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A Contingent Faculty Compromise

Contingent faculty members are underpaid, yet administrators rarely take seriously the arguments championing equal pay for equal work, writes Daniel Davis. It’s time for a new approach.

August 28, 2019
 
 
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Pay parity between tenure-track and contingent faculty members remains a hotly contested issue. On one side of the issue, administrators seek cost savings through a minimally compensated and flexible instructional workforce. On the other side, organizers and union leaders often believe that contingent faculty members should receive prorated pay commensurate with that of their tenure-track faculty counterparts.

Bottom-line savings aside, a counterargument against the “equal pay for equal work” mantra is that it ignores the fact that contingent faculty members do not perform the same amount of departmental and institutional work that tenure-track faculty members do. Tenure-track faculty members, for example, typically have student-advising responsibilities and obligations to departmental committees and institutional task forces -- let alone other academic endeavors such as research, publishing and grant writing.

But what if a formula for pay parity could be adopted that took this valid reasoning into consideration? To ponder a solution that makes sense, let’s take a look at the current compensation structure for contingent and tenure-track faculty.

Tracking of exact numbers for contingent pay is very limited. The most comprehensive survey of average pay, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey, was done back in 2012, which placed nationwide median contingent faculty pay at $2,235 per three-credit course at two-year colleges and $3,400 per course at four-year colleges and universities. The Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database of pay rates, listed the contingent national average at $2,987 per three-credit course -- also with variations by state, institution and discipline -- a number that has remained relatively steady over the past few years as new entries are added.

For the sake of comparison to tenure-track faculty compensation, let’s assume a full teaching load is 10 courses per year. (That is a very high number, but one used in some community colleges and teaching-focused universities.) Assuming adjunct pay at public two-year institutions is in the neighborhood of $2,750 per course and adjunct pay at four-year institutions is in the neighborhood of $3,750 per course (again actual numbers vary by institution and discipline), the result is annual pay for contingent faculty of $27,500 per year at two-year colleges and $37,500 at four-year colleges.

Meanwhile, average assistant professor pay nationwide at public two-year institutions and public four-year institutions was reported in 2018 at $61,000 and $78,000, respectively. In other words, contingent faculty members make only about half of what such tenure-track faculty members make. At many institutions, they make, in fact, a lower percentage. According to a U.S. House of Representatives committee staff report, “In order to garner comparable wages [to noncontingent faculty], an adjunct would have to teach nearly 17 courses per year.”

Of course, obtaining such a schedule is not only impossible, especially across institutions, but also an unmanageable workload. So, one side wants 100 percent equal pay, while the other side allows 50 percent or less to stand. What now?

Some institutions articulate a definition of the percentage of tenure-track faculty members’ workload that is covered by their teaching responsibilities alone. In other words, if a tenure-track and contingent faculty person taught the same number of in-class hours, some institutions have a stated proportion of the equal work performed. For example, data on California community colleges revealed that 33 out of 72 community college districts in California had explicitly defined such a percentage, sometimes called pro-rata pay. Those ratios ranged from a low of 53 percent at West Hills Community College District to a high of 88 percent chosen by three different community college districts (Kern, Imperial and Sonoma). The most commonly chosen definition was 75 percent, chosen by 10 districts.

Applying that 75 percent definition of pay parity to the nationwide averages of assistant professor compensation, then two-year public institutions would pay, on average, just over $4,500 per course, while four-year public institutions would pay just over $5,800 per course. At such levels, contingent faculty would make an income approaching, though still below, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ national average of elementary ($62,150) and high school teachers ($64,230). In fact, a respondent quoted in the congressional report went so far as to say, “I relied on Medicaid to pay for the medical bills of my daughter. And, during the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty. Instead, contingent faculty members are paid less than many service workers.”

The cost of implementing a 75 percent pay ratio for contingent faculty members proves modest when compared to overall campus budgets. For instance, staying with the California Community Colleges example, the statewide California Community College Chancellor’s Office reported 42,110 contingent faculty members in its ranks for the fall semester of 2018. If each of those contingent faculty members received $1,500 more per course (getting closer to that 75 percent ratio), and each one taught four courses a year (a frequent course load for adjuncts), the collective raise would cost $252.7 million. To put these numbers in context, the raise would cost just over 2.5 percent of the total California Community Colleges’ annual expenses, set at $9.4 billion, according to the California State Budget.

Although some fiscal conservatives may react against proposals to use more public funds to close pay-equity gaps, in this case, pay increases could actually save tax dollars. Taxpayers also suffer from the current treatment of contingent faculty, as revealed in a congressional committee report that said, according to the Congressional Research Service, “A family of three in California relying solely on the median adjunct salary would qualify for, among other things, Medicaid, an earned income tax credit, a child tax credit and food stamps, costing taxpayers $13,645 per year.”

In short, while equal pay for equal work purists seek a 100 percent pay equity model, prorated for the number of units employed, the reality is closer to a 50 percent model, and much lower in some instances. Declaring a middle-path parity definition of 75 percent may seem like the kind of compromise that will dissatisfy both sides. But it represents a logical and strong step forward that will help our swelling and struggling contingent faculty ranks, save tax dollars and, ultimately, improve the education of the students they teach.

Bio

Daniel Davis is the author of Contingent Academic Labor: Evaluating Conditions to Improve Student Outcomes (Stylus Press, 2017). He is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, Extension. Davis is also sociology faculty at San Diego State University. More information available at www.danieldavis.net.

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