Adjunct Life: Struggles on the Ivory Tower’s Lower Floors

By Holly J. McDede

More than a decade ago, Noga Wizansky went searching for her place in academia. Her 15 years at UC Berkeley had earned her a Ph.D. in visual arts history, and it was time. She soon landed a job teaching drawing at California College of the Arts in Oakland. There, she imagined herself blending research with practice, art with ideas, passion with job security and, on top of it all, tenure—except there was no tenure.

She was hired as a lecturer, a contingent position that has come to mean modest pay and no security from one semester to the next. “I saw the writing on the wall. After a semester, I realized I was not going to be able to in any way provide for my family,” Wizansky said. “Teaching in a college made it impossible for me to consider putting my own daughter through college.”

It’s a pervasive problem. In fact, one-quarter of part-time college faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program, such as food stamps or Medicaid, according to a study by UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “Teaching has become a lower-wage work force,” says Carol Zabin, the center’s research director. And, she added, a deterrent to students considering a career in academe. “The job security, the running around, the lack of support for research within a research university, the stress, the high teaching load … it all makes it hard to do a good job.”

At colleges and universities across the country, adjuncts, lecturers, and other contingent academics are taking on multiple jobs, commuting long distances, and still struggling to support themselves. Some, as Wizansky did, rely on the income of a spouse. Some just give up.

Others have begun to demand universities rethink where these contingent teachers fit into higher education.

The number of contingent faculty nationwide has exploded in the past few decades. Since 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than 30 percent, according to the American Association of University Professors. Part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants now make up more than 50 percent of the academic labor force.

Some experts contend that the adjunct role originally was designed for working professionals excited to bring “real world” experience to the classroom. But Zabin notes that the role has changed. “The trend in lower and lower wages, with worse and worse working conditions, can be seen sector by sector,” she says. “It’s not surprising that it would hit public institutions, too. The disinvestment in the public sector … it ripples.”

UC Berkeley is no exception. The number of lecturers at Berkeley has risen by roughly 38 percent since the 2009 school year, while the number of permanent incumbent faculty (which includes professors and teaching professors) has dipped by about 3 percent during that same time frame. UC Berkeley administrators attribute the shift to rising enrollment numbers. Lecturers, the administrators said, are a way for the University to provide the classes that students want without making long-term financial commitments.

“What is hap­pen­ing at this campus is that the number of tenure track faculty is basi­cally frozen, where­as the number of under­grads, under man­dates from Sacra­mento, are increasing. Who is going to cover the short­fall?”

Now might be a particularly sour time to spend that kind of money. In the 1980s, UC Berkeley received approximately half of its funding from the state, but by 2014–15 just roughly 13 percent of Berkeley’s operating revenue came from state appropriations. In April, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent a memo to employees informing them that the University, in an effort to cope with a $150 million budget deficit, would eliminate 500 staff jobs over two years.

“What is happening at this campus is that the number of tenure track faculty is basically frozen, whereas the number of undergrads, under mandates from Sacramento, are increasing. Who is going to cover the shortfall?” asks Michael Burawoy, a sociology professor and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association. “Well, the expansion in the number of lecturers is the only way it seems possible. That undermines the very idea of the research university.”

In order to compete with rivals like Stanford for good researchers, a UC Berkeley administrator explained, salaries for tenure track faculty must be kept seductively high, while the same forces don’t drive up the salaries of lecturers at nearly the same rate. A lecturer at Berkeley earns an average salary of $79,700, according to the American Association of University Professors, while full professors at Berkeley earn $178,900 on average.

Averages, though, can be distorting, as UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof wrote in an email, because they don’t capture the substantial range of pay seen by different departments on campus. Plus, it’s not necessarily appropriate to compare lecturers to tenured faculty, Mogulof said, because tenured faculty are leaders in their field with decades of experience.

