Adjunct Professors Across the Country are Seeking Better Pay

Part-time professors, including many on the Main Line, are an important resource for many colleges and universities—yet their benefits don’t always reflect that.

Illustration by Jon Krause.

Dan Kec will be lucky if he sees the inside of a Starbucks this semester. “I can’t afford it,” he says.

An adjunct professor at Delaware County Community College, Kec finally landed the business law class he’s wanted for six years. He’s also teaching a more common online introductory networking course.

As for Starbucks, Kec has been there just once—courtesy of a gift card from one of his students last semester. And yet the coffee shop might as well be the new Ivory Tower in academia. What has become of the untouchable tenured professor holed up in an office on an ivy-covered campus, emerging only for the occasional class?

Rest assured that iconic image endures, says Craig Wheeland, Villanova University’s vice provost for academics, “if [one means] a professor developing or testing theories or ideas that may or may not have a wide audience but still further academic specialties. It’s still rewarded in higher education to be an expert in an area few others can understand.”

Kec, on the other hand, has a full-time day job as a project manager overseeing infrastructure and technology for a major insurance provider. He argues that “people of knowledge” can and should teach away from the shadow of the Ivory Tower. He believes there’s more benefit to students when their professors can offer on-the-job experience—and meet at the coffee shop instead. “There are people who’ve spent a lifetime learning how to run education, but in today’s world, the future relies on picking up where they’ve left off in the Ivory Tower,” he says. “What doesn’t fly today is spitting out facts. You have to give students a clue. It’s about who, what, when, where and why you’re learning what you learn.”

It’s estimated that some 75 percent of teachers on university and college campuses are adjuncts. In 1975, that number was closer to 30 percent, according to Forbes. By 2011, 51 percent were part-time, and another 19 percent were full-time non-tenure-track employees.

The trend has even spawned its own term: adjunctivitis. In February 2014, the New York Times described a “new college campus” devoid of full-time or tenure-eligible faculty.

“What doesn’t fly today is spitting out facts. You have to give students a clue. It’s about who, what, when, where and why you’re learning what you learn.” Dan Kec

The motivation for this sea change in academia is obvious: Colleges are saving money to balance their budgets, paying adjuncts per course and typically not offering benefits. But the strategy isn’t reinvigorating education—at least according to the American Institutes for Research and data from the Delta Cost Project, which tracks how colleges spend money. Tuitions continue to skyrocket, and massive university fundraising campaigns are ceaseless.

The American Association of University Professors found that, from the mid-1970s to 2011, the hiring of full-time tenure-track faculty rose 23 percent, while part-time hires rose 286 percent and full-time non-faculty professionals (essentially administrators) jumped 369 percent.

Hired on demand and usually at the last-minute, adjuncts often teach at multiple schools, so they are stretched thin, underpaid and often detached and unhappy. So it’s no wonder that there’s a national movement afoot to seek better pay and treatment. “[It’s] a basic social responsibility to treat people with dignity,” says veteran art history professor Jeanne Brody, who teaches part time at Villanova.

There’s even a push to unionize, and that is possible at public or state-run schools. Temple University once hosted an Adjunct Awareness Week. Tenure and faculty senates offer protection—or at least a voice. But what if you’re not eligible for tenure?

The American Association of University Professors fights for tenure for all—through the Service Employees International Union in some cities. With SEIU advocacy, Duke University’s non-tenured faculty won what could be a precedent-setting union case this past July.

Elsewhere, the Adjunct Project provides a national database where professors can report how much they’re paid and what (if any) benefits they receive. The New Faculty Majority is another advocacy group that works on behalf of those off the tenure track, and provides an active online community.

The reality for students is that they need the best of both worlds—a merger of theory and practicality, a traditional education and its real-world application. That balance appears to exist in our region. “It’s like a kaleidoscope,” says Cabrini University adjunct Pat Brown, “taking a lens and turning it to get different views—marketplace views and traditional views, the foundation and the practical application.”

Statistics can be misleading. According to Villanova’s vice provost for academics, a more accurate way of reporting the state of affairs is to compare how many courses are taught by adjuncts—and that may be just a course or two a year at Nova, where full-time faculty handle four to six classes annually. For any given semester, Villanova hires 400 adjunct faculty members, but 300 of them may be teaching a single course—or 20 percent of all undergraduate courses. The 650 full-timers are teaching a larger percentage. “That captures more of the sense of the impact,” says Wheeland.

Villanova looks to hire in areas of expertise that aren’t fully supported by its full-time faculty. So, for instance, a willing outside lawyer may teach constitutional law in a graduate program because no one on faculty has the time or expertise to do so. “It also provides a networking opportunity—contacts in the industry—to help students meet people,” Wheeland says.

Paulette Hutchinson, Rosemont College’s undergraduate dean, began there in 1984 as an adjunct accounting professor. She employs adjuncts—particularly in sociology and education—to lend perspective to students. “They can see it in a book, but when someone’s out there doing it, it comes to life,” she says.

In some of Rosemont’s 24 majors, there are no adjuncts. But the school does sell “the power of small” as its brand, so there are just 28 full-time faculty and typically 20-22 undergraduate adjuncts. At Rosemont, where at least five adjuncts have more than 20 years of experience, they’re invited to serve on governance committees and participate in division (subject area) meetings and curricular changes. They’re also encouraged to apply when a full-time position opens. “The last two full-time hires have come from the adjunct ranks,” says Hutchinson.

When a recent Middle States Review team met with Rosemont’s adjuncts, they were amazed by their qualifications. Proximity to a big city allows for professionals in law, real estate, healthcare and more. And well-populated suburbs with plenty of school districts provide easy access for education majors to log observation and student teaching hours.

