Exploitation at ETSU

How the Adjunctification of Instruction Harms Faculty and Students at East Tennessee State University


  1. Executive Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Motivation: A Commitment to Teaching
  4. Overview of Adjunct Workers in the Higher Education Industry
  5. Study Participants
  6. Low Pay
  7. Lack of Benefits
  8. Poor Working Conditions
  9. Organizing for Change
  10. Recommendations
  11. Appendix
  12. Bibliography


“Conditions like these tend to thrive in the dark.”

-Dennis Prater, Adjunct Faculty, Literature and Language, East Tennessee State University


A NOTE ON ADJUNCT FACULTY IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

This report was written just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and exposed the structural weaknesses of the higher education industry. Decades of stagnant and declining wages add unnecessary pain and uncertainty to the challenges presented by the virus. Like many other precarious, low-wage workers, most adjuncts now face the coronavirus crisis without health care or with inadequate health care options that bring real financial hardship and dangerous health risks.

The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic will not leave our public colleges and universities unaffected. In the short term, we urge decision-makers to cut at the top, to focus on policies and pay scales that will ensure adjuncts have the resources they need to successfully navigate online teaching during social distancing and that prioritize low-wage workers. With the prospect of campuses remaining closed through the Fall 2020 semester, adjuncts whose poverty wages have led them to rely on campus computers and internet access will need immediate funds to buy computers, printers, and get high-speed internet. 

Now is a time when tenure-track and tenured faculty need to organize alongside adjuncts to prevent the further adjunctification of our profession that erodes the quality of higher education. The coronavirus crisis can become a time when we reevaluate the direction of our colleges and universities and reassert the values that led to them to be founded in the first place.

Now more than ever, we need our colleges and universities to be there for our communities. As the second-largest employer in Washington County, ETSU can support our economic recovery by providing local residents with good, living-wage jobs that will feed back into our communities and our state.

We urge all higher education decision-makers to read the alarming findings in this report and help realize the recommendations to make possible a better, safer, and more educated future for all.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Research conducted by the United Campus Workers, part of the Communications Workers of America, found that adjuncts at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) are paid less than their peers across the country, have no access to benefits, and are not provided with the resources required to create high-quality learning environments. These results have broad implications for over 500 adjuncts teaching at ETSU, as well as their students. Adjunct working conditions are student learning conditions.

National studies show that adjunct faculty are dedicated to teaching and go above and beyond contractual requirements to support student learning. Consistently, these studies demonstrate that adjunct classrooms produce similar or stronger learning outcomes than those of their full-time colleagues (Cruise et al., 1980; Behrendt and Parsons, 1983; Bettinger and Long, 2010). However, quality education requires much more than what happens inside the classroom. When adjunct instructors are not given adequate support this can lead to negative effects on student retention and completion rates (Gross and Goldhaber, 2009; Eagan and Jaeger, 2009; Ehrenberg and Zhang, 2005; Kezar and Maxey, 2013, 2015, and 2016). While our study does not look at student outcomes, it documents a system of immensely inadequate support. In this context of adversity, adjuncts give as much as they can but, as one adjunct we interviewed said: “it is not what students deserve.”

KEY FINDINGS INCLUDE:

  1. On average, ETSU adjuncts receive wages of $750 per credit hour, or $2,250 for a three-credit course, 40% less than the national average of $3,750 per course at public 4-year institutions (Chronicle Data, 2019). 

  2. The majority of ETSU adjuncts we spoke to are very low-income, even after factoring in other jobs. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents make less than $25,000 a year and 20% make under $15,000 a year. 

  3. What would be considered wage theft in many other fields is commonplace for adjuncts at ETSU. Paying by credit hour rather than hours worked means that institutions are not subject to state and federal minimum wage laws. Nor are they required to pay adjunct faculty for work they complete in preparation for cancelled courses. The majority of study participants report working without compensation on essential tasks.

  4. Combined income from ETSU and other part-time jobs is not enough for adjuncts to make ends meet. Study participants rely heavily on state and federal aid programs as well as family and friends.

  5. Without employer-sponsored healthcare or retirement options, adjunct faculty do not get quality care and face financial insecurity heading into retirement. One-third of adjuncts interviewed are uninsured; another third rely on low-cost Affordable Care Act (ACA) plans that only offer minimum coverage. Since Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid, those on ACA plans are at constant risk of falling into the Medicaid gap.

  6. ETSU does not provide adjunct faculty with the resources they need to do their jobs, often at the most basic level in the form of private space to meet with students and access to curriculum guidelines or to the classroom technology they need to teach. 

  7. Although adjuncts comprise nearly half of all faculty at ETSU, survey and interview responses indicate they are rarely included in departmental meetings, are not represented in the faculty senate, get little support for professional development, and do not feel valued or respected by colleagues or administrators. In ETSU’s 2016-2026 Strategic Plan adjunct faculty are not mentioned once. A 2015 national survey of 4,000 adjuncts found that “lack of respect from full-time faculty and administrators” ranked higher than “involuntary part-time status” as the primary reason for dissatisfaction (Eagen, 2015).

Recommendations

Significant changes are necessary in order to address poor wages and overall working conditions for adjunct faculty at ETSU, across Tennessee, and throughout the country. Raising the base pay, mandating benefits, and ensuring protection for their right to organize will ensure that adjunct faculty have the capacity to feed their families, protect their own personal health, and effectively teach our nation’s students.

We call on the federal government, the Tennessee state legislature, the ETSU Board of Trustees, leaders across public higher education in the state, campus administrators, department heads, and tenure-track and tenured faculty to take critical steps to improve job conditions for adjuncts. Below we include an abbreviated set of the recommendations you can find here

At the federal and state level:

  • All decision-makers in higher education must take steps to ensure that the vast majority (at least 75%) of non-tenure-track appointments are full-time and include benefits.
  • We urge federal and state governments and the Department of Labor to ensure that labor protection laws are reformed so that adjunct faculty who fall below the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum salary are not exempt from FLSA regulations.
  • To ensure there is funding for fair pay without increases to tuition, Tennessee state government should raise per-student state funding levels for public higher education to, at minimum, pre-2008 levels.
  • The Tennessee state legislature should re-introduce and pass a bill similar to 2019 (amended) House Bill 0707 and Senate Bill 0775 requiring (and funding) a minimum of $1,000 per credit hour for adjunct faculty at all Tennessee public higher education institutions.

At ETSU and public institutions across the state:

  • Prioritize instructional spending over spending on capital projects, athletics, and administrative raises. 
  • Pay adjuncts promptly, with a first paycheck no later than at the end of the month in which the contract begins.
  • Remove the clause from adjunct contracts that allows pay to be docked for missing class due to illness. Adjuncts should never face the prospect of losing pay for having to miss class due to illness. 
  • Give adjuncts, who are underserved members of the university community,  free access to health clinics, as well as the same access to campus recreational centers and events as staff and “full-time” faculty.
  • Make adjuncts eligible for nomination and election to the Faculty Senate.
  • Allow adjuncts to serve as faculty advisors to student organizations.
  • Compensate adjuncts for course preparation if a course is cancelled with three weeks or fewer before the start of classes. Offer standard compensation for new course development.
  • Institute a policy making adjunct faculty eligible for academic year (fall and spring) appointments after ten consecutive semesters of service.
  • Provide adjuncts with the resources they require to teach effectively, including continuous and unrestricted library access; eligibility for use of travel funds and vehicles, based on the same approval processes available to faculty deemed “full-time”; and availability of the same course materials and necessary supplies, including office space and access to network computers, printers, and other necessary technology.
  • Adjuncts should be given the opportunity to participate in department meetings and should have a voice in decisions affecting policy and curriculum.
  • Adjuncts should be included in the academic culture, not isolated from it.  Adjuncts deserve respect befitting the crucial role they play in supporting departments and colleges. As such, they should be invited to academic functions and eligible for teaching awards.

Across the campus community:

  • All campus workers and students should learn how the adjunctification crisis threatens the hard-won benefits once taken for granted in academia and join the long-term fight to create structural change by joining the United Campus Workers of Tennessee. 



Introduction

There is a nationwide adjunct crisis. Low-paid, part-time faculty with no job security and few benefits now teach the majority of college and university courses (United States Government Accountability, 2017). Contrary to popular belief, most adjunct faculty do not have full-time careers outside of academia. 

This report outlines findings from a 2019-2020 study on adjunct working conditions at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and recommends a set of interventions to improve local and national conditions.

Over 550 adjunct faculty teach 30% of all undergraduate credit hours at ETSU and account for between 40-50% of total instructional faculty, depending on the semester (ETSU adjunct data, Spring 2018; ETSU adjunct data, 2017-2018; Tennessee HIgher Education Commission. 2017-2018; ETSU Fact Book, 2018). 

