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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Can We Do Now That Adjunct Sections are Written Into Universities’ Fiscal Survival Strategy?

Image for U of O
by Jennifer Ruth, English Department, Portland State University

This is the second of a two-part post.  “Why are Faculty Complicit in Creating a Disposable Workforce?” appeared last week.

We need rapidly to increase pressure on university administrators for change. I believe that administrators are slowly digesting the (academic and public relations) downsides of relying on instructors to whom the institution makes no real commitment, but at the same time they are under unprecedented budget pressures. Chris’s post on public austerity spelled out many of these pressures. We desperately need to build a coalition that unites university constituencies in efforts to increase state funding.

But the adjunct crisis is tricky in this context. It is hard for university leadership to translate the ethical and political disaster we’ve all created with contingent labor into any form of public appeal. Most obviously, administrators attempting to explain the deleterious consequences of adjunct reliance might be interpreted as insulting a significant percentage of their employees. It seems inescapable that at least this part of the fight to restore the public university is going to have to be assumed by the faculty, primarily at the level of departments. We can try to mitigate the degree to which the fight is an adversarial one pitting departments against central administrators, but some conflict is unavoidable.

In Part One, I argued that we should insist on the funds for full-time tenure-track positions by withholding the use of cheap adjunct sections. I spent most of my time discussing the inter-departmental psychological obstacles that must be overcome to pursue such a strategy.

Let’s say, though, that your department successfully makes it through the discussions needed to build consensus. You collectively have decided to dramatically reduce adjunct usage as part of a plan to rebuild decent positions. What happens then?

Here, in part two, I explore what such a recommendation could possibly mean given that adjunct usage is baked into university budgets. Were we to do this—i.e., tell everyone expecting adjunct sections that we are trying to get good positions by not putting these sections on our schedules and then do just that—just how big a bomb would be set off?

First, we should consider the scope of our universities’ economic dependence on adjuncts. I’m going to use my own university as my basis so please bear with some details regarding Portland State. State support for the university has dwindled to only 11% of the budget. Our endowment is negligible. Consequently, our revenue is driven almost entirely by tuition. Tuition has been raised repeatedly over the years and, for a number of good reasons, cannot be raised any higher for the foreseeable future.

The professoriate at PSU consists of three faculty groups: tenured and tenure-track, full-time non-tenure-track, and adjunct. If we set aside the (very important) issues of job security and academic freedom, we can consider TT and full-time NTT faculty to be comparably-treated groups in pay, benefits, and work expectations. (There will be objections to this characterization but relative to the third group of faculty – adjuncts –it certainly holds true.) We have seen considerable tensions in a full-time workforce birfurcated into those with access to tenure and those without. The term “2nd-class citizen” for NTT faculty is invoked regularly, which tends to crowd out the more fundamental problem--the existence of our “3rd class citizens.” True to the national stereotype, adjunct faculty are largely invisible within the PSU University community. Full-time NTT serve on Senate, interact regularly with their TT colleagues and administrators, and are represented alongside TT faculty in the union (PSU-AAUP). To the extent that adjuncts’ voices are heard, it is primarily through their union, which bargains separately. Finally, it’s worth noting that a higher percentage of PSU’s professoriate are full-time (TT or NTT faculty) relative to the national average (29% vs. the 20% the Delphi Project cites as typical[1]).

Adjunct faculty deliver roughly 30% of PSU’s student credit hours (SCH) while full-time (TT and NTT) faculty deliver 70%. A whopping 92% of every tuition dollar earned by an adjunct instructor is net revenue compared to 24% of each dollar for full-time faculty. This means that after deducting expenditures (salary, etc.), the percentage of university base revenue contributed by adjunct SCH is 42% compared to 58% by the full-time faculty SCH. Nearly half of the university’s budget is built on adjunct usage.

In other words, the adjuncting that was once rationalized as a stop-gap and ad hoc measure is now the lifeblood of the budget. Were there to be a coordinated effort across departments to stop offering adjunct contracts, the university would go into full-blown cardiac arrest. I understand why the comparisons of adjunct faculty to slaves strikes many of us as both inappropriate and offensive, but one can see from this information why the analogy is tempting. To economically sustain itself, the public university needs people to perform work that it cannot afford to compensate, at least not remotely adequately. It goes without saying that this situation is hardly unique to PSU, though our desirable urban setting in Portland, Oregon probably gives us an unusually large pool of qualified people to exploit.

