Column: Higher education's reliance on adjuncts has consequences

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Gary Trudeau uncovered a dirty little secret in his Doonesbury comic strip recently: the plight of adjunct professors. His annual Labor Day strip depicted adjuncts as migrant workers, desperate for a spot on the teaching truck. He certainly hit a nerve with academics, but most Americans may have been scratching their heads over the subject matter.

You see, a lot of people don't know what an adjunct professor is, much less that we are in a quandary.

Put simply, an adjunct professor is a part-time college teacher. Forty years ago, an adjunct might have substituted when a professor went on sabbatical or took medical leave. Sometimes, adjuncts taught specialized classes in their field, such as a mystery author teaching crime writing. Often, adjuncts were women, shunned from full-time, tenured positions: a workforce that was dubbed "the housewives of higher education."

Today, however, adjuncts are used to teach core classes: math, English, science, history. In fact, the American Association of University Professors states that 76 percent of college faculty across the nation are adjuncts.

At Hillsborough Community College, where I am an adjunct, 81 percent of the professors are part-time. According to its website: "HCC employs 272 full-time faculty. … An additional 1,490 adjunct professors help ensure a broad academic program." At the University of South Florida, part-timers make up 51 percent at the main campus, 76 percent at St. Petersburg and 67 percent at Sarasota, while St. Petersburg College stands at 81 percent.

Students are often clueless about the situation, believing all professors to be full time, but adjuncts are so disconnected from campus life that the classroom experience is diminished. For instance, we don't have our own offices, so we must cart our supplies in rolling suitcases, making it easy to forget assignments or lose essays. We have no phone lines, so students must reach us via e-mail, which can be inefficient.

Furthermore, our time on campus is limited, making it difficult for students to locate us outside of the classroom. Full-time professors interact with their student body all day, every day, while adjuncts are available only a few hours a week.

The most trying issue for adjuncts, however, is the lack of decent compensation.

Let's create a hypothetical adjunct, whom we'll name Norma. Norma, a seasoned employee, teaches three English sections at HCC, a total of nine credits, earning $5,400 per semester. She also teaches two English sections at the University of Tampa, which pays slightly better, earning $6,000 for eight credits. If Norma is offered this many classes for both fall and spring semesters (an unlikely scenario), she will make $22,400 for the year for teaching a total of 40 credits.

By contrast, a full-time professor at HCC might start at $44,000 to teach 12 classes per year, approximately 32 credits. A new full-time professor at the University of Tampa might earn $48,000 to teach 24 credits per year. This means Norma is making half of a new full-time professor's salary at either workplace although she teaches more credits overall and has been employed longer. On top of this, Norma receives no benefits, while both full-time professors receive health care and retirement packages.

Unfortunately, Norma is the norm in higher education these days.

This situation has serious educational repercussions. A study by Ronald Ehrenberg of Cornell University found that "the increased use of adjuncts at four-year institutions is associated with lower freshman persistence and graduation rates." And Caroline Fredrickson, in an extensive article about contingent faculty in the Atlantic, explains that adjuncts are often cautious about classroom discussions and grading procedures, so student learning is compromised. Moreover, teachers are resigning. Many of my peers have fled academia altogether, often finding better pay and security in jobs that seem beneath their advance degrees: receptionists, bartenders, department store clerks.

Fortunately, the situation is finally prompting an outcry. The Service Employees International Union has succeeded in Washington, D.C., where adjuncts at various colleges are now represented by the union. The SEIU website states that they "are working to gain compensation that equitably reflects the value of teaching in the classroom." Faculty Forward, an organization under the SEIU umbrella, works around the country on behalf of adjuncts. This group just negotiated a 22 percent increase in adjunct pay at Tufts University in Massachusetts and has recently begun a campaign here in Hillsborough County.

We can make higher education a pillar of our community again, but we can't do it without community awareness. Thanks to the Sunday comics, we may be one step closer than before.

Kym O'Sullivan is an adjunct at Hillsborough Community College. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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