“What if everyone just told their students how much they got paid?” pondered Erin Bartram, a former professor of 19th Century American history, in a Tweet August this year. The thought came to her after stumbling onto a Twitter thread in which contingent faculty members, otherwise known as adjuncts, relayed stories about the misconception held by their students, and the public at large, about their meager pay rates. Georgina Aadlam, a professor of English Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan wrote she “howl[ed] with laughter” when a student thought she made $50,000 a year. Alison Furlong, a musicologist at the Ohio State University, wrote that some of her students thought she made $4,000 per class session instead of per course. In response, Bartram acted on her proposition and created a Google spreadsheet in which adjuncts are called to share their salaries and working conditions, much in the style of the “Art/Museum Salary Transparency” spreadsheet that circulated in summer. Originally titled “Adjuncts Rates,” the spreadsheet — now more elaborately titled “What do the people who teach college get paid?” — has since grown to include tenure-track professors and teaching graduate students as well.
“My hope was that if we got it filled in, it might be a way to reach the people who we really want to engage in this discussion — students and their parents,” Bartram wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “I think the use of adjunct labor, and what that means for faculty and student lives, is still not well-understood by the general public,” she continued. “Pay transparency is good for lots of reasons, including labor organizing, but I really hope that people outside of academia might see it too.” So far, close to 500 adjuncts have filled in the spreadsheet. Pay for a 3-credit course ranges from $1,400 (ECPI University in Virginia) to $16,000 (Princeton University in New Jersey). A great number of the adjuncts reported they don’t belong to a union.
Bartram herself is no longer an adjunct. After three years of teaching, first as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hartford, a private university in Connecticut, and then as an adjunct at the University of Connecticut, she decided to abandon the profession altogether. “I decided to give up on trying for a tenure-track position, given the long odds, and financial challenges that make it hard to do academic research and publishing when you’re a contingent academic,” she wrote Hyperallergic. A personal essay about her departure from the world of academia was featured at the time on the Chronicle of High Education. Nowadays, Bartram is an editor for Contingent Magazine, an online magazine of history she co-founded with other colleagues. She also co-edits the Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia series for the University Press of Kansas in addition to working as the School Programs Coordinator at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut.
Bartram is not the first to circulate an adjunct salary spreadsheet to highlight the plight of contingent faculty members. In 2012, Joshua A. Boldt, then a writing instructor at the University of Georgia, circulated a similar document, later called the Adjunct Project, which quickly went viral. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, pay for a 3-credit course at the time started at $600. In April 2015, adjuncts from across the country waged a nationwide campaign demanding a minimum compensation of $15,000 per college course taught, in addition to benefits. That, of course, never happened. College tuition expenses have increased by a staggering 538% since 1985, but higher education institutions continue to increasingly transform tenure-track positions to adjunct labor to save money on salaries and benefits. According to data provided by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 73% of all faculty positions in American colleges and universities are contingent staff who are kept off the tenure track, creating a two-tier system of compensation and benefits within these institutions. (The data is from 2016, the latest year for which it was available.) The association’s 2018-19 AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey, based on responses collected from more than 950 colleges and universities across the United States, found that the average pay for a part-time faculty member teaching a three-credit course was $3,894, although the pay rates spanned a huge range across different institutions. Salaries for full-time faculty members have increased 2% compared to last year but adjusted for 1.9%, they “barely budged,” AAUP says.
Just how low is a salary based on $3,894 per course? Typically, a full teaching load stands at three classes a semester. If an adjunct is paid $3,894 per course, their salary before taxes would be $23,364 per year if they teach a normal lecturer’s load (three in the fall semester; three in the spring semester). As a result, adjuncts may end teaching up to six courses per semester to make ends meet, often at several different schools at once, as universities tend to cap the number of courses that can be allotted to any given adjunct per semester.
High Prestige, Starvation Wages
Higher education institutions cloak their teachers and students in an aura of prestige, but an adjunct job could sink an academic with a PhD below the poverty line. According to a 2015 study from Service Employees International Union (SEIU), based on data compiled by the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education between 2008-2012, one in five part-time faculty members live below the federal poverty line. The report indicates that a vast number of the rest live near the poverty line. Some 25% are enrolled in one or more government assistance programs. Across the country, part-time faculty members are more likely to be in poverty than the average American, from 9% more likely in Nevada to 43% more likely in Maine.
