Inside Higher Ed: Non-tenure-track economics

By Kaustuv Basu for Inside Higher Ed

June 25, 2012

A much-awaited survey on the working conditions of part-time academic staff in the US finds what many have long suspected: they do not earn much, they receive little professional support, and most would accept a full-time tenure-track position if it were offered to them.

But even though the findings, released last week, may sound familiar, experts said that the crowdsourced survey, which received 10,000 responses from adjunct staff (part-time faculty members), provided valuable details of working conditions. They hoped that as a result of the study, college administrators would pay more attention to adjunct staff, the largest group of post-secondary teachers in the US.

The survey, by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a group that includes 26 disciplinary associations and unions among others, found that pay for adjunct and part-timers was “strikingly low”, with half of those who answered the 2010 survey reporting an annual personal income of less than $35,000 (ú22,500) and two-thirds saying that they make under $45,000. “A significant number of these faculty members were part of a household that fell below the 2009 median household income in the United States: 21.6-per cent reported a household income under $35,000, and 30.2 per cent reported a household income under $45,000,” the report said. (According to the American Association of University Professors, an associate professor at a master’s-level public university had an average salary of $60,612 in 2010-11.)

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce reached respondents mainly through its member associations. And although crowdsourcing is different from a traditional statistical method (which would use a random, representative pool), those associated with the survey said they were confident in the results because of the large number of adjuncts who responded.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, who has been a part-time faculty member herself at the University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, said the survey provides evidence about adjunct work conditions that had been lacking.

“This is particularly important since the Department of Education no longer collects data as it once did,” she said. “This report challenges several myths about part-time faculty, such as that they are all retirees, or newcomers, or that they do not depend on the compensation they receive for their teaching.”

Maisto said the survey would help her organisation advocate more effectively for the “teaching and learning conditions that all students and faculty deserve”. She said she hoped that administrators would look at the data more closely and try to collect more information about individual universities.

According to the survey:

• Eighty per cent of those who responded have taught as part-time faculty for at least three years, while 55 per cent have been teaching part-time for six years or more. “These figures suggest that most respondents to the survey see teaching as a long-term, professional commitment rather than as something ‘adjunct’ to another career,” the report said.

• About 19 per cent of part-time faculty were teaching three courses in the autumn of 2010, 30 per cent taught two courses, and nearly 25 per cent of respondents taught one course. The rest taught four courses or more.

• The median pay for teaching a three-credit course is $2,700, although those with a professional degree earned a median salary of between $2,800 and $2,937, while a contingent faculty member with a doctorate degree earned a median salary of $3,200 for a course.

• About 18 per cent of part-time faculty receive their health benefits from a non-academic employer, and 37 per cent receive such benefits from a partner’s or spouse’s workplace. About 23 per cent of adjunct faculty members had access to health benefits through their academic employer.

• Part-time faculty who teach at a unionised campus are more likely to be paid for class cancellations and attending departmental meetings and to receive regular salary rises than those who teach at a non-unionised campus. About 34 per cent of those teaching at a unionised campus said they received regular salary increases, but only 12 per cent of part-timers at a non-unionised campus received regular increases.

Members of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce reacted with optimism to the survey as a tool for reform. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said contingent staff tended to be invisible, with most people on campuses unaware of their work conditions. “It takes a lot of effort to have awareness happen,” she said, expressing her hope that the survey would have a snowball effect that leads more people to learn about the treatment of part-time faculty members.

Feal said the survey was one more means to ensure that adjunct faculty do not remain invisible. The MLA, she pointed out, issued guidelines and recommendations in 2011 for non-tenure-track employment. “Academic institutions in the US would not be able to function without contingents, and legislators and the public need to know more,” she said.

John Curtis, director of research for the AAUP, said the strength of the survey was in the number of respondents, which was more than 10,000 for part-time faculty. “We did get a very large response, and we definitely have more information on compensation and working conditions,” he said.

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