Adjuncts' Woe

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/01/2001

With tens of thousands of dollars of debt, Larry Kaye is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Counting pennies and worrying whether
she'll have work in a few months is just a part of life for Barbara Gottfried.

And, even if occasionally he hits up his family for extra cash, Victor Manfredi says he now prefers an ascetic lifestyle - riding a bike because he can't afford a car, living in a group house, and forgoing the expense of children.

The three highly educated 40-somethings are downtrodden veterans of a thriving lower tier of academia. Despite surging endowments and ever-rising tuition, colleges throughout the country are increasingly relying on "adjunct" professors, a low-paid subset of academics who rarely receive health or retirement benefits, have little or no say over the direction of their colleges, and usually have no job security.

Now, for the first time in any city, the 10,000 or so adjunct professors in Boston - among the nation's largest population of part-timers - are organizing a united front to fight what they view as exploitation and the lowering of standards in higher education. By banding together, they hope to pressure the city's colleges and universities to improve their working conditions.

"A teacher's working conditions are a student's learning conditions," said Gottfried, 48, a women's studies professor who struggles to get by on what she earns from teaching several classes a year at Boston University and Merrimack College. "We basically have no rights and we feel the integrity of higher education is under threat from the extensive use of adjunct faculty."

Today, nearly half of all professors in the United States are considered adjuncts, up from a fifth in 1970 - and their ranks are growing. More than two-thirds of all professors hired between 1995 and 1997 were non-tenure track adjuncts, according to the US Department of Education.

To survive, the part-timers often teach as many classes as possible, often at multiple schools, sometimes sacrificing quality for quantity. They complain their workload is often twice that of fulltime faculty for less than half the pay. With so much time spent in class or in office hours, they have little time to grade papers, consider assignments, or advance their career by writing books or journal entries.

Many of these academics are part-time in name only.

In a recent survey of adjunct professors in Boston by the American Association of University Professors, 65 percent said they consider teaching their major source of income, even though the majority teach only one or two classes a semester at an average of $2,200 a course.

For years, those daunting numbers have haunted Steve Almond. The 34-year-old adjunct professor of composition at Emerson and Boston colleges says he found himself repeatedly scrawling figures into a grading book during class.

If he had 18 students, he would multiply that by their tuition (about $30,000) and get $540,000. Then he would divide that number by eight (the number of classes a student takes a year) and arrive at $67,500, the amount they were paying for his class. Then he would divide by $2,500, the amount the college paid him for the course, and the result would be what he dubs the "Adjunct Exploitation Factor."

"It's a Catch-22; I love teaching and the departments I taught for," said Almond, who now spends most of his time writing fiction and journalism, and editing. "But it was impossible to support myself and do creative work as an adjunct. It's really untenable to do it for a living."

Unwilling to give up their career after devoting so many years to it, Gottfried and Kaye set out to build on a 1998 victory for adjuncts at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. After more than a year picketing the school with support from the university's faculty union, the regular part-timers won from UMass a pay raise and the right to buy into the university's health plan.

Soon after, Kaye, a 40-year-old adjunct philosophy professor at UMass-Boston joined up with Gottfried and others to establish a local chapter of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, a national group that works to improve the lot of adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other poorly paid academics.

Their short-term goal is to establish the nation's first citywide network of adjunct professors. By organizing the part-timers, they hope to build an alliance with sufficient leverage to negotiate everything from higher wages to health benefits to rules ensuring academic freedom at the city's 58 institutions of higher education.

With support from national groups, the emerging union began picketing in September at Emerson College, where two-thirds of the faculty work part time. Gottfried said the group has already recruited more than half of Emerson's adjuncts and is planning to spread their efforts soon.

"There are just a huge number of professors exploited in this city," said Kaye, who teaches seven classes a year at UMass and ekes out a living on an annual salary of about $25,000. "I call it exploitation, because they're taking unfair advantage. They pretend we're short-time, temporary workers. But we're just as much a fixture as most tenured professors."

The adjuncts, however, have no illusions. Organizing in Boston, they know, is particularly difficult because nearly all the institutions are private and, therefore, lack faculty unions. A 1980 Supreme Court ruling forbids full-time faculty at private colleges from establishing unions. Without anything on the ground, they must build from scratch.

And by their nature, adjuncts are a hard group to organize. "Many work in isolation and suffer from the absence of community support," wrote Richard Moser, a member of American Association of University Professors, in a journal article on the Boston effort. "In addition, their lack of tenure and due process rights leaves them feeling vulnerable to retribution."

Manfredi, 44, who received a doctorate in linguistics and social anthropology from Harvard, has lived on the edge of poverty for years, scraping by on pittances from schools including Northeastern, MIT, and Harvard.

But as hard as it is, Manfredi still has his pride. He insists he prefers his life to that of a tenure-track professor, a job he tried for many years to land.

"There was a clear moment which came relatively early in my graduate training, when I was aware of being sorted by my supervisors into the ‘politically unreliable' basket, and thus red-lined away from tenure-track shortlists and cushy fellowships," he said. "At the same time, some of my peers were being `zoned in' to the elite, but in many cases the cost to their intellectual integrity was more than I was ready to accept."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe