Falling Short

Adjuncts protest unexpectedly small paychecks, alleged faculty "blacklist" at Northern New Mexico College.

July 11, 2014

Summer means lean times – leaner than usual – for many adjuncts, as fewer courses offered means fewer available sections. So adjuncts at Northern New Mexico College who say they were shorted by a third on their last two paychecks say they’re not only angry but have been thrown into an unexpected financial bind.

Adjuncts also say it’s symptomatic of larger, ongoing problems between the college’s faculty and administration.

“No one would have signed a contract if they’d known – it takes an hour for most of us to commute there,” said Miranda Merklein, a former adjunct instructor of English at Northern New Mexico who has stopped teaching there due to the shorted paychecks. “There are adjuncts taking out payday loans and barely surviving.” (Note: Merklein's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.)

Merklein was paid just $345 before taxes and other deductions for the first two paychecks of the summer – about $318 net. That’s compared to the approximately $500 gross she was expecting for each paycheck. The difference means not being able to afford gas to commute to the rural college outside of Santa Fe, and rationing food for her teenage son between budgeted trips to the grocery store.

Pay stubs for Joan B. Moore, an adjunct instructor of interdisciplinary humanities, show gross pay of about $430 each – not the $645 she was expecting.

The college says that’s the way it’s always done business.

“This is nothing that doesn’t happen every single summer,” said Ricky Serna, college spokesman. “Adjuncts start working partway into June and the payroll is set up to be prorated.”

But adjuncts say they’ve always been a paid in equal installments in the summer and other semesters, and their old pay stubs support that claim. Last summer, for example, Moore received four equal checks, at $646 each.

The adjuncts say they’ve been told by various tenured faculty members (whose pay was not affected) and payroll employees that the college ran out of money at the end of the 2014 fiscal year, and had to wait until this month – the start of its 2015 fiscal year – to make up for the shortage. The college denies this.

But the adjuncts say they weren’t warned in advance, and they still haven’t been given an official explanation.

Tim Crone, a retired tenured professor of sociology and president of the college’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union, said Northern New Mexico was apparently balancing its budget on the backs of its most vulnerable employees: adjunct faculty.

“What’s disturbing about this is that the budget for summer session is included as part of the annual budget, so the money for these people’s paychecks was provided by the state, and apparently the college spent this money,” he said. “So they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Crone blamed the alleged budget shortfall in part on enrollment, which he said has dropped significantly in recent months due to a tuition hike and general tension between the administration and the faculty that has riled students.

It’s unclear how much enrollment has dropped in the last few months alone, but it did fall 12 percent in 2013-14.

Aside from possible budget problems, Crone said he and two other faculty members – one of them on the tenure track – were recently blocked from teaching at the college. Crone and the other instructors – Annette Rodriguez, an adjunct instructor of humanities, and Patricia Perea, a tenure-track instructor of humanities who previously held a visiting faculty position at Brown University – have been publicly critical of the administration in recent months, in part because of the process by which the college eliminated several academic programs: construction management, automotive technology and radiology. (Some 700 people have signed a petition asking the New Mexico Department of Higher Education not to approve the 2014-15 budget, saying in part that the curricular changes will hurt students' future prospects for employment locally.) Crone also said he's encouraged some of his more "activist" students to voice their existing concerns about the college to the administration. 

Consequently, Crone said, they were put on a kind of faculty “blacklist,” of which tenured professors in charge of hiring were notified (Crone, although retired as a tenured faculty member, had planned to teach as an adjunct in the fall).

David Barton, a tenured professor of English and humanities, confirmed that he’d been made aware of such a list, and in May wrote an email to Anthony Sena, the interim provost, questioning the decision.  

“Dr. Patricia Perea is currently scheduled to teach summer school (on an adjunct contract),” Barton’s wrote in that email. “In addition, she would like to teach in the fall at Northern on an adjunct basis while she looks for full time work at another school. In no way could the college expect to find a better part-time instructor, as she is both rigorous and extremely popular with students.”

Perea, who is now looking for work and still hasn’t been given a clear answer for why she’s off the tenure track, said she’s most concerned about the impact the faculty turnover will have on Northern New Mexico’s students. She’s seen some of them publicly she said, and they’ve told her they’ve dropped out due to the tuition hike, or the environment, or both.

Because Northern New Mexico is isolated and much of the surrounding area is economically depressed, she said, “When they don’t come to Northern, they just don’t come to school. It’s an incredible disservice to the community.”

Serna, the college spokesman, said Northern New Mexico, like many other four-year colleges, was anticipating a 5 percent decline in enrollment next year – but he denied that the college was in crisis, regarding its student base or its finances.

He declined to comment on why Crone, Rodriguez and Perea were no longer eligible to teach at the college, saying it was a private personnel matter. But he attributed reports of faculty discontent to a handful of former employees “essentially raising unnecessary red flags.”

As a result, he said, the college has been hit with dozens of open records requests from former faculty and local media that could take hundreds of hours and up to $15,000 to fulfill. The college released a press release this week saying that the requests will be turned over to the college’s lawyer.

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