ALAMEDA, Calif. — When 39-year-old Darren Brown decided to become a university professor, he never imagined his career would leave him broke and living in his parents’ basement. “My father worked in a factory his entire life in Oakland, Calif.,” said Brown. “I took the academic route thinking that, just like anybody else, that if you want to be somebody, you need to go to college and get an education.”
Not only did he become the first person in his family to go to college, but he also went on to earn a Ph.D. in American studies and teach university courses to rave student reviews. On his last evaluation from San Francisco State University, Brown’s students gave him the highest possible mark for teaching effectiveness. On Rate My Professor, where students can leave unvarnished comments about their instructors’ performance, he scored 4.5 out of a possible 5—well above the average SFSU faculty score of 3.71. “Darren Brown is one of the most awesomest down to earth professors I know,” one student wrote. “He has passion for teaching, too bad spring 2013 was his last semester at SFSU.”
Leaving academia was a heartrending decision for Brown. “Teaching was my passion, and mentoring,” he said, fighting back tears. But as a part-time adjunct professor, he didn’t make enough to live on, let alone service the $100,000 in student loans he’d racked up earning his doctorate. “If I’m only teaching two classes, after taxes I bring home a paycheck that would be about $1,100 a month,” he said. “No one can survive on that in the Bay Area.”
Working conditions for many part-time professors like Brown could easily describe those of fast-food workers — low pay, few to no benefits and little hope of parlaying a part-time position into a full-time career. While fast-food customers rarely suffer as a result, there’s a large and growing body of evidence that students taught by adjuncts are being shortchanged.
“What we found is that institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates,” said Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, which studies the impact of shifting higher-education faculty dynamics on student success. “We also know that it affects their performance in future courses, so if they have an adjunct, they are less likely than if they have a tenured faculty to be successful in their next course.”
For students, the odds of landing an adjunct professor have never been greater. In 1970, full-time tenured professors — who had guaranteed jobs for life, with handsome benefits and decent middle-class wages — accounted for just over 77 percent of higher-education faculty, and part-time adjuncts made up roughly 21 percent. By 2009, part-timers had overtaken tenured professors, representing just over 50 percent of higher-education faculty.
Adjunct ranks can vary dramatically, depending on school type. At public research institutions, 26.7 percent of faculty are part time nontenured. The figure jumps to 45.8 percent at public comprehensive colleges and 68.7 percent at two-year community colleges.
According to Kezar, community-college students taught by part-time professors are less likely to move on to four-year institutions. “It affects the transfer, their success if they have a lot of adjuncts,” she said. Kezar emphasizes that it’s not the quality of adjunct professors that’s to blame for poor student outcomes but the conditions surrounding adjunct employment. “Institutions do not set them up for success,” she explained. “They hire them at the very last moment, a day or two before class, so they can’t prepare for classes. They have no input into the curriculum, choosing textbooks, so they’re often teaching off of resource that they’re not familiar with. They also don’t know the broader learning objectives of the department or school, so they’re not tying in, or helping students to connect their learning to their other courses or curriculum.”
Just-in-time hiring was a problem adjunct English professor Maria Maisto was wrestling with when “Real Money” visited her at home in Akron, Ohio, a few weeks before the start of classes at Cuyahoga Community College. The school had contracted her to teach an honors English course, paying $2,600 for the semester, but when she checked the enrollment figures online, only six students had signed up. She needed a minimum of 10 for the course to go ahead; otherwise, she’d receive just a $50 cancellation fee. “It creates a dilemma because I don’t know how much to prepare,” she said. “This is the big dilemma that we (adjuncts) always have. How much of my unpaid time am I going to put into this preparation when I have no idea if the class is going to go or not?”
In addition to a narrow flash-to-bang time, Maisto says simple things like lacking an office also negatively impact her students. “I rarely have the opportunity to meet with students in private, which is of huge concern to me because they have a federally mandated right to privacy,” she explained. “I’ve had to stop students before they start telling me really personal things in a hallway.”
She has applied for full-time positions at Cuyahoga Community College and the University of Akron, where she has also taught part time, but to no avail. “It doesn’t seem to be because I’m not a good-enough teacher, because they keep asking me to come back and teach,” she said. Maisto attributes the disconnect to a higher-education culture that she says exploits adjuncts to keep costs down. “They are looking for people that they can pay at a very low rate who are high quality and who they know will do the job well but are in a position not to be able to refuse the work.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Candace Bordelon. An adjunct dance professor with a young family and $45,000 in student-loan debt, she was contracted to teach two courses this fall at Collin College, a community college in Texas. The school confirmed her employment in August, but days before the start of the semester, Bordelon said, the classes were reassigned to another member of faculty, and she was offered three new assignments, only on different days and campuses that lengthened her commute by 30 minutes each way. “Now my life is in chaos, because I scheduled everything around the original assignment,” she said. “I did pick up an extra class, which meant more money, but that compromised other earning opportunities from other jobs, put me on the road a lot more, spending more money on gas and tolls and requiring me to find someone to pick up my son from school twice a week and keep him until I could get home.”
Despite the disruptions, Bordelon feels she can’t refuse the work. “If I want to teach and have an income through that teaching, I have to take what is offered to me,” she said.
Like Darren Brown, Bordelon was the first person in her family to go to college. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to be rich, but I thought I was going to earn a respectable, middle-class living and have a quality of life that’s amenable to a middle-class income,” she said. She earns $1,600 to $2,000 per course, receives no benefits and relies on her husband’s job for health insurance. “He was actually out of work for a year, and it was a very difficult year,” she said. “We had no insurance.”
