Basic benefits

December 20, 2006

It's a dirty not-so-secret reality of the academy - the extensive use of contingent faculty members, including contract lecturers and adjunct professors to educate undergraduates. These faculty members, who often teach more but are paid less than some tenured or tenure-track professors, also don't always receive health, retirement and other benefits. That is certainly true at the University System of Maryland, which is rightly taking steps to cure the problem, but should move faster and more comprehensively.

Contingent faculty members account for an increasing percentage of university instructors. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2003 full-time nontenure-track positions (usually limited to one- to three-year terms) accounted for nearly 19 percent of all faculty at degree-granting colleges and universities in the nation, up from 13 percent in 1975. Last week, the American Association of University Professors found that the 2005 number was 29.4 percent.

The AAUP study lamented the upward trend, noting that more reliance on nontenure-track faculty undermines academic freedom, diminishes job protection and weakens the quality of teaching by making it more difficult to establish scholarly careers. In addition, contingent faculty members often bear the brunt of teaching loads, but don't receive the professional or financial recognition they deserve.

Within the University System of Maryland, where about 18 percent of faculty members are full-time nontenure-track employees, officials defend the practice as a way to quickly respond to changing demands for courses and to maintain flexibility when budgets ebb and flow. As a matter of state policy, Maryland does not automatically provide basic benefits, particularly health and retirement, to short-term contractual employees.

An estimated 300 full-time lecturers at five of the system's 11 degree-granting institutions are not eligible for retirement benefits. A push this year by a systemwide faculty council resulted in most campuses either providing benefits or stipends so that nearly 1,700 nontenure-track faculty members are covered under the state health plan or can purchase benefits on their own. But the extent of coverage is determined by each campus, and university officials acknowledge that 47 lecturers at two campuses, Frostburg and Coppin State, still lack health benefits.

Officials should keep pushing the two campuses to provide health coverage to those remaining faculty members as quickly as possible. And within the next few months, the system's Board of Regents is expected to deal with the more complicated issue of determining how to provide retirement benefits to nontenure-track faculty who have renewed one-year contracts multiple times.

Providing such benefits is essential. Maryland's public universities can't be considered truly first class when the lack of basic benefits makes full-time employees second-class citizens on campus.

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