In the 2018-2019 academic year, ETSU adjuncts made $750 per credit hour on average or $2,250 per three-credit course (Tennessee General Assembly, 2019). They taught an average of 2.6 three-credit courses per year for an average annual pay of $5,700. In 2019-2020, after United Campus Workers and student allies launched the Adjunct Action campaign, the minimum adjunct pay at ETSU was bumped from $600 to $700 per credit hour. While this is a good start, it is only the first step on a path to make things right for adjuncts at ETSU and beyond. 

Between July 2019 and February 2020, members of the United Campus Workers of Tennessee conducted a mixed-methods, participatory action research (PAR) project on the working and living conditions of adjunct faculty. Our research team is adjunct-led, but also includes participants from tenure line and staff positions. The participatory process we undertook cultivated a deep sense of trust among study participants, and produced more reliable data as well as stronger findings. While relatively small in scale—about 10% of adjuncts at ETSU participated—our study is reinforced by similar findings that have come out of national studies. For more on study methodology, see Appendix.

The findings in this report come from the research team’s analysis of the following sources: an ETSU dataset of adjunct employment and pay, 2017-2019; a survey administered by the union and completed by 42 ETSU adjuncts; original in-depth interviews with 12 current adjunct faculty; and current discussions in academic and policy literature.



Motivation: A Commitment to Teaching

Our survey and interviews brought to light the many sacrifices adjuncts make in order to provide quality education for their students. Most of the adjuncts we spoke to describe dedication to student learning as their primary motivation and the reason for continuing to struggle in their low-paid and unstable positions. The sacrifices they recount are indications of their commitment to an institution and its mission of higher learning. 

When asked about their motivations for teaching, 66% of survey respondents said that they enjoy it. Many interviewees mentioned contributing to students’ intellectual development and civic engagement as the most appealing aspect of the job.  Expressing this common theme, one adjunct told us, “I enjoy getting to know the students and helping to shape the way that they think. And making them think about something that they haven’t thought about before.”

In an understated acknowledgement of other factors which make the job difficult to return to semester after semester, one adjunct said: “What keeps me coming back [is] the students.” Another was clear about the downside of her commitment to teaching, saying, “There is nothing about the day to day job that I do that I don’t like. It is just feeling that I don’t get adequate compensation.”

For many interviewees, the choice to pursue a career in education reflects a desire to have a positive impact in society and in their communities. “Teaching is where I feel like I have my voice and can make a difference,” said an adjunct teaching in the social sciences. Another explained how crucial he viewed his role to be and how difficult it became with heavy work loads and large class sizes: 

I’ve spent a lot of my graduate studies learning about pedagogy--about how important it is to teach students to read information critically, express thoughts in nuanced ways, think critically about different groups in society. If you have to simplify your teaching based on an assessment with multiple choice answers, students are never forced to develop those skills.

 Our study, supported by a growing literature on the adjunctification crisis, indicates that the lack of adequate compensation and support for adjuncts undercuts quality in higher education. This is not a problem with the quality of adjunct instruction. It is a structural problem. Separate studies show that student evaluations, student performance in pre- and post-testing, and grade distribution do not differ substantially between part-time and full-time faculty (Caprio, 1998, 166). Yet when one of those groups—the part-time faculty who teach between one-third and half of all courses—cannot be involved in advising, curriculum development, or program design, students are not being fully supported.

Receiving a temporary teaching appointment with low pay and no benefits can feel like a broken promise to those who have worked hard to earn advanced degrees in pursuit of an academic career. Of 41 survey responses, 26 (63%) saw an adjunct position as a necessary step toward a long-term position in academia. Respondents wrote: “I need the teaching experience;” “I’m hoping to improve my chances of being hired for a tenure-track position;” and “I want to stay current in my field”. 

Yet analysts note that dwindling opportunities for secure, tenured employment have not led to a significant decrease in the size of graduate programs designed to train future academics. In fact, those same institutions rely on their graduate students as a source of cheap academic labor (Bousquet, 2008). Joseph Entin calls the current transformation of universities “a full-scale assault on what were, for a generation, the basic terms of life on the job,” noting that tenure, academic freedom, and faculty governance are fundamental benefits of academic work—won through decades of struggle and now being undermined (Entin, 2005, 28). 

Adjuncts at ETSU are eking out a living in this academic environment. And yet next semester, given the chance, they will likely be back in the classroom. Some will commute hours to teach for pay that barely fills the gas tank. Others will rush from campus to campus, or from campus to a second job. Many will go without meals or without adequate sleep in order to meet their hectic schedules. With no sick leave or health insurance, many adjuncts work sick or with untreated illness. Few are able to afford a vacation without the help of a domestic partner or family member. Even the bare necessities of the job, such as computers, phones, or reliable transportation, are steep financial burdens for some adjuncts at ETSU. But despite their struggles, not one respondent expressed plans to give up teaching. 

For decades, the commitment of these educators has gone unreciprocated. The unwillingness of ETSU to adequately support nearly half of its faculty reflects a failure of the institution to meet its core value of “people first.” Sadly, these patterns are part of a broader industry trend in higher education, the result of decades of decisions to maximize profit and minimize cost on the backs of workers and students. Our research suggests that higher education can operate effectively by other means.




DENNIS PRATER
ETSU: Literature & Languages
Northeast State Community College: English & Humanities

Dennis Prater has been teaching Freshman English at ETSU since 2011. Since 2013, he has also been teaching at Northeast State in English & Humanities. “The best part about teaching is bringing students to a new understanding, perspective, point of view about something.” Despite his years of teaching, he discovered one day, “it is cheaper to sign up for the gym as a roommate of an ETSU student than as someone who actually works here.” But more painful than that was his next wakeup call: “The fact that I can’t be an advisor resonates with me. I was the advisor of the Progressive Student’s Alliance and after a public action, I was contacted and told I couldn’t be an advisor because I was an adjunct.”

Dennis’ perspective as someone who has been working to improve conditions for all campus workers for years is unique, given that he has spoken directly with decision-makers on campus, the media, and members of the General Assembly. “Dr. Noland has said that he thinks some adjuncts are essentially worth more than others.” Over the years, the issues stack up. “We get four paychecks each semester. In the summer there is always some prep work in August, so you could be working for awhile, getting prepared, working really full-time across institutions and not seeing a dime for your labor for two months. At no other job that I’ve ever worked has it been like that. If you have to pay for gas, it gets really hard.”

Not being paid adequately or on a regular basis has forced adjuncts like Dennis to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. “Along with working at ETSU and Northeast I’ve had part-time jobs as a gas station clerk and a bartender. There were times when I sold plasma too. Now I’m in a better position because my partner gets paid more. Of course, I would like to contribute. I still don’t have health insurance and I’m 43. Last semester my car, my computer, and my cell phone gave out at the very same time and that put me in a huge crunch.”

Dennis teaches at two institutions in northeast Tennessee. He typically teaches six courses in the Fall semester. “No one should teach that many courses. It’s not right for teachers or students but it is still something I do. The courses and pay can fluctuate a lot: sometimes you only get 4 classes. We are the first to get cut because we are adjuncts. So it is an added incentive to teach like 7 courses which is not something you should do. But you do it in case a course gets cut in the spring.”

Teaching that many courses each year still only amounts to $17,000 annually. So when anything breaks or needs to be replaced, it becomes a crisis. That happened to Dennis last year. “When my car, computer and cell went out last semester I opted for a car and computer first. Before we got our check at the end of February, ETSU enacted their two-factor authentication system. I had to respond to students but I couldn’t because I got locked out of the system. I had lost my phone so I couldn’t do the two-factor. Fortunately, the person I talked to knew what it was like to be between cell phones and was sympathetic. They didn’t even consider the situation that their system puts their own employees in. At least consider whether pay checks have come through if you establish something like that. But it is another way in which we fall through the cracks.”

Despite the lack of positive change prior to spring 2019, Dennis is hopeful and excited about the future because he has seen, “people are sympathetic: at school, in the wider community. When they find out about our situation, they feel like it should change...And we have so much support from the students...How can I look at my students and tell them that if they study hard and put themselves into the work and study hard that it is going to be ok? Because it hasn’t been for me. I have put myself into my work and studied hard and it didn’t work out for me.”




Overview of Adjunct Workers in the Higher Education Industry 

 

U.S. higher education is critical to the overall health of our society. It also represents a substantial aggregate economic investment. In 2016-2017, total revenue at degree-granting postsecondary institutions totalled $649 billion dollars; 41% of revenue at public institutions came from government grants, contracts, and appropriations (Dept of Ed, 2019, “Conditions of Education”). Post-secondary institutions employ over four million workers, accounting for three percent of the total labor market (Dept of Ed, 2019, “Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions”). Of the 1.5 million faculty nationwide, 53% are full-time and 47% part-time (Dept of Ed, 2019, “Conditions of Postsecondary Faculty). In Tennessee, 52,000 employees work for public higher educational institutions, including over 19,000 instructional faculty, 50% of whom are part-time (U.S. Census, 2018).

