MTA seeks fairness for adjunct faculty
The MTA is ramping up efforts to address the inequities facing adjunct faculty members at the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities.
Legislation aimed at providing health and pension benefits for part-time instructors, as well as increasing the percentage of undergraduate courses taught by full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members, is one of six MTA-backed bills filed in the current session. The bill, sponsored by Representative David Sullivan (D-Fall River), is intended to “reverse the course” by restoring balance among faculty members and putting an end to overreliance on part-time instructors, said Massachusetts Community College Council President Joe LeBlanc.
The challenges facing part-time faculty members are well documented in Massachusetts and around the country. LeBlanc noted that at the state’s 15 community colleges, where the problem is most acute in the state’s higher education system, more than twothirds of classes are now taught by part-time faculty.
The hiring of adjunct faculty members was originally intended to allow working professionals to offer their expertise in the classroom. As enrollment in public higher education has increased and the number of full-time teaching positions has remained stagnant, however, colleges have grown increasingly reliant on adjuncts without providing benefits to meet their needs.
Part-time instructors are paid by the course and are not eligible for health insurance. Moreover, they are not enrolled in the state retirement system or eligible to collect Social Security based on their teaching. Despite the fact that many instructors teach five or more courses per semester — the equivalent of a full-time course load — they do not receive the same pay or benefits as full-time professors.
“Luckily, I love what I do. If I didn’t, this would be a really difficult job to manage,” said Patrick Lochelt, an adjunct instructor who patches together a modest living each semester teaching eight English courses at three colleges. “I come home with stacks of essays to grade. I just dig in and do it. It’s just what I know.”
For eight years, Lochelt has been dividing his time among Northern Essex Community College, Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell. In addition to actual instruction time, he spends about 20 hours a week reviewing students’ work. Because he teaches writing classes and requires each student to write five essays, he estimates that he grades about 1,000 papers per semester.
While he knows how much effort he puts into his students and his classes, he has concerns about their future. Because part-time instructors are often stretched very thin, they aren’t always available to students in the same way as full-time faculty members, who serve as advisers.
Higher ed faculty members see this as a significant issue because establishing such connections can contribute to long-term success — and at times may determine whether a student remains in school.
At Bridgewater State University, where there has been a concerted effort to increase the number of full-time faculty members, the number of full-time first-year students who stay in school is growing. At a recent Board of Higher Education meeting, Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, BSU’s president, reported that the number of full-time faculty has grown by 27 percent since 2000. He said that as faculty-student ratios have improved, so has the retention rate for students of color and low-income students.
Lochelt said he tries to stay in touch with his students during the week, but is not always readily available because he is forced to divide his time.
“I do my best. I receive and send a lot of e-mails, but I’m spread out among three campuses,” he said. “If I were a full-time faculty member, I’d have fewer classes and office hours. As adjuncts, we just can’t do as much. It’s hard because I don’t think a lot of people even know what an adjunct is or the role we play in public higher education.”
In 2009, the MTA, the MCCC and five instructors, including Lochelt, filed suit against the state seeking health insurance coverage for adjunct faculty members teaching multiple courses on different campuses. In January, a Suffolk Superior Court judge rejected the argument that the Commonwealth was improperly denying adjuncts access to state-administered health insurance. The plaintiffs had argued that adjuncts met the definition of part-time employees as outlined in state law and should be treated as such.
“The state is just heartless when it comes to this question,” LeBlanc said. “Many of our adjunct faculty members face incredible hardships. They do this work because they love it and receive abuse, no benefits and small paychecks in return.”
The MTA and the MCCC recently brought the issue to the attention of state Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein and Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland. In an effort to illustrate the reallife problems that some faculty members are facing, the MTA and the MCCC collected and shared stories about personal health care crises from 10 adjunct faculty members.
One part-time instructor who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal spoke about having to choose between paying his college loans or his health insurance because he couldn’t afford both. While he thought he had made a responsible decision, he said, he is a relatively young person who is now harnessed with a $100,000 medical bill for emergency surgery that might have been prevented had he not been uninsured and unable to afford regular visits to doctors. Another faculty member noted that her income as an adjunct goes almost entirely to pay for her family’s health insurance. “I love teaching, but the state is being fundamentally unfair toward adjuncts,” wrote another instructor. “The state mandates that every citizen in Massachusetts must have health insurance, yet it denies this same insurance to thousands of state employees.”
The MCCC is taking the fight to restore equity and improve working conditions for adjuncts to the bargaining table, where contract negotiations for part-time faculty in the Division of Continuing Education will begin soon. The DCE’s current contract expires in June. In addition, the MCCC launched an organizing effort last fall to increase the number of part-time faculty members who joined the union. The ongoing campaign has quickly proven to be a success, with a 10 percent increase in members.
“Unfortunately, the problem of part-time employment is not limited to our public campuses or academia — there are workers in many other industries who are struggling to hold on to full-time positions and the wages and benefits that come with these jobs,” said James Rice, president of the National Council of Higher Education, the higher education arm of the NEA. “There is certainly an incredible effort all over to exploit workers.”
Rice recently participated in the Delphi Project, a collaboration that is creating resources and materials aimed at helping faculty and staff with issues related to part-time instructors.
This article originally ran in the Winter 2013 edition of MTA Today.