“The situation is bleak across the country but seems to be just dire in New York City where so many people are competing for the same teaching positions,” said Alina Tenser, a New York-based artist and long-time adjunct, in an email conversation with Hyperallergic. “Artists gravitate towards these positions because of the perceived security they can provide,” she said. “However, given the staggering ratios of adjunct to full-time faculty in most New York institutions, the security of academic jobs is as out of reach as commercial success in the art world,” she added. Tenser currently teaches drawing and fashion illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (her fourth year) and 3D design at Parsons School of Design in Lower Manhattan (starting this year). Pratt pays her $4,583 per course while Parsons pays her $11,506 per course, but she’s yet to earn benefits at either. This semester she’s teaching three courses that should yield her an income of about $30,000. But as a mother to a child in New York City, she still finds herself needing to look for other sources of income. “Because I do not get paid in the summertime, I often work other jobs,” she said. “I do a light load of bookkeeping for a small creative collective year around, as well as art installing gigs and seamstress work during the summer vacation months. This is on top of balancing an art practice.”
And then there’s the question of space. Adjuncts often have no office to use on campus, meaning they have nowhere to meet their students for office hours, and nowhere to leave heavy belongings like books and laptops while trekking across one or more campuses to teach. “My per-class pay [as a unionized adjunct at the public University of Connecticut] was about $1500 more than it had been in my last year at a private institution, but I showed up on the first day to discover the communal adjunct office had been repurposed and there was no place to hang up my coat, let alone meet privately with students.”
There were days when a job in academia meant a well-cushioned career for life, but things have changed. “Just because you teach in a university, it doesn’t mean that you have a tweed jacket, a mortgage, and a retirement fund,” said Dushko Petrovich, chair of the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institue Chicago, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “That’s how it was in the 1970s maybe, but we’re a long way from that.”
In 2015, Petrovich launched Adjunct Commuter Weekly, a publication that addressed the lifestyle needs of adjuncts. At the time, Petrovich commuted from Brooklyn to teach at Yale, RISD, and Boston University. He did that for 10 years before landing a tenure-track position at the School of the Art Institue Chicago. “Adjuncting is sometimes good for people in a short term way,” he said. “The problem is that universities across the country have taken advantage of the situation to make positions that should be salary jobs with benefits, and be life-long professions, into gig economy bits and pieces.”
Unions are crucial in contingent workers’ ability to negotiate for living wages and benefits. But the possibility of unionization is challenged in more than one way. Sometimes it is restricted by state law and in other situations by the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB), which showed some leniency toward adjunct professors during the Obama administration but then turned a cold shoulder to them under President Donald Trump. In some cases, unions are impeded by the power of a 1980 Supreme Court decision (NLRB v. Yeshiva University) which ruled full-time professors as “managers” who are not entitled to collective bargaining rights.
“The collective bargaining power of a union can help secure not only higher pay, and benefits but the needed multi-year contract,” said Kealey Boyd, a Denver-based art historian, writer, critic, and a Hyperallergic contributor, in an email. In the past five years, Boyd has been teaching art history at the Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver, Colorado after teaching at several institutions simultaneously between 2011-2014. Adjuncts at MSU Denver are not unionized. After all these years at MSU Denver, she still does not receive benefits. “I pay into a pension that I doubt will exist when I reach retirement. My healthcare is through my spouse,” she said. Boyd makes $3,065 per course, never certain if she will be rehired, as adjuncts are hired on a semester by semester base.
“Moving from a semester to semester employment to even a one-year commitment can alter a teacher’s life,” Boyd added. “The ability to forecast employment more than 4 months can encourage a teacher to investigate and navigate their employment options better in their region,” she continued. “Unions won’t solve the broad over-reliance by universities on this flexible workforce, but greater pay and contract commitments would grant mobility and dignity to this skilled population.”
“Although adjuncts are well qualified and dedicated to teaching, there is only so much a person can be expected to do for a salary of under $20,000 per year,” Tenser said. “Since many adjuncts have to supplement their income with other gigs, they don’t have as much time to answer student emails, meet outside of class, etc. as full-time faculty. This is not good for students or teachers!”
“Adjuncts have to press for change in an organized fashion,” Petrovich concluded. “Tenure-track faculty need to support them when that happens, and administrations need to recognize that there is a big problem.”