USF adjuncts to rally as new survey reveals poverty among Florida professors

Part-time professors are hoping a union will help them bargain for better wages and benefits.
USF adjunct English professor Mike Ruso is among those seeking to unionize. [James Borchuck | Times]
USF adjunct English professor Mike Ruso is among those seeking to unionize. [James Borchuck | Times]
Published Nov. 21, 2017|Updated Nov. 22, 2017

On the heels of a new survey underscoring hunger and poverty among Florida professors, adjunct professors at the University of South Florida will rally next week as part of their push to unionize.

The adjunct professors and their supporters, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco, plan to gather in front of USF's Marshall Student Center on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 11 a.m.

Adjuncts are part-time professors who work from semester to semester without benefits or job security, generally for a few thousand dollars per course. Universities have come to rely on them for their flexibility and affordability. Many adjuncts teach just one or two classes on the side of a full-time job, or in retirement. But a growing contingent of adjuncts, faced with the dismal academic job market or the prospect of leaving their profession, cobble together a living with these low-paid classes.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In union push at USF, adjunct professors strive for more respect and a living wage

On Tuesday, a report called "Life on the Edge of the Blackboard" was released. Compiled by the Service Employees International Union, it's based on survey responses from nearly 800 adjunct faculty members across Florida.

The findings underscored the oft-cited struggles of adjuncts. More than 43 percent of respondents said they had experienced at least three major signs of poverty, such as taking a payday loan, facing eviction or having utilities cut off.

A quarter said they've skipped meals, relied on food stamps, or visited a food bank or soup kitchen. Others said they slept in cars or forwent doctor's visits.

Of course, the survey was voluntary, so the findings reflect the experiences of a certain population. Nine out of 10 respondents said they teach part-time. Less than 7 percent said they earned more than $60,000 teaching last year. About half said they made between $10,000 and $30,000.

Adjuncts count on each one of their courses for income, but they often have little notice when one falls through. About 46 percent said their employer had canceled a course with less than a month's notice.

USF remains fiercely opposed to a union. Officials have said the school prefers to work with adjuncts directly, rather than through a third party, and that a one-size-fits-all union isn't in adjuncts' best interest. Officials have also said that a union would likely increase costs and reduce flexibility.

The adjuncts pushing for a union have said they would bargain for higher wages, more stable contracts and benefits such as health insurance. For many of them, the story of Robert Ryan has acted as a catalyzing force. Ryan was an adjunct who taught English courses at USF for 20 years and died of cancer this summer without employer-sponsored health insurance.

"I've seen higher education devalued further and further throughout my time as an instructor," Jarad Fennel said in an SEIU news release. Fennel teaches as an adjunct at USF and the University of Tampa.

"It's frustrating that administrators know that so many of us are struggling, but they choose to keep squeezing us and fighting our efforts to organize," he said. I wish that instead they'd fight alongside us in Tallahassee to properly fund higher education."

The release also quoted Muhammad Rehan, an adjunct professor and father of two.

"Everyone assumes that because I'm a professor, I make a decent living, but after working at Broward College for five years, I still make less than $30,000 a year," he said. "I've gone without healthcare. I've maxed out my credit card. I've skipped meals and lived off cheap food. This is no way for anyone to live."

In the survey, Rehan said that he has to avoid cold foods or drinks because, without dental coverage, he can't afford to replace a crown that came off a tooth nine months ago.

SEIU points to higher education spending cuts as fuel for the reliance on adjuncts. Since 2008, the state has reduced higher education spending by nearly 20 percent. Colleges have raised tuition in response, and administrative costs have swelled, but adjunct pay has remained fairly level.