E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Low-wage professors battle ‘adjunctivitis’

In Philadelphia and across the US, nontenured academics try to unionize and transform the ivory tower

PHILADELPHIA — In a narrow waiting room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Melissa Degezelle shimmies a plastic bin holding the stranger’s placenta into her Thermos tote. A new mother has just delivered the bloody, membranous mass, and Degezelle, today a placenta cook, will prepare it for the woman’s consumption — to “help stave off postpartum depression,” she says.

Degezelle is a 5-foot-2-inch wisp of a woman with a nonchalant bearing and Amélie haircut. She’s a poet by training but a professional dabbler by necessity: a sometime doula, women’s health counselor, medical model, placenta preparer — and an adjunct professor. For three and a half hours the previous night, she submitted to a series of pelvic exams performed by nine would-be doctors at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. At least one “had never been near a vagina,” she recalls. Her pay: $30 per medical student, for a total of $270 that evening.

Back in South Philadelphia, Degezelle washes the fresh placenta before making it into a lemon-cured ceviche and putting it through a food dehydrator, like “beef jerky,” she says. Another placenta — this one steamed, dried and ground into sand-colored capsules — is already packed into a Chinese-food takeout container for a new mom in the Germantown neighborhood. Degezelle will charge $200 for pickup, processing and delivery.

This income is crucial, particularly over the summer, when her pay as an adjunct professor dwindles. Though Degezelle’s occupational pastiche is more idiosyncratic than most, she is very much an adjunct poster child. Like three-quarters of instructors in higher education, she has none of the benefits of traditional full-time employment or even a steady income, let alone tenure, though she was recently awarded a prize for “excellence in teaching and service.” She was lucky in the spring, landing two courses at Temple and three at Philadelphia University for about $3,600 each, and staffing a women’s health clinic and doing “placentas and vagina modeling” on the side. With all her jobs combined, Degezelle, a single mother, typically earns about $35,000 per year — too little to pay off her student loans or purchase health insurance. 

Adjunct professor Melissa Degezelle picks up a client's placenta from the hospital. Placenta preparation is one of her side jobs.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

“Adjunct” derives from the Latin for “auxiliary,” but with part-time, contingent, nontenured faculty and graduate students constituting the majority of teachers in higher education, adjuncts are anything but marginal. Of the 1.8 million faculty members at two- and four-year colleges, only about 30 percent are on the tenure track, and 700,000 are part-time. A 2010 survey of 30,000 faculty found that part-timers earn a median wage of just $2,700 per course and that fewer than a quarter receive health insurance from their academic employers. Since the mid-1970s, colleges of all sizes and levels of prestige, public and private, have relied more and more on low-paid, nontraditional faculty: 76 percent of instructors are now non-tenured, up from 55 percent. Over the same period, these institutions have increased the ranks of their administrative staffs at a rate five times that of full-time professors.

All this has provoked a widespread rebellion among adjuncts and graduate-student instructors, the bottom rung of academia. Teachers at private and public colleges and universities are demanding recognition and winning unexpected pay hikes and job security. And at a time of major losses for organized labor, an array of unions — from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers — have vowed to transform adjunct and graduate-student working conditions for good.

Adjunct labor, then and now

The idea of organizing adjuncts — a broad term for part-time and full-time nontenured instructors — isn’t new. In historic union towns such as New York and Chicago, adjuncts at public community colleges and universities have been organized alongside tenure-track professors for decades. (A 1980 court ruling bars tenured professors at private colleges from unionizing.) But recent adjunct campaigns have targeted those at private schools across the country and reflect distinctly post-Occupy sentiments: that academia has been corporatized yet has failed to deliver “market” results; and that no one, not even a middle-class Ph.D., can escape the temporary, low-wage labor pool.