Higher education hasn’t always relied so heavily on part-time labor. Beginning in the 1960s, pressure exerted by rapidly increasing enrollment from the post-WWII GI Bill and other educational benefits led to increased hiring of adjuncts (Lerner, 2008). Economic crisis and changing economic philosophies in the 1970s demanded reduced public spending, which also contributed to both rising tuition costs and reliance on contingent faculty (Entin, 2005, 26). Still, in 1970 adjuncts only made up 22% of faculty.

By 1990, this figure had more than doubled to 46% (Entin, 2005, 26). The temporary stop-gap measure of employing contingent faculty in the 1960s and 1970s had become a “long-term management strategy” (Schell, 2016, 183), even through the economic boom of the 1990s. Furthermore, the typical adjunct of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a specialist with a full-time job who shared their expertise teaching part-time, was replaced by involuntary part-timers seeking full-time or tenured positions in academia. Higher education had become subject to the "cost-saving" measures adopted in other sectors, including privatization, outsourcing, and casualization of labor. 

After the 2008 Great Recession most states, including Tennessee, cut public support to higher education significantly; since then, despite an improved economy, levels of state support are still down. Richard Moser, a former professor at ETSU, writes that “three decades of decline in public funding for higher education opened the door for increasing corporate influence” (Moser, 2014). 

The corporate-management model reimagined “education as a commodity purchased by individuals, rather than a universal public good provided by the state” (Sessions, 2020). With a focus on attracting consumers, it is not surprising that many decision makers “view education as tertiary,” spending billions investing in housing and on-campus projects while claiming they “can’t find the money to hire more full-time professors” (Saccaro, 2014). According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, "only about twenty-one cents of each new inflation-adjusted dollar per student since 1976 actually went for instruction" (Santos, 2016).

With each economic dip of the past five decades, instructional and staff salaries and full-time jobs have been on the cutting block. Spending on administrative salaries, athletics, and capital projects, on the other hand, is remarkably resilient, even in the face of economic crisis, as decision-makers justify these expenses with promises of future revenue gains (Saccaro, 2014; Santos, 2016; Ness and Tanberg, 2013). For instance, budget concerns led ETSU to end its football program in 2003, only to announce it was bringing it back in 2013—when post-recession state cuts were the deepest—and by 2017 the university had a new 27 million dollar stadium (New, 2016). In another ETSU-specific instance, after repeatedly telling the ETSU community that the institution did not have funds for adjunct raises, current president Noland was given a $58,000 raise to his base pay along with $425,000 in retention bonuses over five years, $20,000 in "discretionary and other allowances," and a 33% increase to his car allowance, now $12,000 annually.

Looking to the future, analysts project that higher education enrollment, particularly at regional access institutions such as ETSU (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018), will continue to flatten or even fall through 2028, intensifying pressure on instructional budgets (Jaschik, 2018). In a 2018 interview in The Atlantic, Bryan Alexander predicts an increased reliance on adjunct faculty, which “given how colleges have treated adjunct faculty, would be a humanitarian disaster—one of higher education’s own doing” (Harris, 2018).

Relying on an underpaid, precarious adjunct workforce is in direct conflict with higher education’s mission to provide a public good and give back to the broader community. As our case study at ETSU will show, the result is damaging the quality of education and the university’s ethical standing. Moreover, ETSU and other public universities are often the largest employers in their regions. Driving down wages and pushing resident employees to rely on federal and state aid programs is in direct contradiction to institutions’ stated mission. “People are marginalized, overlooked, ostracized in all employment sectors, but the problem is magnified here. We are hypocrites; we betray all the concepts that we teach: open-mindedness, tolerance, inclusivity, diversity, free speech” (Cucciarre 61-62).

We undertook this study as one component of our multi-pronged campaign to shed light on adjunct working conditions at ETSU and to change them. As adjunct faculty and union member Dennis Prater says, “Conditions like this tend to thrive in the dark.” This report shines a light on conditions in higher education that the Tennessee public deserves to see.




Study Participants

The majority of credit hours taught by adjuncts at ETSU are concentrated in the College of Arts & Sciences, the Clemmer College (home to programs in counseling, education, leadership, and sports), and the College of Nursing. Eleven percent of all adjunct-taught credit hours at ETSU are in the Department of Literature and Language, with ten percent in undergraduate nursing programs; Clemmer departments with high adjunct credit hour production include Curriculum and Instruction (6.2% of all credit hours) and Counseling and Human Services (4.8%). Aside from these departments/programs, adjunct credit production is spread rather evenly across the institution.

Further research is necessary to understand the specific career profiles of adjuncts ETSU. We suspect they are close to national averages. Part-time faculty can be roughly categorized into three groups: single-institution adjuncts working part-time at just one institution; itinerant adjuncts, teaching part-time at multiple institutions; and professional adjuncts, working as full- or part-time professionals and teaching on the side. Itinerant and single-institution adjuncts make up the majority of adjuncts nationwide (AAUP, nd). 

While our survey and interview sample is not representative of all ETSU adjuncts, we intentionally set out to understand the experiences of single-institution and itinerant adjuncts at ETSU—career educators who teach more ETSU courses than the average adjunct and rely most significantly on paid work from the institution.

Interviewees

Of the twelve adjuncts we interviewed, ten teach in the College of Arts and Sciences and two teach in the Clemmer College. Four, or 33%, are men, and eight, or 67%, are women. Most have spent at least five years with the institution. They represent a range of different adjunct work profiles: 8% are retired from other careers; 33% are itinerant adjuncts, teaching part-time at multiple institutions; 25% are single-institution adjuncts at ETSU; and 33% work full- or part-time jobs in other fields. All interviewees but one rely on ETSU income to meet monthly needs. 

 Survey Respondents

Of the 38 who provided their college, 27 (71%) of survey respondents teach in Arts and Sciences, 6 (16%) in Business and Technology, and 3 (8%) in Clemmer. Thirty-three provided their specific department: 14 (42%) teach in Literature and Language, four (14%) in Art and Design, three (9%) in History, and three (9%) in Engineering, Engineering Technology, and Surveying (ENTC). Two (6%) teach in Sociology and Anthropology and two (6%) in Sport, Exercise, Recreation, and Kinesiology. One respondent (3%) completed the survey from each of the following departments: Digital Media, Theatre and Dance, Educational Foundations, Technology, and Nursing.

Of 38 respondents that provided race and gender data, 24 (63%) are women and 14 (37%) are men. Thirty-five (94%) are White, 1 (3%) Black, and 1 (3%) Asian. The average age of respondents is 50. The average years of service with ETSU is 5.5. Twenty-six respondents (63%) teach only at ETSU and 16 (38%) teach at multiple institutions. On average, survey respondents taught 6.5 credit hours at ETSU during Fall semester 2019; fourteen respondents (34%) taught 9 credit hours.

Survey respondents were roughly representative of ETSU adjuncts in general, in terms of race, gender, and pay received per credit hour (details in Appendix 2a here). Survey respondents were slightly more white (95% vs. 94%) than ETSU adjuncts in general. A slightly smaller proportion of survey respondents were women (58% vs. 64%) than all ETSU adjuncts. On average, they received comparable average pay per credit hour taught ($744 vs. $737), but taught significantly more credit hours per year (14 vs. 8) than ETSU adjuncts in general.

Of 32 respondents who provided department information, Literature and Language represented 44% of the sample, while Literature and Language adjuncts make up only 8% of ETSU adjuncts in general and teach 11% of the total adjunct credit hours. Appalachian Studies and ENTC each represented 13% of respondents, while making up 3% and 2% of ETSU adjuncts, respectively. Other significant departments among respondents were History (9% of respondents vs. 3% of all adjuncts), Sociology & Anthropology (6% vs. 3%), and Sport/Kinesiology (6% vs. 5%). 

While our sample is not representative, taken with secondary sources of data and information about adjunct faculty, we believe that the size of our study allows us to draw robust conclusions about the experience of adjunct faculty at ETSU and across Tennessee.

See Section 2 in the Appendix here for additional comparisons between our survey participants and ETSU adjunct faculty.




KITTYE HIRSCH
Sociology

Kittye teaches Sociology as an Adjunct at ETSU. Born in Winston-Salem, NC, she was raised in Johnson City, went to school, and came back for graduate school, finishing in 2013. As a graduate student and then alum, Kittye has now been teaching for six years at ETSU. She teaches three classes a semester, sometimes four, on various topics in Sociology. This is her only teaching position. “It is really important to me to feel like I am making a difference.”Kittye continues to teach because of this passion and drive. But she finds it harder and harder to imagine how anyone could survive in situations less fortunate than her own, without a spouse with a better-paying full-time job and access to benefits. “It would be very difficult to live on [ETSU adjunct pay].”

