Several years ago, I was teaching at a local university when a colleague died suddenly. Other members of the department and I donned our tweed jackets and trooped en masse to the wake. Later, the university hosted a memorial service, and established a scholarship in this person’s name.
Soon afterwards, another colleague died. I kept waiting for an e-mail announcing plans to commemorate this individual’s contributions to the school.
No such e-mail arrived.
I approached my chairperson, who said, “I think the department’s a little burned out on death right now,” adding that I was free to represent the university at the wake.
This is a true story, not a fable. But it does contain a lesson. My first colleague to die that year was a full-time, tenured professor; the second was an adjunct instructor.
Adjuncts are referred to as “part-time,’’ but that’s a misnomer. To make a living, adjuncts often work for abysmal pay at several colleges during the same term, without medical or retirement benefits, decent office space, or compensation for attending academic seminars or faculty meetings.
It didn’t matter that my late colleague was a popular teacher, of long service, with a PhD from a prestigious university. On most campuses, adjuncts are an undervalued, invisible population, despite the fact they’re often responsible for the majority of the actual teaching.
In Boston, one of the most famous college towns in the world, the steep tuition prices belie an overwhelming dependence on low paid, part-time faculty. Of 58 four-year private, nonprofit colleges in Greater Boston, 67 percent of the teaching faculty are not on the tenure track, according to Jeremy Thompson of the Service Employees International Union. The union is organizing adjuncts at Northeastern, Tufts, Bentley, and Lesley, while gauging interest at other local schools.
“For any non-tenured professor that means, long term, they have no job security,” says Thompson. “For the semester-to-semester adjunct, it means they don’t know what’s going to happen four months from now.”
“We’re not just talking about Boston,” says Andy Klatt, a part-time professor in romance languages at Tufts. “We’re talking about a national crisis of academic labor.”
That crisis is underscored by a single, local statistic. In 2012-13, an assistant professor in arts and sciences at Tufts made an average of $77, 829. Adjusted for the percentage of compensation attributed to research and service to the university, assistant professors made $12,971.50 per course they taught. In comparison, Tufts adjuncts are paid as little $5,115 per course, which is what Klatt receives.
Now on the bargaining committee after a successful effort to unionize at Tufts, Klatt says that an adjunct’s life is doubly “precarious” — employment can be terminated at the administration’s whim, and the terrible pay makes it difficult to raise a family, pay a mortgage, or plan for retirement.
Beyond those considerations, the gulf between tenured and adjunct faculty is a class distinction as plain as any in America. What these colleges seem to require most is collegiality — toward their own part-time help.
“Because of [adjuncts’] low status in the academic hierarchy, there’s a lack of respect there,” says Klatt. “They often don’t feel part of their departments, or the intellectual life of the academic community.”
Unionizing, according to adjunct Doug Kierdorf, who teaches history at Bentley, is “like buying a lottery ticket. You think, ‘What do we have to lose?’ ” especially when administrators imply they “can find someone else who will do your job for a pittance.” (Recently, Bentley adjuncts decided not to unionize by a vote of 100-98, but they are reorganizing for another attempt.)
Many adjuncts persevere because they love teaching. “Our responsibility is to our students,” says Kierdorf, who earns approximately $20,000 a year, but remains at Bentley to experience “that light of revelation when things go right in the classroom.”
Kierdorf’s comments remind me of that night, years ago, when I fumbled out condolences to my late colleague’s family. Exiting the wake, I felt a mixture of shock, regret, and anger. But I had one overriding thought that stayed with me for a long time afterward. My friend deserved better.
Jay Atkinson’s most recent book is “Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man.’’ He has taught writing at area universities for more than two decades.