Adjunct Teachers Prop Up Higher Education, Seek Rights

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

Adjunct Teachers Prop Up Higher Education, Seek Rights


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


As tuition soared at American colleges and universities in recent decades, so did the number of part-time, non-tenured faculty teaching America's students.

Adjunct teachers account for about 70 percent of instructors on college campuses, up from about 43 percent in 1975, according to the most recent numbers from the Department of Education.

"The usual justification is (university) finances. Most part- time faculty are paid on a course-by-course basis. They have no say in the curriculum, no job security. ...They are essentially functioning as a disposable work force," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University professors.

Adjuncts are demanding better treatment as they carry more of the load. This week, that drive showed itself on one Pittsburgh campus as the non-tenured teachers at Duquesne University went public with a plan to form a union.

Locally, the numbers vary from 43 percent adjuncts at Carnegie Mellon University to 78 percent at Point Park University. Some are professionals who take time to teach a class, while others are career teachers seeking to cobble together a living at two or three schools.

Joshua Zelesnick, 32, of Squirrel Hill, an adjunct who teaches composition at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh, said he learned how disposable they were in the spring of 2009, when one of the classes he relied upon was canceled with a week's notice when enrollment dipped at Duquesne.

"I had to scramble to pay my rent, so I got a job at Trader Joe's," he said.

As universities shifted more of the load to lower-cost adjuncts, they've shifted more financial burden onto families. Nationally, college tuition increased about 8 percent a year over the past decade. Western Pennsylvania colleges and universities increased tuition and fees a minimum of 52 percent to a high of 116 percent over the past decade.

Zelesnick has taught at Duquesne since 2007 and earns $2,556 per class, per semester there. He said he can make about $20,000 a year between the two schools, teaching what is essentially a full-time teaching load. Unlike his colleagues at Duquesne, he has access to health insurance through Pitt.

James Maher, provost emeritus at Pitt, where adjuncts make up about 61 percent of the faculty, said the teachers have always been an important part of higher education and are valued at Pitt, where tenured professors can make in excess of $100,000.

He said some adjuncts, such as those in the university's law and medical schools, take time from lucrative private practices to teach a class in a specialty, while others are professional teachers hoping to earn or supplement an income.

"I think the issue is not whether you should have adjuncts, but how you treat them. At Pitt, we try to provide office space and reasonable contracts. Some universities are saving money by not paying adjuncts well and not giving them office space, and that is a problem," Maher said, adding that Pitt offers multi-year contracts to its senior adjuncts to provide security.

Maria Somma, an organizer for the United Steelworkers of America, said her group has been in discussions about organizing adjuncts at several Pittsburgh-area universities over the past year.

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