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National Conversation On Adjunct Professors, Part-Time Faculty Continues

Across Boston and the rest of the country, adjunct professors have been exploring and, in several cases, acting on their ability to unionize. Among the reasons for doing so are a lack of job security and unfair wages. Boston College has remained comparatively removed from this movement, although the problems that plague adjuncts elsewhere are not completely absent from Chestnut Hill.

While the term “adjunct” can mean different things at different institutions, it most often refers to part-time faculty who are hired to teach a specific course or courses. At BC, the term “adjunct” as it is defined in the University statutes refers not only to these part-time faculty members, but also to full-time, non-tenure-track faculty. In the past few years, the University has moved away from assigning the title of “adjunct” to any member of the latter category. All full-time, non-tenure track faculty are now called lecturer or senior lecturer, or assistant, associate, or full professor of the practice. Part-time faculty are still called adjunct faculty.

According to Vice Provost for Faculties Patricia DeLeeuw, BC’s part-time faculty budget is allocated for an estimated 800 people, about half of whom never actually come to BC’s campus, but instead supervise nursing, education, or social work students at their practicums in Boston’s hospitals, schools, and nonprofits. A majority of the remaining half teaches in the business, law, social work, nursing, and education schools while also holding jobs in their industry.

“The adjunct faculty who one tends to think of when one thinks about part-time faculty are people who teach more typically two courses per semester and don’t have full-time jobs elsewhere,” DeLeeuw said. “They’re a minority of the people that we think of as part-time faculty.”

Different rankings of professors indicate the different roles individuals are hired to fulfill in the University. Tenure-track faculty are hired and evaluated based on their research, teaching, and service to the University—which includes serving on department, school-wide, or university-wide committees. Full-time, non-tenure-track professors are hired to teach, with no expectation of research, and typically have larger course loads than tenured professors—usually three classes per semester, as opposed to one or two. They hold three-year contracts and are expected to provide service to the University during this time.

Part-time, or adjunct, faculty are hired to teach one or two courses, and they are not guaranteed any employment by BC beyond the end of the course. They are not expected to do research and are not expected—or, in many cases, allowed—to serve on committees. Depending on the department in which they teach, they may or may not attend department meetings. They are also, in most cases, prohibited from applying for research money through the University.

DeLeeuw stressed that a benefit of having adjunct professors is that the University hires them solely on their teaching ability, ensuring that excellent instructors are in the classroom with BC students.

“We’d like to say that all the hundreds of faculty members at Boston College are great teachers,” DeLeeuw said. “That’s more true for some than it is for others … It’s a struggle to be really excellent in the classroom and in your research, but our full-time, non tenure track faculty and our part time faculty are hired for their teaching. So, the advantage for students is that they get great classroom teaching from part time faculty and from professors of the practice.”

At BC, the highest concentration of adjuncts not in the professional schools is found teaching freshman writing seminars and language courses. The Arts and Sciences Honors Program is also entirely made up of adjuncts and professors of the practice, excluding professors from other departments who also teach in the Honors Program.

Adjunct professors, unlike tenure-track and full-time, non-tenure-track professors, are hired through the department with no input from the Provost’s Office and only the approval of funds from the dean of the appropriate college. According to DeLeeuw, adjuncts tend to stay at BC for extended periods of time.

“Department chairs—who of course are sensible people who are not looking for more work than they need to or more trouble than they need to—if they have two or three or however many ever long-serving part time faculty members who do an excellent job, as the vast majority of our part time faculty do, they continue them,” she said. “Why wouldn’t they? So that’s why there isn’t a whole lot of turnover among our part time faculty.”

One complaint often raised by adjuncts across the nation as more and more unionize is their lack of job security or long-term contracts. Because they are hired as needs arise within a department, there is no guarantee they will still be needed after any individual course ends. This lack of security is intrinsically related to the benefit that hiring adjuncts provides universities: flexibility.

“It does allow for flexibility, because you hire people by the course and your needs can go up or go down and you can have more part time faculty or fewer part time faculty as the curriculum changes, as your enrollment changes,” DeLeeuw said. She gave the example of English, whose at BC enrollment has declined significantly in the past 10 years, while the number of students studying economics has risen. “How do you respond to changes in enrollment? That’s where part time faculty come in.”

