ODU Administration Responds to Adjunct Concerns
By David Thornton
Over the past several years, difficulties faced by adjunct professors, including low pay, excessive hours and lack of benefits, have become one of the most discussed subjects in the world of higher education. On February 25, in conjunction with National Adjunct Walkout Day, a “ring-in” staged by adjuncts brought this issue home to ODU.
But what exactly is an adjunct? What is their plight? And what has been the response of ODU’s administration?
Adjuncts are essentially considered to be part-time faculty instructors. Their positions are referred to as “contingent,” meaning they have to be officially re-hired every semester based on need. Other contingent faculty members include full-time non-tenure-track professors and graduate student teaching assistants.
Adjuncts tend to fall into two categories. The first is the true part-timer. These professors are generally experts in their fields, brought in to teach a couple of classes and share their experience with newer generations, and tend to have full-time jobs from which they derive the majority of their income.
At ODU, many of these adjuncts can be found in the Strome College of Business, or in the College of Engineering and Technology. They teach for a variety of reasons: to supplement their income, to maintain ties to the University, and to give back by helping students who are entering their respective fields. Many of these adjuncts have full-time, established careers outside of academia.
But the second category of adjuncts is those for whom teaching is a calling, who want to make academia their careers. These adjuncts are frequently found teaching liberal arts and general education courses. For many of them, education is their only source of income. And many are barely scraping by.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, to which over 20,000 contingent faculty members responded, the median pay for a three-semester course was $2700. At ODU, adjuncts are paid more than that, around $3000. Multiple adjuncts at the ring-in stated that three classes per semester was a full time workload.
This means that, assuming they don’t teach summer courses, adjuncts make about $18,000 a year. That comes out to roughly $8.75 an hour. That’s assuming 40-hour workweeks, which some would say is lowballing it. In addition, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, adjuncts rarely see wage increases over time, and more than half the respondents to the survey stated that they have been working as contingent faculty for more than six years.
In addition to low pay, adjuncts also seldom receive health benefits, and rarely have office space of their own. Dr. Carol Simpson, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, said that students have indicated that they like having professors in offices where they have a reasonable chance of finding them, and admits that this can be very difficult for adjuncts.
However, to address this issue, Dr. Simpson said that ODU has already included in its Master Plan, the primary outline for building and development on campus over the next few years, plans to increase the amount of office space in some academic departments, some of which will be made available to adjuncts.
In addition, many departments that rely more heavily on adjuncts, such as English and Math, have suites of rooms which adjuncts are able to use as shared office space.
Dr. Simpson and Dr. Chandra de Silva, vice provost for Faculty and Program Development, took note of the ring-in. “I thought what they did was perfect,” said Dr. Simpson. “There was no negative impact on students, it was not disruptive.” Both she and Dr. de Silva expressed openness to engaging in conversations about these issues with the adjuncts.
Towards this end, they have set up a town-hall-style meeting for 2pm on April 29, in MGB 102. “It will be interesting… to get the different viewpoints, because different faculty will have different concerns,” Dr. Simpson said.
“They wanted somewhere they could express their ideas,” Dr. de Silva said. “People are realistic about what can and can’t be done, but we’d like to hear more about what they’d like us to prioritize. There are very different groups.”
Caleb Magyar, one of the adjuncts spearheading this movement, agreed.
“We are absolutely a heterogeneous group,” he said. “We’re made up of all sorts of people from all walks of life.”
Both the adjuncts and the provosts are eager for the meeting. “We shot for Reading Day. The idea … was to try to catch a day when people wouldn’t have a teaching commitment at ODU,” Magyar said. “We wanted it before the end of the semester, and to maximize the opportunity for people to attend.”
Dr. de Silva met with Magyar and a small group of adjuncts at the end of March to discuss the implementation of the meeting. They also discussed some initial concerns, including the possibility of representation in the faculty senate, which adjuncts currently do not have. They also discussed some possible solutions, such as adjunct advocacy groups organized within each college.
However, neither side can move forward until they’ve heard from everyone.
“Until we know exactly what the concerns are, there’s only so much we can do,” Dr. Simpson said. “We need to have a sense from the group, a reasonably large proportion, to see what it is they need.”
“This is how to make sure adjuncts get a fair deal,” Dr. de Silva said. “This is not particular to ODU. It’s a national problem. While it is difficult to totally resolve, we have some guidance in that some people have already been thinking about this.”
Everyone seems to be in a holding pattern until the end of April. The adjuncts are gathering information, setting agendas, and soliciting feedback. The provosts are doing much the same. Until the town hall meeting, the fullest extent of the adjuncts’ concerns will not be known, much less what the university can reasonably be expected to do to help.
But what is clear is that the administration is listening.