In the six years Kittye has been teaching, she recalls zero opportunity for a pay increase, whether for merit or longevity. She feels slighted when she looks up New York University as a comparison and sees that adjuncts get raises after three consecutive years of teaching, even qualifying for health care after a certain amount of time. By contrast, when she looks on the ETSU website, she sees that while adjuncts qualify for bereavement time, they cannot even hope for parental leave. “After a certain amount of time, it would be nice to get credit for working for years for the institution...I know that adjuncts don’t do all of the other things that professors do. But even just for teaching we are not fairly paid. At NYU you are paid extra for office hours. You are never paid for prepping [at ETSU]. This past semester I taught a new class online and I built it from nothing, from scratch... Those extra things you just aren’t getting paid for.”

This lack of appreciation or acknowledgment in compensation is especially onerous when a class gets cancelled at the last minute. This happened to Kittye recently, and while it was difficult, it would have been catastrophic if she did not have her husband’s income to fall back on. Nonetheless, it impacted their lives. “Last semester a week before class when I had prepped a class they cancelled it at the last minute. I did all that work for no pay.” The dedication Kittye shows to students goes unacknowledged in her paycheck, because she is merely paid for her hours in the classroom. The fact that decisions about classes are often made at the last minute adds an extra layer of precarity. “Just knowing that semester to semester they could tell us that they only have one class for me or nothing for me -- this job has no guarantee. I’ve gotten used to having three classes per semester so I am used to a particular income. But knowing in the back of my head that it could change -- it is like having a temporary job.” For Kittye, this uncertainty, and sometimes going months without pay, is one of the most challenging things.

In the classroom, Kittye teaches about issues like poverty, which brings into relief her low pay, despite teaching three to four classes every semester. “In my social problems class we break poverty and income down. Even when you look at people supposedly above poverty level, they are still struggling. When you look at all of the bills and include them all it is really difficult to survive. I don’t know how anyone can live off adjunct pay in this area. You have so many months where you don’t get paid. How can anyone survive in a field where you don’t get paid every month?”

Kittye is emphatic that the Department is not the problem, nor is the job itself. “I love the department. I can reach out to anyone and get support...My department is fantastic; I feel 100% supported...I have invested most of my life in teaching. It is my life. This and my grandchildren. I get to do what I love to do and that means a lot...There is nothing about the day-to-day job that I do that I don’t like. It is just feeling that I don’t get adequate compensation. I probably put in more work than I should. I want to make my teaching rigorous. I give them challenging assignments and it is probably harder on them and me...I want to make sure they succeed.”




Low Pay

Surviving



“I have to teach martial arts in the evenings, and during the summers I cobble together odd jobs.” ”

- Zack James


On average ETSU adjuncts are paid $750 per credit hour or $2,250 for a three-credit course, 40% less than the national average of $3,750 per course at public 4-year institutions (Chronicle Data, 2019). This below average compensation results in a dramatic gap between the adjuncts’ take-home pay compared to the amount of work they do. As an adjunct in history explained his pay and course load:

The rate that I am getting paid is $2,400 for each three-credit course. For these courses, I am teaching 75 students across the two sections. No assistants. I am the type of instructor that is not going to use Scantron exams to make my life easier. I believe that isn’t the mission of the university. … When you factor in the amount of time I’m spending preparing, grading, and teaching, I am making under minimum wage at the end of the day. I don’t have ambitions for being rich or anything like that. I think if I work full-time, I shouldn’t have to worry about paying my bills month to month.

Our survey asked adjuncts about their pay and how they are able to get by. Sixty-two percent of respondents indicated they are paid between $700-749 per credit hour, on par with the average adjunct pay of $750 at the institution. Seventy-six respondents have additional jobs in order to get by, although the majority of respondents, 58%, said they would like for their work at ETSU to be their full-time job. 

Most tellingly, we asked respondents to share their total individual income before taxes, including from their work at ETSU and all other jobs. As the chart below illustrates, 59% or the majority of survey respondents are low-income, making less than $25,000 a year. More specifically, 20% make under $15,000 a year, 39% between $15,000 and $24,999, 20% between $25,000 and $34,999, and 5% between $35,000 and $44,999. Seven respondents, or 17%, have moderate to high incomes between $55,000 and $200,000 and above.

Our survey and interview data suggest that most adjunct faculty at ETSU are low-income and rely on ETSU to get by, a finding that corresponds with the national literature. One interviewee shared that he earns $17,000 a year working at ETSU and Northeast State Community College; most weeks he works over 40 hours. For comparison, working 40 hours a week for the hourly federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour comes to just over $15,000 gross income. The American Federation of Teachers 2020 survey of over 3,000 contingent faculty members found that nearly a third make less than $25,000 a year, placing them below the poverty line for a family of four (American Federation of Teachers, 2020).

Every adjunct we interviewed told us about workarounds and survival strategies in their attempts to get by on their low pay. Scraping by as an adjunct typically involves a complicated and sometimes risky juggling act, as suggested by Zack James who earns $12,600 for teaching six, three-credit courses:

I don’t have insurance. I’ve been gambling for seven years now. It’s insane. I have to teach martial arts in the evenings, and during the summers I cobble together odd jobs. … The only way I am able to get by is my grandfather passed away and we inherited his house and it is already paid for. But it is full of holes and I am trying to repair it the best I can with my budget. My wife only works part-time at the hospital and still makes $5,000 more than I do. I feel like I don’t contribute much. I have to ask if I want to save $100 every couple of months or take my wife out for food we don’t cook every once in a while. I live on rice and beans, and chicken thighs. I’m so sick of chicken thighs.

An anonymous interviewee shared his survival strategies:

I would like [my pay] to be higher. I manage to get by. I teach 3, 3, and 1 over the summer. My annual is like $12,600. It will go up a bit with the raise. I think I can only do it because I am a very cheap person. There are things I would like to do that I miss out on. I really need a new car. My car is 21 years old with 180,000 miles. I’m afraid it will die on me. I can’t afford new car payments with student loan payments on top of everything else.

Relying on Outside Forms of Support

All study participants talked about needing to balance multiple jobs or rely on other forms of financial support, such as a federal aid program or a family member--or both. 

Five of our survey respondents, or 12% of total respondents, rely on some form of federal aid program: three on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly known as "food stamps"), one on Medicaid, and one on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). A 2020 national survey of over 3,000 contingent faculty found that 25% rely on at least one of the federal aid programs (American Federations of Teachers, 2020). Our survey data likely underrepresents the degree to which the federal government subsidizes ETSU pay. It may also be that in Johnson City the community safety net is providing the subsidies: Sixty-one percent of survey respondents rely on friends or family to make ends meet. One interviewee’s story provides a window into the extent to which adjunct faculty rely on family and friends for things as large as houses to live in and as small as hand-me-down cell phones and computers:

I can only get by because I live with my father and take care of him so I don’t pay rent. ... But I also don’t have anything: I can’t buy new computers. I still have my first cell phone. I don’t buy new phones. I wait until a friend is done with a computer because it is too old and then I say, “Don’t throw it away; I’ll take it.” I don’t want a smartphone because I’d have to pay for data, even though a data plan would help me a lot. I could check emails once a day and get back to students. But that extra bit would be enough to push my budget out of whack.

 

In Debt and Overloaded

The pay is not only low; it is also infrequent, uneven, and subject to unpredictable shifts. Prater explained why the gaps in pay are so difficult:

We get four paychecks each semester. In the summer there is always some prep work in August, so you could be working full-time across institutions and not seeing a dime for your labor for six weeks or more. At no other job that I’ve ever worked has it been like that. If you have to pay for gas, it gets really hard.

As interviewees discussed, bills are still due even when adjuncts are not getting paid. To survive the droughts in pay, one adjunct told us he racks up credit card debt during the periods without paychecks and then tries to pay as much off as possible when he’s getting paid: “The debt balloons up and then comes down some and then balloons back up.”

And credit card debt is often on top of student loan debt: According to analysis from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015 the average loan debt for students with research doctorates was $108,400 (NCES, 2018). “I have huge amounts of student debt from earning those degrees,” Miki Gordon, who teaches upper-level counseling classes, explained.

Low and unstable income often creates an incentive for adjuncts to teach an overload of courses, particularly in the fall semester, in anticipation of not getting enough work in the spring. Eighteen of our survey respondents taught at multiple institutions; their average credit hour load in Fall 2019 was 14.4, or close to five courses (assuming three-credit hour courses). Four respondents taught 18 credit hours, or six courses, and an additional two taught 26 and 27 credit hours, or eight to nine courses. Dennis Prater touched on this practice in our focus group: “Teaching seven courses across institutions impedes our ability to give students what they deserve, but you do it to survive.”


Unpaid Work



“Last semester I had prepped for a class and they cancelled it a week before the semester. I did all that work for no pay.”

--Kittye Hirsch


Not only is pay very low, but adjuncts are paid per credit-hour for instructional work. “So everything else you do is by donation … Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs,” says Miranda Merklein, an adjunct in Santa Fe. (Saccaro, 2014).

