Making Adjuncts Temps -- Literally

August 9, 2010

Last year, a small community college in Michigan considered a plan to stop employing adjuncts and to have a temporary services agency instead do the formal hiring. The idea was to save the college money and also to save the adjuncts from contributing to a retirement system in which few of them would ever vest. Although only a few dozen adjuncts might have been affected, the idea drew widespread criticism from faculty groups nationally and the college's board split on the matter, and put the idea on hold.

Now another community college in Michigan -- Washtenaw Community College -- is planning to move ahead with a similar plan, and this will involve hundreds of adjuncts. The college says that the part-time faculty members will be better off financially, as will the institution, which could save about $800,000 annually -- at a time when deep budget cuts in Michigan have challenged public higher education in the state.

About 400 part-time instructors for non-credit courses are expected to be moved off payroll in the fall semester, and about 700 part-time instructors for credit courses will be moved off payroll in the spring. While Washtenaw has a faculty union for full-time faculty members, part-timers do not have a union or an organization representing them. About 40 percent of courses at the college are taught by part-timers.

Larry Whitworth, the president of Washtenaw, said that this plan makes sense because of Michigan's requirements for pension payments for state workers. For anyone on payroll, the college must contribute 16.94 percent of salary to the retirement fund, and the employee must contribute 3 percent (which is rising to 6 percent). Hardly any of the part-timers meet the vesting requirements to benefit from the pension fund, Whitworth said, so they aren't losing anything in terms of real retirement savings. He added that, as part of the change, the college is going to boost part-timers' pay by 3 percent (using some of the savings from the 16.94 percent no longer to be paid). So the adjuncts will gain both by not having to make their own contributions to the fund -- and by getting more money in pay.

Asked about the criticism that was raised of the idea a year ago, Whitworth said he disagreed. "This puts more money in their paychecks and the relationships they have with the college are the same," he said. The key thing to remember is that "the contribution the college makes now [to the retirement fund] is basically irrelevant."

Whitworth said he briefed department chairs on the changes and that they were backing them, and would still have the right to supervise (and when needed replace) part-time instructors. He said that the college would provide information on all the part timers to the temp agency with the expectation that many would be hired by the temp agency to do exactly what they have been hired directly by the college to do.

"It's really no different than if you are going to hire a clerical worker for a week or so. They send you two or three people and you supervise them and if you don't like them, you send them back," he said. "Our deans and department chairs would still be very involved in making sure everyone had the proper credentials."

An editorial in praised the idea. The college "is in danger of being eaten alive by the costs of the state pension system," the editorial said. It said that this shift is typical of why many community college leaders want to leave the state retirement system entirely.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct group, said she was concerned about the situation at Washtenaw -- even if adjunct pay goes up a bit. She said that the organization would be reaching out to adjuncts there to talk to them about how they saw the issue.

Generally, she said that there may be disadvantages to ending adjuncts' status as state employees. It may be more difficult for adjuncts to unionize if they are no longer employed by the college, she noted. And it may be harder for them to earn retirement benefits. Many adjuncts build retirement funds through many small contributions from their various employers, and many adjuncts are pushing for reforms in vesting requirements that may disadvantage part timers, she noted.

Maisto said she saw the move reflecting the way many part timers are treated. "This just represents a further marginalization," she said. "What kind of message does it send to students to be told 'your professor is a temp'?" she asked.

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