A story at Duke University a couple of months ago caught our attention. Adjunct and non-tenure track faculty voted for union representation. That decision prompted us to look into unionization efforts in academia.
Our first report focused on colleges’ increasing use of adjuncts, who now represent 50 percent of universities’ faculty. In this story, we learn more about the life of an adjunct and the challenges they face.
Take Louise Clark for example. For 10 years, Clark, a divorced mother of three, worked as a Latin America studies adjunct professor, initially only at UNC Charlotte.
“In 2010, I started working at multiple universities, UNC Charlotte and Wingate,” Clark said. “Last year, I worked at UNC Charlotte, Wingate and Davidson, that’s typical.”
Clark was sometimes lucky to get four courses a semester at UNC Charlotte at $2,500 a class, plus a $2,000 bonus for teaching a full load. But that still only amounted to $22,000 a year, so she also had a part-time job.
“I’d work in the morning teaching, advising, then leave campus after lunch and head to my other part-time job until seven or eight at night at an independent book store in Charlotte,” Clark said.
Clark says she never intended to be stuck in the adjunct lane of academia. She completed her PhD coursework but because she and her husband were raising a family, she did not complete her dissertation. So she became an adjunct to get experience as she looked for a full-time teaching position with benefits. But along the way Clark had to seek public assistance.
“I had to because there was no health insurance at the time for several years. My husband was a victim of the recession and when he was able to reenter the workforce, it was for jobs that didn’t offer health insurance, so what else can you do when you have children. We were in a position of both working but no opportunity for health insurance,” Clark said.
It’s a common plight for adjuncts. A UC Berkeley study says 25 percent of adjuncts are on some kind of public assistance. Clark, who is divorced now, is not alone in having taught on different campuses to piece together a living wage. Some teach six to eight courses and travel long distances between campuses. Take Demar Neal. He has a PhD in music, but as an adjunct often worked at colleges far apart.
“One year, I was teaching at Meredith, Elon and Mt. Olive,” Neal said. “I lived in Raleigh and Elon is 70 miles west and Mt. Olive is 70 miles to the southeast and I arranged my weekly schedule so I didn’t have to be at Elon and Mt. Olive the same day. It was a lot of driving and impacted my health for a while. I had lower back issues, which are resolved now.”
Neal says he earned about $30,000 a year, with no benefits. He loves teaching but says sometimes he felt taken advantage of.
“It’s incredibly difficult. I many times considered and reconsidered if this was the right career choice for me and I kept coming back to I’d put so much time and effort in obtaining my degree,” Neal said. “I do have bills to pay and have to continue making money somehow and this seems to be the best match, more hope that this will turn into a full time position someway.”
Neal has not been offered a tenured track position but he did secure a one-year contract at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh. There’s no guarantee it will be renewed next year. So, he still works as an adjunct at Meredith College in Raleigh.
But now all adjuncts are struggling or feel they’re being exploited. Sherese Duncan is an adjunct who teaches three marketing and business courses at Johnson C. Smith University. She says her adjunct experience has been positive because she came to the university with a plan.
“As an educator, you need to have an impact on students, so I made sure where I want to teach, where and what hours so I can be effective,” Duncan said. “The opportunities are there but I think adjuncts are sometimes limited by past experiences and perceptions but you have to pick what you want to do. But you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to network.”
And she says, ask for things like office space. Duncan says she didn’t have one for two semesters, but she requested it and now has a large shared office.
As for pay, at Smith, adjuncts get between $150 to $250 per credit hour, depending on a professor’s degree and specialization. That credit hour rate is multiplied by the number of students enrolled in a class. A three-credit-hour, specialized class of 10 students, taught by an adjunct with a PhD nets $2,500.
Duncan admits she’s in a better position than most adjuncts. She has a consulting business and health insurance through her husband’s job. Still her plan includes making sure her classes are never canceled because of low enrollment.
“My classes are large and picked on purpose. I’m an adjunct and I need the check and I chose classes to make sure I’m in classes that will fill up every semester,” Duncan said.
“My advice would be the best thing is don’t try to make a living being an adjunct your whole life. It’s not going to work. Be an adjunct on the side. It’s a difficult life,” say adjunct Ron Schmidt. He teaches political science at Davidson College.
Schmidt’s advice comes from what he’s observed as a 10-year department chair at California State University Long Beach. He estimates of the 100 adjuncts he oversaw, only two were ever hired fulltime. Schmidt is now retired and teaches one class at Davidson to keep busy.
“Only in the spring. In the fall my wife and I travel and try to enjoy retirement,” he said.
Adjuncts at Davidson have it better than most, earning $7,000 per course. Davidson officials say over the past seven years, they’ve averaged about 15 adjuncts a year, mainly to fill in for professors on leave. They say they can’t recall ever hiring an adjunct full time, which doesn’t surprise Schmidt. He says universities don’t hire adjuncts because they spend most of their time teaching. Universities value research and published work in academic journals.
“Within three years, you find yourself left behind by your discipline. It’s sad but true. It’s very hard to move from that situation to a full time position because the very thing you’re doing that you love is putting you out of contention with others,” Schmidt said.
A sobering observation, but many adjuncts are still hanging in there. That’s why Joseph Fruscione, an adjunct of 15 years, now a stay-at-home dad, is offering help. He co-founded Precari-Corps, a small non-profit that provides up to $500 to adjuncts, mainly for emergencies.
“We’ve helped them afford rent, medical bills, car insurance, childcare arrangements and other expenses that universities don’t cover,” Fruscione. “We’ve had people write to us and say they have only $100 in the bank and that has to last for a month. We’ve all been there. I gave up on it ultimately because adjuncting is a dead-end job.”
Louise Clark is feeling that way these days, too.
I’m starting to look at other jobs, careers where I can be successful and not feel like I’m constantly beating my head against a wall. It was the good fight but there’s just not the opportunity right now,” Clark said.
And like adjuncts at Duke University who approved a union in March, Clark thinks collective bargaining may be the only way they can get the pay, benefits and resources they deserve.