What Change do you want to make?” Jodi Womack

September 13, 2019; Hyperallergic

Earlier this year, NPQ wrote about a group of employees at museums and art nonprofits who created an online spreadsheet to share salary information to call attention to their low wages. Now, adjunct college faculty are doing the same thing.

The spreadsheet’s title is “What do the people who teach college get paid?” (It was once “Adjuncts Rates,” but the sheet now also has data on tenure-track professors and graduate student instructor salaries.) To date, more than 500 adjunct professors—or “contingent” faculty, as they are officially designated—have shared their salaries. Entries are anonymous, but institutions and departments are usually identified.

The spreadsheet was inspired by a question, notes Hakim Bishara in Hyperallergic. Erin Bartram, a former history instructor, asked in a tweet last month, “What if everyone just told their students how much they got paid?”

Bartram was inspired to start the project, she says, after “stumbling onto a Twitter thread” in which adjunct faculty “relayed stories about the misconceptions held by their students, and the public at large, about their meager pay rates.”

The gap between perceptions of what college faculty earn and actual salaries can be great. While professors who are tenured or on the tenure track generally get paid reasonably well, adjunct faculty or graduate student instructors often have meager earnings. And, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports, tenured and tenure-track faculty hold only 27 percent of all instruction positions. As NPQ noted last year, although more and more adjunct faculty and graduate student instructors are joining unions, most still labor without union protection.

Kealey Boyd, who teaches art history at Metropolitan State University (MSU) in Denver, earns $3,065 a course and relies on her spouse for health benefits. “Unions won’t solve the broad overreliance by universities on this flexible workforce,” she concedes, but unions can help lift earnings and increase employment stability. A shift from “semester to semester employment to even a one-year commitment can alter a teacher’s life,” Boyd explains.

Bishara shares a couple of stories to illustrate the wide gap between popular beliefs about instructor salaries and their actual pay. For example, Georgina Aadlam is a graduate student instructor teaching literature at Wayne State University in Detroit. Aadlam wrote that she “howl[ed] with laughter” when a student thought she made $50,000 a year. Another person Bishara cites is Alison Furlong, a musicologist at Ohio State University, who wrote that her students thought she earned $4,000 a class instead of $4,000 for the entire course.

In the spreadsheet, reported pay for a three-credit course ranges from $1,400 at East Coast Polytechnic Institute (ECPI) in Virginia to $16,000 at Princeton University in New Jersey. In some cases, the disparity between what instructors are paid and what students are charged for tuition is glaring. For instance, Providence College estimates tuition for incoming first-year students at $51,490. Two adjunct professors at the school report earning $4,250 per course.

As Bishara notes, Providence College’s pay is actually above average. The 2018–19 AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey, based on data from 950 colleges, found that the average pay for a part-time instructor teaching a three-credit course was $3,894. Bishara adds,

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 Bishara points out, “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.” 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, found that between 2008 and 2012, one in five part-time faculty members lived below the federal poverty line. A quarter are enrolled in one or more government assistance programs.

Dushko Petrovich, who chairs the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, acknowledges that adjunct positions can sometimes work as short-term bridges to tenure-track positions. But, he notes, “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 lifelong professions, into gig economy bits and pieces.”—Steve Dubb