In the last year, there have been some notable successes for part-time faculty members pushing for better wages and benefits. Through unions, legislative hearings and political activism, the issue of part timers' treatment has started to capture the attention not just of faculty activists, but of university administrators, too.
But what about states where adjuncts are plentiful but not unionized, where they must rely on good will more than political clout to win improvements in their wages and benefits? The situation at these campuses rarely makes headlines or even the agendas of board meetings.
For the adjuncts at the six universities and 13 community colleges governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, the solution they came up with was to ask politely. They worked with administrators to craft and re-craft a proposal to raise the maximum pay offered to adjuncts so that someone working a 5-5 course load (the kind of load that many tenure-track faculty members would consider unworkable) could be assured the chance of topping $20,000 in annual income. They weren't even talking about such matters as health insurance (which isn't provided).
If these salary levels are surprising, it may be because they are frequently off the radar screen. The definitive annual survey of faculty salaries by the American Association of University Professors excludes part timers, so the institutions where the part timers in this article work don't have their averages deflated by these pay levels.
After two years of encouraging meetings organized by AAUP leaders in Tennessee, the board -- through its presidents council -- decided this month that the current policy works just fine, and that there will be no increases in pay maximums.
The academics who pushed the plan -- which would seem moderate compared to adjunct wish lists elsewhere -- say that they have pretty much run out of ideas and that they have no recourse except to tell their stories.
Such stories could become more common elsewhere if the recession lasts long. Typically, economic downturns start with many part-timers losing jobs -- and already many universities experiencing cutbacks are saying that they are eliminating positions off the tenure track to protect tenure-track faculty members. As recessions go on, however, many institutions experiencing enrollment growth find that they must hire more instructors -- and many institutions replace tenure-track lines with adjuncts, who typically cost less and are pledged minimal job security. And a tighter academic job market means more academics will take jobs at pay levels that they think are insulting.
Consider Chandra G. Elkins, who teaches composition and developmental reading at Tennessee Tech University and Nashville State Technical Community College. She typically teaches a 5-5 course load and tries to pick up a summer course or two as well. Last year, teaching ten courses over the course of a year, she earned $15,210. This year, she is hoping to earn more, so she has added a sixth course for next semester, which she will teach at Motlow State Community College.
"It's really depressing. I have to really, really love my job," she said. "Literally, I could quit my job and get a job at the local Wal-Mart full time and make more money and have benefits."
Sheila Sullivan teaches at the same colleges as an adjunct. By teaching a 6-6 load, plus summer work, she is able to get her total income up in the $24,000-$26,000 range (no benefits), but already she has received word that one of her adjunct jobs will be paying less next year. She moved to Tennessee to take a temporary position at Middle Tennessee State University that was potentially going to be converted to the tenure track and ended up staying in the area and becoming a regular instructor, but never on the tenure track.
"I don't feel like there's anything I can do about it," she said. The colleges know "that they can get people" to teach despite the low pay, and "that works for them."
How is that possible? The Tennessee Board of Regents has a very simple policy that allows its constituent institutions to decide in which of four categories to place adjuncts. Colleges can devise systems based on educational experience, market differentials and so forth. But the policy is strict on one thing: It sets maximum levels of pay per credit hour. Because the colleges typically avoid classifying people as being in the most "lucrative" pay category ($700 per credit hour), most earn much less, and a college would be correct in saying that $1,800 is the maximum allowable pay for a three credit course of someone in the second level of adjunct classifications. Paying more would violate state rules.
Andrew William Smith, an English instructor at Tennessee Tech and president of his university's AAUP chapter, organized the effort to change the pay policy. While the adjuncts wanted to propose minimum pay levels, they were encouraged by the Board of Regents officials not to do so. So in what Smith called a "very modest, little baby proposal," the AAUP asked to have the maximums raised, so that the lowest level would have a maximum pay of $850 per credit hour, compared to $550 per credit hour now. Other maximums would have gone to $900, $950, and $1,000 per credit (from $600, $650, and $700 now).
Smith noted that nothing in the proposal would have required the colleges to pay any more than they are now -- all the adjuncts wanted was the possibility of higher maximum levels. The hope was that with these maximums, colleges would see the benefit of paying a little more so that adjuncts wouldn't feel the pressure to teach more courses than they can effectively handle, he said. "We were looking for a humane solution to a very bad situation."
While this is much less than many adjuncts feel they need, "We tried to work in the system," Smith said. "Give us bread now. We'll worry about roses later." While Smith is now in a permanent position, when he was an adjunct he was on federal Food Stamps and used the state's health care service for people without money to afford insurance.
The proposal to raise the maximums allowed won support from various faculty and student groups, but last week it was killed when the presidents of the Board of Regents institutions decided it shouldn't go forward.
Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, acknowledged that adjuncts teach a large share of the classes at the board's institutions. "They are critical," he said. Asked if they were well paid, he said that they are "clearly not."
At the same time, he defended the decision not to raise the maximum level. "That would raise expectations when we don't have the money," he said.
If colleges pay adjuncts more, Manning said, the institutions would have to cut sections, so that some smaller number of adjuncts would be paid, but others would be out of work, and some students wouldn't get into classes. "We have an obligation to raise the levels of education," he said. "The alternative for us is not to teach as many students, and we don't think that's right, either."
Manning noted that Tennessee, like most of the country, is dealing with severe budget shortfalls, which are forcing colleges to make deep cuts. "I truly appreciate the amount that [adjuncts] are giving, but now is not the time," he said.
Asked if adjuncts should accept this answer when the maximum hadn't been raised for 11 years, not all of them years of severe budget crises, Manning said that he didn't know for certain that the maximum had been flat all of those years. But he did say that for the nine years he has been in office, he couldn't remember the maximum going up.