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The other crisis facing higher education

The other crisis facing higher education
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While students, parents, faculty, and administrators debate the wisdom of returning to college campuses in the fall, one element of schools’ reopening plans gets consistently overlooked: how will universities’ overwhelming reliance on part-time faculty affect university reopening plans? And who will protect the adjuncts?

In popular culture, college faculty tend to be portrayed as sheltered professionals — secure in their ivory tower — teaching in the same hallowed halls year in and year out, impervious to the vagaries of the outside world.  

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However, this stereotype has very little to do with the realities of university life for most faculty. In 1980, 70 percent of college faculty across two- and four-year institutions were tenured or on the tenure-track, meaning that they had high-levels of job security.  

Today, the situation is reversed: 75 percent of faculty hold contingent positions with part-time or short-term contracts. A full 47 percent of all college faculty work part-time in adjunct roles. This increased reliance on part-time faculty is true across institutions. For example, even at Georgetown University — which as a yearly sticker price of $71,589 — only 48 percent of faculty are full time. 

While the adjunct role was created so that working professionals in other fields could teach a university class in their specialty, adjunct instructors today are often relying on teaching to supply the majority of their income, teaching multiple classes — often at more than one university.

A 2019 study of contingent faculty conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, revealed the precarious economic reality of most university faculty. Part-time faculty are paid by the course, with almost 30 percent earning less than $2,500 a course and 41 percent earning less than $3,500 per course. 

I have been adjuncting for three years at my local community college, where adjuncts are only able to teach a maximum of four courses a semester while still being considered part-time — this means at most, faculty can earn $9,000 a semester. However, when enrollment is down, part-time faculty may only be offered one or two courses. 

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In a nationwide study, one-third of contingent faculty reported making less than $25,000 a year from all sources of income — which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

While a conversation about fair labor practices in higher education is long overdue, the heavy reliance on contingent faculty now has troubling implications for school reopening policies.

Due to the part-time nature of their employment, contingent faculty are often left out of employee benefit programs. Fewer than half of those surveyed had access to employer-provided health care, and 20 percent relied on Medicaid. Almost half of the contingent faculty get no sick leave. Additionally, 45 percent of contingent faculty reported putting off medical care in the past year because they could not afford it.

The working conditions of contingent faculty now have the potential to threaten the health of the broader campus community. Many schools reopening plans do not specify how adjuncts without sick leave should isolate if they have COVID-19 or come in contact with someone who does. 

Without clear policies, it is not realistic to expect contingent faculty — who may already live pay-check-to-pay-check and who do not have employer-provided healthcare — to be financially able to quarantine or seek out medical care and testing at the first onset of possible COVID-19 symptoms. Meanwhile, federal emergency sick leave policies passed to deal with COVID do not apply to Universities employing more than 500 people.

Part-time faculty are also often disconnected from their departments: they receive less training, attend fewer department meetings, and have little control over curriculum and textbook choices, when compared to full-time faculty. 

Now there is a real danger that part-time faculty will not be adequately informed of campus COVID-19 policies, faculty or student updates or even the latest resources for online platforms.

Exacerbating the problem, adjunct professors often teach at multiple universities to make ends meet. A 2014 congressional study showed 40 percent of the adjunct faculty interviewed taught at three or more institutions simultaneously. 

To adapt to the challenges of teaching during a pandemic, colleges and universities have significantly changed their course technologies and methods of content delivery.

For example, my college shifted from in-person classes to a HyFlex model — where half of a classes’ content is delivered online in an asynchronous manner, a quarter of class content is delivered face-to-face and a quarter of class content is delivered synchronously via zoom.

No matter how dedicated part-time faculty is, the difficult circumstances surrounding part-time adjunct labor will collide with the current pandemic to create a chaotic learning environment for students. 

One of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the wellbeing of the broader community is largely dependent on the access to healthcare, housing, and other resources of its essential workers. Campus communities are no different. Protections for those who contribute to the curriculum — even part-time — need to be mandatory. 

Katie Scofield has a Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, with a focus on comparative constitutional law. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the Ecuadorian constitution and its treatment of human rights and teaches government at Blinn College in Texas.