Part-time faculty look for respect

Adjunct professors say they are often underpaid, overworked by schools

April 21, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In many ways, Scott Jensen, 36, fits the stereotype of the overworked, underpaid adjunct professor. Fresh out of graduate school and still working on his philosophy dissertation, he moved to Maryland and accepted his first teaching job at Anne Arundel Community College.

"I just wanted to teach," said Jensen, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York City. "I was very conscientious and a little bit naive, because I put in probably 40 hours a week on that one class."

For his efforts, he was paid less than $2,000. The next year, he taught courses at Towson University and the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus before becoming a lecturer at Salisbury University. He never received health or retirement benefits, had no office of his own and had no job security.

Jensen is still bouncing from one campus to another, but now he's working as a field organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, drumming up support for the organization's efforts to win more rights for part-timers.

"I wasn't looking for a new job, necessarily, but the possibility came along," he said. "I thought that AFT had exactly the right kind of message."

That message, as described in the AFT's 2001 report, "Marching Toward Equity," is to curb "the exploitation and overuse of part-time and non-tenured faculty."

In Maryland, the message gained urgency after a law was enacted last year giving collective bargaining rights to program coordinators, maintenance workers, secretaries and others at state colleges and universities -- but not instructional staff. "We're kind of responding to that push," Jensen said.

Field organizers such as Jensen are gathering support in hopes of one day persuading the legislature to give professors at state institutions the legal right to unionize.

But other, less confrontational efforts are starting to bring relief. Local colleges and universities are working to make life better for part-timers, and the university system is working on specific proposals to improve conditions for part-timers.

Officials at local institutions also point out that "road scholars" such as Jensen, who struggle to cobble together a living wage, are only a fraction of the part-time picture.

Nationwide, about 18 percent of part-timers are "the people who are really trying to make a living at it," said Ron Legon, provost at the University of Baltimore.

Many part-timers are professionals in a particular field who teach one or two courses a semester, she said. Or they are full-time professors at one institution who moonlight, teaching one or two courses at another school. Another group of part-timers consists of retirees who want to share their expertise without a large time commitment.

The use of part-timers in higher education is on the rise nationwide. "About a decade ago, part-timers counted for less than a third of faculty in the United States," said Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the 1.2 million-member AFT. "Today, it's rapidly approaching almost half."

According to the AFT report, 72 percent of part-time professors are paid less than $3,000 per course, so even if they teach four courses a semester they might not earn much more than $20,000 a year.

"Here are people with master's degrees and doctorates, and yet some qualify for food stamps," Horwitz said. "It's a terrible situation, and it's also bad because it's changing the quality of our colleges and universities."

Horwitz and Jensen argue that colleges and universities are at risk of damaging their academic reputations by relying so heavily on undercompensated part-timers. Because part-timers have no job security, they don't enjoy the academic freedom of tenured professors, and they don't have the luxury of doing research.

"You have this group of faculty that don't serve on committees, that don't have office hours, that don't really participate in campus life," Horwitz said.

Marilyn Demorest, the vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said she is responding to these concerns. In fall 2001, UMBC began offering an orientation program each semester for part-time faculty. The first was heavily attended.

"We had faculty who had been here 20 years who came just because they had never been to one before," Demorest said.

Demorest and Legon said the university system is working on a proposal to address issues of job security, benefits and access to such university amenities as offices and e-mail accounts. Although the policies are still in draft form, a set of proposals could be recommended by summer, Legon said.

"Their concern is that such faculty members receive full professional treatment, that we're not exploiting professors outside of the tenure track system," Demorest said.

But Legon and Demorest expressed concern about unfunded mandates that would be costly for individual institutions.

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