The adjunct dilemma: from policy to personal

As graduation looms nearer, seniors begin to worry about finding a job for the upcoming year. They send out resumes, have their friends edit and re-edit their cover letters and check their emails incessantly for job request replies. Suddenly they realize they have no way to pay rent, no way to buy groceries, no way to pay the doctor’s bills unless they find employment soon. This process is nerve-wracking enough to go through during senior year. Imagine going through it every year for the rest of your life.

Such is the lifestyle of most non-tenure track professors, or “adjuncts,” as they are colloquially known. Non-tenure track (NTT) professors are faculty members who sign contracts to teach at an institution for a semester — or a year, if they’re lucky — while tenured professors are guaranteed employment until they choose to retire.

Tenured and tenure-track (T3) professors also enjoy a sizable pay raise over their NTT peers. According to a survey by the American Association of University Professors, the lowest-paid T3 professor at Occidental makes $65,600 per year, plus health care and other benefits. Part-time NTT professors, in comparison, are paid $6,000 per class. If a NTT professor taught five classes in an academic year, equal to the normal course load of a T3 professor, they would still make over $35,000 less per year than their tenure-track peers. NTT professors who are hired full time, meaning they teach six classes per year, are offered $10,000 per class, plus benefits. Full-time status must be offered by the school, however, and only 37 of the 137 NTT professors at Occidental are full-time employees.

According to former psychology department chair Anne Schell, NTT professors are sometimes taken on to replace T3 professors who are out on sabbatical or on emergency leave. Other times, NTT professors are brought on to serve as resident experts in their field or to teach a niche subject. Schell used the example of professor of psychology Heather Banis, who runs a clinical psychology practice part-time and also teaches classes on clinical psychology at Occidental in a NTT position.

“That’s a good reason for having [NTT professors], where you want someone who really is experienced in the practice of doing it,” Shell said. “You don’t want someone teaching clinical psychology who isn’t an active clinician.”

Unless they are full-time, NTT professors are not contractually obligated to teach a certain number of courses every year. They are also not required to serve as student advisers or carry out formal research. This flexibility is a benefit for NTT professors such as Banis, who have other sources of financial support. NTT Spanish professor Gloria Orozco is another such case.

“I love teaching very much and being an adjunct lets you concentrate more on teaching,” Orozco said in an email to The Weekly. “This works great for someone like me — free spirited and unconventional — but I am lucky and privileged that my family was not dependent exclusively on my income and that I am covered by my husband’s health insurance. That is not the case for most adjuncts.”

As Orozco points out, the lack of job security poses a problem for those attempting to make their living solely by teaching as NTT professors. The lower salary and lack of benefits for a part-time NTT professor saves money for the school, but many believe it is unsustainable for the professors themselves.

“That’s the reason why Oxy has so many non-tenure-track, adjunct faculty,” Schell said. “Because they are paid, per course, much less than a tenure track faculty member; so little that in some ways it’s almost exploitive, for people who are teaching only one or two courses.”

This balance between flexibility and security — between the desire to teach and the need to earn a livable income — defines the careers of NTT professors at Occidental and across the country.

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Occidental College is one of many institutions across the country where NTT professors make up nearly half of the faculty — 46.2 percent, according to Human Resources. According to a January Congressional report, NTT faculty make up over 75.5 percent of the national workforce. Over the past 5 years, the number of full-time NTT professors at Occidental has jumped from 11.5 percent in 2009 to 17.8 percent in 2013, while the number of part-time NTT faculty has fallen from 35 percent to 28.5 percent in that same period.

According to President of Faculty Council and professor of mathematics Nalsey Tinberg and Chair of the Subcommittee on Finance (SCOF) and professor of chemistry Michael Hill, both faculty and the administration are strongly concerned with Occidental’s high ratio of T3 faculty-to-student body size. A low T3 faculty-to-student body size is desirable because T3 faculty provide students resources that NTT faculty are not equipped to provide. Occidental’s ratio of T3 faculty-to-student body size rests at 14.4:1, which lags behind many peer institutions, or “comparison schools.”

