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Adjunct Solidarity

March 24, 2009

Utah's Weber State University is not a hotbed of adjunct activism. There is no union. Adjuncts don't belong to the Faculty Senate; the national organizations that work with those off the tenure track had a tough time coming up with members at the university. That's not because adjuncts aren't important at Weber State. In fact, they teach about one third of its classes.

Given that Weber State isn't known for its activist professors, administrators there were surprised recently when letters and e-mail messages started to arrive -- not from adjuncts or their tenure-track colleagues at the university, but from New York, California and elsewhere -- as far away as Japan. The letters were protesting the decision by Weber State to deal with a budget crunch in part by cutting the base pay for adjuncts by 7 percent.

Nationwide this year, adjuncts are being told that they won't have courses next semester, or that they will have fewer courses, or that everything is up in the air until enrollments and budgets are clear. But those who are teaching are not generally told that their pay per course -- already less than that of those on the tenure track -- is being cut. And the Weber State plan struck many adjunct activists at other campuses as salt in the wounds -- enough so that they needed to let the university know that someone was watching.

The Coalition for Contingent Academic Labor organized the letter writing to the university's senior officials, and distributed a sample that said, of adjuncts at Weber State: "Their lack of benefits and low salaries, made worse by being singled out for this pay cut to their entire salary, are an indication of the lack of respect you have not just for this group of faculty, but for the work of the profession, and the mission of the university."

John Hess, who was one of the organizers of the e-mail campaign and who taught for many years at San Francisco State University, said that with the pay cuts, Weber State seemed like it was "adding insult to injury," and that fellow adjuncts on various e-mail lists shared his reaction and wanted to do something to protest.

Mary Ellen Goodwin, who teaches at De Anza College and sent a letter, said she felt the need to say something because Weber State's adjuncts have no union or other protections. "What makes this so insulting is that the lowest paid people are getting cut."

The specific cut at Weber State brings a typical three-credit course down from $2,919 to $2,700 in pay for the adjunct.

Weber State officials said that it was unfair to imply that adjuncts are the only ones affected by the pay cut. While it is true that pay for tenure-track or tenured faculty members is not being cut, the same system is used for adjunct pay and "overload" pay -- extra funds that full timers receive when they teach a course on top of their regular assignments. In addition, John Kowalewski, a spokesman for the university, said that full-time faculty members will have to pay more next year for health insurance than they did this year -- even while not receiving raises. (The adjuncts at the university receive no health insurance benefits.)

Kowalewski said that, in total, the university needs to close a $6.5 million gap in the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Reducing the base pay for adjuncts and overload courses will produce $1.2 million in savings. (The university is facing a 17 percent cut in state support, although some of that is being made up in one-time funds.)

The university has been experiencing growth of late, enrolling a record 21,000 students last fall and anticipating a further increase this coming fall. Given the enrollment growth, Kowalewski said, the university has made a commitment not to reduce the number of sections offered, and thus does not want to eliminate adjunct jobs. So cutting their pay, while not desirable, was a logical option, he said. "We're mindful that these aren't easy decisions to pass along, but a large part of this is to minimize the number of lost jobs."

Hess said that, without access to Weber State's entire budget, he can't directly challenge the notion that only a pay cut for adjuncts would avoid layoffs. But he said it was "outrageous" to cut adjunct pay, and that the letter-writing campaign is part of an effort to let colleges know that people are watching the decisions they make about adjuncts. "There must be a better way than to take from people who don't have very much," he said.

At Weber State, faculty members have not been up in arms about the issue. David Ferro, chair of the Faculty Senate, said that body does not have adjunct members and has not taken a stand on the pay cuts. Asked whether the pay cuts made sense, he said that "it depends on your perspective." He said that there is a wide belief that adjuncts need more money, but that there is a legitimate consideration of "keeping as many people as possible employed vs. laying them off entirely."

Several adjuncts at Weber State declined to discuss the situation. They noted that with assignments unclear for next semester, they do not feel secure enough to talk. One who agreed to be quoted -- without her name -- has taught two or three courses a semester for several years, and at present has been offered only one course for the fall.

She said that she has discussed the issue with some tenured colleagues, who pointed out to her that their health insurance costs are going up. Because of changes in her husband's job, this adjunct is about to lose the health insurance on which her family relies. And losing some of her pay adds to the difficulty.

"It's going to be difficult, and when you don't have insurance, the loss of pay is a double whammy," she said. While this adjunct acknowledged that the university's budget crisis is real, and requires significant cuts, "when they start their cuts with the faculty with the least unified voice, and with the least money, that's not as honorable as it could be."

The salt in this adjunct's wounds? "Nobody actually came and told us about this," she said. "We found out about the pay cuts in the newspaper."

 

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