PSU adjuncts: the problem with being a part-time instructor

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Illustration by Robby Day

Portland State adjunct professors are experiencing a growing, nationwide issue of being undercompensated. They’re not given the same benefits as their tenured counterparts, and their pay is significantly less than those just one pay grade above them.

PSU junior psychology major Nawaf Aljahdali believes the standard should be higher than it currently is due to the rising cost of tuition. Aljahdali stated that it seems to him adjunct professors are being paid a “measly sum” for the work that they put in when compared to full-time professors.

This problem exists as much here at home as it does throughout the rest of the United States. PSU uses FTE, or full-time equivalent, to designate the status of its employees. If adjunct faculty are at an FTE of .49 or less, they are not eligible for any benefits. “Adjunct professors are allowed to have sick days, but that’s because it’s a requirement for the City of Portland,” said PSU adjunct professor *Seamus, who asked to remain anonymous in providing information.

“You would need to work a certain amount of credits and for an extended period of time to receive health benefits from PSU,” Seamus said. “Since I belong to a teaching union, I’m able to have the cost of what I pay for private insurance reimbursed by the union itself. To receive this reimbursement though, you would need to be a union member for a certain time frame.”

PSU uses online portal Portland State Careers to facilitate the hiring of employees. Including adjunct faculty, PSU has five main categories of professorial employment: instructor, which has the opportunity for promotion to senior instructor I and senior instructor II, assistant professor, associate professor and professor.

According to PSU’s website, the pay for these positions, excluding adjunct faculty, differs depending on whether or not the instructor or professor works for nine months or twelve months of the academic year. The annual pay rate ranges from $41,940 at the very bottom to $105,024 at the top, not including pay raises. Pay raises at PSU consist of either an 8 percent pay increase or the minimum for their new position, whichever is greater.

As of Winter Term 2015, adjunct employees began making a minimum of $858 per credit. If an adjunct professor taught two four-credit courses every term in a year, they would make approximately $27,464 before tax. Many adjunct professors work as much as their higher FTE analogues but often work at multiple universities in order to find positions.

Seamus felt that this disparity of wages makes it seem that adjunct professors have less to offer than full time faculty. “A professor with a Ph.D. is somebody who is educated in a very specific interest of research,” Seamus said. “It doesn’t mean they are more experienced or knowledgeable on their department’s curriculum than an adjunct with a master’s degree.”

PSU’s “Policies and Procedures for the Evaluation of Faculty for Tenure, Promotion, and Merit Increases,” a 60-plus page document first adopted by PSU on June 12, 1996, details the necessary steps a professor needs to take in order to apply for tenure and the requirements to do so. Requirements such as “clarity and relevance of goals, mastery of existing knowledge, and appropriate use of methodology and resources” appear throughout the document.

PSU junior mechanical engineering major Emily Chirinian is “greatly disappointed” by the quality of teaching at all three of the colleges and universities she has attended, and not just PSU. Chirinian believes that the “bottom line” is that professors don’t get paid enough and the quality of education at universities throughout the nation is suffering because of it.

According to a June 2015 article from CNBC titled “Why does a college degree cost so much?” universities are spending more money on amenities to attract applicants than on bettering academic life for students and increasing wages for professors. PSU’s new Karl Miller Center, a complex that will house the new School of Business Administration building cost close to $60 million dollars and approximately 66 percent of funding comes from state bonds.

PSU senior psychology major Ryan Wiltse believes colleges should provide more for their professors and “invest more in education rather than gymnasiums and other luxuries.”

Another factor to consider regarding the inequalities between adjunct and tenured faculty is the website Ratemyprofessors.com, which allows university students to assign ratings to professors and teaching assistants from colleges throughout the world. There are five categories that students give a 1–5 rating on: easiness, helpfulness, clarity, the interest of the rater in the subject prior to enrolling, and textbook usage, in addition to overall quality ratings. Adjunct faculty who work at multiple universities are less likely to be accurately represented on the website.

Another anonymous professor, *Thomas, from the College of Arts & Sciences at PSU, had a lot to say about Ratemyprofessor.com and the problems adjuncts face as opposed to tenured staff. According to Thomas, most students “don’t know the difference between an adjunct professor and a tenured one,” although there may be more grade inflation among adjuncts as, they “need students to like them in order to stay employed.” However, Thomas doesn’t believe students should have any greater expectations for their instructors or educational institution, regardless of tuition increases.

“It would be interesting if Ratemyprofessor gave the option of listing staff as adjunct or not,” Seamus said. “Although I believe it would actually hurt an adjunct’s job because of the large misconception that adjunct status equates to a lower quality of teaching and experience.”

“An adjunct professor might not be able to spend as much time with their students because we have to work at multiple schools,” Seamus explained. “I think our students can be negatively affected in that way. However, many of the adjunct staff are previous students of PSU, and I think that makes us stronger teachers in a way because we understand what it’s like to be the student here.”

It is clear that the divergence in pay and benefits between tenured and adjunct faculty is a divisive issue and difficult to improve without public discussion. When adjuncts are required to reapply for their jobs every term, though, this becomes a risk they cannot afford to make.

 

*Names have been changed.

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