Source: Dean's office
Source: Dean’s office

“We will never look like our peers in regard to the tenure-track-to-non-tenure track ratio,” Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Hannah Spinosa said.

However, the Deans’ office says they are committed to improving this ratio.

“Colleges like Occidental are traditionally staffed by tenured faculty, and we need to continue that. We strongly believe that tenured faculty should be at the heart of the college,” Dean for Academic Affairs Jorge Gonzalez said.

Although NTT faculty are qualified professionals with appropriate degrees and specialties — 89.9 percent of all faculty hold Ph.Ds — T3 faculty have the job security that allow students to approach them for recommendations, work in research labs and develop lasting connections both at Occidental and after graduation. T3 faculty do not have to worry about next year’s contract, whether they can keep their advisees, their chance to commit time to students or their capacity to forge working relationships with the college and its constituents.

“It’s very important to have continuity,” Hill said. “For long-term advising, for stability, you want to have tenure-track people. I think everybody feels that we aren’t at that balance here.”

But when there are not enough T3 faculty to support the number of students at the college, departments may be forced to use adjuncts in ways that are, in the long-run, inconvenient or inefficient for the department. Adjuncts are sometimes forced to fill a hole left by a retiring professor or teach entry-level courses rather than instruct in their particular area of expertise.

“Every year we’ll have two or three courses, at least, that need to be taught by adjuncts because we just don’t have enough tenure-track faculty to staff them,” Schell said.

Professor of politics Larry Caldwell, who has observed Occidental’s increasing use of adjuncts over the past 20 years, contends that there is a strong consensus among the faculty that there are too many NTT professors at the college for the type of education that Occidental seeks to provide. Adjuncts, according to Caldwell, must be used prudently, as experts in their field with a clear understanding of their position at the college.

“The question is whether you want to enrich the curriculum by adding courses, or whether you’re principally interested in the kinds of minds in a classroom,” Caldwell said. “I’m on the second half of that spectrum.”

Caldwell understands that NTT professors sometimes have the ability to work closely with students and make the effort to connect with them.

”We’ve had adjuncts who have spent more hours meeting, talking and working with students outside of the classroom than any of our tenure-track professors,” Caldwell said.

Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) major Elliott Reed (senior) has taken nine courses in the DWA department, out of which all seven have been taught by adjunct faculty. While studying abroad in Serbia during his junior year, the DWA department informed Reed that he would no longer be an advisee to his current adviser — a NTT faculty member — with whom he had developed a close connection.

“It’s hard, halfway through my academic career, to switch advisers from someone I know really well to someone I don’t,” Reed said.

Aside from this close connection with his former adviser, Reed has felt removed from his own department.

“I’m graduating as a DWA major, and I feel like I have absolutely no connection to the department as a whole,” Reed said. “I have had to engage with the DWA department, and it hasn’t engaged with me. I don’t feel like I can go to any DWA professor and ask for a recommendation.”

Art History and Visual Arts (AHVA) and Group Language double major Samuel Wylie (junior) also believes his experience as an undergraduate could have been enhanced by the presence of more T3 faculty members.

“As an underclassman, it seemed impossible to develop a relationship strong enough to get a letter of recommendation when tenured faculty rarely taught my classes,” Wylie said. “Even now, it is tremendously frustrating to reintroduce myself each year to new professors and know our relationship will begin and end with a single class.”

Biology major Tina Tran (senior), who is beginning a Ph.D program at Cornell University in the fall, expressed similar concerns regarding recommendations, as well as anxiety for her department as a whole.

“In the last couple years at Oxy, I haven’t seen any more open positions in the biology department for Occidental professors,” Tran said. “I think it’s really sad because going into academia, you don’t make much money and you don’t get many benefits without having a tenured position.”

When professors in lab sciences acquire tenure, they also gain access to their own lab, thus providing a better space for research and interaction with students and a space from which to gain credibility in the field of academia. According to Tran, Cornell and other Ph.D programs would not accept letters of recommendation from NTT faculty.

Stories from students like Reed, Wylie and Tran are not uncommon at Occidental, where almost 30 percent of all faculty members are part-time NTT faculty.

