Thirty years ago, Susie Sympson was sacking groceries when she decided that bagging a college education would be the way to make her life better.
Today she has a doctorate in clinical psychology and teaches three courses a semester at Johnson County Community College.
But her annual pay, $21,000, is just a few hundred dollars more than she was making at the grocery store, she said. She can’t afford to go out for lunch or fix her roof, and “I have zero for retirement.”
As an adjunct professor, Sympson, 59, belongs to a group some call “the hyper-educated poor” or “the day laborers of academia” — part-time instructors and other so-called contingent faculty who increasingly shoulder the teaching load at the nation’s universities and colleges.
Stories like hers are echoing across the country as adjunct professors hoping to change their lot have started to unionize. They say they’re fed up with scraping by on less than a living wage, without job security or health benefits.
More than 70 percent of faculty members who teach undergraduate courses at U.S. colleges and universities are contingent faculty, far outnumbering tenured professors and tenure-track professors, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Depending on the institution, the AAUP said, contingent faculty may be called adjuncts, teaching assistants, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers or instructors.
“Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name because they can be fired at will,” said Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University.
This month, seeking to increase workplace rights, part-time faculty members at Boston University voted to form a union. Adjuncts at Washington University in St. Louis did the same last month. Faculty members at the University of Southern California are in the midst of their own union-organizing effort. Northeastern University adjunct faculty members are meeting in negotiations toward their first contract, and adjuncts at Tufts University have set their first contract.
And through social media, adjuncts across the country are organizing a national walkout day on Wednesday.
“It is absolutely a national movement,” said Michael O’Bryan, an English department lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis. In January, he and some 400 contingent professors at the private research institution voted to join the Service Employees International Union.
Adjunct faculty members at several other St. Louis area campuses also are seeking help unionizing, SEIU said. And faculty members across the state are paying attention. Although SEIU said it has not yet gained a firm foothold in the Kansas City area, union officials said they were talking with several area adjuncts.
Another group helping contingent faculty organize is the New Faculty Majority, a national coalition for adjunct and contingent faculty.
Colleges use adjuncts “like substitute teachers, but pay them less than the average high school teacher,” said Alice Kitchen, an adjunct and retired health care social worker who teaches a social work course at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
At UMKC, for the most part, the average pay for adjuncts, excluding those in dentistry, medicine, law and pharmacy, runs about $4,250 per course. For an adjunct teaching two courses per semester, that would be $17,000 a year.
University administrators say tight budgets and the decline of state support for higher education have tied their hands.
“They simply don’t know where the resources will come from to finance improved salary/benefits,” said Dan L. King, president of the American Association of University Administrators. “Increased tuition is a good bet.”
Paying a price
Many students are already paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition. With so many of their classes taught by adjuncts and other contingent faculty, some wonder whether they are getting the full benefits of higher education.
“It is a fact that adjuncts are often not paid for the extra work required to be available to students,” said Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at City University of New York. “For example, adjuncts may only be on campus one day a week. They may disappear the day the semester ends. They may not even know they are hired to teach a course until a few days before.
“In this sense, students are not getting what they pay for because they are not getting access to the kind of attention a full-time professor could provide.”
Leeann Hafferkamp, a freshman at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, said four of her eight professors are adjuncts and “I feel like I am getting a quality education despite what they are being paid.” She said she was “OK with the fact that I have a professor who is only teaching one or two courses. To me it means he has more time to focus on planning those courses.”
But Luce said that even if adjuncts are wonderful teachers, their students can lose out later.
A big part of the college experience, she said, is developing lasting relationships with professors who can provide career advice, letters of recommendation and connections that lead to jobs — all benefits that can be much harder to come by with adjuncts.
Harder, said Joe Berry, a writer and retired adjunct, partly because “when adjuncts are effectively forced to work multiple part-time jobs to make a living, they have less time, energy and institutional support to devote to their students.”
Lee Hartman, who has been an adjunct music instructor at the University of Central Missouri for five years, said he took a second adjunct position because he needed the money but had to give it up “to save my sanity.”
Two years ago, Hartman, who holds a doctorate degree in music, traveled every morning from his Kansas City home about 50 minutes to Warrensburg to teach at UCM. Then he raced to his car and sped west on U.S. 50, north on Interstate 470 and west on I-70 — an hour’s drive on a good traffic day — to Parkville, where he taught at Park University. He did that three days a week for a year.
“I’ve never made over $25,000 a year,” Hartman said. “It’s a good thing that I’m married or I couldn’t live without government assistance, food stamps. I know I could quit tomorrow and get a job at QuikTrip and double my salary, but I wouldn’t be doing what I love, what my passion is, what I studied so hard to be able to do.”
‘The adjunct mill’
One argument for higher wages and benefits for adjuncts is that their pay is not commensurate with their knowledge and skills, their advanced degrees or decades in their field.
Many adjunct faculty members are veterans in their positions. According to the American Federation of Teachers, 72 percent of adjuncts have been on their campuses six years or more, including 40 percent who have been there 11 years or more.
There they may stay. Full-time tenure or tenure-track positions at colleges and universities are hard to come by.
There is no shortage of doctoral students looking for positions in academia, said Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at UMKC.
“Grad schools keep churning out doctoral students, but in some fields a chunk of them are destined for the adjunct mill because of the decline in full-time tenure track positions.”
Those who have tenured positions hold on tight, and when a slot does open, it’s often filled with low-wage contingent or adjunct faculty.
“For a long time people thought these jobs, many of them held by people with doctorate degrees, would be temporary jobs, that these people would eventually find full-time jobs,” said Walter Benn Michaels, a tenured professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
“In fact, universities actually have relied more and more on adjunct instructors to teach their courses. That is when the slow agitation among faculties began.”