Although college instructors are often envied for having tenure, high salaries and sweet benefits packages – not to mention summer vacations – those benefits are for tenured professors, who account for less than one-fourth of all faculty nationwide.
More than 50 percent of college teaching staffs are made up of adjuncts, but only a masochist could envy them.
Assigned only one or two classes per term with no guarantee of any assignment, they have no benefits, little respect and pathetic pay. They are the Dixie cups of higher education: plentiful, cheap and disposable.
Holding advanced degrees in their academic fields, adjuncts carry out the same teaching responsibilities as full-time faculty: preparation, lecturing, grading, etc. Their labor is bought on the cheap while colleges spend extravagantly on ever-more-luxurious campuses, new technology and burgeoning bureaucracies.
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This month, two adjunct history instructors at Modesto Junior College – Paul Muncy and Monique Vallance – took the unusual step of writing public resignation letters in hopes of drawing attention to the hardships and second-class status endured by part-time instructors.
Muncy considers teaching his calling, but during his four years as an adjunct he lived eight months without electricity, six months without heat or hot water, and more than a few days without food. For three months, he slept in his car.
He wants Yosemite Community College District trustees to understand how difficult it is for adjuncts to afford basic necessities. Twenty-five percent of adjuncts receive food stamps, Medicaid or other income assistance, according to a recent UC Berkeley study.
On paper, part-timers make good salaries. MJC’s starting rate is $46 per hour, and experienced adjuncts with doctorates can earn $75. But the hourly rate is a mirage. Adjuncts are paid only for scheduled class time. The many hours of preparing, grading and interacting with students outside the classroom don’t count and aren’t paid.
Muncy counted his anyway, and then calculated his actual hourly wage: $8.20 to $9.84.
Put into context, a food services technician (the Yosemite district’s lowest-paid classified position) makes $12.39 an hour. The message is clear, writes Muncy: The college “values the service of administrators, administrative support specialists, custodians, (and) groundskeepers ... vastly more than it values ... half of its faculty.”
It’s hard to miss that message. I’m also an adjunct instructor, and if I were paid at my adjunct rate for a full teaching load of 15 units per semester I would earn $26,200 per year – or less than the benefits package alone for more than 450 Yosemite district employees. An instructor at the same salary step on the full-time schedule earns $52,747, plus another $25,000 to $32,000 in benefits. The most experienced with doctorates earn nearly $99,500, plus benefits, according to www.TransparentCalifornia.com.
It’s a swell deal for the Yosemite college district because there is no disparity in funding from the state, which pays colleges the same for each student who takes a class, regardless of who teaches – an adjunct or a fully tenured professor.
Why do adjuncts do it? With freshly minted advanced degrees, those who don’t land coveted full-time positions face a dilemma. They can give up college teaching, or – lured by the possibility of eventual full-time employment – persist as adjuncts. Many cobble together full-time loads (at part-time wages) by becoming “freeway fliers,” commuting between Modesto, Merced, Delta or Las Positas in Livermore.
Very few ever become full-time faculty. Instead, most burn out, demoralized victims of an academic bait-and-switch scheme.
Muncy’s frustration is shared by Vallance, who has a doctorate and has taught at Modesto Junior College since 2007. She was the Yosemite Faculty Association adjunct representative for four years and quickly learned the deck is stacked. The association’s semester dues are steep, so almost all adjuncts pay only the mandatory $20 that provides representation – but no voting rights.
High dues aside, freeway fliers have little time for advocacy, and even less appetite for it. Most adjuncts won’t publicly complain about their treatment because they fear being branded as “troublemakers,” knowing that future classes could vanish along with any hope of a full-time position. Vallance says she got “numerous emails and phone calls from adjuncts with questions they were too scared to ask anyone else.”
Their fear of retaliation is not unfounded: As one MJC administrator explained to a colleague, adjuncts “have no job rights and have no right to due process.”
Since returning to college teaching after a decade of focus on home schooling and volunteer work, I’ve been shocked by the struggles of colleagues trying to survive on what they earn, and the callous ease with which colleges discard them. Because my husband is a tenured professor, I’m not dependent on my adjunct pay to survive, and I’ve got little to lose by drawing attention to the disparity between full-time and part-time instructors.
Meanwhile, the newly created dean of equity and student learning has just been hired at a six-figure salary to ensure “student equity.” Apparently, some equities are more equal than others.
Leslie Beggs writes occasionally for The Bee and serves as an equal rights commissioner for Stanislaus County.