place during bargaining that would keep graduate teaching fellows from losing teaching positions at the last minute. Instead, she says, some departments are waiting until two weeks before the term to give GTFs their teaching contracts, leaving the GTFs uncertain of their teaching and financial stability. 

That instability, whether for adjuncts or for grad students, is bad for undergrads, according to AAUP and research in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, which shows that increased use of adjuncts is associated with lower student outcomes, not because the adjuncts are bad teachers but because of high workloads and often little time or even space to meet students outside of class. Some adjuncts teach at multiple schools to make ends meet.

 

Union Goals

There has been a push across the country to change the status of faculty members who find themselves making a career out of jobs that are technically non-career track. Faculty Forward is pushing to raise adjunct pay to $15,000 a course, and the National Adjunct Walkout Day was staged Feb. 25 at schools across the country to call attention to the one in five part-time faculty members living below the poverty line nationwide (Oregon State held adjunct events, but if anyone at the UO observed the protest, it went largely unrecognized).

At the UO, Dreiling says, United Academics (AAUP/AFT Local 3209, AFL-CIO) has changed the status of at least 300 adjuncts on campus. Under collective bargaining last year the union developed a process to evaluate the more than 400 adjunct positions on campus for possible reclassification to career non-tenure-track faculty positions, meaning around 300 teachers went from employment that could be uncertain from fall to winter term to a career-track position.

According to Klinger’s data, the numbers of adjunct/visiting faculty in 2014 dropped from 503 to 393 and the number of NTTF went up from 704 to 846, after the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement. 

A goal of reclassification was removing the reliance of the university on term-to-term instructors, who lack employment security, Dreiling says. In the current contract, if a department is employing a faculty member term-to-term, they can’t do so beyond three years; that faculty member needs to be reclassified as a career position. 

So last spring, faculty who met certain conditions — length of term of employment, years in service, teaching responsibilities — were evaluated for reclassification. “Faculty who are doing their job and doing it well have the opportunity for security and professional development,” Dreiling says.

In addition to reclassifying many adjuncts, another change called for and executed in the CBA is a change in salaries, he says. UA negotiated a “salary floor,” essentially creating a minimum wage, which Dreiling says did not exist before. Instructors in phys ed were making less than $19,000 a year on average — ironic, given the UO’s notorious focus on sports.

Klinger says information about salaries across campus “isn’t data that we have readily available.” According to data submitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s  Adjunct Project, a course in linguistics or art might pay around $2,500, and English and composition range from $2,800 to $3,000. Earth Sciences lists the highest pay for the UO on the Adjunct Project’s webpage at $6,000.

People with advanced degrees were working full-time and earning less than $26,000 a year, Dreiling says. “These are people with advanced degrees and committed to the teaching mission of the university.”

 

‘I think that speaks to that the administration silences the role of adjuncts.’  — Erin Moberg, GTFF

 

Changes

The union, in its efforts to improve salaries and teaching conditions across campus, is also up against the way those changes get implemented by administrators and departments.

For Melissa Hart, who spent 12 years as an adjunct instructor in the School of Journalism and Communication, some of the changes on campus were negative. Julie Newton, Interim Edwin L. Artzt Dean, says the SOJC looked at its overall needs and its 56-1 student to tenure-track faculty ratio — the worst of any accredited high-ranking journalism school in the country, she says — and began to restructure positions in the spring of 2013 and, later, reclassifed adjunct faculty. 

There were a lot of positive outcomes, Newton says — the school has added a number of new faculty, including two Pulitzer Prize-winning faculty members, Brent Walth and Hector Tobar, to its roster. And the SOJC greatly reduced its number of adjuncts as well as reclassified 13 adjunct faculty as career NTTF.

For Hart, an essayist and author of two books who was not one of the faculty hired into a career position, the result was heartbreaking, “They took the union stipulation” to ensure they were not abusing their adjuncts “very, very seriously,” but that meant “some of us who were thrilled to be there got cut.”

She loved her teaching, Hart says, adding “I’m not the kind of professional writer who can sit in my house all day. I love to share what I’ve learned and help people start getting published.”

Hart says, “This is my last term and I’m going to disappear into the sunset after 12 years.”

She says the changes have “forced me to be creative,” and she will now be teaching at a distance college but will miss “sitting around the big table” with her students in person. “Abuse me, please, this works for me,” she says of her adjunct status.

Newton says she can’t comment on personnel issues but, speaking generally, there were several adjunct faculty who had been teaching for a while that “we could not reclassify because of the way the positions were described in the reorganization.” Of Hart, she says, “She’s exceptional, a beautiful writer and very fine teacher and we were fortunate to have her teaching our students.” 

Dreiling, who is a professor in sociology, says the only thing the union required is that faculty were correctly classified, but because the SOJC’s decision to consolidate part-time positions into tenure-track positions happened at the same time as the union’s reclassification, some people equated the change with the union.

The union’s goal is to avoid situations where people are teaching year after year without professional long-term benefits accruing, Dreiling says. “There’s nothing in the contract that bars the UO from hiring from professionals from the community on term-to-term or visiting contracts.”

Just as Moberg frets that administrators are interpreting GTFF union language in ways leading to unforeseen consequences, Copperman, who was reclassified as a senior instructor in the English Department, questions how the department is applying the collective bargaining agreement. His NTFF position now requires nine courses a year, plus “‘privileges’ of service on committees and governance that are functionally mandatory and are technically 10 percent of our workload.” 

He adds, “The dean refuses to allow English the flexibility to define the standard load as eight within English for faculty like myself.” He says tenure-track faculty in English and his supervisors agreed “that applying the CBA in this bizarre way, balancing the CAS [College of Arts and Sciences] budget on the backs of the most vulnerable and underpaid and overworked faculty at the university, is unjust.” 

And Copperman says they joined him in an effort to lobby the dean to reduce the workload by one class a year in exchange for the new committee and governance workload. But, he says, “the dean’s office basically passed the buck.”

 

Union Goals Redux

Creighton, who is active in the union, says that for her the reclassification means “more respect, like your work is valued. Your teaching is valued.” The addition of a salary floor meant non-tenure track faculty in PE, among the lowest paid on campus, got significant raises. Non-tenure-track faculty is a “much better place to be” than a term-to-term adjunct, she says.

The changes “acknowledge that teaching is an important field, and contact with students is significant,” Creighton says.

United Academics is back in collective bargaining with the university administration and has been since February. Dreiling says currently the administration has offered the union 0 percent faculty raises for the first year, and less than 1 percent merit raises for the second year of which 20 percent would be at the discretion of the deans. “I doubt that money will find its way into adjunct hands,” he says. 

The fates of adjuncts and tenure-track faculty are tied together, Dreiling says. He then points to football coach Mark Helfrich’s recent salary hike of $3.15 million for the current year, yet the university “can’t get together a respectful offer to those who teach thousands and thousands of students and run research labs.” 

According to data posted by the UO’s Office of Institutional Research comparing the UO’s salaries to other members of the Association of American Universities, the average salary for tenured and tenure-track professors is about $18,000 less than the average for other public universities in the AAU. 

“It’s abysmal,” Dreiling says of the UO’s resistance to raises. It doesn’t reflect the commitment to what a flagship university ought to be able to offer.”

He adds, “To shortchange the faculty at a time when we are working harder than ever is insulting.”

Camilla Mortensen is an adjunct instructor at Lane Community College and has taught as an adjunct at UO.