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Adjunct teachers prop up higher education, seek rights

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, March 31, 2012

As tuition soared at American colleges and universities in recent decades, so did the number of part-time, non-tenured faculty teaching America's students.

Adjunct teachers account for about 70 percent of instructors on college campuses, up from about 43 percent in 1975, according to the most recent numbers from the Department of Education.

"The usual justification is (university) finances. Most part-time faculty are paid on a course-by-course basis. They have no say in the curriculum, no job security. ...They are essentially functioning as a disposable work force," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University professors.

Adjuncts are demanding better treatment as they carry more of the load. This week, that drive showed itself on one Pittsburgh campus as the non-tenured teachers at Duquesne University went public with a plan to form a union.

Locally, the numbers vary from 43 percent adjuncts at Carnegie Mellon University to 78 percent at Point Park University. Some are professionals who take time to teach a class, while others are career teachers seeking to cobble together a living at two or three schools.

Joshua Zelesnick, 32, of Squirrel Hill, an adjunct who teaches composition at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh, said he learned how disposable they were in the spring of 2009, when one of the classes he relied upon was canceled with a week's notice when enrollment dipped at Duquesne.

"I had to scramble to pay my rent, so I got a job at Trader Joe's," he said.

As universities shifted more of the load to lower-cost adjuncts, they've shifted more financial burden onto families. Nationally, college tuition increased about 8 percent a year over the past decade. Western Pennsylvania colleges and universities increased tuition and fees a minimum of 52 percent to a high of 116 percent over the past decade.

Zelesnick has taught at Duquesne since 2007 and earns $2,556 per class, per semester there. He said he can make about $20,000 a year between the two schools, teaching what is essentially a full-time teaching load. Unlike his colleagues at Duquesne, he has access to health insurance through Pitt.

James Maher, provost emeritus at Pitt, where adjuncts make up about 61 percent of the faculty, said the teachers have always been an important part of higher education and are valued at Pitt, where tenured professors can make in excess of $100,000.

He said some adjuncts, such as those in the university's law and medical schools, take time from lucrative private practices to teach a class in a specialty, while others are professional teachers hoping to earn or supplement an income.

"I think the issue is not whether you should have adjuncts, but how you treat them. At Pitt, we try to provide office space and reasonable contracts. Some universities are saving money by not paying adjuncts well and not giving them office space, and that is a problem," Maher said, adding that Pitt offers multi-year contracts to its senior adjuncts to provide security.

Maria Somma, an organizer for the United Steelworkers of America, said her group has been in discussions about organizing adjuncts at several Pittsburgh-area universities over the past year.

"They are coming out of the closet in droves," Somma said. Although conditions vary from one school to the next, Somma said many adjuncts work from semester to semester for low wages, without health care and with little or no say in curriculum.

This week, a group at Duquesne University, where adjuncts and non-tenured instructors represent 61 percent of the faculty, formed the Adjuncts Association of the United Steelworkers of America and went public with an organizing campaign.

Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare said administration officials have been working to improve adjunct salaries for years, but were not aware of other concerns.

"If we do receive information on the proposed union, we would review it and follow NLRB procedures," she said.

Somma said her office has logged countless calls since the Duquesne organizing effort went public.

"With tuition going up, we appreciate the difficulties in higher education. But these people are teaching because they want to teach. They're providing a high quality of care for our next generation of leaders, and we would hope they receive the respect and fair compensation they deserve," she said.

Zelesnick said Duquesne adjuncts have no issues with the administration there; rather they are battling a model that has become pervasive.

"We deserve more equitable conditions. Students don't know about this. Parents don't know about this. They wonder where all the money they're paying is going," he said.

"It's in the best interest of the university to be supportive of our work because it has a direct impact on the recruitment and retention of students," Zelesnick said.

Nicholas Cafardi, president of Duquesne's faculty senate, sympathizes with the adjuncts. He noted that the Catholic church has traditionally viewed workers' rights as a moral issue it supports.

"The conditions of their employment is a concern to their tenure-track colleagues," Cafardi said.

It was a concern at the 14 universities that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. At those schools, which include Indiana, California and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania, a systemwide faculty contract stipulates that adjuncts teach no more than 25 percent of all credit-hour classes and be compensated on a scale with full-time faculty, system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.

Joshua Boldt, an adjunct professor who teaches in the English department at the University of Georgia, isn't surprised that adjuncts are organizing at campuses where they have no voice.

"Part of me thinks if that's the way we're going with a temporary labor structure, then we need to realize that's the direction we're going and stop paying people like it is just a temporary situation. If this is the model of the future university, then we need to acknowledge it and it has to be fair," he said.

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