Adjunct professors often say that university administrators give them short shrift, with low pay  and lack of benefits being the common complaints.
A small private college in the Boston suburbs is tackling the issue head-on by making adjunct issues a top priority, one of nine academic goals mentioned in its strategic plan. Lasell College’s “Vision 2017” plan says it aims to ensure competitive salaries for adjuncts, at the midpoint of a peer group. What this means is that administrators will compare adjunct salaries at Lasell with neighboring colleges and try to raise them. While such a goal isn't surprising at all when coming from a faculty group or an adjunct union, it's unusual for a campuswide strategic plan.
Lasell’s goal came about at a retreat attended by administrators last year. When participants voted on the most important topics for the plan, the issue rose to the top.
“We are a teaching-focused institution. Adjuncts, they are faculty, not adjuncts,” said James Ostrow, vice president of academic affairs at Lasell. “We have been raising adjuncts' salaries for 10 years. We still feel the salaries are too low. They are certainly not the lowest, but they are certainly not where they need to be.”
Lasell does not have any tenured faculty. It has 73 full-time professors, on either one-year or multiple-year contracts, and about 100 adjuncts. “For good teaching to take place, we need to help adjuncts,” Ostrow said. The college is currently compiling salary data from nearby colleges, but Ostrow did not share information on the other colleges that administrators are looking at.
Adrianna Kezar, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California and the author of Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure Track Faculty said Lasell’s goal, though laudable, might not produce the desired results because adjuncts in most places are paid a “really poor rate to a moderately poor rate.”
“It is unusual and good, and it is an acknowledgment of an awareness, but it is not a strong enough idea that might improve compensation,” Kezar said. “It is not the systemic change that is desirable.” Her suggestion: compare adjunct pay with the salaries of tenured professors.
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national group for adjuncts and contingent faculty, said that while Lasell’s decision is a step in the right direction, it should not be over-celebrated. "The real takeaway here is the need for all of the peer groups to work toward a single salary scale that properly respects students' need for professionally and equitably compensated faculty across the board," she said.
Lasell’s administrators said the data-gathering from other colleges would be a starting point, and preliminary research showed that Lasell, in some cases, paid significantly less to its adjuncts than did other local colleges. “It is true that some pay the same or less than we do, but we know enough to know that we want to push our salaries upward. The degree to which we need to do so is what we are committed to investigating and then acting upon,” Ostrow said.
He stressed the college’s commitment to adjuncts: shared office space, invitation to faculty workshops, stipends to attend some workshops, and a progression in pay and rank after a professor has taught a certain number of semesters.
Jennifer Ostrowski, faculty chair and an assistant professor of athletic training, said Lasell does not think of adjuncts as a separate constituency, which is why there is a lot of support for the 2017 goal. “Right now, we are conducting the research on how to get there,” she said.
So will life really change for an adjunct at Lasell?
The signs are encouraging, said Judy Thomas, who has taught in the fashion department since the fall of 2009.
“I don’t get health insurance and as a contract person, I’m not allowed to collect unemployment during the winter or summer break,” said Thomas, who also teaches part time at another college. “But there is definitely a culture of support here.”