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Cali Owings, Published March 24 2014

College adjuncts 'hoping for the best': Tenuous positions, low pay common for part-time faculty

MOORHEAD — To balance its budget, Minnesota State University Moorhead is losing about 40 faculty members to retirements, layoffs and cutbacks over a little more than two years.

But there’s no telling how the chips will fall for the 150 adjunct faculty members employed this semester. Maybe they’ll be back. But maybe they won’t, as the school cuts funding for adjuncts.

That could mean bad news for many who make a living teaching part time at the school. One of those is Wanda Walseth, a retired speech pathologist who oversees MSUM graduate students in a practical clinic in the speech language and hearing sciences department.

Walseth has been at the clinic since 2009, and this is the first time she hasn’t been asked back for the upcoming semester. The clinic has a full-time director. Students are also supervised by faculty members, but Walseth said she doesn’t know how it will run without adjuncts.

“I am afraid the people who are left will have a heavy workload,” she said.

The limbo many adjuncts are in at MSUM is another example of how part-time instructors are treated in higher education, where they’ve increasingly become more common as schools tighten their belts and hire cheaper part-time labor.

Adjuncts are more flexible than faculty hired on the tenure-track, who are eventually guaranteed permanent employment after departmental approval. They can be cut from the course schedule at a moment’s notice.

While many schools have protections in place to stop the abuse of adjunct labor, critics say schools’ increased reliance on underpaid and easily disposable instructors can harm the quality of education.

No guarantees

To balance a projected $8 million budget deficit, MSUM plans to cut funds for adjuncts and overload time for faculty members by $500,000 over the next two years.

MSUM Adjuncts are instructors who teach fewer than 10 credits on a semester-by-semester basis. Though some have taught one or two courses a semester for several years, the school insists there are no guarantees.

“I’m sure there are people who have taught for us for so long [that] their personal expectation is that they’re going to teach for us for an ongoing basis,” said Provost Anne Blackhurst.

The budget cuts won’t bring cuts across the board for adjuncts, Blackhurst said. Some departments will hire more than they have in previous semesters, while others will reduce.

“Adjuncts will fall wherever needed,” she said.

The speech language and hearing sciences department could lose all four of the adjuncts hired to supervise clinical experiences for graduate students.

Clinic director Vicki Riedinger said she’s not sure yet how many adjuncts will return next semester, but cutbacks are in store.

Riedinger doesn’t determine how many adjuncts are hired for each semester.

She said she’s “hoping for the best.”

“I have to work with what I’m given,” she said.

Adjunct pay lower

Maury Koffman, who serves on the executive committee for the National Education Association, said the treatment of adjuncts can really affect student learning.

For one, they’re paid drastically less than faculty members and may be spreading themselves over several local colleges to get the equivalent of a full-time position.

“To make ends meet, they end up working at two or three institutions,” he said, adding that they could have less time to help students outside of class.

For instance, the average salary for a tenured professor in 2012-13 was $116,419, according to the American Association of University Professors.

The median pay for an adjunct in fall 2010 was $2,700 per course, and their part-time positions rarely come with benefits, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce’s most recent adjunct survey.

In the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, of which MSUM is a member, minimum starting salaries for full-time faculty range from $34,203 for an instructor to $66,381 for a full professor.

The minimum pay for an MnSCU adjunct is $1,258 per credit, or $3,774 per three-credit course.

At North Dakota State University, which had 195 part-time instructors in fall 2013 who didn’t receive benefits, there isn’t a set pay schedule for adjuncts, said Anne Robinson-Paul, a spokeswoman.

Other issues

Pay isn’t the only concern. Because of their flexibility, adjuncts are sometimes asked to teach for a semester at the last minute, which gives them less time to prepare course materials, Koffman said.

Blackhurst said MSUM’s departments typically notify adjuncts that they’ll be needed before the course schedule is made for the upcoming semester. Sometimes, they have to add classes and hire adjuncts based on unexpected enrollment changes.

Koffman also said adjunct faculty often aren’t provided resources available to full-time faculty such as staff assistance or office space, where they can feel “feel established as a professional.”

At MSUM, adjuncts have communal office space on campus that they share, Blackhurst said.

ND United, which represents the North Dakota’s public employees including faculty at the 11 public colleges and universities, is looking to learn more about adjunct employment.

While they know adjuncts are in the majority across the country, Executive Director Nick Archuleta said the ND United hopes to investigate the conditions of adjunct faculty here.

“We’re trying to ascertain whether the faculty being hired are tenure-track or non-tenure-track and ensure that our students from North Dakota and around the country that come here are getting the best possible education they can,” Archuleta said.

He said the number of adjuncts shows the priorities of a higher education institution.

“Are they deliberately not hiring tenure-track faculty so they can have more low-cost adjunct faculty?”

Locally, schools have policies in place that prevent them from hiring adjunct instructors over tenure-track faculty.

NDSU policy allows for several types of special appointments that don’t involve tenure credit or status. The terms and conditions of employment are more limited than probationary or tenure appointments.

Based on the MSUM’s contract, it can only hire adjunct faculty if enrollment increases unexpectedly, to replace a permanent faculty member on sabbatical or other reassignment, or based on the school’s need for special expertise.

A path to teaching

Adjunct faculty members aren’t all academics who are seeking full-time faculty positions.

Some are professionals teaching in their field.

In Walseth’s case, she was not ready to quit working completely after retiring, so she supervises 1½ days a week at the clinic and also practices in the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District.

But other adjuncts are academics who have been unable to get hired on the tenure-track and instead accept a part-time teaching role, sometimes at several institutions, to earn a living.

In a 2012 nationwide survey of more than 10,000 part-time faculty members, more than 75 percent of respondents said they had sought a tenure-track position, were currently seeking a tenure-track position or would seek a tenure-track position in the future.

Blackhurst said there are few adjuncts at MSUM in that situation.

“For the most part, we have working professionals who really love to share their knowledge,” she said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Ryan Christiansen has worked as an adjunct at MSUM, NDSU and the North Dakota State College of Science. Christiansen has a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, so he mostly teaches composition courses. This semester, he teaches three credits at NDSU and eight at MSUM.

While he said his experiences as an adjunct are fairly positive, there are some downsides – like not being able to write off expenses. If he was a subcontractor, rather than a part-time employee, he said he would be able to write off expenses such as classroom, office and curriculum supplies, and travel expenses.

“It would be nice to be in a tenure-track position, because it would give me a clear idea about how I can contribute to the mission at any one university, now and into the future,” he wrote in an email.

He added that adjuncts in the area are fortunate because there are so many schools where they can contribute.

When Alan Aamodt starting working in the MSUM mass communications department, the longtime broadcaster said he had plenty of assistance getting prepared for his first semester teaching. For the last three years, he’s taught media writing once a semester and so far, all signs point to a continued appointment next fall.

If he wasn’t asked to teach next semester due to budget cuts, Aamodt said he’d be “heartbroken,” but he’d understand and probably try to keep teaching at other local schools.

While Aamodt admitted the pay isn’t great as an adjunct, he said teaching was so worthwhile that it didn’t matter.

“The opportunity to be with these young people and watch them grow … It is just so rewarding,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599