“When I have talked to trustees and alumni, I always hear arguments about the wonderful resource of being in Los Angeles,” Caldwell said. “I’ve heard almost no understanding for our issues we’re talking about. Since the trustees are often speaking from the business perspective, I say, ‘Do you really think your colleagues are going to pay the Occidental tuition for your kid to go to Occidental and not have regular full-time faculty?’”

Caldwell described an event in which the impact of increased NTT hirings was impressed upon him. In the time that he sat on SCOF, the committee discussed the use of adjuncts at one of its meetings. A student representative — a senior who had been nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship — stood up in front of the committee and confessed that she had nobody to write her first-year letter of recommendation. All of her first-year professors had left the college.

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While students may feel the impact of the NTT position on the quality of their education, most are unaware of the effect that it has on the lives of their professors. For those professors who aspired to be tenured professors all throughout graduate school, the reality of working multiple NTT jobs can be disheartening.

“When you go to a university and go to grad school and get your Ph.D, there’s a hope that you’re going to land a tenure-track position because that’s what your advisers are preparing you for,” one Occidental NTT professor said, who chose to remain anonymous to protect her employment. “It’s disappointing to not get tenure-track position and not be able to devote all your time and energy to your students.”

But obtaining a T3 job is no easy task. In an attempt to recover from the economic downturn, colleges have been taking on less tenure track faculty in recent years. In order to continue their academic careers, recent graduates looking for T3 jobs may turn to adjunct teaching in order to pay the bills. Unfortunately, if a T3 job takes too long to come along, it may never turn up at all.

“If you don’t land a solid tenure-track position within the first two, maybe three years after getting your Ph.D you are no longer viable and you will probably never land a good tenure-track position, period,” another anonymous NTT professor said. “The way academia works, it’s like you’re stale goods if you’re not taken off the shelf within the first two years.”

This is how so many Ph.D graduates end up working multiple jobs on different campuses, while making half of what their tenured counterparts make.

“Oftentimes, adjuncts have to take several courses, not all on the same campus,” one Occidental NTT professor said. “It’s not a matter of you choosing — it’s a matter of you taking what you can get.”

Even when employing the “take what you get” strategy, there is no guarantee that NTT professors will get as many teaching opportunities as they want or need. While full-time NTT positions are available at Occidental, only 17.8 percent of NTT professors actually work full-time. Although there is no formal rule that restricts the number of classes they can teach, several Occidental NTT professors expressed that there seemed to be informal caps keeping them from working more than three or four classes. One NTT professor told of being offered almost a full course load by her department, only to have the offer rescinded at a later date. Orozco also said that she was not allowed to teach more than four courses at Occidental this year, indicating that this was a change from past policies. Schell explained that one of the reasons the school might be reluctant to hire NTT professors for more than a few classes is because they do not want these professors to depend on their NTT position at Occidental as their only source of income.

“We can’t really offer adjuncts enough money to make it a very rewarding job for someone who’s teaching five courses,” Schell said. “You’re not making as much as someone teaching public school would be — someone teaching sixth grade somewhere. And for someone with a Ph.D, that’s demeaning.”

Spinosa confirmed that the Dean’s office generally dissuades departments from taking on NTT professors to teach more than four classes in a year because they consider the pay offered to be too low for that amount of work.

“It’s not fair; it’s not equitable,” Spinosa said. “At that point we should be paying you full-time.”

But more problematic to many NTT professors than the comparatively low pay is the lack of job security. Contracts for NTT position are between one and two semesters long, and sometimes do not come earlier than one month before the start of the semester, according to many of the faculty interviewed. Although the Dean’s office explained that they like to have contracts for the fall semester in the hands of NTT professors by early May, several professors said they had not been notified of their hiring until weeks, even days, before their first course. Even then, if the course fails to reach a minimum enrollment of students, the Dean can choose to cancel it entirely.

“You don’t know what classes you will teach and you need to accept what classes they will give you,” an Occidental NTT professor said. “The security is not there. It’s always uncertain what will happen next semester and you have to think to yourself, ‘Can I survive without this job? Can I make it where I need to without this job?’”