Last-minute class cancellations were the most extreme examples of uncompensated work we documented in interviews. When courses are cancelled, which happens regularly, adjuncts at ETSU receive no compensation at all for the labor they have performed. “Last semester I had prepped for a class and they cancelled it a week before the semester. I did all that work for no pay,” Hirsch noted. Extrapolating on what this means for her work life, she added:

Semester to semester, they could tell us that they only have one class for me or nothing for me. This job has no guarantee. I’ve gotten used to having three classes per semester, so I am used to a particular income. But knowing in the back of my head that it could change, it is like having a temporary job.

 Since adjuncts are hired by contract on a per-course basis, they are only paid for teaching courses, not for the other duties of full-time instructors. Adjuncts design courses, meet with students, attend mandatory meetings and training, and constantly do work to stay current in their field, all for no pay. At some institutions, adjuncts are paid for curriculum design, but in our interviews adjuncts talked about prepping new courses for no additional pay. For instance, Gordon told us about her work to prepare to teach a mental health clinical course in the Department of Counseling and Human Services:

You are supposed to keep up with all of the current research to design this course. I did an extensive amount of unpaid curriculum design work. I had to look up all the newest research, pick it out, and put it in place of the textbook. They probably used it after I left. They had this entire online site that I created. I thought I did a pretty good job.

We asked survey respondents how frequently they spend uncompensated time on a set of common service and professional development activities: advising, thesis review, course development, curriculum design, faculty meetings, training, and attending department events. Forty respondents, or 95%, spend some time each semester on uncompensated activity, and 27 respondents, or 64%, spend time daily or weekly on at least one of the activities.

The specific activities that respondents do most frequently without compensation are student advising and course development: 28% of respondents spend time at least once a week on these activities, and 18% indicated they do this work daily. 

Uncompensated activities each semester add up: over 40% of respondents participate in departmental meetings and training or professional development at least once per semester, 23% spend time once a semester on course development, 33% on curriculum design, and 32% participate in faculty meetings. 

Many of the adjuncts we surveyed and spoke to work long hours to ensure rigorous learning conditions and meet the requirements of the job, yet much of this work is uncompensated. In a different employment sector, this would be considered wage theft, and it would be illegal. However, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which protects many salaried employees earning less than $684 per week to ensure they receive minimum wage and overtime, exempts faculty from this minimum salary test (SEIU, 2014, 12).

Protections such as those provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program are often unavailable to adjuncts as they depend in part on the number of hours worked.




ZACHARY JAMES
Literature & Languages (Japanese)

Zack James teaches Japanese and Japanese Culture and Society at ETSU, adding on martial arts in the evenings for extra income. He got his degrees at ETSU and the University of San Francisco, grew up here, and has been coming to campus since he was 13 years old. “Students are my favorite part. Even though I am only 8 years older than them. It is so great to see them learn and grow. Especially with Japanese: so many students tell me ‘I’m stupid. I can’t do it.’ And they can and I support them in that. I just like giving back to the students, making them feel like they can be good at something.”

Despite trying, Zack struggles to get the basic resources to teach. He can’t get access to the books he needs, even just to scan them. He has to pull source material from the internet and paste it together. They finally got more than one working computer in his area, but not before he and his fellow adjuncts brought it up three or four times. (We had several computers, they just didn’t work half of the time). He tries to provide his students with opportunities like going to events off campus, but even renting a van exposed the lack of status his title on campus enjoys. “They wouldn’t rent a school van to me because I’m an adjunct... I’ve been asked to sponsor clubs, a Japanese animation club and other clubs, and I can’t because I’m an adjunct. Even though I’ve been on this campus and in this community for more than a decade, I can’t support students and take on these roles.”

Zack makes $12,600 teaching six 3-credit courses at ETSU. He and his wife, who works part-time at a grocery store, live in his grandfather’s house, which they were lucky enough to inherit fully paid off. However, “I commute 40 minutes to get over here so it is rough. Especially if you only get paid once a month. If it were every two weeks maybe I could deal with it.” He works an average of 35 hours/week, more like 40-45 during busy times, and ETSU consistently increases the number of students in his classroom with no increase in pay. “Last year they bumped it from 22 to 27. And with a foreign language class that is difficult.” Each semester, he has about 110 students total. In the summer, Zack doesn’t have any classes, so he becomes a jack of all trades...I am babysitting, painting porches, catering, stringing it together.”

“My wife has MS so there is a lot to pay for and go through with that. I don’t have insurance, I’ve been gambling for 7 years now. It’s insane.” The only way Zack feels he and his wife get by is because of his grandfather’s house they inherited. “But it is full of holes and I am trying to repair it the best I can with my budget. It is rough because my wife only works part-time at the grocery store and still makes $5,000 more than I do. I feel like I don’t contribute much. I have to ask if I want to save $100 every couple of months or take my wife out for food we don’t cook every once in a while. I live on rice and beans, and chicken thighs. I’m so sick of chicken thighs. They are the cheapest cut of meat.”

Zack struggles to feel valued and respected as an adjunct at ETSU. As for anyone evaluating his work, Zack feels there is no one watching, and that is disappointing. “No one has checked in on whether I am doing my job or whether my standards are good. I do my job well but it doesn’t feel great to be ignored. They didn’t even check my syllabus at all.” His coworker is full-time, so her input is invited on important things like the remodeling of the Japanese minor. He feels lucky in that she makes an effort to bring his input back and forth, something she doesn’t have to do. “She asks me what I think and then takes my feedback and tells them. I gave her three pages of thoughts on the topic.” Zack feels insulted each time an email goes out announcing raises that exclude adjuncts, something ETSU could address easily.

Zack feels supported by his students and Chair, for trying to improve the situation for adjuncts at ETSU. But his students were clueless about pay and working conditions for Zack and his coworkers until he came in stressed one day and decided to lay it all out to them about how much he makes. “Telling my students was one of the smartest things I’ve done...They asked me: ‘are you sure?’ Afterwards they came up to me and asked about it, saying this isn’t fair.




Lack of Benefits

Poor Healthcare Options


“Twice in the last year, I had to work sick. I just thought, ‘Tough it out.'"

--Angela Sproles


Asked about health care, one-third of interviewees said they go without insurance, another third rely on spouses or other jobs to provide insurance, and a third purchase plans on the Marketplace. 

While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has allowed more adjuncts to get insurance, the cheaper plans have high copays and deductibles; those we interviewed see them as “for emergency only” kinds of plans. Gordon shared her health needs and the limits of her Marketplace plan:

 I’m partially disabled but I don’t claim that as anything. Like I don’t get disability and I’m not interested in applying. I have fluoroquinolone-associated disability, which is from antibiotics that damaged all of my tendons, nerves, and muscles. I would really benefit from physical therapy and seeing a neurologist again, but I can’t afford it. I have terrible health insurance. Right now, I am paying for a Marketplace plan that doesn’t cover anything. It is catastrophic. I actually have health problems and there are things I should be doing for myself that I can’t because I can’t afford it.

Furthermore, adjuncts in Tennessee—where Medicaid hasn’t been expanded—are often at risk of falling into the “coverage gap.” The ACA was designed with the assumption that states would expand eligibility for Medicaid across low-income brackets. But in Tennessee where they haven’t, many fall into a gap where their income is too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low for Marketplace subsidies. This causes another layer of anxiety and precarity for many adjuncts:

I always live in fear of losing one of my classes because basically with three courses each semester and a summer course, I am just over the line where I don’t fall into the Medicaid gap. So if I lose one, I lose health insurance.

Working Sick

At many institutions, adjuncts have some flexibility to cancel classes when they are sick, as long as they still meet the contact hours required by accrediting agencies. ETSU adjunct contracts, however, specifically state that pay can be docked for cancelled classes. Thus, working sick is common. As Angela shared: “Twice in the last year, I had to work sick. I just thought, ‘Tough it out.’ I had to sit down to teach because my legs were so weak.” 

For adjunct faculty struggling to meet daily needs on low pay, the stress of contingency, lack of supportive health care options, and draconian policies discouraging even basic care—like staying at home with the flu—combine to cause increased risk of depression, anxiety, untreated chronic pain (as in Gordon’s case), and in the worst case, even death (Reevy, Deason, 2014). In 2019, a widely circulated story of one adjunct’s untimely death made waves in academia: 

Thea Hunter had a number of ailments that bothered her—her asthma, her heart—and the rigors of being an adjunct added to them. Had she been tenured, she would have experienced a sort of security that tenure is designed to provide: a campus office of her own, health insurance, authority and respect with which to navigate campus bureaucracy, greater financial stability. Without tenure, she was unprotected, at the whim of her body’s failings, working long hours for little pay, teaching large survey classes outside of her area of special expertise (Harris, 2020).

While adjuncting may not lead directly to death, living and working conditions do not make for a good life. The challenges are particularly acute as adjuncts consider their options for retirement.