Meanwhile, the number of administrators at Berkeley have increased by 147 percent since 2000, nearly matching the number of full-time faculty. Campus officials have said in previous statements that these administrators were hired for fundraising, technology operations, financial planning, student services, building maintenance, and campus safety. Executive compensation as a percentage of Berkeley’s operating budget declined from 0.75 percent in fiscal year 2002 to 0.57 percent in 2015, they say.

When Noga Wizansky realized she couldn’t make enough money teaching art at California College of the Arts, she actually took a job as a UC Berkeley administrator—as a program coordinator in the Institute of European Studies. She still remembers the sense of shame she felt when she returned to the same university where her professors had coached her for a future as a researcher. “I felt like it was somehow my failure,” she says. “It was only years later that I began to understand the situation, that the numbers don’t work.”

Some administrators and researchers who’ve looked at the situation say the numbers can’t be made to work—at least not in a way that would lead to better pay for adjuncts. They contend that universities can’t afford that without resorting to tuition hikes and overcrowded classrooms. Phillip Magness, a policy historian and academic program director at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, co-authored a study to prove it, called “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: A Case Study in University Business Ethics.”

“We looked at the numbers from university budgets, and we found that the cost of converting adjuncts to tenure track positions would bankrupt the university system,” he said. “It’s just not feasible.”

Magness contends that focusing on significant pay increases distracts from other, more practical solutions. “‘Adjunct justice’ would cost universities somewhere around an additional $15–50 billion per year,” the paper’s abstract reads. “At most, universities can provide justice for a minority of adjuncts at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of poor students.”

For those who remain in academia, some of the sacrifices they make—in particular, the terrible commute—have become the stuff of comedy and legend. There’s even an online lifestyle magazine, Adjunct Commuter Weekly, dedicated to the cause. It was founded by Dushko Petrovich, an adjunct who regularly crossed state lines to teach at four different universities: Yale University, Boston University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and New York University. “Over the years, I travelled from school to school, state to state, teaching at various universities, trying to put money together to support myself,” Petrovich recalls. “I realized that although my situation was difficult, I was by no means alone.”

Robert Chester has been Amtraking and shuttling in from Sacramento to teach history at UC Berkeley for the past five years. “I’d prefer to teach closer to home, but a bird in hand is better than two in the bush, right?” he asks. “So I take the work, because I know it exists. I can’t wait to find out if there is going to be something better later, because then someone else is going to fill that spot.” But it isn’t just the commute—it’s the lack of job security. This summer he’s teaching what he says will “almost certainly” be his last two classes: The University hasn’t offered him any for fall.

David Skolnick knows that feeling. After four and a half years of teaching writing at Berkeley, his contract to teach during the school year wasn’t renewed after 2009. He said the University cited budget concerns, at a time when the recession was hitting the state of California, and state funding to the UC system, especially hard. Skolnick said most of the part-time faculty in his department found themselves without jobs that year. Some were brought back again, but he was only kept on to teach summer classes. “I was devastated. I was destroyed,” he says. “I loved working there. I was invested in the student body, in the program, and I felt like I was doing a good job. I identified with that job so much that without it I felt kind of lame.”

“It matters to me to be involved in the depart­ment, to be there for stu­dents, and yet some­times I feel like I’m invi­sible.”

Jill Bakehorn, a lecturer in the Berkeley sociology department, considers herself lucky. “I’m in a privileged position where I can get full-time work, but a lot of people can’t get that,” she says. “Other lecturers, they have to cobble it together from multiple places, and they are just making themselves exhausted, just completely unfulfilled and overwhelmed in what they’re doing.”

But even full-time lecturers say they sometimes feel like second-class academics. At Berkeley they don’t have a voice in the Academic Senate, the governing body of faculty on campus. Many don’t get a say in the curriculum, and aren’t invited to faculty meetings. “It matters to me to be involved in the department, to be there for students, and yet sometimes I feel like I’m invisible,” Bakehorn says. “I serve as a mentor and on committees for students, but I don’t get paid for any of that. Frankly, none of it really matters to the University in terms of my status and place there.”

And so, Bakehorn says she works hard and signs her new contract every year. As she puts it, “I’m fired every year essentially. They really can’t give me anything more than that.”