In this context, what would happen were departments to resist adjunct usage by imposing what amounts to an adjunct strike (albeit one initiated by the professionally-salaried full-time faculty)?  Most likely, they would meet with enormous and frantic resistance. Chairs and directors who won’t sign adjunct contracts could be pressured or forced to step down. Rumors would fly that administrators plan to retaliate by finding ways to shut down participating departments and to deny their junior faculty tenure. Second only to the guilt you’d feel for abruptly turning your back on the talented adjuncts who taught for your department for many moons is the guilt you’d feel about the panicked students piling up in the main office because they couldn’t get the classes they need. Forced to take out more student loans to extend their time in school, they would feel swindled. What university admits students, they would rightly ask, and then makes it impossible for them to graduate?

Who would knowingly go down this road? And yet if we don’t start taking some steps in this direction, nothing will change. It is true that without radical intervention on anyone else’s part, adjunct organizing, where it is legal, will make adjunct usage more and more expensive. This might ultimately land us in a similar place, but how many years from now? We need more good jobs now and some pain in reform is unavoidable. We have been getting something for cheap that allowed us to do things we wanted. That most of these things were worthy, such as keeping students on track for graduation, is beside the point. With no sudden windfalls (from the state or federal government or from donors) on the horizon, we have to bust our way out of this predicament with the same pint-sized budgets that pushed us into it.

Here’s how I suggest we start: Have the discussion within your department. Learn your own university’s numbers and then your own department’s specific numbers. Explain to your Dean that you feel you can no longer in good conscience be complicit in the abuse of adjuncts. Simultaneously reassure him or her that you are prepared to do everything in your power to lessen the “damage” done to all the constituencies that in one way or another benefited from the adjunct abuse.

What is within your power to change will vary widely by department. How your department organized its labor thus far, the disciplinary protocols driving research expectations (and, thus, promotion and tenure), the service needs: all of these things and more will play a part in determining how much room you have to maneuver. The goal, though, is to offer up as much as you can in return for new lines. The idea is that you might have to absorb some of the work previously done by adjuncts but, in return, you will get new full-time lines and you will no longer be complicit in adjunct exploitation. Remind your Dean that you are only doing now what you always should have done and what you will have to do in the future. Remind him or her that if you wait, you will be making these changes on a union’s terms not on the university’s.

Some further steps: Assess the department’s past in relation to the growth in adjunct use. When did your department start the practice and why? Take a fresh look at existing circumstances. Are there faculty who went down to half-time but you never argued to restore the missing instruction in the form of a new hire? Are there people who once carried full courseloads but are now directors of programs or otherwise engaged but you never made up the loss (except by way of adjuncts)? Figure out how you got where you are and what the lost opportunities for new full-time hires were in the past. It is important to document this background.

Find all low-hanging fruit. Are there enough funds for sections that could be bundled into full-time positions before asking for new investment? Are there funds for “perks” (and, yes, I mean heretofore necessities like travel money) that could be redirected? Are there ways to avoid low-enrollment classes? Are you and your colleagues willing to resume advising and mentoring, making a professional advisor unnecessary (freeing a salary plus benefits that could go to a full-time instructional position)? Are there staff positions that could be economized?

Eliminate as many course releases for full-time faculty as possible so that it’s clear that whatever adjunct sections are left over are not there to benefit full-time faculty but are the result of real need. Putting up some of your “own” money is how you buy good will with, build trust with, and minimize the possibility of retaliation from administrators.

This is already more than anybody wants to hear so I’ll stop for now. Believe me, I get why nobody wants to hear any of this. Mounting this full-frontal assault in real life resulted in scorched earth among full-time departmental colleagues, some of whom were old friends. (Weirdly as I’ve discussed for this blog before, the earth was less scorched between the department and the university administration.) It also resulted in a few new tenure lines and a few saved national searches.

Given how far we’ve gone down Contingency Road, the way back is going to be more painful than anyone wants it to be. But the rewards make the effort necessary and worthwhile: less exploitation, better education, internal relations based on improved equity, and a larger contribution to the public good.


Bob Samuels said...

I think simply placing full-time tenure and non-tenure track in the same category is a mistake. Also, what about grad student instructors - many are simply adjunct faculty. We have a national labor system and federal funding and federal regulations for research grants - the only fix has to involve sates, the feds, and the institutions; any local change will not do; although it is always good to make local improvements. We also have to realize that some part-time positions are necessary for many reasons: niche specialization, leaves, small enrollment subjects, parenting, etc. The key is to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and there is due process and equal pay for equal work; simply eliminating adjunct sections is counter-prudtcive and unrealistic. There needs to be a larger collective solution.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with much of what you say here, Bob. I'd only say in defense of the post that I was putting full-time TT and NTT faculty into the same category *only as relative to adjunct faculty.* At my institution, these faculty have a lot more in common than either do with adjuncts. I'd also add that depending on the federal government isn't working and we need to ask more of ourselves -- obviously, by posting this, I'm hoping that this will not be the local solution at one place but at a spreading number of them. Finally, I agree that there are adjunct sections that make complete sense for a number of reasons but the fact that the majority of them are indefensible and that we have gotten things we want (niche specialization, as you mention) in turn for complicity in this practice is indisputable. -- Jennifer Ruth

Anonymous said...

