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A jar of change, labeled with the word "Retirement," next to a clock.

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Ten years ago, the story of Margaret Mary Votjko generated a great deal of compassion, angst and organizing efforts among adjunct faculty. Votjko was an adjunct professor at Duquesne University, where she taught French for 25 years. She had cancer, which led to enormous bills she struggled to pay, partly because Duquesne did not provide its part-time adjuncts with health insurance. Votjko died sick and nearly homeless at the age of 83. Her loss and the conditions of her existence were a rallying cry for the dignity of those working professionals who devote their lives to education and the public good. Despite devotion and commitment, many adjuncts nationwide have no safety net as they age.

We suspect there are or have been thousands of other Margaret Mary Votjkos struggling to survive and make ends meet while in the higher education teaching profession. One way to confirm these suspicions is to support the collection of systematic data that capture adjuncts’ employment benefits. At present, we have national data on adjunct salaries and some spotty data about access to benefits that, together, paint a picture of poverty-level wages and a general lack of retirement and health-care benefits or supplemental benefits for Medicare. More systematic data are needed to improve adjunct working and living conditions.

The Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California is engaged in creating and disseminating the first national faculty survey in more than twenty years through the FACE Project—Faculty, Academic Careers and Environments—funded by the National Science Foundation. The FACE Project will bring us concrete data about the lack of retirement support and benefits for adjuncts, who now account for roughly half of the academic workforce.

Another organization, the TIAA Institute, has worked to explore the state of adjunct faculty retirement. One of its reports, from 2015, found that only 19 percent of adjuncts felt confident they would have enough money for retirement. A more recent report, from 2020, found that while most (91 percent) institutions surveyed allow some or all adjuncts to participate in a sponsored retirement plan, few of these institutions (11 percent) auto-enroll adjunct faculty members in these plans.

Furthermore, the majority do not provide matching contributions for adjunct faculty, with those that do typically limiting eligibility to adjuncts who work a minimum number of hours (most commonly 50 percent of the hours a full-time employee would work, though a third of institutions surveyed had a higher threshold than that). As discussed in The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), campuses routinely keep adjuncts at below 50 percent employment with the purpose of avoiding health care, retirement and other benefits. This not only affects workers’ lives but also student success.

Regarding the question of a dignified retirement, the situation is only getting more complicated with inflation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, both of which have illustrated the lack of a safety net and exacerbated the financial precarity faced by so many adjunct faculty members. While workers in other sectors might have hopes of employment in another job that provides some safety net in retirement, few options exist for adjunct faculty members that still give them the privilege to teach and connect with students.

Another area where we desperately need data relates to the eligibility (or lack thereof) of some adjunct faculty members for Social Security benefits, an issue that’s been raised by faculty unions and advocacy organizations, and which may be particularly acute in relation to faculty working at public universities (which are not required to participate in Social Security if their own retirement plans are deemed sufficiently generous). The degree to which adjunct employees are able to access unemployment benefits also remains an important question.

Two questions we always return to are 1) How can we leave the dignity of half of the academic workforce unattended? And 2) how can higher education institutions do better by adjunct faculty, a group that happens to drive student success and learning?

We are encouraged by a few promising examples of institutions that have improved working conditions and expanded benefits for adjunct faculty that we have identified at the Pullias Center through the Delphi Award, funded by the TIAA Institute: award winners include Bay Path University, Dominican University of California and Worcester Polytechnic University (you can read case studies about them and other award winners here). Following the lead of these innovative institutions, we at the Pullias Center encourage colleges and universities to engage the issue of adjunct retirement dignity. We also urge campuses to consider the following changes as they endeavor to reimagine their employment models with adjuncts in mind:

  1. Provide options for health care and retirement benefits no matter the number of courses or percentage of time adjunct faculty members work, especially for long-serving adjuncts.
  2. Provide matching retirement contributions for adjunct employees.
  3. Ensure that your campus pays Social Security taxes for adjuncts so they can receive federal retirement benefits in the future.
  4. Ensure that the campus communicates the availability of retirement plans to adjuncts as well as their status for Social Security or any retirement health-care supplements.
  5. Survey whether or not adjunct faculty members have full-time jobs and/or access to retirement and health-care benefits from other employers. Perhaps one of the issues is that administrators are acting on the realities of adjunct faculty life from the ’80s and ’90s, when many adjuncts were gainfully employed elsewhere, without understanding that many of today’s adjuncts are piecing together a livable wage from teaching.
  6. Collect data (quantitative and qualitative) about your adjunct faculty members’ needs and understand stresses they may be facing, including poverty, homelessness and food insecurity. Offer a food bank for faculty as you do for students. Consider temporary or emergency housing for housing-insecure adjuncts.
  7. Consider whether adjuncts are truly the best option for delivering education at your campus. Most research suggests that adjunct working conditions lead to negative student outcomes around retention, persistence, graduation and learning. Given these extensive data, it is time for campuses to reconsider their reliance on adjunct employees altogether. This step alone will begin to address the adjunct retirement dignity issue.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. Jordan Harper is an assistant professor at Morgan State University and research associate with the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.

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