College and university adjunct professors demand better salaries and benefits

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Nicole Braun has earned too little as a working single mother to save for her retirement. Sometimes she used government assistance to get enough food to eat and a place to live. She cleaned houses and walked dogs to earn extra money, and she never had a job that offered health insurance.

Most people who know the 54-year-old Chicagoan don’t suspect she’s struggled so financially, Braun said. After all, she has two master’s degrees and a profession that many believe makes her middle class.

She is a part-time teacher.

“A lot of deputies like me have massive student loan debt, and not only do we earn poverty wages, but we generally have no health benefits,” said Braun, who teaches sociology at a community college. and three universities. “We don’t have a retirement plan. We have several jobs and we are completely disposable. »

A new study of part-time teachers by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) confirms this. In 2020, the union surveyed about 1,900 assistants, also called contingent professors. These part-time professors often lack the benefits of being full-time professors, such as competitive salaries, benefits, pensions, and job security. Many contingent professors do not have their own offices and work at multiple colleges to ensure they teach a full course load each term.

Although 90% of these educators have at least a master’s degree, 60% earn less than $50,000 a year, according to the AFT report. Nearly a quarter bring home less than $25,000 a year, below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Assistants often don’t get paid for the routine tasks that come with the job — preparing classes, keeping office hours, writing letters of recommendation and serving on committees, according to the union study.

“Supporting teachers, basically, are the backbone of our colleges and universities,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Four out of 10 of them need government help to get by. That tells you a lot about the priorities of this country and how we don’t prioritize knowledge and innovation, creativity and critical thinking, or America’s academic foundations.

With women of all races and people of color less likely to be hired for full-time tenure-track positions, adjuncts are overwhelmingly from groups traditionally marginalized in higher education. Approximately 64% of respondents to the AFT study were women; other studies have also found that women make up the majority of auxiliaries. Thirty-one percent were male, 1 percent were gender nonconforming, and the rest were transgender or did not disclose their gender identity.

By relegating educators from underrepresented groups to auxiliary roles, colleges and universities maintain race, gender and class hierarchies that have historically fostered inequality in academia, the auxiliaries and their supporters say. The AFT estimates that 47% of professors hold part-time positions. They are necessary for the operation of colleges and universities, said 19 deputies, but they remain an invisible and permanent underclass in academia.

“People don’t understand what’s going on, so the school districts, the administration, and the state, who are funding us, haven’t really had to do anything because there’s no pressure” , said Bobbi-Lee Smart, a Los Angeles-area assistant. who helped write the AFT report. “They save tons of money by hiring people to teach classes at half price or less, without having to pay for benefits or anything. So it saves the states a lot of money, but there’s also no outrage because no one knows what’s going on.

But, Smart said, colleges and universities would be struggling without adjunct professors: “There’s no way these places can function without us.”

By hiring adjuncts, colleges and universities reduce salary costs and benefits and, they say, allow them to offer new courses to students without having to invest in hiring permanent staff. All types of colleges and universities hire adjuncts, but community colleges are especially likely to rely on these part-time employees. The California Community College system is the largest in the nation, and according to 2019 data from the Chancellor’s Office, part-time faculty make up an average of 69% of its faculty.

Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications and marketing for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, told the 19 that faculty compensation is determined by collective bargaining at the local level, but the chancellor’s office advocates for resources. additional state budgets that colleges can spend on part-time faculty, such as funding office hours for part-time faculty. The bureau is also pushing for increased public funding of health insurance for part-time faculty.

As the union with the largest number of adjunct teachers, the AFT advocates for a better quality of life for part-time teachers. It has 240,000 members of higher education, including 85,000 casual workers and 35,000 graduate employees. On March 7, the union announced that it was seeking new affiliation with the American Association of University Professors. If the leaders of the AFT, which has 1.7 million members, and the 44,000 members of the AAUP vote to join forces, the organizations will work together to defend their New Deal for higher education. This legislative program seeks to increase public funding for higher education, end the practice of employing low-wage contingent faculty, make education more affordable, protect academic freedom, and cancel student debt. students.

With a $22 billion investment in higher education, the Build Back Better Act would have given colleges and universities more financial resources. The AFT argues that higher education institutions could have used the funding to provide job security for CAHWs and boost their salaries, but the legislation stalled in the Senate. The union hopes parts of the legislation can be passed piecemeal or incorporated into the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a federal law designed to increase resources for colleges and universities and provide financial aid to students.

“It’s about investing in higher education,” Weingarten said. “It’s about investing in knowledge. It is about investing in our democracy. It’s about having the promise and potential of higher education in this country. It’s about bringing these two very strong organizations together to help us make higher education affordable and accessible to everyone. This is to ensure that academic freedom, shared governance and tenure are available.

Weingarten criticized colleges and universities for paying top salaries to administrators or setting aside millions of dollars for new athletic facilities on campuses, while deputies struggle to make ends meet. Geoff Johnson, an adjunct teacher for 20 years, said he knew adjuncts who were homeless or working as bartenders, delivery drivers or waiters to supplement their income.

“A lot of them are older assistants,” said Johnson, who helped write the AFT report and chairs the union’s assistant committee. “It would be one thing if these guys were youngsters who kind of enjoyed the lifestyle of being free and unimaginative, but that’s not the reality.”

Sixty-two percent of AFT assistants surveyed are 50 or older. Less than half (44%) of contingent faculty members have health insurance through their employer. Due to healthcare costs, 64% of survey respondents said they had put off dental checkups in the past year. Forty-four percent said they had not seen a doctor and 27% said they had not had a medical test or recommended treatment. Ten percent admitted to cutting pills in half or skipping doses of medication because of their financial situation.

Johnson is luckier than most assistants because he received health insurance through the San Diego Community College district for more than 15 years. It happened just in time.

“When we started the plan, a year later, my wife had contracted type II diabetes, and there would have been no way for us to afford the insulin,” he said. -he declares.

Many auxiliaries continue in the hope of one day becoming full-time teachers. But full-time openings are rare. Fifty percent of assistants would prefer a tenure-track position, according to a 2018 study.

Assistants can refuse to perform tasks for which they are not paid, whether that is writing an agenda, holding office hours or serving on committees, Smart said. But, she added, contingent faculty members know that failing to complete these tasks would harm their students.

“As long as we continue to do more for less, that will never change,” she said.

She suspects that one of the main reasons contingent teaching staff earn low pay and benefits is that women tend to fill these positions.

“A lot of people think that the majority of assistants are volunteers, that they have a full-time job somewhere that they take care of, that they do that job on the side,” Smart said. “She is a woman who takes care of her children, and so she does it when the children are in school…and receives benefits from her husband.”

Braun agreed. She never married, and said the idea that ancillary work is “leisure work” hurt her professionally. She continued to work as a part-time faculty member because she loves teaching, her field of study and her students, she said.

“We don’t teach because of the money,” she says. “We teach because we care about society and we care about justice. But, obviously, I feel like everyone deserves a living wage.

As her 55th birthday approaches, Braun said it hurts to see people her age achieve goals that have eluded her. They paid off student loans, bought homes and took occasional vacations, she said.

Meanwhile, Braun continues to juggle side jobs and side hustles. Retirement is out of reach for her, and she’s not alone. The AFT reports that 37% of assistants surveyed cannot imagine how they will retire.

Laughing, Braun said, “My retirement is death.”

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