Contingent faculty and their supporters nationwide walked out of classes Feb. 25 in protest of job insecurities, low wages and unequal working conditions that affect the adjunct professors of the higher education system. The catalyst of these movements was National Adjunct Action Week, Feb. 23-27, meant to recognize adjunct staff members around the country faced with these contingency issues.
At SUNY New Paltz and other New York State schools, staff is prohibited to partake in demonstrations under “The Taylor Law” — a state legislation that limits active protest by public employees in their workplaces. In a lawful alternative to National Adjunct Walkout Day, the New Paltz Chapter of United University Professions (UUP) union participated by coordinating a display of over 100 headshot photos of the adjunct staff of the college.
UUP Chapter President Peter D.G. Brown said the display’s mission was to promote campus-wide awareness of the “largely invisible” population of staff that output full-time work for part-time pay and to facilitate questions from colleagues and students.
“Its a national problem — but it’s also here at SUNY New Paltz,” Brown said. “We’re talking about a lot of people who don’t have the academic freedom that comes with tenure.”
According to a 2012 report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges across the nation have undergone shifts in employing professors — to where nearly 70 percent of instructional faculty at colleges in the U.S. are off the tenure track.
An actual percentage of classes taught by adjuncts at the college has been refuted between Brown and SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian; Brown cited that adjuncts teach 55 percent of this semester’s courses, while Christian said it remains at a less than 30 percent rate. Efforts by The Oracle to confirm exact numeric data were not returned by the Office of the Provost in constraint to print deadline.
The average adjunct stipend per three-credit course is $2,987, according to The Chronicle report. At SUNY New Paltz, the starting stipend for adjuncts is $3,100 for a three-credit course.
According to Christian, if an adjunct faculty member teaches two courses or more in a semester, they qualify for full health benefits, as a full time faculty member does. In terms of adjunct salary rates, he cited a market study seven years ago that recognized low adjunct salary rates, which prompted an increase in adjunct pay.
“You may read the rhetoric here and there that we have not increased adjunct salary but that’s absolutely not the case,” Christian said. “We’ve increased adjunct faculty at the same rate that full-time faculty receive.”
For some adjuncts, this pay stipend may not be an issue because they have alternative jobs in their fields — but those who rely solely on teaching are dealing with poverty-level wages if they can only teach two courses a semester, Brown said.
The 2015 Office of Federal Register Poverty Guidelines states that any single-person household with an income of less than $11,770 per year is classified within the poverty threshold. If there is only one source of income supporting a family of four, an adjunct professor at starting wages would have to instruct nearly eight three-credit courses per year to graze the poverty guideline of $24,250.
Brown said the pay rates cause some professors to seek more teaching positions in the area, which in turn may not allow for them to provide flexible office hours in which they can assist students for each class they instruct.
“Most adjuncts need to have other types of employment — either a full time teaching job somewhere else like a high school, or other adjunct jobs which means they’re running off after class to [teach elsewhere],” Brown said.
An adjunct faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous shared experiences of contingency at the college with The Oracle, citing that while the teaching aspect is very worthwhile, there are downfalls to the position.
The source said that while tenure track and lecture faculty have offices, some departments offer no adjunct office space — or if they do, they are shared among all adjuncts in the department. This makes it hard to speak privately with students and often times have to go out in the hallway to meet, she said.
“My department is actually fairly nice to their adjuncts compared to some others here, but I would not say that we are included in the department,” the source said. “We are not on the department mailing list and so often we are forgotten when department activities are scheduled.”
This professor typically teaches 12 credits per semester and does not have another job outside of her position at New Paltz. Though it is not her intention to support a family off of her wages, those who depend on these wages would not be able to, she said.
“An argument that you hear when adjunct issues arise is that these are not meant to be full-time jobs so they are not meant to earn a full-time wage,” they said. “The economy has been very bad and many adjunct positions have been cut. When things were at their worst they would call the adjuncts in and say that they might have to fire many of us. It leads to a climate of accepting any treatment because we are afraid of losing our jobs.”
Yvonne Aspengren, who has taught German at the college as contingent faculty since 2002, said these factors elude to a disconnect in inclusiveness.
“These staff members go largely unrecognized,” she said. “There’s a sense of invisibility and of not being part of the campus community.”
On Friday, May 1, UUP will continue their long-running, now national advocacy movement “Mayday 5k,” pushing for an increase in adjunct starting wages to $5,000 per three credit course for all adjuncts in the United States.
“The administration here doesn’t see fit to raise that really low pay,” Brown said. “We spend millions of dollars on athletics and University Police, but not a whole lot on academic structure.They’re trying to do education on the cheap — and the students are the ones who are primarily getting hurt.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, President Christian said a pay increase for the adjunct staff is uncertain in the coming year, being that such changes would be a huge expense to cover.
“Those conversations about an increase in adjunct salary from $3,100 to $5,000 ignore the reality that that is a $1.6 million price tag,” Christian said. “I’ve never heard anybody make a compelling case for how I would explain to tuition paying students and parents and to legislators why we would be paying adjuncts $5,000 a course when community colleges in the region are paying a lower $2,400 per course.”