‘Incredibly disposable’: Adjuncts, the ‘gig workers’ of higher-ed, fear losing livelihoods

Adjunct professors have been called the “gig” workers of academia. And they’re feeling especially vulnerable right now as enrollment declines are expected.

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Wende Marshall teaches a course called Intellectual Heritage at Temple University. She said that as an adjunct professor, she expects to lose her job due to the pandemic. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wende Marshall teaches a course called Intellectual Heritage at Temple University. She said that as an adjunct professor, she expects to lose her job due to the pandemic. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Like her students, 32-year-old Carla Anderson is home from college.

Anderson, an adjunct English professor who’s taught writing courses at Temple University and Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, recently packed up her place in the city and moved back to her mom’s house in Montgomery County.

“Yes, I’m in my childhood bedroom,” she said with a dry laugh. “Whatever….

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Anderson missed her mom, but the move wasn’t driven by sentiment. It was the result of cold, financial reality.

As an adjunct professor, Anderson has no guarantee of work this fall. That’s always been the case. But this summer — with dire enrollment predictions circulating — there’s added uncertainty. Fewer students means fewer classes. And fewer classes likely means fewer adjuncts.

For Anderson, moving back home seemed like the safe, sensible choice. It’ll spare her the cost of rent as she looks for backup options: perhaps dog-walking or temp work.

“I feel lucky to have had this option,” she said. “A lot of my peers don’t.”

Notions of college professors as well-paid and well-protected increasingly conflict with reality. Federal data shows that about seven in ten college instructors are not tenured or on track to be tenured.

There is a large class of adjunct professors who make their living as itinerant instructors, cobbling together jobs at various colleges to pay the bills. Described as the “gig workers” of academia, adjuncts receive contracts on a course-by-course basis and make, on average, about $3,000 per class.

Crucially, adjuncts’ fate is tied firmly to student enrollment. Even in boom times, colleges can scrap an adjunct-taught course if enrollment in that course doesn’t meet expectations. The hook can come as the semester begins, or even a week or two in.

All of that makes adjunct professors a bellwether as higher-ed enters a nervous, potentially cataclysmic summer. Surveys suggest as many as a third of students could take a gap semester if colleges decide against holding in-person classes.

If and when enrollment drops, contingent faculty will likely lose jobs. And in a time when many predict financial pain for academia writ large, adjuncts know they could be on the chopping block.

“We’re incredibly disposable,” said Anna Neighbor, a union activist and adjunct who teaches fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania and Moore College of Art and Design. “I think many of us are feeling quite stranded right now.”

‘Existentially catastrophic’

Universities generally say they aren’t yet sure what kind of budget cuts they’ll make. The unknown path of the virus and the uncertainty of student attendance makes it too difficult to predict, they say.

But officials are open about the financial challenges they confront.

A sharp enrollment drop would be “potentially, existentially catastrophic,” said Dan Greenstein, chancellor of the 14-school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). “Let’s not spare ourselves.”

Due to population declines and rising costs, the PASSHE system was already facing a grim financial future.

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Making matters worse, nearly three-quarters of PASSHE’s educational revenue comes from tuition, officials say — one of the highest proportions among public university systems that receive support from state government. Translation: on-campus enrollment is disproportionately vital to PASSHE’s flickering financial health.

“Our business model was unsustainable before the pandemic,” said Greenstein. “Things didn’t just get better.”

Compared to other master’s-level institutions nationally, PASSHE schools employ relatively few adjunct professors and pay those adjuncts relatively well. That’s a good thing, according to Greenstein, who said “conditions in the [adjunct] marketplace can be pretty exploitative.”

But the lack of adjuncts also means less financial wiggle room for an already-struggling system that’s become less and less affordable to the low- and middle-income families it was designed to serve.

Greenstein is blunt: Public universities, he says, will likely run fewer classes in the fall and try to ensure that those classes are fuller.

“As with other industries, we have to look at every single cost,” Greenstein said.

Compared to the PASSHE system, Temple University employs more contingent faculty. Of the university’s nearly 4,000 instructional staffers, about three-quarters are non-tenured or not on a tenure track, according to federal data.

Temple has already cut salaries of all non-union employees by five percent and cut the salaries of top administrators by ten percent, said university spokesperson Ray Betzner.

It’s too early to predict what other types of cuts may be made, he added. The university has asked each of its colleges to present a budget that’s five percent smaller than last year’s.

“What’s going on right now is unprecedented in modern history,” Betzner said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of uncertainty going on and it makes it very difficult for us to say this is exactly what’s going to happen.”

Adjunct professors, Betzner notes, aren’t the only employees living in a haze of uncertainty this summer. All kinds of high-ed workers could lose jobs or pay — from the classroom to the mailroom.

“They’re in the same situation I’m in,” said Betzner. “I could be released tomorrow. I have no guarantees. I have no tenure.”

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Crossed fingers and backup plans

Over the next couple of months, adjuncts will cross their fingers and hone their backup plans.

Patrick Coughlin, 38, is a ceramics professor who teaches at St. Joseph’s University and University of the Arts. He says he typically makes between $50,000 and $60,000 teaching roughly a dozen different course sections year round.

Given the hands-on nature of his classes, he’s worried he won’t have work this fall. And he’s looking into ways he could delay mortgage and student loan payments.

“I have no idea what my income will be three months from now,” Coughlin said.

John Paetsch, an adjunct at Temple University who teaches humanities courses, is expecting his third child any day now. He tutors on the side to supplement his income and is mulling a switch to K-12 teaching if his adjunct work evaporates.

“We’re not these kind of exalted beings that descend from the ivory tower,” said Paetsch, 35. “We’re workers.”

His colleague, Wende Marshall, 58, makes roughly $9,000 a year teaching.The rest of her income comes from federal disability payments. Losing classes could make it hard for her to meet basic expenses, such as rent.

“I would be plunged deeply below the poverty level without my adjunct pittance,” Marshall said.

Mentally, she’s already braced herself for that plunge.

“There’s no reason to expect that adjuncts won’t be the people fired,” she said. “That’s the structural role of adjuncts.”

The union that represents adjunct faculty at Temple is asking administration to prioritize the rehiring of current adjuncts. It’s also demanding the university not increase class sizes.

At West Chester University and Kutztown University, staff have set up relief funds where full-time faculty can donate money to adjuncts in need. It’s the kind of thing faculty tend only to do when there’s a strike, but the conditions right now feel similar, said Seth Kahn, a full-time West Chester professor who studies labor practices in higher-education.

For adjunct faculty, Kahn said, the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus has “amplified a problem that was already there — just like it has for every other part-time and gig worker.”

Debi Lemieur, 64, has grown accustomed to the unknown in her decade as an adjunct at Temple University. She’d hoped to work another five years, believing it would give her just enough cushion to retire. If she can’t keep teaching, Lemieur isn’t sure how she’ll manage.

“It means that money is going to run out a whole lot sooner than I am going to die,” she said.

It’s not how she wanted to end her academic career, but it does feel fitting.

“It’s a little bit sad and bitter,” Lemieur said. “But I have to say the life of an adjunct has been sad and bitter.”

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