Retirement Vulnerability


“I have no retirement.”

-Miki Gordon


Secure retirement is just not an option for most adjuncts. As Gordon, who is in her mid-forties, described: “I have no savings for retirement. I have terrible health insurance. I have very little savings.” In her interview, Hirsch contemplated the future for many adjuncts: “What happens when adjuncts get older, have more health issues, and no retirement? They could be unable to work, could lose their jobs. It could be a downward spiral as you age.”

National studies corroborate the severity of the adjunct retirement crisis. A 2019 report from the TIAA Institute revealed that only one-third or 33% of adjunct faculty are confident they’ll have enough money to retire (TIAA Institute, 2019). To compare: nationally 57% of all non-retirees are confident they’ll have enough to retire (Gallup, 2019). Our interviews suggest that many in this segment of the adjunct workforce are relying on partner or other family support for retirement. For the vast majority of adjuncts, retirement with dignity may never be possible. A 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicled the death of an adjunct who had to work well into her eighties and died in destitution: 

[Margaret Mary Votko] was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself (Kovalik, 2013).



Poor Working Conditions 

The conditions in which adjuncts work are obstacles to their ability to fully participate in university life. Lack of support and integration undercuts adjuncts’ support for their students. Adjuncts are experts in pedagogy and the core curriculum and yet are given no formal role to shape and improve program design and delivery. The lack of institutional support for adjuncts means that they may not even have an office in which to hold office hours with students. Adjunct faculty at ETSU report being ignored and even disrespected by administration and colleagues, given little formal training to support students, and recount troubling stories of locked doors, broken computers, and departmental cultures in which they often feel invisible.


Lack of Access to Basic Teaching Materials


“I didn’t even have the book for the class.”

-Miki Gordon


Adjuncts we interviewed spoke about not having access to decent computers, printing, or a budget to buy necessary supplies. This was reflected in survey results, as well. Twenty-one percent of survey respondents indicated they do not have office space or another private space where they can meet with students. Eleven percent indicated that they weren’t provided with curriculum guidelines until 4-6 weeks into the semester. Sixteen percent are not provided with access to a computer, thirteen percent do not have access to the library, and ten percent indicate they do not have access to the classroom technology they need to teach. One survey respondent shared: “I was told I could no longer print class documents. I bear the expense of copying class materials.” Gordon described her experience as a new adjunct faculty member: “ETSU didn’t order me the book for my class. It was a week and a half before class and students were asking me questions, and I didn’t even have the book.” At the end of each semester, adjunct faculty lose their access to the library. If they don’t teach in the summers, they have no library access and can’t do critical preparation work or catch up on the literature in their field. Nearly every adjunct we spoke to mentioned this as a deep frustration. 

They also described a chaotic organizational culture where basic information about access to resources is not shared with adjuncts: “When I asked how I could get [the book], people would keep saying: ‘Call Tom.’ I had no idea who that was.” Another adjunct recalled: “When I first started, they told me I had $200 for the year to buy music for the students. Then when I tried to access it, they told me there wasn’t any budget; they had just run out of money. So I pay out of pocket for music for my students.”

Few Professional Benefits



”I might as well not have been there."

-Anonymous


Not only do adjunct faculty lack access to the basic resources they need to teach, they are not integrated into the university. They have no formal role in governance, many are not included in departmental meetings, and they cannot advise student groups or even rent school vans for field trips. The survey asked adjuncts whether they’d had access to a set of basic professional benefits, including access to departmental meetings, priority consideration for full-time positions, annual pay increases, teaching development workshops, representation on faculty senate, representation on the departmental website, and the ability to submit research grants with institutional support. 

Eighteen respondents, or 44%, selected “access to departmental meetings”; fifteen, or 37%, selected “teaching development workshops”; five, or 12%, selected “representation in faculty senate”; two selected “representation on department website”; and one selected “priority consideration for a full-time job.” No adjuncts indicated access to annual pay raises or the ability to submit research grants with institutional support.

 

For many adjuncts, the lack of voice in departments where they sacrifice so much to teach is deeply insulting. One adjunct, who has taught at ETSU for over twenty years, shared: 

I feel the second-class status very much. I am definitely a junior member of the team. … Most of the time I’m involved in the department, it’s always very clerical. One time, I went to a committee meeting and I might as well not have been there. I might as well not have been there! 

Adjunct faculty at ETSU teach the majority of first-year students across many of the institution’s core courses. Giving them no official role in curriculum design and discussions about the future of disciplines and departments is a mistake. Yet within the current pay system, adjunct faculty also resent being asked to participate in these spaces without pay: “No, I don’t have a role in governance. But I would only participate if I was paid for my time.” Another adjunct told us that he has been asked to support departmental curriculum development, but in an unofficial, under-the-table capacity: “We are currently remodeling the minor right now. My coworker is full-time and goes to the meetings. She asks me what I think and then takes my feedback and tells them.”

Other interviewees discussed the precarity that comes without professional support. For instance, unlike full-time faculty, adjuncts are not evaluated by their peers or administrators: “No one has checked in on whether I am doing my job or whether my standards are good. I do my job well, but it doesn’t feel great to be ignored. They didn’t even check my syllabus at all.” With no formal evaluation for adjunct faculty, voluntary student evaluations are the only official measure of their success. This can result in pressure to inflate grades or avoid controversial topics (Moser 2020), since bad reviews or complaints from students may be enough to have adjuncts' decisions overruled—or worse, endanger prospects for another contract next semester.

 

Undervalued by Administrators and Colleagues


“They have other priorities, whether it is building projects or another piece of equipment.”

- Angela Sproles



The irony that they are left out of discussions about the future of the departments and institutions propped up by their labor is not lost on adjuncts. We asked adjuncts about their relationships with administrators. Many detailed having little to no direct interaction. One adjunct explained that he’d only interacted with a dean when his policy on plagiarism was deemed to be “interfering with retention rates.” 

Other adjuncts connected the idea of “respected by administrators” to the institution’s priorities and treatment of the adjunct workforce: “[ETSU president] Dr. Noland has said that he thinks some adjuncts are essentially worth more than others. So I don’t think I am treated with respect by him or most of the others, as well.” Another noted: “They could increase the pay if they wanted to. They have other priorities, whether it is building projects or another piece of equipment. There is always something else that is more important to them than instructors’ pay.”

The survey asked adjuncts to rate their level of agreement from 1, strongly disagree, to 5, strongly agree, with the statements, “I am valued and respected by tenure-track and tenured colleagues in my department,” and, “I am valued and respected by leadership in my department.” On average, survey respondent scores were 3.4 for colleagues and 3.5 for leadership, signaling an ambivalence even about their own colleagues. While many interviewees reported good relationships with their colleagues, a few mentioned specific instances of unprofessional treatment. As one adjunct explained:

There have been one or two cases where [tenured colleagues] treat me as if my time isn’t as important as theirs. One tenured faculty member wanted me to take over his professional service work like hosting an event. It wasn’t even an area I was experienced in. Another asked me to proctor his exam.

 

Addressing Student Needs without Institutional Support


“I had a student who was literally homeless. I tried to get him support. But again, online and adjuncting, I had no idea what happened.”

-Anonymous


Exclusion from decision-making and the precarity of their jobs and lives prevent adjuncts from providing students with intensive counseling or support. While adjuncts at ETSU go above and beyond their pay and commitment to the institution to support students, there is only so much they can do while juggling multiple jobs, supporting families, and living on poverty wages. When asked whether they have ever had to deal with difficult situations such as harassment, student academic or mental health crises, or deal with racism or sexism, adjuncts we surveyed and interviewed said yes, often. When asked to what degree they had the tools and support to do so, various troubling stories of students slipping through the cracks emerged:

I’ve had a couple of challenges. One student wrote so much when she wrote. It felt very OCD because it was pages, pages, pages. Very good and well done. But I couldn’t get her to lessen her effort. I couldn’t imagine what her life must be like if she were putting this much effort into all her classes. All I did was write to the department’s executive aide and let her know what she was doing. She said, “Ok. I’ll keep an eye out.” But I just don’t know what happened. Another student said they didn’t have any money for books. There had been some family crisis and he was literally homeless. I tried to get him support. But again, online and adjuncting, I had no idea what happened.

While many tenure-track faculty are also at a loss during student crises, they have full-time pay, relatively secure jobs, and fewer barriers to finding the help they need. One adjunct we interviewed told us about a particularly troubling case, one that he was not prepared to deal with and that caused him personal fear and anxiety. Neither he nor the student got the support they needed:

I had only two hours of training. Then I had a student stalking me. The manual told me to tell them to seek out mental health support. It backfired. She was sleeping under my desk. I was worried the entire time. I was a new teacher, and there was this woman student sleeping under my desk and trying to talk to me all the time. I didn’t want the perception to be that I was encouraging it or even starting this. Eventually, I had to have my coworker write her an email about it. It took me four months to deal with it.