"Second only to the guilt you’d feel for abruptly turning your back on the talented adjuncts who taught for your department for many moons is the guilt you’d feel about the panicked students piling up in the main office because they couldn’t get the classes they need."

That guilt will be telling you that you're doing something wrong. Those students _and_ adjuncts are both better off when the adjuncts have their current teaching jobs. Taking them away might fit your personal and political goals, but don't kid yourself that you'll be doing it for the students or the adjuncts.

Anonymous said...


It's a good question: more people employed badly vs. one person employed well?

The guilt is there with the status quo, too, of course.
--Jennifer Ruth

Matthew H. Clark said...

First let me say that I think this is a very insightful piece that should be widely circulated and read.

I have a few thoughts.

I agree that now is the time for change, but change doesn't necessarily need to happen in the form of a fiery revolution. Perhaps instead of scorching earth, we could singe it in a few key spots.

I think the strategy of pushing back against pressures to hire adjuncts is important, but we also need to push back against pressures to hire full-time NTT faculty. In the UNC system (where I live), a full-time NTT faculty member in English at North Carolina State University teaches 12 credit-hours per semester. Lecturer salaries begin at $31,000, a rate lower than comparably qualified NC public school teachers (and yes, we’re still 46th in the nation in teacher pay). Lecturers are eligible for one promotion during their career, and their salary typically tops out around $40,000.

One important issue to consider is the reality (at least in my experience) that tenure-line faculty in English typically don’t want to teach the courses NTT faculty teach. I’m reminded of Sharon Crowley’s somewhat controversial “Personal Essay on Freshman English” in which she points out that first-year English courses are usually those that no one wants to take and no one wants to teach. If this is true, we could attack the adjunct problem from both of its economic sides. We could take a moral stand on hiring (supply side of the problem), but we could also agree to revise curriculum to get rid of courses that students don’t want to take and tenure-line faculty don’t want to teach (demand side of the problem). Providing these complementary singes might lessen the need for scorching.

Finally, I’m a little concerned that a plan to replace adjuncts and low-paid full-time NTT faculty with well-supported tenure-line faculty isn't feasible. One of the reasons why this piece is so insightful is that it highlights the extent to which adjuncts form the economic lifeblood of the institution. How much would the plan cost?

We don’t know, but let me do some fuzzy math with a fictitious example to come up with a guess. Let’s say you need 1000 FTE faculty for every 10,000 FTE students. Now let’s say there are 200,000 students in your state. That means you’ve got 20,000 FTE faculty, and let’s say that about half of those are NTT faculty. In order to guess the per discipline salary differential, let’s say that the average wage for an FTE NTT faculty member is $45,000 and the average wage for an FTE T/TT faculty member is $75,000. Converting the FTE NTTs to FTE T/TT’s would cost about $30,000 per faculty member, and that’s only counting salary. $30,000 times 10,000 is $300,000,000. And that figure would assume that those lines converted from NTT to T/TT would still be teaching 4-5 courses per semester. Let’s say your state’s university system budget is $2,000,000,000. $300,000,000 would mean you’d need a 15% budget increase that’s built into the budget and sustained for enrollment growth year after year, and I feel like I've used generous calculations by leaving out several cost variables.

So here’s the bottom of the issue, and once again this piece does a great job for getting to the bottom of it. “We desperately need to build a coalition that unites university constituencies in efforts to increase state funding.”

Unfortunately, I doubt that even the strongest coalition could create the cultural change needed to produce the revenue priorities that would solve the problem. Instead, we've got to attack the problem from both of its economic sides. Work with accreditors and curriculum committees to minimize gen ed/core courses. Make a three-year degree not only possible but practical. And even then, our broad coalition will need every ounce of its strength to push back policy trends that have handcuffed our administrators and humiliated our faculty.

Anonymous said...

@Matthew H. Clark

Thank you so much for this. If the post should be widely circulated and read, then your comment should always be included when circulated. This is just the kind of help in thinking through a complicated picture I/we need. I definitely think a little revolutionary spirit will be required because the rationalizations coupled with the stark economic realities have created a lot of resistance to change but, yes, "we've got to attack the problem from both of its economic sides." --Jennifer

Matthew H. Clark said...


I appreciate the kind words, and I'm excited about being a part of a broad coalition for change! I'm glad there's room for strong spirits in that coalition, and I look forward to working with you as we bring an end to exploitative labor practices in higher education.

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