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Teaching college and living on food stamps: Why untenured faculty are a 2020 campaign issue

LAS VEGAS – College lecturer Angela Edwards-Luckett teaches world religion, a subject she is passionate about. Her work is deeply rewarding, but it’s also financially precarious: She barely earns enough to get by.

With a husband on disability and $100,000 in college loans, Edwards-Luckett says her bills always seem to outstrip her income. Friends and acquaintances in her non-tenured faculty circle are in similarly dire straits, piecing together a bare-bones existence by working at various campuses across Florida.

“Some of my colleagues are teaching four classes at this college, two classes at that college,” the 51-year-old college lecturer told ThinkProgress. “And even when they add all of that up together, they still make less than $25,000 a year.”

Edwards-Luckett said life on a college adjunct’s income amounts to poverty, plain and simple. “A lot of us are depending on food banks and things like that, even during the semester,” she told ThinkProgress.

College education is very much in the spotlight as a 2020 campaign issue, and the Democratic presidential candidates have a raft of proposals to reduce student debt and lower the costs of tuition. Their plans cover everything from providing free community college to reining in for-profit colleges, from extending loan forgiveness to refinancing student loans.

But education advocates and labor activists say the focus on higher education reform shouldn’t only be about the kids: The 2020 candidates should also pay attention to the often deplorable conditions endured by legions of underpaid faculty members who teach them.

Twenty years ago, just one in four faculty jobs on college campuses was non-tenure track. Today the figure is three in four. Experts say, in fact, that the move to hire part time faculty American college campuses has been one of the most significant developments in higher education of the past generation.

The reliance on part-time adjuncts took off during the 1980s, at a time when budgets at public colleges were being slashed. As states defunded public higher education, lecturers were hired as a supplement to full-time faculty to pad out their course curricula.

But since then, the hiring of part-time faculty has snowballed. A 2014 congressional report found there were more than one million people currently working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education “providing a cheap labor source even while students’ tuition has skyrocketed.”

In the past, the part-time teaching gigs were supplemental employment picked up by retired professors looking to make a little extra cash by teaching at the local university or community college. These days however, many colleges and universities rely primarily on adjuncts and other contingent faculty members, rather than full-time, tenure-track professors to educate their students.

If the development doesn’t worry politicians and government officials, it should.

“The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself,” the report found.

One key 2020 issue affecting college lecturers is income inequality — something contingent faculty know plenty about, working on campuses with full time, tenured faculty who may earn several times their average annual pay.

Work, when part-time academic faculty members find it, usually comes without health insurance or job security — making even more likely that non-tenured professors teeter over the brink and into full-blown financial disaster. That’s the reason so many are organizing.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that thousands of underpaid college faculty have formed or joined labor unions in recent years — most with American Federation of Teachers, the SEIU, the United Auto Workers and Unite Here — calling it “among the most important recent developments shaping higher education.”

Florida is one state where the ranks of unionized faculty and those seeking to form unions has swelled dramatically in recent years. SEIU, the service workers union, recently won a campaign to organize at Miami Dade College — a public college with one of the nation’s biggest enrollments, 165,000 students. Union organizers say there are some 3,300 adjunct professors who teach there.

Broadly speaking, unionization of part-time college faculty is long overdue, they said.

“Now more than ever, educators, including adjunct professors and graduate workers, need the ability to form their unions,” Heather Conroy, executive vice president SEIU International, the service workers’ union, told ThinkProgress.

“This is a ‘must do’ so they can advocate for their students and for the resources they desperately need to improve the quality of education in our country,” Conroy said.

“We need to ensure that teaching jobs are good jobs instead of poverty-wage jobs and that students have the opportunity to learn without being trapped under mountains of debt.”

Their precarious financial straits give adjunct faculty common cause with other part-time, low-paid workers, including many manual laborers like hotel workers, janitors, and food service workers. Several college adjuncts attended a conference in Las Vegas late last month where they pressed the case for the power of unions to improve their working conditions.

At the labor forum, sponsored by Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the college lecturers made common cause alongside service workers who work as airport security personnel, janitors, and food service employees (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the CAP Action Fund.)

Many others are organized by SEIU’s, Faculty Forward unit specifically comprised of college faculty. 

“It’s helping us to come together so that we can go in as a group and really push the college to give us what we’re asking for,” said Edwards-Luckett, who thinks the time is past due for colleges to pay non-tenured staff a living wage. 

After all, “all over the country, these college and university presidents are getting bigger and bigger paid jobs,” she said.

Organizers said that since Faculty Forward launched in 2015, 30,000 graduate workers and adjunct professors have joined. All told, SEIU represents 57,000 graduate workers and adjunct professors on more than 60 campuses across the United States.

The problem of low pay and a lack of benefits is not quite as acute in a state like California, where non-tenured lecturers have been organized for years. But the challenge of piecing together a livelihood is compounded by the harrowing congestion, especially on the notorious highways in Southern California, as non-tenured faculty careen from campus to campus.

“They call them ‘freeway flyers’ in the Los Angeles area where I am. They fly around the freeway trying to cobble together a living,” John Griffin, 69, an adjunct at California State University, told ThinkProgress.

Griffin, with an MBA and a law degree, teaches management and marketing at Cal State, has found that as colleges try to cut costs, they hire more and more adjuncts, who he said typically are paid about half of what tenured faculty gets.

The California Faculty Association (CFA) has secured “some of the best benefits for the non-tenured adjuncts” of any of the organized units in the country, said Griffin, who lives in Ventura County and attended the conference in Las Vegas.

“In many places they’re just beginning to form unions. We try to hold ourselves out as a model. Here’s what can happen if you organize and come together.”

But even in comparatively progressive and unionized California “adjuncts actually wind up teaching substantially more students,” Griffin said. “Not only are 70% of our faculty adjuncts, but they also teach a much greater percentage of students.”

One insidious consequence of the large percentage of contingent faculty in higher education is that students in need of an advisor, or additional tutoring or support, aren’t able to get it when their instructors teach at multiple campuses. “You teach a class, you’re done,” Griffin said. “Most of them, they’re never around.”

Research has borne out the negative impacts of over-reliance on part-time college instructors, finding that it appears to negatively impact students’ academic performance and retention.

Doreen Mattingly, professor and chair of women’s studies and vice president of the California Faculty Association chapter at San Diego State said that on her campus, both tenured and non-tenured faculty are represented by the CFA.

Union membership has led to a better quality of life for many of the unionized lecturers, who get the opportunity to obtain a pension and qualify for health benefits. Still, she acknowledges, even though their plight is better than working as an adjunct in other states, it can be a grueling way of life. 

“They have in the trunk of their car, each class in a file box,” Mattingly told ThinkProgress. “It’s a gig type of existence.”

Edwards-Luckett said she doesn’t necessarily anticipate being made a full professor at her campus in Florida, but said she would like to be fairly compensated for her work.

“You don’t have to make me full-time staff,” she told ThinkProgress, “but as a part-time worker you should still respect what I do.”


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