Bordelon would like to be a full-time faculty member, and not just for the greater economic security it would bring. “The piece that’s missing for me is I want to be a real part of the department and the institutions,” she said. “There are a lot of programs and committees and student organizations I would love to be a part of, and I could do that if I had a full-time position.”
To get a sense of how fierce the competition is for full-time professorships, “Real Money” spoke with Karen Kelsky, a former academic who launched The Professor Is In, a service that coaches aspiring professors onto the tenure track. The numbers she sees in her practice are sobering for anyone who aspires to a career in the ivory tower. “Rarely is there a job in academia that gets less than 200 applications,” she said. “In a field like English lit, routinely one opening will get 900 to 1,000 applications.”
Mindful that many of those who need her services are in desperate financial straits, Kelsky started a job-seekers’ support fund to help aspiring professors who cannot afford her fees. She’s even gone so far as to dissuade potential clients with a blog post on her website, warning students to think long and hard before splashing out for a Ph.D. “You better be prepared to live on $15,000 a year for up to 10 years, because the average for earning a history Ph.D. is 11 years,” she said. “You can do that when you’re 25, but when you’re 35, you better be prepared to live on that or have family money or a spouse with a job with benefits.”
Sitting in a cramped, dank corner of his parents’ basement, surrounded by stacks of books he’s selling to raise cash, Darren Brown described the financial stress of living on the fringes of academia. “You never have security, and you’re always on this tightrope balancing act of getting the benefits,” he said. Like Maisto and Bordelon, Brown applied unsuccessfully for full-time professorships. “In the past, you could adjunct and hop from one job to another in the hopes of getting a job that is tenure track, but the reality now is there’s way too many Ph.D.s and far too less jobs for us,” he said. “Across the nation, adjuncts don’t make enough to make a living. That’s why a lot of us are leaving.”
Some, though, are taking a stand. Maisto became so fed up, she banded together with other part-time faculty to form the New Faculty Majority (NFM), an advocacy group working to improve adjuncts’ working conditions. A major part of NFM’s mission is to raise awareness of swelling adjunct ranks and the impact it’s having on student outcomes through campaigns and novelty items like buttons stenciled with scarlet A’s for “adjunct,” which they wear around campuses to turn the stigma of working part time to their advantage. “People think that if you’re adjunct, it’s because you couldn’t make it onto the tenure track or you couldn’t make it through the tenure track,” she explained. “There’s no real recognition of the structural problems that have created this system of contingent hiring.”
“Money for instruction that would typically go to faculty has been declining for the past 30 years, and other expenses have been going up,” explained USC’s Kezar. Along with cuts in government funding, fallout from the Great Recession and fluctuating enrollment patterns, she cites the transfer of cost-cutting ideas from corporate boards to academic institutions for the rise in adjunct numbers. “The boards of trustees are now made up of many people who come from corporations where they have a lot of contingent workers, and they have taken that model and bought it to campuses.”
Kezar says the temptation to save money by replacing full-time faculty with part-time adjuncts is understandable. “There’ve been lots of pressures from outside on college presidents,” she said. “They’ve got to increase access on their campuses, they’ve got to make institutions more affordable, they’ve got to respond to all sorts of external pressures, so I understand that this is one of the ways they responded. It just wasn’t a good response.”
San Francisco State University, where Brown used to teach, has lost about a third of its operating budget since 2009. “The financial pressures emanate very clearly from the recessions of ’08, ’09,” said SFSU president Leslie Wong. “We still have to deliver a full-breadth master’s-level curriculum, with one-third less resources.”
Averaging a 55-45 full-time to part-time faculty mix, SFSU tries to incorporate adjuncts into the fabric of the university by including them in orientations and giving them offices and staff support. Still, Wong would like to see more full-time faculty on his campus. “We recognized early that the declining numbers of tenure-track faculty could not continue, and so we made a decision a year ago to open up close to 40 to 45 tenure-track searches this past year.”
To fund the full-time positions, SFSU is deploying grant money, trying to increase the amount of giving to the university and making sacrifices like putting off physical campus improvements. “We’re just going to delay those even longer and apply that savings or money to the hiring of talented faculty,” said Wong.
He would like to see more discussion of adjuncts’ working conditions in higher education. “I hope the debate gets louder,” he said. “It’s not the only key component, but it’s the key component to answer the question of quality. When students and their families are putting out a lot of money for tuition and fees, there ought to be a discussion of who is the teacher in front of them.”
Kezar said that level of awareness is exceptional, in her experience. “Very few administrators I’ve ever talked to know of the studies that demonstrate the negative impacts for students from this shift away from tenure-track faculty, full-time employment to largely part-time faculty.”
She is now working with economists to develop business models to help higher-education administrators redirect financial resources toward more full-time faculty positions. “All these administrators on college campuses at multiple levels are now in conversation with us,” she said. They have the data about the changes in faculty, they have the data now about the impact on student learning, and we’re collectively trying to work together to solve the problem.”
Kezar believes long-term thinking is also needed to preserve diversity within the professoriate. “We increasingly see women and people of color who are trying to have jobs as academics but will feel like they cannot go into the academy because it won’t pay well,” she said. “If you get a Ph.D. and you can’t get a job with a living wage, what are we saying to students throughout higher education?”
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