Another Occidental professor put it even more succinctly:

“I haven’t been able to plan my life […] I haven’t been able to make a plan for the future because I don’t know. That’s what being an adjunct means.”

Many NTT professors also expressed the loneliness and feelings of isolation that come from being a part-time instructor on a residential campus. Because they frequently have to jump from job to job or campus to campus, it can be hard to feel a part of the campus community.

“A couple employees were very welcoming, but the rest — you feel like nobody knows you,” one part-time NTT professor said. “You don’t attend the staff meetings, and you don’t feel like part of the faculty.”

Others said they felt like “second class citizens,” or like they were looked down upon within their departments. Several tenured faculty members, however, went to great lengths to emphasize how much they appreciated the NTT faculty. Caldwell said he considered the politics department lucky for having been able to employ a number of high-quality NTT faculty.

“There are really dedicated, excellent teachers,” Caldwell said. “There are people who should have tenure track positions and who, because of larger market in higher education, haven’t gotten tenure track positions. Of course we’re lucky.”

Over and over, NTT professors expressed how they wished they could give even more time to their students. Some expressed a desire to have more office hours, some wanted to take on student advisees and some simply wanted to be included on the faculty listserv so they could stay up-to-date with the rest of the faculty. But despite their wishes, the reality of their position kept many of these professors from being able to truly invest in the Occidental experience.

“I’m not here — I can’t be here, because I’m other places,” one NTT professor said. “And my students have no idea.”

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During President Veitch’s administration, efforts have been made to improve the working conditions of adjunct faculty and create more tenure-track positions at the college.

The Dean of the College approved a proposal last October that included a three-year review process for both part-time and full-time NTT faculty, the opportunity for upward mobility for NTT faculty and benefits for full-time NTT faculty. With some components put into effect this spring and others implemented in the fall, the policy also more concretely defines the role of adjunct faculty and clarifies standards for appointment.

“The college seeks to create a culture that recognizes and rewards the work of NTT faculty who teach, provide service and enhance the academic experience of our students,” the new NTT faculty policy states.

The Faculty Council has also created a standing committee composed of two full-time and two part-time NTT faculty, as well as one T3 faculty member. The group meets regularly to discuss issues related to NTT faculty.

“NTT are a critical component for what this college is about,” Gonzalez said.

Clarifying the role of adjunct faculty, particularly NTT faculty, has the potential to give both department chairs and full-time faculty greater security. Acknowledging that part-time faculty are often unable to be on campus every day for their students, an increase in the number of full-time faculty — be it NTT or T3 faculty — appears to be a priority for both faculty and the administration.

Human Resources
Source: Human Resources Office

“The full-time professors are more of a presence,” department chair and professor of Spanish and French Studies Robert Ellis said. “It’s not just a question of tenure line versus non-tenure — it’s beneficial to everyone if professors can be full-time.”

Adjunct assistant professor of German, Russian and Classical Studies Walt Richmond agrees that this policy will be a step forward in addressing concerns from NTT faculty regarding benefits and upward mobility.

“In comparison to other colleges, it’s an excellent first step,” Richmond said. “Both from the point-of-view from what it actually accomplishes, and from the point-of-view from the administration. It shows that the administration wants to solve the issue and whatever problems are involved.”

But Occidental’s move to improve working conditions and standardize NTT review processes does not fully encapsulate the dilemma of NTT employment. The college’s history of opening tenure-track positions has varied widely depending on economic expediency and resources, as well as cyclical hiring and retirement trends among faculty.

Richmond, an NTT faculty member at Occidental for 19 years, recalled his efforts to seek tenure in the early 2000s. Originally hired to teach second-year Russian, Richmond found himself teaching courses in three separate departments — Cultural Studies Program (CSP), Languages and Literatures and English Writing — by 1996. In 1999, Richmond was called upon by the dean to “save” the Russian program in his department over a two to three year period, after which the administration would seek out a tenure-track hire. However, during that time period, President John Sloughter was replaced by President Ted Mitchell.

“There was no communication between the two about reopening the tenure-track line,” Richmond said.

