The University of Memphis has proposed a 40 percent increase in minimum adjunct pay, from $1,500 to $2,100 per three-credit-hour course. This marks the first pay raise for adjuncts at the university in three decades. Yet as adjuncts at other universities are winning contracts with minimums more than three times higher, progress may not mean that adjuncts at the University of Memphis will be taking home a decent wage.
Administrators and professors have hailed the move as a long-overdue step toward ensuring equitable treatment for adjuncts. But some say the situation at the University of Memphis highlights the fact that adjuncts can often go decades without raises -- especially if they don’t unionize and negotiate better contracts. Tennessee's Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011 removed the right of teachers to engage in collective bargaining.
Adjuncts account for three-quarters of college professors in the country, according to a recent report by the American Association of University Professors.
“There has been no meaningful, recognizable change in adjunct salary at the university for at least three decades,” said M. David Rudd, president of the University of Memphis. “We felt like that did not reflect the importance of adjunct faculty to the core mission of the university.”
In the past, adjuncts have not been included in discussions during the annual salary review process, Rudd said. But they will now be part of this process, and they could see further increases in the future, he said.
“We will make an effort to do something every year moving forward,” Rudd said. “This was a first step.”
Thomas Nenon, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and former vice provost at Memphis, said the administration came close to addressing the problem of low adjunct pay several years ago. “For many years we’ve known that … it really was a lot of important work for a wage that wasn’t very attractive or very fair,” he said.
But the administration first pursued other initiatives, such as increasing tenure-track faculty salaries and making graduate assistantships more nationally competitive, Nenon said. Then a budget crunch hit, forcing the administration to shift its focus to cost-cutting measures.
“So often, the adjuncts have been last in line over the last few decades,” Nenon said. “It’s great to see that the senior administration actually put them at the front of the line now that the budget has stabilized.”
The proposed increase in minimum adjunct pay has met with cautious approval from several faculty members.
“It’s obviously very long overdue,” said Aram Goudsouzian, chair of the history department, which relies on 14 adjunct faculty members who teach on campus and seven who teach online or at a satellite campus. “It’s at least a minor recognition of some of the important work that adjuncts do for the university. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but at least it’s a small step.”
The proposed increase should contribute to future discussions among administrators about ensuring livable wages for adjuncts, Goudsouzian said. “The university should be able to use talented adjunct faculty if it’s a good situation for them,” he said. “But if we are exploiting people who have this as their sole source of income, that’s not a good situation for the faculty member or the university.”
Kimberly Nichols, adjunct professor of history at Memphis, said she approves of the proposed increase but wishes it had come sooner. “The university is finally moving along with the times,” she said. “It’s been 30 years in the making.”
But Nichols said the increase will not have a huge impact on her. She also works as an account manager at an equity investment company and as an adjunct at Northeast Texas Community College, so she does not rely solely on her salary from the University of Memphis.
Nichols also noted that administrators have approved previous increases in adjunct pay in the history department. These previous increases brought her pay to $2,050 per class -- just a hair below the current proposal of $2,100.
“There are many adjuncts who struggle and teach at many universities, and that really matters to how they sustain their lives,” Nichols said. “I’m not one of them. I’m lucky.”
Under the new minimum pay of $2,100 per course, adjuncts at the University of Memphis who teach a full load of three courses for two semesters will earn $12,600 a year. In 2015, the poverty threshold for a single person was $11,770 a year. A full-time employee earning the federal minimum wage currently earns $15,080 a year.
A salary of $12,600 is “still egregiously low,” said Gordon Haber, a former adjunct professor for 15 years and author of Adjunctivitis. Even adjunct professors who teach four courses won’t receive a livable wage, Haber said.
But it is unlikely that adjuncts would even be permitted to teach four courses, since under the Affordable Care Act the university would have to offer them health insurance, he said. Many universities have limited adjunct hours to avoid providing health insurance.
"It’s part of the larger issue of contingent labor in America,” Haber said. “There’s virtually no difference between adjuncts and the way that they’re treated and Walmart greeters. They’ll pay you as little as they can, and they’ll fire you if they don’t need you.”
Adjuncts at the University of Memphis also still won’t earn as much as their counterparts elsewhere who have unionized. Service Employees International Union has recently helped adjuncts at a range of campuses secure better contracts as part of its Adjunct Action Campaign.
At Northeastern University, many adjunct faculty members previously earned a minimum of $1,500 per credit hour. But in January, the adjunct union secured a pay bump of 12 percent or more over the next three years.
Adjuncts at Tufts University won significant pay increases -- in addition to longer-term contracts -- after a successful contract negotiation in 2014. All Tufts adjunct faculty now earn at least $7,300 per course, and those with more than eight years of service earn at least $8,760.
“Pay … is significantly higher under these union contracts than anything Memphis has proposed,” wrote Jason Stephany, senior director of communications for the SEIU, in an email to Inside Higher Ed. But he added that it’s difficult to draw comparisons between the institutions, since the universities in Massachusetts are private, while the University of Memphis is public.