The Way Forward
By Justin Wier
Martin Abraham, provost of Youngstown State University, said the adjunct problem is a challenge that faces the entire academic world.
“Until we start as a community — an academic community — addressing this in a different way, this is going to remain,” Abraham said. “The part-timers will remain underpaid. They will remain underappreciated.”
YSU President Jim Tressel recently told The Vindicator he would like to raise wages for adjunct faculty.
AJ Sumell, associate professor of economics, said the greater economic shift toward contract labor creates winners and losers, and there needs to be a balance.
“You need to create that proper balance between offering an education at a relatively low price, as well as treating all of your employees fair and giving them pay that’s at least equal to the amount of work that they’re putting in,” Sumell said. “Just the fact that they haven’t seen a cent increase in 24 years is proof that that’s not happening.”
James Zupanic, a retired tenured professor who works as an adjunct, said it would have to be a substantial raise.
“I wouldn’t want to do is get an extra two percent or something like that,” Zupanic said. “After 24 years, that doesn’t mean too much.”
Kriss Schueller, chair of the department of computer science and information systems, said the university should probably double the part-time wage overnight.
“There’s at least gotta be an increase on some level to interest some people who maybe are marginal who might say, ‘OK, well at least now it looks like my gasoline will be paid for on my way back and forth,’” Schueller said.
Neal McNally, vice president for finance and business operations, said the University currently pays adjuncts about $5 million per year and it would be difficult to find another $5 million in the budget if their pay was doubled, especially given the two-year cap on tuition dictated by the state.
“We would probably be looking at deferring non-essential expenses, holding other positions vacant, namely staff positions,” McNally said. “Those are the type of things we’ve had to do in the past when we’ve had budget crunches.”
Schueller said other universities have pursued different educational models.
He mentioned Texas A&M University, which has a special category for “professors of the practice.” It’s a year-to-year non-tenure track appointment that allows instructors to teach without requiring they do research, and it provides 12-month notice to the employee if the contract is not renewed.
“We could use a program like that,” Schueller said. “We can’t afford a program like that — very few universities can — but there are people out in academia that are trying to come up with creative solutions to this.”
The University does offer full-time term contracts to instructors who lack terminal degrees in their field. They are renewed on an annual basis.
Julia Gergits, chair of the English department, said she would like more term contracts alongside higher pay for adjuncts.
“If the University gave me bunches more of those, I could hire more of our people in to do that. It would be wonderful,” Gergits said. “But the budget lines are just never there.”
She said it would allow people in an area like composition — which currently employs 54 adjuncts — to teach four or five classes per semester while receiving benefits and building a career.
Thomas Sabatini, an adjunct working in the history department, said it’s not unreasonable to want multi-term contracts, which have been in place at other universities.
“I’ve been working at YSU for 15 years. That couldn’t have been three five-year contracts or five three-year contracts? It really has to be done each term?” Sabatini said. “It’s dishonest and disingenuous for an administrator to say, ‘We hire only on an as need basis for adjuncts,’ when we comprise well over half of the faculty.”
Abraham said the difference in cost between hiring someone on a term contract and hiring someone for a full-time tenure-track position is not that significant.
“For the differences in what we expect, and the differences we have to do in compensation and the differences in what we can obtain in terms of performance or activity, we’re better off probably with the full-time people, at least in the structure that we have today,” Abraham said.
According to the agreement between YSU and the Ohio Education Association, the minimum pay for an instructor is $38,689 and the minimum pay for an assistant professor is $51,238 — a difference of $12,549.
The Adjunct Advantage
There is a consensus among employers that written and oral communication skills are important, but Zupanic said the people we depend on to teach those classes are put under tremendous stress.
“There is too heavy a concentration on part-time faculty in areas that are critical to retaining and graduating and putting out a good student,” Zupanic said.
Yet he said that adjuncts are better suited to the role than tenure-track faculty, so it would make sense to hire full-time non-tenure-track instructors to fill these roles.
“Full-time faculty … want to do their research, and they want to teach in specific areas of their expertise,” Zupanic said.
If they’ve been doing this for several years and then had to teach composition classes, they probably would not be as good at it as adjuncts who have been teaching composition semester after semester for several years.
“That could be a negative thing to have someone who could be a very good teacher of written communications, and you replace them with someone who doesn’t really want to do that because that’s tough, and they’ve got other tough things that they want to do … if they want to be promoted and get tenure,” Zupanic said.
In order for this to work, he said there would need to be something in place to make sure the applicants weren’t after tenure-track jobs.
“If you hire someone full-time non-tenure-track [with a] Ph.D. … their next interest is what?” Zupanic said. “When there’s a full-time tenure-track position, they want to apply for that so they’re not necessarily going to concentrate on being the best instructor for written communications.”
Gergits said it would be great to have adjuncts working full-time, advising and sitting on committees.
“They’ve got really good backgrounds, they’ve got their master’s degrees and they’ve been teaching in the programs for years,” Gergits said.
Adjuncts have concerns beyond receiving fair wages for the work they are doing.
There has been an effort, led by Zupanic, to get adjuncts representation in the Academic Senate. He said both the senate and the administration have been receptive to the idea, and it could happen this year.
“It just provides a voice, just like everyone else who’s got a stake in the University has a voice. A small voice, just one or two members on the senate,” Zupanic said. “I think that’ll mean a lot to people.”
Sabatini said another issue is the lack of a standard means of addressing student complaints, so adjuncts are at the mercy of students.
“If a student complains, the student is always right because [administrators] don’t want to hear complaints,” Sabatini said. “It feels as though education is pursuing a consumer satisfaction model rather than an education model.”
There are also little things. Sabatini said it can be difficult to meet with students outside the classroom when adjuncts aren’t provided with offices.
“Those are separate issues that I think everybody can see a way to solving whereas the other one is a whole big can of worms,” Zupanic said.
Addressing the Problem
According to Zupanic, some adjuncts didn’t take Tressel’s stated desire to give adjuncts a raise at face value.
“I’ve talked to people in labor studies. They say the first thing [you do when] you find a union poking their nose around [is to] start trying to do things that will get people to say, ‘Oh, OK, things are going to get better, don’t bother going that route,’” Zupanic said.
Zupanic said he thinks Tressel is an honorable guy. If he says it’s a problem, it’s because he thinks it’s a problem.
“I think he can be a leader even beyond YSU, be a leader in the state of Ohio in saying, ‘Hey, other presidents should start saying this same thing and trying to do something about it,’ because he’s got the profile to believe that,” Zupanic said.
Johanna Slivinske, an adjunct professor of sociology, also praised Tressel for his recognition of the adjunct community.
“I am grateful that President Tressel has stated that he hopes to be able to raise the pay of adjunct faculty,” she said. “He is making efforts to include us more in the campus community.”
Abraham said he has heard from chairs that are finding it more difficult to fill adjunct positions than they have in the past.
“I think part of it is because of the rate of pay that we have,” Abraham said. “In some areas, it’s almost an insult.”
He said that as enrollment stabilizes and starts moving the other way, change is more likely to happen.
“We will have a more robust budget, and we will have the opportunity to reevaluate faculty salaries both part-time and full-time,” Abraham said.
He added that getting adjunct wages more in line with what they deserve is an objective of the administration.
“We’re not going to get there, I’m sure, because they probably deserve way more than we can afford to give, but we can do a little better for them, and we do have that as a goal,” Abraham said.