Julio Cortez, AP
Rebecca Gibson has taught poetry and creative writing at Tufts University since 1995.
But despite teaching at the university for nearly two decades, she isn't a tenured professor. She's adjunct faculty, which means she makes a fraction of what some professors at Tufts make, no matter how many classes she teaches.
Gibson is part of a growing trend at campuses across the country. In 1970, almost 70 percent of all professors were tenured or on-track to tenure, but now more than 50 percent of professors are adjunct or part-time, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Experts say this is largely because adjunct professors, who are paid by the number of courses they teach and typically receive no benefits, are much cheaper than professors who have tenure.
And yet a recent study shows that in many cases, adjuncts are just as effective, if not better, instructors. In fact, a study at Northwestern University released earlier this year found first-year college students did better academically with adjuncts than with tenured professors.
Gibson likes her job, and so for years, she accepted the fact that she was paid far less than other professors at Tufts.
But this spring she and other adjuncts got an email that they would no longer be eligible for merit raises.
To Gibson, it was one more cost-cutting move by the university, and also a last straw. She and other adjuncts at Tufts tried at first tried to negotiate, but in the end decided to unionize.
Tufts has since joined a growing number of universities, such as Georgetown, American University and Whittier College, which have successfully unionized or are in the process of doing so. The growing number of part-time and non-tenured professors across the nation could have dramatic effects for an industry that is already facing scrutiny for escalating costs, rising tuitions and exploding student loan debt.
Not all about money
For Gibson, the decision to unionize came down to respect.
A study by the American Association of University Professors for 2013 showed that the median pay for adjunct professors is only $2,700 per course, although the pay differs depending on the degree of adjunct as well as whether they teach at a public or private institution. Even if an adjunct professor were able to teach 10 classes a year, which isn’t always possible since many universities put limits on the number of classes an adjunct professor can teach, they would still barely make more than $25,000 a year, with no health insurance or other benefits.
Often, adjunct professors need to teach classes at multiple universities and colleges in order to make a living. Others work side jobs to compensate for the low pay and benefits.
“There is a growing sense of the awareness of how much adjunct faculty are doing on campuses — ours for sure, and many, maybe most, in the United States,” Gibson said. “The amounts we’re paid now compared to what people used to get paid to do these classes are way less. They are taking advantage of the notion of adjunct faculty to save money.”
Marco Ramirez, an adjunct faculty member who teaches urban studies and introduction to public administration at the University of La Verne, a private university in Los Angeles, is like many of his colleagues: he makes very little money, he’s only allowed to teach a few classes a semester and believes that adjunct faculty members deserve to be treated better.
“I know that as an adjunct I shouldn’t expect to make a bunch of money. I shouldn’t expect benefits. But I do think it’s fair to pay people a living wage,” Ramirez said. “I work as a management consultant on the side. What I get paid at La Verne for a semester, I make in a weekend.”