One survey question asked adjuncts about experience teaching students with diverse needs at ETSU. All survey respondents have taught non-traditional students aged 30 and older, 98% have taught students with disabilities, 85% have taught veterans, 83% have taught first-generation college students, 68% have taught students still in high school, and 51% have taught first-generation immigrant students. 

We followed up to ask about whether they were given any training to accommodate the needs of these students. Thirty percent were not given any training, 23% were unsure, and 47% were provided with training.

A few adjuncts provided further comments on the student populations with unique needs they’ve taught at ETSU and the institutional support they have or haven’t received. One respondent noted: “I have been expected to handle any and all students without any prior knowledge or experience and no further help of any kind.” Another commented: “We're provided with training, but it's extremely minimal (and nonexistent for some groups).” Reflecting their commitment to teaching and learning, one adjunct noted: 

Without seeking out formal training, I do modify the way I teach, particularly for adult students. They often have life experience that they can share with the younger students, and they are often more motivated. They also often have other pressing concerns like jobs and children. So, I try to take those factors into account. 

Even in rather common academic conflicts, adjuncts are at a major disadvantage in that these circumstances require time to be handled appropriately:

[Justifying poor grades or failing students] can be time-consuming because the students are upset. You are trying to explain things in a kind way. I gave one student two chances to make up a paper. He sent two new papers that were not adequate. I spent hours going through them and commenting to justify my grade. It really was a lot of work. Then he appealed to the dean and it started all over again and I had to justify it all to the dean. 

Adjuncts talk about the sacrifices they made to support students in terms of personal costs, describing the effects of heavy work loads and uncompensated duties on their social and family lives. Noting the strain of providing the level of quality she values, one adjunct told us, “I love teaching and I want to do it really well. But then I’m not being fair to myself. It is a real dilemma and it really affects everything else in my life, like sleep and everything I need.” Another admitted, “I probably put in more work than I should. I want to make my teaching rigorous. I give them challenging assignments,” adding, “I want to make sure they succeed.”



Organizing for Change

This report was intended to shine a light on a crisis hiding in plain sight at ETSU which has disastrous consequences for not only adjuncts but the academic profession, affecting not just students but the regional community.  But we also want to illuminate a path forward.  

There is a ray of hope. Adjunct faculty here and on other campuses are fighting back. Having no recourse to institutional, state, or federal labor protections, adjuncts have been making gains with the help of unions. More traditional higher education unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have utilized strategies building solidarity between tenured and contingent faculty in order to “lift all boats,” and the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been aggressively organizing adjuncts and winning contracts, including raises and benefits (Miller 2015).  

In a state openly hostile to unions and collective bargaining for public employees, United Campus Workers must use altogether different strategies. At ETSU, much of the early work on this crisis centered on educating students and the public about the conditions under which a large portion of classes on campus were being taught. Most had no idea what an adjunct was, and their jaws dropped when they were told the pay received by many of their professors. Mock birthday celebrations were held for the adjunct pay scale, which had gone unchanged for 20 years. In the 2018-2019 academic year, student activists joined UCW in an Adjunct Action coalition. Using as a template legislation written by United Campus Workers and introduced into the Tennessee General Assembly during the previous session, the Student Government Association passed a resolution calling for adjuncts to be paid $1,000 per credit hour, with regular reassessment to prevent another 20-year pay scale.

As the campaign garnered more attention, including several articles in the local press and coverage by the two regional news channels, it was clear that the public was troubled to discover the working conditions of nearly half of the faculty at ETSU. A campus rally and protests at meetings of the Board of Trustees kept pressure on campus policymakers, and when the College of Arts and Sciences raised adjunct pay by $100 per credit hour the summer of 2019, the editor of the Johnson City Press agreed with Adjunct Action members that it was “a good start.” But only a start.

Our findings at ETSU add to a decades-long discourse on this crisis facing higher education, and there is widespread agreement that the plight of adjuncts must be addressed. It is time for decision-makers and stakeholders to acknowledge that reliance on adjuncts is a problem for higher education and not a solution. This is a question of what our students deserve for their tuition dollars, and it is an issue that will help to determine the future of higher education. 



Recommendations

Industry-wide, the percentage of part-time faculty appointments should be decreased to less than a quarter of all instructional faculty. The majority of non-tenure-track appointments should be full-time and include benefits. Faculty off the tenure track should have pay parity with tenured faculty. For adjunct faculty, pay parity is a per-course rate that is equivalent to the rate paid to full-time faculty for their instructional duties. Tenure-track faculty are expected to spend approximately 75% on instruction, according to studies, which would translate to at least $4,500 per course at two-year public institutions and $5,800 at four-year public institutions (Davis, 2019). (For background on how the 75% rate was determined, see Appendix) 

Additionally, all instructional faculty should have a role in governance and a democratic role in negotiating their working conditions. All of this can be achieved without raising student tuition or fees. 

In 2011 in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, administrators and faculty decided they needed “as many stable, focused, expert colleagues as [they] could get.” As of 2017, their instructional faculty is 88% full-time, and they’ve added nearly two dozen new full-time teaching positions—all “while remaining solvent” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018). 

Nothing less than structural change across the higher education industry will vastly improve conditions for adjunct faculty. Historically, this change has been possible in pockets of the higher education industry where workers have formed, joined, and worked within unions to create change. We urge all campus workers and allies in Tennessee to join the union and work alongside adjuncts and all public higher education workers to create change. Structural change will take time. In the meantime, and as steps toward that goal, our study leads us to recommend the following:

Federal Authorities

  • Federal dollars account for the majority of higher education funds (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2015). In 2018 the Department of Education disbursed over 134 billion dollars in federal financial aid to postsecondary institutions. Lawmakers should amend the Higher Education Act when it comes up for reauthorization to limit the reliance on part-time faculty, require wage policies that guarantee pay equity, and protect the rights and benefits of all employees, including the right to form a union, participate in collective bargaining and have access to a grievance procedure.

  • All federal laws should be updated to recognize the current realities and contributions of part-time instructional faculty and hold accountable employers that fail to pay them fairly. Adjunct faculty who fall below the FLSA minimum salary for exempt employees should not be exempt from regulations in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The minimum 2020 weekly salary to be exempt from overtime and minimum wage laws is $684 per week. Adjuncts at ETSU teaching the max course load of 3 courses per semester for the minimum pay of $700 per credit hour make only $420 per week. We urge the Department of Labor to reform labor protection laws to ensure that all faculty have just protection under the law.

State Authorities

  • Increase state funding for public higher education, at minimum restoring it to pre-2008 levels, accounting for inflation and enrollment.

  • Re-introduce and pass a bill similar to 2019 (amended) House Bill 0707 and Senate Bill 0775 requiring (and funding) a minimum of $1,000 per credit hour for adjunct faculty at all Tennessee public higher education institutions.

  • Ensure that “across the board” raises include adjunct faculty, who are currently excluded.

University Authorities

College and university presidents across public institutions in Tennessee should advocate for the academic excellence of their institutions by requesting state appropriations adequate to fund the immediate increase to fair and suitable adjunct pay. Administrators at colleges and universities across Tennessee must prioritize instructional spending in their budgets over spending on capital projects, athletics, and administrative raises. Prioritizing pay, benefits, and institutional support for adjunct faculty should be detailed in all future strategic plans. 

In addition to increased pay for adjunct faculty, our study as well as other research on adjunct working conditions indicates that the following changes are necessary:

  • Pay adjuncts promptly, with a first paycheck no later than at the end of the month in which the contract begins..

  • Remove the clause from adjunct contracts that allows pay to be docked for missing class due to illness. Adjuncts should never face the prospect of losing pay for having to miss class due to illness. 

  • Give adjuncts, who are underserved members of the university community,  free access to health clinics, as well as the same access to campus recreational centers and events as staff and “full-time” faculty.

  • Make adjuncts eligible for nomination and election to the Faculty Senate.

  • Allow adjuncts to serve as faculty advisors to student organizations.

  • Institute a policy making adjunct faculty eligible for academic year (fall and spring) appointments after ten consecutive semesters of service.

College and Departmental Authorities

Deans and chairs should advocate for adequate funding of their colleges and departments and support for tenure lines and full-time salaries. The sacrifices made by a large portion of underpaid faculty support the budgets of colleges and departments.  It is past time that the vital efforts of adjuncts were supported. To this end, we recommend that deans and chairs undertake the following interventions:

  • Make the professional development of adjunct faculty a priority. They should have access to intellectual and pedagogical support, including paid training and the opportunity for peer evaluations, as well as financial support for travel to conferences.

  • Compensate adjuncts for course preparation if a course is cancelled with three weeks or fewer before the start of classes. Offer standard compensation for new course development.

  • Provide adjuncts with the resources they require to teach effectively, including continuous and unrestricted library access; eligibility for use of travel funds and vehicles, based on the same approval processes available to faculty deemed “full-time”; and availability of the same course materials and necessary supplies, including office space and access to network computers, printers, and other necessary technology.

