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Poor working conditions for adjunct faculty threaten to translate into a poor learning environment for students.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Adjunct college faculty are at the center of the latest scrimmage over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The issue raised by the federal law can be dispatched with pending regulations differentiating freelance faculty from part-time factory and fast food workers.
But it will be more difficult to solve the larger problem revealed in the controversy: These highly educated men and women are treated more and more like factory workers even as they shoulder a growing share of responsibility for training the next generation of Virginians and Americans.
Adjunct professors interviewed by Roanoke Times reporter Tonia Moxley described the insecurity that comes with their positions, including minimal notice each semester about their fluctuating workloads, giving them little time to order instructional materials and prepare curricula. Their accounts sound remarkably similar to just-in-time industrial practices that rely on last-minute hiring and low wages to keep costs down.
Now adjuncts have gotten snagged by a provision in the health care law requiring large employers next year to offer insurance to workers clocking 30 or more hours a week. Employers who don’t offer adequate insurance must pay for subsidies so workers can buy coverage on their own.
Some businesses will cap part-time workers at 29 hours per week. Gov. Bob McDonnell has ordered similar reductions for part-time state workers as well as adjunct faculty.
Some adjunct professors have other jobs or are retired professors who enjoy sharing their knowledge with young people. They teach only a class or two and thus are unaffected by the federal insurance rules. But an increasing number of adjuncts are trying to survive on the per course fees, which typically offer less than a living wage and no medical coverage.
Community colleges rely heavily on adjuncts, but many four-year institutions have also padded their staffs with part-timers as state funding has declined to soften the blow of tuition increases. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that about 70 percent of U.S. faculty members were adjuncts in 2009. The American Association of University Professors reports that the average full professor with a doctorate at a public university earns $120,000, but an adjunct with a Ph.D. often makes less than $20,000 even with a full course load.
College administrators and state leaders must consider whether this trend is eroding the mission of our public higher education system. Shortchanging faculty also shortchanges students and the parents who are footing the bills. Universities are being forced to choose financial survival over the caliber of the educational product they offer, a choice that inevitably inflicts a cost on the institutions’ reputations as well.
McDonnell reacted hastily by demanding caps on adjunct hours before federal regulations address the issue. That may well lead to hasty decisions by colleges to hire more adjuncts, assigning each fewer courses, but over the long haul it will become increasingly difficult to find qualified faculty willing to work for a pittance. A better solution demands that administrators revise their hiring models, consolidating part-time jobs into full-time positions that give professors the resources and stability necessary to do their best work. State leaders must provide adequate funding to support those efforts.
Adjunct professors are not stamping out widgets or chicken nuggets. Virginians and their elected officials must recognize that and make a renewed commitment to reinvest in higher education so faculty and students can excel.
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