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How adjunct professors became part of the gig economy

35% of adjunct professors earn less than $25,000
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Posted at 8:44 PM, Apr 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-18 11:22:46-04

Over the past few decades, adjunct professors have played a vital role in teaching at most of the nation's colleges and universities. Still, it turns out, the reality of being an adjunct professor is very different from that of a full-time professor.

According to the Service Employees International Union, more than 70% of professors in the Florida College System are adjunct professors. They don't have the same job security, are paid significantly less, and do not receive the same benefits as full-time professors.

That makes the position, officially, a part of the gig economy.

"My name is Yuki Jackson, and I'm an adjunct professor at your institution. I'm writing this letter to condemn and raise issue with Ringling College of Art and Design's exploitative labor practices that uses the adjunct system of employing classroom educators," said Yuki Jackson, an adjunct professor of writing, literature and media studies at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.

Jackson is like the thousands of adjunct professors complaining about the lack of pay and benefits their institutions offer them. She even wrote an open letter to the administration so they could understand her struggle.

"Because of that low pay, it requires most adjuncts – who are making a living for themselves – have to then go out and get other forms of income," said Jackson.

She said she had to teach at nonprofit organizations and Uber on the side to make ends meet.

"Since adjuncts can only teach up to two classes per semester at Ringling, this means I earn $6,000 total per semester," said Jackson.

According to the latest survey of adjunct professors by the American Federation of Teachers, about 35% of respondents earn less than $25,000 a year, and only 20% said they could comfortably cover monthly expenses.

"The pay is set throughout the whole system, and it's quite low for adjuncts," said Michael Walcher, an adjunct professor of journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Walcher said he was lucky because he did quite well for himself in his career in TV news.

Walcher said he became an adjunct professor during his retirement to pay back the industry he feels he benefited from.

"Also to train the next generation of journalists, and I feel that I'm giving back by doing that. I'm not making a lot of money," said Walcher.

While money is not an issue for him, he said he understands how hard this can be for the many who depend on this job, mainly because it lacks many of the benefits full-time professors receive.

"You do not have access to the state health care system or signing up for insurance that way or dental or vision," said Walcher.

That AFT survey found that 45% of adjunct professors put off getting needed healthcare, including mental health services, and 64% said they have forgone dental care.

"We have done research on the condition of higher education for a while now," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten said there are three main reasons why we are seeing this trend. First disinvestment in public education.

"States and localities used to spend a lot more in terms of investment, in terms of higher education," said Weingarten.

Second, she said many institutions of higher education are not spending the money where it should be spent.

"Spending it on football stadiums and buildings as opposed to spending it on the academic success of kids," said Weingarten.

Third, she said the lack of organizing among faculty.

"Frankly it takes a union to help create the conditions that kids need to learn and to stay in college and that teachers need so that they can have, not only a decent wage, but they can spend the time with kids. Not running from place to place," said Weingarten.

In 2016, adjunct professors at Hillsborough Community College were the first in the state to successfully join a union.

"I think it gives you a layer of protection, and it gives you a voice at the table," said Joyce Smith, adjunct professor of political science at HCC.

SEIU is the union that represents them, and they said adjunct professors there have received about a 14% pay increase over the years from their first contract. They also receive cancellation fees if the college decides to cancel a course.

"It's always very difficult doing a negotiation. You're not going to get everything you want," said Smith.

Another concern for many adjunct professors is the topic of retirement. Many say a secure path to retirement is simply out of reach. In fact, according to the survey, 37% say they do not see a path to retirement at all.

This story was originally published by Anthony Hill of WFTS in Tampa, Florida.