There have already been serious attempts to improve the lives of adjuncts over the years. A Berkeley-based startup called ProfHire now has a centralized database to match adjuncts with universities—aiming to make the job search and hiring process less haphazard and grueling. The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, based at the University of Southern California, publishes reports to help educators and others understand, and respond to, this new faculty majority.

A Berkeley field study, conducted by the Academic Senate’s Committee on Educational Policy, was recently sent out to lecturers on campus to gather more information about their working conditions. “The idea is to instigate a wide discussion about the changing character of teaching on this campus,” explains Michael Burawoy, a professor in UC Berkeley’s sociology department and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association. “We must educate and discuss among ourselves: what is the nature of this University that is changing before our eyes?”

The 2003 UC system­wide contract “really changed the way lecturers can have a career at UC Berkeley, and the UC system as a whole…. It doesn’t have the kind of guaran­tees that tenure has, but none­the­less, it’s a very impor­tant step….”

The survey may put a spotlight on the group that plays a growing role at Berkeley. “They tend to be rather invisible,” Burawoy said. “Ladder faculty simply talk to ladder faculty, and in many departments, they don’t know who the lecturers are. They’re treated as second-class citizens, and it wouldn’t cost departments any money to treat them as first-class citizens.”

Other fights are left to the union. Back in 2003, after a three-year fight during which lecturers worked without a contract for two academic years, lecturers across the UC system won significant security gains. The new contract included a review process whereby lecturers on the job for six years who were deemed “excellent” would have the chance to become “continuing lecturers.” That position comes with an essentially indefinite contract that would make it harder for lecturers to lose their jobs.

“It really changed the way lecturers can have a career at UC Berkeley, and the UC system as a whole,” said Kurt Spreyer, president of UC-AFT Local 1474 and lecturer in the College of Natural Resources. “It doesn’t have the kind of guarantees that tenure has, but nonetheless, it’s a very important step that really made it possible for lecturers to have longer-term careers at Berkeley.”

In the most recent University of California systemwide contract tentatively agreed upon in February, lecturers received a 6 percent raise, and those who weren’t getting retirement benefits would get a lump sum equivalent to 5 percent of their annual salary. The UC Berkeley administration said they couldn’t comment on the negotiations, because they don’t comment on labor issues. But Kate Moser, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, said in an email that UCOP was pleased the new contract provides annual wage increases.

Salary gains have been made outside the UC system, too. After a massive faculty strike was scheduled to begin across all 23 of the California State University campuses earlier this year, officials agreed to a 10.5 percent salary increase for faculty. By the start of 2015, the Service Employees International Union chapters in the Los Angeles area and in Northern California had brought nearly a dozen more campuses into the union fold. Unions may be losing membership in other industries, but they appear to have stumbled upon friendlier grounds in the college campus.

One of those newly mobilized campuses is California College of the Arts. When Noga Wizansky returned there after leaving academia for eight years, she found a campus that was, in that respect, different. So was she. Her daughter had graduated from college, so she felt better about going back to the adjunct life. Besides, she desperately missed art. She soon joined the bargaining team, and that made her feel better about returning to the same unstable working conditions she had left. “It feels like I’m working on the heart of the matter. I believe in education,” she said. “I feel I’m doing much more good teaching material I’m passionate about.”

In response to a request for comment, CCA spokesperson Chris Bliss directed California to the most recent bargaining update from CCA Provost Tammy Rae Carland. It reads, “I have directed the college bargaining team to stay committed to concluding negotiations as soon as possible, with the goal of obtaining a contract that ensures the quality and value of instruction for our students, does not adversely affect our ranked faculty, and provides for an equitable solution for non-ranked faculty.”

As for Wizansky, the college administration recently canceled the class she was planning on teaching in the fall. She may have found a job she loves, but it’s up to the administration to decide if she gets to keep it.

Cal alumni who want to support UC Berkeley and higher education can get involved with Cal Advocacy and the Cal Alumni Association.

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