At Rosemont, “the power of small” is also reflected in an adjunct’s pay. The flat-fee undergraduate rate is $2,400 for an art course and $2,100 otherwise, according to Hutchinson. At Villanova, the median part-time rate per undergraduate course is about $5,000, says Wheeland.

A fifth-grade teacher in the Abington School District, Steve Portman is also an education adjunct at Rosemont and West Chester University. “I adore teaching,” he says. “It’s one way that I can give back and pay my Abington experience forward.”

At 61, Portman has taught for 20 years at Rosemont, where he’s declined tenure-tract offers. “I like the freedom [being an adjunct] offers,” he says. “I’ve never felt marginalized, slighted or isolated. Together [with full-time, tenured professors], we provide a service.”

At Cabrini, Pat Brown is in his second year teaching the social justice course “Engagements with the Common Good: Rethinking Addiction.” Brown never finished his first traditional-tract degree in business at the University of Maryland, electing to spend two decades selling golf equipment for Nike. Then he returned as a 40-year-old Cabrini student before moving on to Widener University. Brown eventually resigned from Nike—and, last fall, the company left the golf business. “I didn’t want to be 45 and let go by corporate America, so I empowered myself,” he says. “Education gave me that freedom.”

A state-licensed social worker and certified interventionist for substance abuse, Brown is now working full-time for Recovery Centers of America. All Cabrini students must take three levels of social “engagement” classes like his, which partner with nonprofits. Last spring, Brown’s students came face-to-face with families embroiled in the heroin epidemic while participating in the Overdose Awareness Day and Memorial Walk sponsored by the Bridge to Recovery foundation, Cabrini’s nonprofit partner in Delaware County.

A “once-a-week guy” at Cabrini, Brown gets paid, though “not much.” “I feel like I’m making an impact,” he says.

Brown was shocked to learn of the campus teaching statistics and trends. “I wasn’t aware, but if you present me with the pros and cons of having more or less adjuncts, I’d shake my head and agree with either argument,” he says. “It makes business sense, and it makes sense that people with experience in certain fields should teach in the classroom.”

Upon his return as a non-traditional student at Cabrini, Brown didn’t avoid adjuncts, but he does recognize the upside to teachers who are “engrained and part of the institution.” “The professors who’ve been there are part of the culture, and they’ve been extremely supportive of me,” Brown says. “It’s been spelled out that I can lean on them as a resource. Learning how to teach is part of this, too. I’m here for students, not the BS.”

Villanova’s Jeanne Brody teaches twice a semester, along with the occasional online course. Several years ago, she authored “Serf or Savior? The Struggle for Equity on Behalf of Adjunct Faculty” for the Villanova publication Expositions. In 2013, she sat on a panel run by the College Art Association calling for a standard minimum of $8,000 per class. “There’s no promise of work the following semester, and you could be let go for any reason,” says Brody, who also teaches at Saint Joseph’s University. “There are no guarantees.”

“There's no promise of work the following semester, and you could be let go for any reason. There are no guarentees. —Jeanne Brody

To help with the adjunct’s uncertain plight, Brody suggests a yearlong contract, thus guaranteeing multiple semesters. For her, advocacy is about getting part-time faculty what it needs—an office, access to staff, photocopying and library privileges. The tuition remissions she’s had for two daughters at Villanova are a benefit granted only with lengthy employment. How about orientation? “Full-time professors get it, so why not part-time?” she asks. “We have it because we raised the issue.”

Every year at Villanova, an adjunct is bestowed with the Pohlhaus-Stracciolini Award for Teaching Excellence. Even so, Brody is bothered by the false perception that many of her contemporaries are adjuncts only until they can get their first tenured job. A Villanova study revealed that 40 percent of its part-time professors had served in that capacity for more than 10 years. “If the option was there, I’d go full-time because part-time [pay] is not equivalent to half of what a full-time professor gets,” says Brody, who commutes from Delaware County. “Duties outside of class may be different, but not when you’re in front of the classroom with students who often don’t even know your status.”

Dan Kec had a thought several years ago: Why don’t schools send full-time professors on mandatory six-month breaks to join the workforce? “They’re highly intelligent, but they lack experience,” he says. “They wrote books on this or that, but did they actually do it?”

As far as tenure is concerned, some deserve it and some don’t, according to Kec. “But the ones who don’t can’t be let go,” he says. “It’s sad. I tell students to be truthful on their course evaluations, but if I’m lacking on my report card, I can be let go. If a professor is lacking, he’s told to work on this or that.”

Kec began at DCCC in 2006, and he’s also taught for a few years at Immaculata University. He gets office space but rarely uses it, and he still believes that a lot of good can come out of adjuncts and academics working together. “It shouldn’t be us vs. them, but rather a collective agreement,” he says.

Kec dismisses his pay as a non-issue. “I don’t do it for money,” he says. “I won’t be getting a Ferrari, but it pays some bills.”

Anne Unterkoefler, an adjunct colleague at DCCC, teaches psychology, making $2,750-$3,000 per course. A single parent living in Malvern, she says the extra money helps provide some stability, though it’s the intellectual stimulation she enjoys most. “At Delco, we’re heavy with adjuncts everywhere, and we’re moving to more,” she says. “As a therapist, I have a lot of stories of direct experience that make me a better teacher, and teaching makes me a better therapist because I’m up with the latest research.”

That’s the sort of balance Wheeland is looking for at Villanova. “Part of our mission statement is to look for the common good and impact it,” he says. “Our professors are expected to be engaged in the community and not just sit back in labs producing publications.”

Plus, he says, Ivory Tower-type professors like hanging out in coffee shops, too.

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