By the end of Mitchell’s administration in 2005, there had been no effort made to reopen the tenure-track line, leaving Richmond without a tenure-track opportunity.
“When the tenure-track position searches finally opened up [under Mitchell],there was an overwhelming demand, and I think voices of my department got drowned out by the others,” Richmond said.

Richmond’s situation illustrates the difficulty with promising tenure-track hires to departments when so many are constantly in need of new T3 faculty. According to Caldwell, the college went through nearly a decade and a half, from the late ‘90s through today, of not hiring many tenure-track faculty members. From 2009 to 2011, there was an increase from 134 to 141 T3 staff members, but that number has stagnated over the past three years.

According to Hill, the college must either scale back the number of students or increase the number of T3 positions in order to decrease the T3-student ratio.

To move closer to the target of an 11:1 ratio — a target for SCOF and the Dean’s office — the college must decide how to efficiently open tenure-track positions, fill spots that have been vacated by retiring faculty and reduce the student body size.

“It’s a balancing act, because what you always want to do is you want to provide both the best possible experience for the students that are here and make sure that the educational experience is sustainable,” Hill said.

But according to both Tinberg and Hill, T3 faculty can only be hired so quickly. Considering the extent of the search, review and hiring processes, only between eight and 10 faculty hires can be conducted at one time.

And that’s not to mention the economic burden that a hiring binge would have on the college.

According to data drawn from the Dean’s office and compiled by SCOF, two scenarios would decrease the student-to-T3-faculty ratio to 11:1: a decrease in the number of enrolled students by 1,000 or an increase in the number of T3 faculty by 41. Since the cost of both options alone would be sizable over a short period of time, a quick solution requires finding a middle-ground. Even so, such a process would take between six and 10 years.

“We didn’t get into it in a small length of time, and we won’t get out of it for a small length of time,” Tinberg said.

While a plan must still be set in terms of decreasing the T3 faculty-to-student body size ratio, the Dean hopes the recent change in the NTT policy will provide better working conditions for faculty that are seeking tenure-track spots at the college.

The other challenge faced by the college, however, is figuring out which departments should be awarded new tenure-track lines.

According to Gonzalez, all department chairs are invited to apply for new T3 positions to be created for their respective departments. After submitting a detailed application to the Academic Planning Committee, the committee returns applications to the proper department with a list of questions and concerns. Each department is then evaluated more by the committee and the committee makes recommendations to the Dean as to which departments are in most need of tenured positions.

But because of the nature of the position, NTT faculty members are still working contract-to-contract, craving a more secure position and an opportunity to advance either within the college or at other institutions. While the new NTT policy aims to clarify the role of adjuncts at the college as a whole, each department has its own way of approaching specialists, guest lecturers and other NTT faculty. The use of NTT faculty will largely rest on a department’s needs or requirements.

“[The number of NTT positions in each department] depends on department, depends on time and depends on circumstance,” Gonzalez said.

Faculty and administration agree, however, that NTT professors must be hired and utilized wisely.

“The goal is to find people who are right for those kinds of positions and give them the right kind of treatment for that position, rather than take someone who needs a full-time job with no chance of advancement,” Richmond said.

One anonymous NTT professor shared a similar view for the role of NTT faculty at Occidental.

“In general, hires have been to fill in spots that have been vacated,” the professor said. “One thing to look for is how often adjuncts seem to be substituting for a specific professor or for a certain professorial role, or how often someone is brought in to teach a vibrant course of their own design.”

The way departments use NTT faculty is contingent on a number of faculty members. After considering the cost of salary and benefits associated with converting NTT positions into T3 positions and the loss in revenue caused by a from a decrease in the student body size, the administration and faculty will continue negotiating for an economical solution to Occidental’s robust NTT population.

“The faculty keeps pushing the administration to [open T3 positions] faster,” Schell said. “The administration doesn’t always — there’s a pot of money, and sometimes they decide what they really need is another administrator, who will make a lot more than another faculty member, or there’s an administrator who needs a big raise. Sometimes the faculty are not at all happy about that. So there is tension between the administration and the faculty with respect to the piece of the total pie that’s being devoted to converting adjunct positions to full-time faculty positions, as opposed to being soaked up somewhere inside of Coons.”