In media accounts of "adjunctivitis" since the financial crisis, the nontenured professor has played tragic heroine and miner’s canary. The adjunct on food stamps; the unemployed Ph.D.; the French-language scholar who died in penury. When homeless adjunct Mary-Faith Cerasoli was featured in The New York Times this March, Twitter exploded with a rush of “We are all Mary-Faith…” selfies. 

“This is a long-term trend,” said William Deresiewicz, a higher-education critic and former Yale professor. “It has nothing to do with a bad economy. There was a deliberate decision in the ’70s — a huge overbuilding of institutions plus a neoliberal decision to treat students as customers. Then, at the same time, cut, cut, cut.”

The economics have swung in favor of the universities. They’re making money hand over fist relative to the cost of a single course. And from the students’ perspective, you get this person who’s not fully integrated into the system. There’s no support.

Tim Victor

Adjunct professor

Since 1975, tenured professorships have dwindled from 45 to 24 percent of college teaching jobs, and administrators have privileged posh architecture and creature comforts over learning. Tuition was mostly nominal in the 1940s and ’50s but is now the source of $1 trillion in loan debt. At the four-year public universities responsible for educating 75 percent of U.S. students, tuition has gone up 159 percent over the past 30 years, and following the 2008 recession, states cut their per-student, public-college spending by an average of 28 percent.

On the private side, New York’s Cooper Union, a tuition-free school for budding architects, artists and engineers (where I was once an adjunct instructor), offers a case in point. Following a 2013 decision by Cooper’s board of trustees to begin charging undergraduates, a coalition of students, faculty and alumni filed a lawsuit alleging years of financial mismanagement, bloated executive compensation and the misguided construction of an “extravagant new building.”

Meanwhile, “in the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students,” said Professor Noam Chomsky, a critic of the academic “business model.” He sees adjuncts as the equivalent of industry temps or Walmart associates: low-wage workers reading Derrida. 

Temple University Ph.D. student and labor organizer Diane Garbow has taught as a low-wage "gradjunct" in Philadelphia.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

The SEIU, famous for organizing janitors and food-service employees, claims an estimated 70 percent of adjunct professor-members in greater Washington, D.C. Parallel “metro-wide” campaigns in Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles revolve around the fact that adjuncts work for multiple colleges at a time. (Confronted with union drives, a handful of religious colleges in Pittsburgh and the Seattle area have argued, on First Amendment grounds, that they should not be forced to bargain with adjunct professors. Litigation before the National Labor Relations Board is pending.)

In Philadelphia, SEIU has ceded adjunct-organizing turf to the AFT and its new citywide local, the United Academics of Philadelphia. A union best known for representing K-through-12 instructors, the AFT has long bargained for part-time professors at state colleges in Pennsylvania and in neighboring New Jersey and now hopes to organize an estimated 15,000 area adjuncts at schools like Temple, Haverford and Drexel.

The unions’ goal is not unlike that of the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which have negotiated multi-employer agreements to cover their itinerant members. In New York City, AFM Local 802’s contracts with Lincoln Center and most Broadway theaters ensure (at least in theory) that a nonsalaried, freelance violist will receive a consistent day rate and attendant pension contribution regardless of venue or gig.

A regional adjunct contract would similarly cover multiple institutions. It would stipulate across-the-board and school-specific provisions relating to course appointments, compensation and benefits, and could eventually establish a health-insurance pool. (The AFT and Freelancers Union recently announced a benefits program for contingent faculty.) Existing adjunct contracts at Cooper Union, Rutgers University, American University and George Washington University provide protection against last-minute cancellations, access to office space, seniority rights and a transparent pay scale.

At the end of June, Degezelle attended a small meeting convened by the AFT’s United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP). “I’m on board, but I don’t have high expectations,” she said. “It would be great to have more value, but I’m not banking on it.”

Red flags and contradictions

When SEIU organizer Anne McLeer was working a part-time clerical job at George Washington University in the late ’90s, she had “access to a health plan, retirement contribution and disability. The minute I gave that up and started teaching [as an adjunct], I lost my benefits. That was a red flag.”

Her union colleague Malini Cadambi Daniel agrees. At a labor panel in April, she said that on U.S. campuses, “the faculty are looking at the [unionized] food service workers [and saying], ‘You’re making good wages, you have a contract, you know you’re going to come back next semester, you’ve got health care.’”

Poet and adjunct professor Ian Davisson teaches at multiple Philadelphia-area schools. He earned about $22,000 last year.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Ian Davisson, a poet and friend of Melissa Degezelle’s, teaches at two or three colleges per semester. The pay varies, but the treatment is reliably poor: no benefits and no guarantees. “The second or third time I was teaching at Temple, two days before my class started, they cut it [because of] low enrollment. I was totally broke,” he said. Last year, Davisson earned just $22,000 despite teaching several classes per semester.

Last fall, at Temple University — one of the UAP’s primary targets — between 1,700 and 2,000 adjuncts were paid $3,600 per three-credit course, according to a spokesman. Temple’s graduate students and full professors are unionized with the AFT, but its adjuncts are not: An organizing effort failed in 2010, amid reports of retaliation. This time around, the adjuncts at Temple, who often teach at more than one college, are not alone. Through the efforts of the UAP, they hope to exert a new level of influence on campuses across Philadelphia. 

Tim Victor, a statistician and business executive, has been teaching in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education since 1996. “I’m not your typical adjunct,” he said. “I don’t teach for the money.” And though he feels distant from his fellow adjuncts’ woes, he sees that “the economics have swung in favor of the universities. They’re making money hand over fist relative to the cost of a single course. And from the students’ perspective, you get this person who’s not fully integrated into the system. There’s no support.”

But Penn Vice Provost Anita Allen worries that enforcing higher standards would hurt smaller, less affluent schools in Philadelphia. It is also overly simplistic, she said, to talk about adjuncts as a monolith. According to Allen, most of Penn’s adjuncts are doctors and other practitioners who teach in professional programs not to earn a living but to give back to their community. Yet, more than three-quarters of part-time faculty surveyed by the Coalition of the Academic Workforce say they would prefer a full-time or tenure-track job

While few would dispute the desirability of improved working conditions, there’s a logical contradiction in the movement for adjuncts’ rights. In the best-case scenario, adjuncts would exert their power to win decent pay, benefits, academic support and limited tenure from their employers. But would this lead to system reforms, or would they still be willing participants in an expedient, cost-cutting model of higher education?

“The whole reason this job exists is because we’re basically scabs,” said Matthew Friedman, a historian and unionized adjunct at Rutgers. “First of all, we’re cheap, and second, we’re completely atomized. Just as Marx argued that unemployment serves the interests of capital, so does high unemployment in the academy and increasing contingent labor serve the interests of university administrators.”

Adjuncts say poor wages and working conditions undermine their ability to teach. The above inscription on the facade of a Temple University building, "doing some great deed with little means," summarizes their lot.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Aspiring academics understand the statistical improbability of tenure — the number of Ph.D.s has doubled while permanent jobs have been cut in half since the 1960s — but still desire the life of the mind. “I’m still deluded enough to think that, [given] the quality of my work and with my dissertation and first book, people will be knocking down my door,” said Ariel Arnau, an adjunct at Temple and Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York. “But having to adjunct in Philadelphia isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Twenty thousand was the height of my adjunct income, and it was enough to get by.”

Arnau, like Degezelle, supports adjunct organizing but feels daunted by the powers that be. On June 23, Degezelle received an email from a dean at Philadelphia University. “The College recommended that you receive the 1.5% bonus,” it read, based on “years of service, student evaluations of teaching, and demonstrable service to the College/School or University.”

“Temple just raised their pay, too,” Degezelle said. “I wonder if, since adjuncts are starting to unionize, everyone is trying to raise their pay. It would be lovely to be full time and have an office and feel security ... That’s the crossroads I’m at. Can I sustain myself with all this hustling?"

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