  • Adjuncts should be given the opportunity to participate in department meetings and should have a voice in decisions affecting policy and curriculum.

  • Adjuncts should be included in the academic culture, not isolated from it. Adjuncts deserve respect befitting the crucial role they play in supporting departments and colleges. As such, they should be invited to academic functions and eligible for teaching awards.

Tenured/Tenure-Track Faculty

There are very good reasons for tenured and tenure-track faculty to advocate for better working conditions for adjuncts. As the real beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by adjuncts, tenured faculty owe their part-time colleagues more than just respect.

  • Learn how the adjunctification crisis threatens the hard-won benefits once taken for granted in academia, including not just tenure but with it academic freedom and faculty governance, and contribute to the long-term fight to create structural change by joining United Campus Workers. 

  • Notice, during department meetings, when adjuncts are not in the room and create a plan to get their feedback on important decisions.

  • Ensure that adjuncts have access to the same physical resources as tenure line faculty.

  • Talk with adjuncts about research and teaching; we can all learn from one another’s academic and pedagogical expertise.

  • Invite adjuncts to speak about their research, pay them to do so, and promote their work.

  • Use departmental funds to pay adjuncts for any work they do outside the classroom.

At the Student, Parent, and Community Stakeholder Level

College counselors, prospective students and their parents should request information from colleges and universities regarding the percentage of classes taught by adjunct faculty and their pay rates. Likewise, community stakeholders must hold universities, often major regional employers, accountable for poverty wages which force workers to rely on community and social safety net support.




MIKI GORDON
ETSU: Counseling (former)
Johnson University

Miki Gordon taught Spring and Fall semesters of 2018 in the ETSU Counseling Department’s Clinical and Mental Health graduate program. She was paid $1,800/course for teaching Clinical Mental Health and a Practicum course. Because of that comparatively low rate, and the lack of resources provided to her to teach the course, Miki decided she would not teach again at ETSU unless they raise the rate to a minimum of $1000/credit hour. She has been an adjunct since 2012, previously at Montreat College in NC. In addition to her teaching, Miki has a private counseling practice.

As someone with a PhD in her field, Miki was shocked at ETSU’s rate of pay: “$1,800 is way below anything else paid in the region for my field. My assumption was that it would be comparable with other places....When it comes down to it, that is like $18/hour and I could make that waiting tables. I didn’t get my PhD to wait tables.” She commuted 40 minutes each week to conduct in-person, intensive courses with graduate students, and also had to complete compliance-related training online, none of which was compensated. “The practicum was really time consuming because they made these long videos and I had to watch all of them and give them feedback. That was probably much lower than $18/hour.” With more students than anywhere else she’s ever taught (16-18 as compared to 10-12, a more typical number for graduate courses), Miki spent more time grading and advising students, bringing that pay rate down even lower.

Other institutions paid Miki significantly more, and offered her more for her travel time. Montreat College, where Miki previously taught, offered 8-week courses and a 3-hour course once a week. They paid $2,700 for that 8-week course, which translated to over $5,000 a semester.

Miki adjuncts because she enjoys it, she has fun interacting with graduate students, and “it helps [her] stay abreast of things in [her] field: I am getting the newest textbooks and the newest research.” When asked what fair pay means to her, she says, “...if you want to hire people that are actually good at what they do and have earned all these graduate degrees, it should be commensurate with what I make out in the world elsewhere. In my private practice I make $75/hour. If you want someone who has a PhD—and a graduate program in Counseling requires that you have a PhD from a specific program—then you have to pay them.”

Miki adjuncts because she enjoys it, she has fun interacting with graduate students, and “it helps [her] stay abreast of things in [her] field: I am getting the newest textbooks and the newest research.” When asked what fair pay means to her, she says, “...if you want to hire people that are actually good at what they do and have earned all these graduate degrees, it should be commensurate with what I make out in the world elsewhere. In my private practice I make $75/hour. If you want someone who has a PhD, and a graduate program in Counseling requires that you have a PhD from a specific program, then you have to pay them.”

Without adequate health care coverage, Miki struggles to meet the demands of teaching. With no retirement, marketplace health insurance only for catastrophic needs, and a huge student debt to pay off from earning her degrees, Miki says she makes “enough money to live comfortably, but not save much and without good health insurance. I am in my mid-forties. I should have some savings. I would work for $1,800 a course to be able to buy in to their health insurance...I actually have health problems and there are things I should be doing for myself that I can’t because I can’t afford it.” Miki has what is called fluoroquinolone-associated disability, stemming from a bad dose of antibiotics that damaged her tendons, nerves, and muscles. “I would really benefit from physical therapy and seeing a neurologist again. But I can’t afford it. I’m really fortunate because my work is sitting in a chair so luckily I don’t have to do physical labor. Teaching is harder because I have to drive, stand in class, lecture, advise students.”

Miki felt totally uninformed by ETSU about what materials or other things she needed for her classroom and how to get them. She had no idea how to get the textbooks for her students, who knew more than she did about who to call. “One [class] was a lab and apparently I was supposed to have a key card and understand how to use this complicated recording equipment. I ended up finding a GA who taught me how to use it.” One of the courses was Clinical Mental Health Trends. “You are supposed to keep up with all of the current research. It ended up with me doing an entire bucket of unpaid labor to do curriculum design. I had to look up all the newest research, pick it out, and put it in place of the textbook. They had this entire online site that I created. I thought I did a pretty good job. Usually you get paid an entire separate fee for curriculum design.” In contrast, at Johnson University, she is teaching a new class this spring, and they sent her the textbook and syllabus without her having to ask, and she can access the site.

ETSU offered Miki several more classes. She turned the offer down specifically because of the pay.




Appendix

1. Methodology

Interviews: Between July and December 2019 we conducted 12, 60-90 minute semi-structured interviews with adjunct faculty who teach in departments in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Clemmer College. A common interview script was used which built from themes uncovered in previous research and moved from open-ended to more specific questions. Interview candidates were selected with help from ETSU adjunct faculty, tenured faculty, and staff in order to ensure depth and breadth across adjunct experiences in our target group (itinerant adjuncts teaching at multiple institutions and adjuncts that teach primarily at ETSU).

Surveys: To find survey subjects, union members shared the survey broadly—aiming for a representative sample. They tabled at orientation events, shared the survey with colleagues via email, and announced the survey at departmental meetings. Flyers with a QR link to the survey were distributed in adjunct mailboxes and throughout campus academic buildings.

2. Comparison of Survey Respondents to All ETSU Adjuncts

For the purpose of these comparisons, adjuncts teaching two or fewer credit hours per year were removed from the dataset. 

a. Race and Gender Comparisons: Overall, survey respondents were slightly more white (94.9% vs. 93.6%) than ETSU adjuncts in general. A slightly smaller proportion of survey respondents were women (58.1% vs. 64.2%) than all ETSU adjuncts.

b. Comparison of credit hours taught and pay received by credit hour: On average, survey respondents taught significantly more credit hours per year (13.9 vs. 7.8) than ETSU adjuncts in general, but received comparable average pay per credit hour ($744 vs. $737).

c.Comparison of department makeup of survey respondents to all ETSU adjuncts by % of population: Of 32 respondents who provided department information, Literature and Language represented 43.8%, while making up only 7.6% of ETSU adjuncts in general. Appalachian Studies and ENTC each represented 12.5% of respondents, while making up 2.7% and 1.5% of ETSU adjuncts, respectively. Other significant departments among respondents were History (9.4% of respondents vs. 3.1% of all adjuncts), Sociology & Anthropology (6.3% vs. 2.5%), and Sport, Exercise, Recreation, and Kinesiology (6.3% vs. 4.7%).

d. Comparison of department makeup of survey respondents to all ETSU adjuncts by % of credit hours taught per year: Of 32 respondents who provided department information, Literature & Language represented 52.4% of credit hours taught per year, compared to 11.4% for ETSU adjuncts in general. Other significant departments among respondents (in terms of credit hours taught per year) were ENTC (13.7% of respondent credit hours vs. 2.2% of all adjunct credit hours), Art & Design (11.3% vs. 3.0%) and Digital Media (7.5% vs. 1.8%).

3. Calculating pay parity for adjunct faculty

Many institutions or departments specifically outline the percentage of time tenure-track faculty are expected to spend on instruction. Analysis of tenure-track faculty contracts in California revealed that the percentage of time assigned to instruction ranged from 53% to 88%...the most commonly chosen definition was 75%” Future research should document the percentage of time tenure-track faculty at each public institution in Tennessee are assigned to instruction, calculate the per-credit hour parity rate accordingly and recommend plans to achieve it. See: Davis, Daniel. 2019. “A Contingent Faculty Compromise.” Inside Higher Education, August 28, 2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/08/28/we-need-new-approach-contingent-faculty-pay-opinion



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