Trading Adjuncts

As colleges cut hours of part-time instructors, would recommending favorites to nearby institutions be a good reward for them -- or would it simply give the institutions more power over non-tenure-track faculty?

May 7, 2013

Public institutions in northeastern Ohio, squeezed by upcoming guidelines that will limit how many credit hours their adjuncts can teach, are encouraging departments in the same disciplines to share the names and qualifications of their part-time instructors with one another. But adjunct advocates say they fear some instructors could be blackballed from teaching altogether, and that the inter-university cooperation could violate U.S. antitrust laws.

Many institutions are capping adjuncts' workloads to avoid having to provide them with health insurance once a provision of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect next year. Although the Internal Revenue Service has yet to finalize the guidelines governing how colleges and universities should count how many hours of actual work one credit hour constitutes, several institutions have grown tired of waiting.

At the University of Akron, adjuncts will only be able to teach 8 credit hours beginning this fall, down from 12 before. The announcement sparked a demonstration last week as adjuncts protested what they see as the university refusing to give equal pay for equal work. But the cap also hurts the institutions: Reduced workloads means Akron likely won’t be able to satisfy student demand unless it hires more adjuncts. Today, more than 1,000 adjuncts teach at the university -- and slightly under half of them will be affected by the cap, the university estimates.

Akron Provost Mike Sherman said conversations with administrators at other institutions may have yielded a solution. By encouraging communication between departments across institution in the area, Sherman said, finding a suitable adjunct in the future could be as simple as a department head calling up a colleague at a different college. ​The theory is that the best adjuncts will work at several institutions, staying under each one's hour cap, and won't leave the area for full-time employment.

“The bottom line is part-time faculty play an important role in all our institutions, and our focus is to deliver high-quality academic programs, and that’s what we’re attempting to ensure within the evolving landscape of the implications of the Affordable Care Act,” Sherman said.

Among part-time faculty -- many of whom will have to teach at multiple institutions to make up for lost income once the workload caps are in place -- this sort of inter-institutional cooperation could in theory be a welcome development for those deemed worthy of being placed on the list of approved instructors. Instead, some advocates said the institutions are taking advantage of the instructors who do most of the teaching on their campuses.

“What’s really happening here is that public universities in Ohio [are] trying to have their cake and eat it too,” said Matt Williams, vice president of the adjunct group New Faculty Majority. “They’re doing this to get around the implementations of the Affordable Care Act. They continue to drive down wages to balance their budgets on the backs of part-time faculty.”

Williams outlined another concern in a recent blog post:maybe add link? -sj Akron could be violating federal law by sharing information about its employees with other institutions.

“[O]fficials at the University of Akron have stated that they are providing the names of their best part-time faculty to other local colleges and universities in hopes that those institutions will reciprocate and provide them with referrals to part-time faculty who may have been adversely affected by the institutions’ caps on part-time faculty workloads,” Williams wrote. “I would argue that the sharing of such proprietary information with other institutions is anti-competitive under one or more theory of antitrust.”

The joint effort has yet to leave the planning stage, but Sherman said it is unlikely departments will be sharing information regarding the salaries and potential benefits of individual adjuncts with other institutions. He did not comment specifically on the antitrust issue.

“At each department they're looking at how they’re going to be able to cover their courses,” Sherman said. “As far as I know, they’ll be sharing the names and potential content expertise.”

While early conversations about an adjunct referral network involved four other institutions, some backed out because of their distance from Akron. Others, like Kent State University, decided they would rather hire more full-time faculty members to teach vacated courses.

“We think that we have fewer than 50 part-time instructors currently who are teaching sufficiently for us to qualify as full-time under the Affordable Care Act,” Provost Todd A. Diacon said. “We just don’t have the need to participate.”

The remaining institution, Stark State College, confirmed in an e-mail that it “is in talks with the University of Akron as to how we can best share adjunct resources.”

Some adjuncts may find themselves teaching more courses in the next academic year, Sherman said. The university will create a number of temporary full-time positions to address student demand, and already the College of Arts and Sciences has announced the creation of about 20 such openings. And yes, they do come with benefits. Of course that means it is likely other adjuncts may be losing sections and, if not recommended to other institutions, they may have more difficulty finding work.

“What [the Affordable Care Act] does is that it creates a perspective around which the role of a part-time person is very clearly delineated, and I think that clarification has to some extent been to the benefit of the institutions,” Sherman said.


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