DeLeeuw acknowledged that this instability is one of the major things adjuncts hope to change by unionizing. “There’s inherently tension there,” she said.

Another issue often raised by adjuncts is that of wages. Professors with no other source of income often find it difficult to live on the salary paid for the one or two courses per semester they are able to teach. For instance, BC caps the number of classes an adjunct can teach at two, limiting the amount of money a part time faculty member can make in a given semester.

Robert Buchwaldt, who was an adjunct professor in BC’s earth and environmental sciences department for a year and a half before declining the opportunity to teach two courses this fall, left BC because he felt he was not making enough money for the work he was doing.

While BC pays its adjuncts well over the national average salary for a three credit, one semester course—$6,000 instead of $2,700, according to the American Association of University Presidents—Buchwaldt became frustrated that he was not paid any extra for the lab component that accompanied his courses.

“The disagreement I had at the end with Boston College is that it is more work to teach a lab section, but you don’t get paid more,” he said. While teaching assistants are technically the instructors of the earth and environmental science labs, Buchwaldt says he attended every session and put a great deal of work into preparation of the lab exercises.

He was offered the opportunity to teach two courses this fall, one with a lab component. Buchwaldt asked to be paid an additional $3,000 for the lab portion of the course, and his request was denied. Subsequently, he found a job as a research faculty member at Boston University, where he also teaches. Buchwaldt said he gets paid more than he did at BC, can apply for funding for his research, and receives full benefits.

He said that he understands adjuncts’ desires to unionize in order to make their voices heard. “It’s a fair wish of adjuncts because, in short, I think we’re getting screwed in this situation,” Buchwaldt said. “It mainly has to do with not getting paid for the work you’re actually putting in. At the end [of my time at BC] I was really not happy because I put so much work into the different classes and I had to struggle to survive.”

BC allows its adjuncts to apply for medical and dental benefits after having taught four courses a year for five years, and adjuncts are paid more per class if they have taught 10 or 20 classes at BC in the past.

Buchwaldt remarked that he felt appreciated and respected by his colleagues in the department for his teaching, but that it was clear he was not on the same level as they were. DeLeeuw acknowledged that this may be the case.

“They don’t have the same role within the department culture that full-time people do –they’re not here as much, for example,” she said. “They don’t have their own offices, they share offices … but they’re colleagues and they are respected colleagues, because they are such an essential part of the education we provide our students.”

Susan Michalczyk, associate professor of the practice in the A&S Honors Program and president of BC’s chapter of the AAUP, believes that the issues affecting adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty across the nation are the accumulation of small things that, when added together, devalue their position at universities.

“It is about fair treatment and respect, so that they can teach their courses and help their students,” she said. “Benefits, salary, knowing one has a job, are all serious concerns.”

She addressed the fact that now, as tenured positions decline in number nation-wide, securing such a position can come down to the luck of the draw. Those who wish to be in academia but are forced to take adjunct positions are not necessarily less qualified or less of an asset to students, but are nevertheless treated as such, Michalczyk said.

Buchwaldt lamented the growing tendency at BC and across the country for spending money on things like resurfacing buildings rather than increasing pay for those teaching students. He believes that universities are moving away from the true mission of higher education and toward a more corporate model where profit is paramount.

“Academia can’t be squeezed into the concept of a corporate system, but unfortunately at the moment a lot of universities are going that route because money is tight,” he said. “There is a possibility to not just look at the most profitable margin but actually reinvest their income into the foundation.”
Those opposed to adjuncts unionizing often cite money as an argument against drastically increasing adjuncts’ salaries and giving them long-term contracts. It is believed that doing so would raise the already extremely steep cost of higher education, restricting the opportunity to go to college to an even more exclusive, privileged bunch. BC is not immune to this risk, either.

“Our tuition is obviously about the cost of education, but it’s also about the cost of the rec plex and the cost of counseling services and student affairs, the advising center, administrative offices,” DeLeeuw said. “There are lots of aspects of the experience we provide to BC students that are outside the classroom, and in a tuition-driven institution like BC, those costs are absorbed by students.”

As of now, adjunct professors at Northeastern University and Tufts University, along with many Washington D.C.-area schools, have formed unions and used them to bargain for higher wages and benefits. While BC and many other universities continue to be absent from the “adjunct action” movement, the nation-wide contention over adjunct professors’ role in universities remains far from resolved.

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor

November 3, 2014