Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 5:00 am
By John Newsom
Janie Robbins works five days a week teaching English to people who don’t speak the language.
She loves the teaching. The money? Not so much.
Though Robbins is teaching three courses, she figures that she will make only about $3,700 this semester. To make ends meet, the Greensboro resident pulls money out of her retirement account, works as a substitute teacher in a nearby school system and gets food stamps.
“You do it to survive,” said Robbins, who has taught college business classes off and on for the past decade. “I’m tired of just surviving.”
Robbins is one of a growing number of part-time workers who teach college courses for low pay, no benefits and little job security. A few even need public assistance to get by. These adjuncts, as they are known, have been called the fast-food workers of the academic world.
The concern about the pay and working conditions of part-time professors led to a one-day nationwide walkout in February and demands for $15,000 per class in salary and benefits. Today, adjuncts across the country will stand with fast-food workers, home health care providers, retail employees and other low-paid workers who want to earn what they say is a livable wage of $15 an hour.
On college campuses, part-time adjuncts have for years worked alongside full-time professors.
Colleges traditionally have hired these inexpensive part-time teachers so they can offer extra class sections as needed. Many are professionals and retirees, who can make a few thousand dollars teaching a class or two on the side.
In recent years, however, colleges have grown to rely more heavily on part-time adjuncts.
Forty years ago, 45 percent of the nation’s university faculty had tenure or were on a track to get it. (Tenure is a career-defining milepost for college professors that brings with it job security, among other things.) About 25 percent of college professors worked only part time, according to the American Association of University Professors, a nationwide group of college faculty members.
Today, those numbers have flipped as universities look for a way to keep labor costs down. Tenured and tenure-track faculty make up only 25 percent of university faculty. More than 4 out of 10 — 41 percent — are part-timers.
“Budget is always the reason,” said Jim Carmichael, a professor at UNC-Greensboro and the president of the North Carolina conference of the AAUP. “When you hire permanent faculty, it’s permanent money.”
Consider the difference in pay.
Full professors at large universities can make $100,000 or more a year.
Full-time teachers who don’t have tenure or a tenure-track job — they’re usually called “lecturer,” “instructor,” “visiting professor” and sometimes “adjunct” — generally are paid half that.
Part-time adjuncts usually make an average of about $2,700 per class, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a group of higher education and faculty associations. The coalition says pay rates have barely budged in years, even for adjuncts with Ph.D.s who have worked for several years at the same institution.
Because they’re paid only for their classroom hours, many adjuncts report having to prepare for class, meet with students and grade papers on their own time. They don’t get health insurance, sick leave or paid vacation.
Most part-time adjuncts teach only one or two courses a semester. (Four courses per semester is generally considered a full teaching load.) Anecdotally, some people have reported teaching five or six classes at several different colleges at the same time. Even with a full load of courses, an adjunct might make only about $20,000 a year.
The Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize adjuncts nationwide, said the pay is so low for those stringing together temporary teaching jobs that 7 percent of part-time adjuncts get food stamps or Medicaid. A quarter are enrolled in at least one public assistance program.
On Feb. 25, adjuncts across the country walked out of class to draw attention to their plight. At some campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill, students and tenured faculty members read statements from adjuncts scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.
University officials at the time promised to take a look at the issue.
“Clearly the issues are complex, have evolved over a long period of time, and are not unique to UNC,” university Provost Jim Dean told the News & Observer of Raleigh.
For Robbins, 58, the issue is simple: She needs more money.
After getting her MBA in 2004, Robbins taught business classes at Guilford College and two area community colleges while working full time at a small-business center at N.C. A&T.
When A&T laid her off in early 2008, she worked a series of part-time jobs until GTCC hired her in 2012. She taught a job skills class for seven months. For the past two years, she has taught three English Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, classes. Her classes meet four nights a week and Friday mornings.
Robbins is paid $18.50 an hour — about $5.50 an hour more than she was making as the part-time manager of a teacher-supply warehouse.
But her three GTCC classes this semester total add up to 13 credit hours. Robbins, like other adjuncts, gets paid only for the hours she spends in the classroom.
Robbins figures she works an additional 12 hours a week to write lesson plans, file online attendance reports and deal with students and college administrators outside of class.
When she factors that extra time into her pay, she’s bringing in less than $10 an hour.
“I’m working for nothing,” Robbins said. “At the beginning of the semester, I was paying them to work. I can’t do it any more.”
So she’s quitting at the end of the semester.
Robbins said she needs a better job, something with health insurance, something that will help her repay the student loans she took out to get her MBA.
She said she loves teaching — the back of her business card says “LOVE to Teach! — and she will miss her students most of all.
“They fill my heart with joy,” Robbins said.
“But you know the problem with that? It doesn’t pay my bills.”