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Adjunct professors: Valued assets or disposable laborers?

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Most students cannot tell if the instructor teaching their class is a full-time professor who has worked at the college for years, or a part-time professor who comes in once a week to teach a single class. In fact, part-time instructors also known as adjuncts, out number full-timers almost four to one at Mercer. There are currently 413 adjunct professors and 125 full-time professors according to the college’s Institutional Research office. What does this mean for student success? More than you might think.

In an article entitled “Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates” that appeared in the Journal of Higher Education, published in November, 2006, the author, researcher Daniel Jacoby writes: “The principal finding of this study is that community college graduation rates decrease as the proportion of part-time faculty employed increases. The finding is corroborated using three different measures of graduation rates.”

Other researchers have corroborated Jacoby’s findings, but other current literature suggests that there is another side to the story. For example, in the article “Does Cheaper Mean Better? The Impact of Using Adjunct Instructors on Student Outcomes” by Eric P. Bettinger of Stanford University and Bridget Terry Long of Harvard Graduate School of Education, their examination of 43,000 students leads them to conclude that, “taking a class from an adjunct often increases the number of subsequent courses that a student takes in a given subject and may also increase the likelihood that the student majors in the subject.”

Good or bad, all the research suggests that the fate of students and colleges is tied to part-time labor. Colleges across the country are relying more and more heavily on adjunct professors as a cost saving measure. Some community colleges in New Jersey, like Burlington, are now relying almost entirely on adjuncts to teach all of their classes, a move that has come under steep criticism from teachers’ unions.

So why are colleges so bent on hiring part-timers?

Adjuncts have the same credentials to teach as full-time professors, but, by contract, their workload is usually half the full-time load and they do not get health and other benefits.

At Mercer, for example, per each credit hour they teach, an adjunct can earn anywhere between $717 to $788 depending upon their academic rank. Thus, while a full-time faculty member may make between $45,000 and $55,000 per year plus benefits at the start of their career at Mercer, an adjunct who teaches two classes per semester –a typical arrangement– would earn $9,456 for the year.

The result? The college saves a lot of money, but adjuncts can’t earn a living wage working at a single community college. To make ends meet, adjuncts frequently teach part-time at multiple colleges or work a full-time job in a different field. Many adjuncts hold out hope that showing their strengths in a part-time position will position them to be hired when a full-time spot opens up.

Dr. Joan Goldstein is an adjunct professor teaching Sociology classes at Mercer for almost twenty years. Goldstein originally started as a tutor, then worked her way into an adjunct position teaching basic English courses. In her decades at Mercer, Goldstein says only a few times has a full-time professor position opened up, and although told she might get one, she has so far been passed over twice.

“When I came here, I already had a PhD, three books published, and had articles published in the New York Times. This was not a place that welcomed high achievement.” Dr. Goldstein told The VOICE.

Goldstein used to be a full time professor at Rutgers, but left because, she says, “It is hard to be a person that cares about their work when politics [within the college] interfere with that.”

When asked if she missed being a full time professor, she said, “Yes, because of no health benefits, and not being paid very much money.” She continued, “I wouldn’t for a moment say that it’s great to be poor.”

Do the findings by Dr. Dan Jacoby that suggest relying on adjuncts lowers graduation rates for community college student mean that adjuncts aren’t great teachers, or is there something else at work?

One full-time Mercer professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the problem is not poor teaching from adjuncts but poor support from colleges who basically exploit the itinerant laborers by underpaying them and not provided adequate resources for them to succeed. He said, “I really don’t think the [Mercer] administration respects adjuncts. I once heard an administrator say, ‘Adjuncts are like Kleenex, you use one, and you throw it away.’”

When asked to enumerate specific ways the adjuncts are disadvantaged the professor said, “Adjuncts are always given the times that no other professor wants to teach, and if a full-timer needs more classes, a class can be taken away from the adjunct who then loses that class and all the time [spent] preparing for it.” In another example, he noted, “Most adjuncts rely on copying machines that weren’t designed for the volume of copying they do.”

Do adjuncts agree with this assessment?

One long-time adjunct professor at Mercer, we’ll call him Adjunct X, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of job reprisal said, “I realize that [adjuncts] are a money saving commodity. I understand the benefits thing, but we have to do the same amount of work, be held to the same amount of scrutiny, produce the same way, and we care as much about our students.”

When asked if Mercer supports their professors Adjunct X said, “Yes and no, it is on a by case basis. Quite often it is easy to blame the adjuncts, and by lack of back up from administration, that is how they fail to support us.”

X continued, “We cannot get the school to agree on guaranteed employment. Other schools have guest lecturer contracts that guarantee employment for one to two years with no benefits, but for whatever reason, Mercer does not want to do that. We can be terminated at anytime…I know [the possibility of being fired] is there, but its like death. I know it can happen at anytime, but worrying about death gets in the way of life. The same applies to teaching.”

Dr. Diane Campbell, Mercer’s Dean of Students, was once an adjunct at the beginning of her career. She told The VOICE, “[As an adjunct] I always felt treated fairly” and that “[Adjuncts] really bring unique knowledge and a richness to the college and the people students have access to.” When asked if she thought the college supported the adjunct staff, she said, “Definitely.’

Mercer used to have a group called M.A.S.T., the Mercer Adjunct Support Team, and posters for this service still remain on campus, though it seems to have been disbanded some years ago. It was a group of full-time faculty who devoted some time to helping adjuncts get adjusted and find resources on campus. Now adjuncts receive one evening of orientation before they start teaching. Their only other support comes in the form of the adjunct coordinators and liaisons who hire them.

Denise Ingram full-time professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies has served as an adjunct coordinator for the last seven years, working to hire, advise and mentor in-coming adjuncts in the Social Sciences department. She told The VOICE, “Adjuncts are not paid very much, so that makes it difficult to lure the best and brightest, and then difficult to keep them here.”

Professor Ingram continued, “Adjuncts who have full time jobs, leave. They teach their one or two courses then they are not on campus…They may become not tied into the culture of the faculty, [they] become very isolated.”

While there is no easy way to end the disparity between full-time and part-time faculty many colleges have developed a class of professors who will not become tenured but who teach full loads, receive benefits and are given contracts that guarantee employment for several years. Because salaries are lower for these positions, they still serve as a cost saving measure for colleges overall. They are not itinerant, they have more investment in their schools and time to connect to students, thus helping students stay in college and graduate, which ensures the college will receive tuition dollars.

As Mercer faculty move into a contract negotiation year, the role of adjuncts and their contractual rights and obligations will be examined by the college and the teachers’ union. Students have an investment in the outcome of these negotiations. The VOICE will cover the story as it unfolds.

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