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Canada's treatment of adjunct professors could provide roadmap for US

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Wednesday, November 8, 2023   

By Jon Marcus for The Hechinger Report.
Broadcast version by Eric Tegethoff for Washington News Service reporting for The Hechinger Report-Public News Service Collaboration

Raad Jassim really likes his job.

As an adjunct faculty member at a Canadian university, Jassim has four teaching assistants to help him grade assignments and answer questions. He makes the equivalent of about $7,000 per course, per term. He has a multiyear contract and can typically pick the subjects that he teaches. He has an office, access to professional training and government-provided health insurance.

All of these things, he said, help him focus on the reason that he’s there: his students.

And few of these benefits, or that kind of pay, are available to his counterparts south of the border, in the United States.

The comparatively poor working situation of American adjuncts “is a sad story,” said Jassim, who teaches corporate finance, real estate investment and managerial and engineering economics at McGill University. “It breaks my heart.”

Now there’s new scrutiny of how adjuncts’ pay and benefits affect not only them but also their students, who often go into debt to cover rising tuition.

Some 44 percent of American university and college faculty are part-time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. adjuncts worry about their ability to engage with students and how well their students are learning, according to a new study that compares Canadian adjuncts with what it calls the “woefully under-supported and poorly compensated” American adjuncts.

“The people we’re relying on to teach our youth are dedicated and feel meaning in their jobs but are being relied upon without making a living wage,” said Candace Sue, executive director of Chegg’s Center for Digital Learning, a spin-off of the textbook and study help company that produces resources about technology and education and commissioned the study.

“It’s not fair to them — we know that. But it’s also not fair to the students who are relying on them to be focused on the classroom and to keep them going.”

The research is among the latest to document the woes of what has grown into an army of 792,000 U.S. university part-time and contingent faculty who work part time or on fixed contracts.

American adjuncts earn a median of $3,700 per course, an amount that has declined significantly when adjusted for inflation, the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, says. The figure comes from 900 universities and colleges that provide employment data for about 370,000 full-time and 90,000 part-time faculty.

More than one in four adjuncts earn below the federal poverty level for a family of four, another new report, from the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, finds. More than three-quarters are guaranteed employment for only one term or semester at a time. That information is based on a survey distributed to adjuncts who are AFT members and, through social media, to adjuncts who are not members of the union; 1,043 responded. The AFT represents 85,000 adjuncts who have unionized.

“If you’re cobbling together jobs at different universities to make ends meet, you don’t have the time to do the work you want to with your students,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Fifty-seven percent of adjunct faculty, and almost all of the adjuncts at community colleges, get no medical benefits, the AAUP says. About one in five rely on Medicare or Medicaid, according to the AFT.

“You’re almost like a starving artist,” said Antwan Daniels, an adjunct in Kansas City and father of four who teaches chemistry at three different universities — one in person and two online — while also working on a doctorate in higher education administration.

Though much of the conversation around these salaries and benefits has centered on the toll it takes on adjunct faculty members themselves, researchers have turned to documenting how it is affecting students.

“Like with everything, if a contingent faculty [member] doesn’t have security themselves, it’s really hard to do that million and one things to help their students,” said Josh Kim, a sociologist at Dartmouth and a senior fellow at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, who began his own career as an adjunct.

More than a third of adjuncts in the Center for Digital Learning study, which was conducted by Hanover Research, said low pay and lack of benefits or job security affected their ability to engage with students and the learning students take with them from class.

Adjunct faculty are more likely than faculty in general to say they don’t have enough time to prepare their courses and don’t receive enough administrative support, according to a breakdown of a September faculty survey provided to The Hechinger Report by the educational publishing and technology company Cengage.

“Unless the school has a well-rounded support system for the adjunct faculty, you’re serving the students at probably 60 percent of your capacity,” Daniels said. “You’re having a rushed conversation. You’re trying to distill it down to, ‘What do you need at this moment?’ ” Students, he said, “are not served in the way they should be.”

Fewer than half of adjuncts say they’ve received the training they need to help students in crisis, the AFT survey found.

“We have a population of people that are being depended on to educate students that don’t have all the tools in their toolkit to do it in the way that we as a society expect them to be supported to do their jobs,” Sue said.

These new studies follow earlier findings by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success showing that increased reliance on part-time and non-tenure track faculty resulted in higher dropout rates, lower grade-point averages and graduation rates and a reduced likelihood that community college students will continue on to four-year institutions for bachelor’s degrees, among other things.

“There are now two decades of research saying that having more exposure to part-time faculty who lack the most support leads to more dropouts, lower graduation rates, lower GPAs and difficulty finding a major,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project and the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, where it’s housed.

Last-minute hiring and lack of job security are among the biggest problems, Kezar said. But “it’s overwhelming and cumulative, the number of bad working conditions, so you can’t totally distill out one or two. There are so many of these things that add up.”

What’s bringing new attention to this issue, she said, is that “institutions are being held accountable more” for their success rates, “so they’re more worried about these connections.”

Things appear brighter in Canada, the Center for Digital Learning study found in its comparison. Canadian adjuncts were almost three times less likely to be concerned about low salaries, and 87 percent of them get benefits.

“It does show that alternatives are available,” the report concluded.

While policies like that require financial investments by universities and colleges, Weingarten said it’s mostly a matter of these institutions’ priorities.

Instructional spending by universities, per student, goes down as the proportion of the faculty who are adjuncts goes up, a researcher from the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University found.

People think the cost of higher education is increasing “because there are more and more resources that are going into teaching and learning and it’s completely the opposite,” Weingarten said. “Where is the rising tuition going? Where’s the money going?”

Life as a Canadian adjunct isn’t perfect, said Jay Lister, who teaches education at McGill. But “I have guaranteed employment,” he said. “Even days when I’m just normal stressed, I worry about my students. I can’t fathom what I would do without the job security.”

At a coffee shop near the campus, wearing a union T-shirt, an Expos cap and a long beard tied with elastics, Lister said he also has enough to live on — though he said that might be different if he had kids.

Heather McPherson, a contingent lecturer at McGill, said her daughter — a doctoral candidate in anthropology at a university in California — has none of the relative job security she herself enjoys.

“She’s complained a lot,” McPherson said, outside the Faculty of Education Building on the slope of Mount Royal, which overlooks the city. “I don’t think her students suffer, but her stress level does.”

Adjuncts at McGill even get university email addresses for up to nine semesters after they teach a course, so students can reach out for recommendations or advice, said Jassim, who is president of the university’s Course Lecturers & Instructors Union.

Back in the United States, Kim likened the plight of adjuncts to those of autoworkers and Hollywood writers and actors, who have or are now striking for improved conditions.

“We have this system where the people who actually do the work are getting the least benefits and the least security. I think this is all related,” he said.

“What an enormous resource,” Kim said. “We have these motivated people. Just a little more security and a little more recognition and a little more pay would make such a difference.”

Jon Marcus wrote this article for The Hechinger Report.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

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