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

USF adjunct English professor Mike Ruso reads a letter from former adjunct professor Robert Ryan, who used to share the office before dying of cancer earlier this year. Ryan, whose books personal items are still in the office, has become a kind of martyr for the cause of USF adjuncts pushing to start a union. "I'm reminded every single day of the very real, very human consequences of this business model that universities have adopted," Ruso said. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Nov. 17, 2017

TAMPA — Robert Ryan cleaned out his office in May. He knew he was dying.

He had kept driving to the University of South Florida even as he lost the use of his left arm. He had kept teaching English, even as tumors ravaged his mouth so that he could hardly speak.

He was a military kid, after all, accustomed to duty. But he was also an adjunct professor, making a meager living by patchworking part-time classes, and he needed the money.

He left a note in the windowless cinder block room he shared with two other adjuncts: "Both bookshelves are yours."

As he walked to the parking lot with his best friend, Ryan had to lean on something every few steps, tears rolling down his face.

Since his death in June at age 62, Robert Ryan has become something like a martyr to a group of USF adjuncts battling the administration for the chance to unionize.

Even those who haven't met him tell the story of a dutiful man worn down by the indignities of this uncertain life, who served USF for 20 years without employer-sponsored health insurance, without job security, making a few thousand dollars per course.

Before he died, Ryan had signed a card endorsing the union effort. Now some adjuncts plan to frame it.

• • •

Mike Rusó grades composition papers at Ryan's old desk. Above him sit neat stacks of Norton anthologies and dusty printers.

"I sit down at a dead man's desk surrounded by his things," Rusó said. "I'm reminded every single day of the very real, very human consequences of this business model that universities have adopted."

Rusó has emerged as a leader of the adjunct union charge, an effort USF has fiercely opposed. Officials worry a union would increase costs and negate the very flexibility that adjuncts offer. They also prefer not to negotiate through an outside party.

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At the root of the conflict is a tectonic shift in academia, one that is blurring the image of professorship as a comfortable and well-paid occupation.

Even as college price tags have soared, universities everywhere have come to rely heavily on their inexpensive, part-time professors, who fill unexpected holes and often boast impressive credentials. According to the American Association of University Professors, half of the nation's faculty now work as part-time adjuncts.

These professors work on semester-to-semester contracts with no benefits. Many teach a class or two alongside a full-time job, or in retirement.

But a growing contingent of scholars who dream of a career in academia have had to reckon with the dismal job market for full-time and tenure-track professorships. Becoming an adjunct is a way to stitch together a precarious living in their chosen field.

Those who choose that route try to teach as many classes as they can, sometimes at multiple schools. At any time, a university may choose not to hire them back.

"I thought, 'Adjuncting will be a stepping stone,'" Rusó said. "I realized after one semester it wasn't. There was no stepping stone. There was no place to go."

About a third of the USF System's 1,700 faculty members are adjuncts. They make anywhere from $2,750 to $10,000 per three-hour course, depending on discipline and expertise.

Rusó teaches four courses per semester for about $24,000 a year. That's the same as Ryan made.

"What little Bob would allow anyone into his life, if you glimpsed into it, you realized the life of an adjunct was just misery heaped upon misery," said his best friend, Richard Benyo. "Never knowing how many hours you would get from one semester to the next. Never knowing how many classes would be cut or piled on."

• • •

Some adjuncts sleep in their cars. One woman talked to the Guardian newspaper about turning to prostitution. In 2013, the story of one adjunct's lonely death went viral.

Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, was found unconscious on her front lawn after a cardiac arrest. She had been let go after teaching French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years, making $25,000 in busy years and less than $10,000 when the school reduced her load. She was buried in medical bills for cancer radiation treatment. Her furnace was broken. When she died, she lay in a cardboard casket.

A union representative told the story in a newspaper column. Even as the school's leader called the account "sadly exploitative" and detailed Duquesne's efforts to help Vojtko, adjuncts nationwide shared the hashtag #IAmMargaretMary.

Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost and dean of USF's office of graduate studies, bristles at the presentation of adjuncts as a beleaguered, monolithic group. He said these "freeway fliers," the ones who dash between courses to chase a career, make up only a third of adjuncts.

"At some point in time you may have to come to terms with the fact that you need to go do something else with your life," he said. But he said he doesn't want to seem unsympathetic, and that a life on the fringe of academia must be frustrating.

"It's not something I'd want for any of my students. It's just not a career that's sustainable over time," he said. "I say that out of concern for them."

For now, the union effort is mired in legal back-and-forth.

Depending on what the state's Public Employees Relations Commission decides, a vote could be held next semester.

USF worries that a one-size-fits-all union could lead to long-term damage, including layoffs. Rusó contends USF is just delaying the inevitable. Adjuncts at Hillsborough Community College, where pay was half of USF's, unionized last year — the first such union in Florida.

"We can't change the system until we get a seat at the table," Rusó said.

Mare Conklin, who made $22,000 last year teaching English and tutoring, has embraced the union effort "for the people I have known whose lives deteriorated horribly and rapidly because of their adjunct status."

"I see friends with credit cards maxed out, on food stamps," she said. "They are living like homeless people, practically, with professional degrees, working as professionals."

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Her husband's corporate job once offered some stability — until his company downsized. Now, in his mid-60s, he works on his feet at AutoZone so they can afford health care.

"For God's sake, health insurance is a basic human right," Conklin said.

Tara Blackwell didn't plan on making adjuncting a career, but "life gets in the way sometimes."

Blackwell's kidneys failed two years ago. She gets dialysis between online biology classes and said landing a full-time job feels impossible.

She, too, has heard about Ryan.

"If it wasn't for just pure luck," she said, "there go I."

• • •

As a symbol of the weary adjunct, Robert Ryan has become larger than life.

He came to USF as a freshman in the early 1970s, a sensitive English major with a quick and charming brilliance. He shunned parties, preferring books. He suffered no fools.

"There was a shield between him and the world," said Benyo, his friend. "I think the world pained him too much to allow many people in."

Eventually Ryan became an adjunct and even more of a recluse. He refused dinner invitations to grade papers. His cluttered apartment became a hoarder's fortress of student essays, bags of M&Ms, literature anthologies.

"I'm absolutely certain the students under his tutelage never knew what great care or time or patience he took with their work," Benyo said. "Everything he could be critical of to raise their abilities, he did, on hundreds of hundreds of thousands of papers."

Ryan slept on a water bed. When it leaked, he slept on a pile of coats. This was his trademark stubbornness, which translated to his health. Insurance or not, he wasn't the type to get a check-up, even when his shoulder began to hurt.

Then there was a lump.

Renal cell cancer ate him alive. Tumors grew on his jaw and head. He could grade just two papers before needing to lie down, but he kept trying.

"Bob was an English professor first and foremost, and to give that up would have been an affront to his entire character," Benyo said. "And he needed the money."

His stepsister, Kathryn Ryan, said he couldn't help but work until the very end.

"He was dedicated to USF," she said. "Now, I don't know that they were as dedicated to him."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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