The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Non-tenured faculty hope for better working conditions

Deputy secretary of the faculty and adjunct faculty member Anne Whisnant advocates for the rights of non-tenured faculty members. She said those faculty members can be difficult to define since many are involved in several aspects of campus life. "It's a bit of a venn diagram at times," said Whisnant.
Deputy secretary of the faculty and adjunct faculty member Anne Whisnant advocates for the rights of non-tenured faculty members. She said those faculty members can be difficult to define since many are involved in several aspects of campus life. "It's a bit of a venn diagram at times," said Whisnant.

But these tenured and tenure-track faculty, who fulfill teaching, research and service requirements and receive long-term job security, no longer represent a majority of faculty members at schools nationwide — or at UNC.

The professor that students see might be a fixed-term faculty member, hired on a contract with no guarantee of long-term employment. They might be an adjunct faculty member, teaching a course on the side while juggling another job.

In the most extreme situations, they might be working part time at multiple schools and cobbling together a living with little chance of professional advancement.

“This has caused some real challenges for other institutions,” said Bruce Cairns, UNC faculty chairman. “We just need to make sure we stay ahead of what those issues might be.”

Fixed-term and adjunct faculty at universities nationwide now represent nearly 75 percent of undergraduate course instructors — a reversal of three or four decades ago, when tenured faculty held that majority.

UNC employed more than 5,600 tenured or tenure-track, fixed-term and adjunct faculty as of fall 2013.Nearly 66 percent are not professors, assistant professors or associate professors, which are the only tenured or tenure-track positions.

Anne Whisnant, deputy secretary of the faculty and an adjunct in the history department, said the career situation for fixed-term and adjunct faculty at UNC is not as difficult as it is at some schools.

But Cairns acknowledged that improving working conditions for these faculty on campus is a top priority for faculty governance this year.

“The students can tell whether or not we are creating that environment,” he said.

Lacking benefits

Tim Ives, chairman of the UNC faculty welfare committee, said these faculty have a finite role on campus, making them difficult to track.

Faculty governance leaders are working to define the number of full- or part-time adjuncts on campus and their health care coverage, retention rates and opportunities for advancement.

“It’s not a question of hiding information, it just hasn’t been brought up yet,” Ives said.

The median pay for adjuncts at two- and four-year colleges and universities is $2,700 per three-credit course. For research institutions, it’s $3,400 per course.

For faculty at research universities who teach six courses a year, that translates to an annual base salary of $20,400.

These faculty often don’t have access to research grants or paid leave, which require tenure, and they might have to share office space.

Donna Bickford, associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said some at UNC aren’t paid to hold office hours and lack access to basic department resources, like copy machines.

“They could be an outstanding teacher, but they don’t have the support system to do their job,” she said.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Jean DeSaix, a teaching professor in the biology department, said she is working with a new Ph.D. student who is struggling with these issues.

“She’s teaching a course at this community college, a course at that community college, maybe a course at one of the small privates around here, but she can’t get a full-time faculty position,” she said.

Health care in question

The question of some adjuncts’ health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act has brought the faculty issues to the national stage.

The law mandates that university faculty who teach 30 hours or more each week qualify for health insurance — but Maria Maisto, president and executive director of national advocacy group New Faculty Majority, said it’s tough to calculate the hours that part-time faculty work.

And for faculty who meet the 30-hour threshold but teach at multiple schools, Ives said, it’s unclear who is responsible for their health coverage.

“Adjuncts are doing piecemeal work,” he said.

The Faculty Assembly, made up of representatives from the 17 UNC-system campuses, unanimously voted to approve a resolution Sept. 5 that all system employees be granted appropriate health coverage.

“The hope is that they will have some type of coverage for everybody,” Ives said.

Definitions unclear

Nationally, faculty without tenure are often grouped into one category, Whisnant said — and while some of the issues they face might intersect, situations differ so vastly that it’s difficult to standardize policies for them on campus.

Faculty at UNC can be fixed-term, meaning they are on a contract of one to five years, or they can be adjunct, meaning they are affliated with a department, though their primary role on campus might be administrative or clinical.

Bickford said she is known as an alternative academic because she holds an adjunct position in the English department in addition to an Office of Undergraduate Research role.

“My position is a perfectly reasonable use of an adjunct status,” she said.

But that’s not the case for oth ers. She said there are part-time adjuncts hoping for full-time work, but there aren’t formal UNC policies that pave a path to career advancement.

And teaching as an adjunct for a couple of years can make faculty appear less competitive for tenure-track positions, Bickford said.

“It’s not because they are not qualified,” she said. “It’s part of a landscape of the changing intellectual workforce in higher education.”

Fixed-term progress

UNC’s fixed-term faculty have had representation in faculty governance for two decades, but job security can be a concern, Whisnant said.

“You don’t really have any automatic expectations that when that’s over that it will be renewed,” she said. “It can feel precarious to people, I think.”

Still, UNC fixed-term faculty have a path of advancement, with three tiers culminating in a teaching professor rank.

Bickford said fixed-term faculty advocates like DeSaix have worked for 20 years on policies and practices to support them.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a stable full-time employment situation with appropriate benefits,” Bickford said.

But there is no committee governing adjunct faculty or representing their concerns.

“If we need to take a look at the committee structure for these folks, then we will,” Cairns said.

Problems in English

Nationwide, the number of fixed-term and adjunct faculty is increasing, while tenure-track positions have declined.

The higher numbers at public universities, Bickford said, correlate somewhat with state budget cuts — the UNC system has experienced a drop of nearly $500 million in support since 2011.

“The University is trying to solve its budget problem on the backs of these individual adjuncts,” Bickford said.

But Maisto said she thinks it could be a political move to make faculty less powerful.

Bickford said part-time positions should be a transitional period into full-time work, but some disciplines, particularly English, have used adjuncts more than others.

Introductory composition courses require English to keep a large staff, Maisto said.

Instead of hiring faculty full-time, schools might hire adjuncts who are on call from semester to semester, Bickford said.

“Some have reported having two weeks notice to teach a course,” she said.

Beverly Taylor, UNC’s English department chairwoman, said the only part-time faculty in her department teach creative writing in addition to writing professionally.

Though fixed-term faculty are often hired at UNC to teach composition, she said, there are half as many fixed-term as tenure-track faculty in English.

But on e fixed-term faculty member at UNC, who asked to remain anonymous for job security reasons, said faculty in some departments, including English, are exploited.

“It’s a big sort of ugly truth that goes on,” he said.

Taylor said the lowest salary per three-credit course for a fixed-term English faculty member is about $6,000 — higher than most universities in the southeast.

Still, since UNC saves money by hiring more fixed-term and adjunct faculty, it’s become a recent trend, said the fixed-term faculty member.

“The University as a whole is moving away from tenure-track faculty simply because it’s a better economic model for them,” he said.

Nationally, some hope

On a national level, adjunct faculty have made progress. A bill that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in July would require schools to report certain information, including working conditions.

“Because adjuncts are getting more organized and are being more outspoken, we’re able to communicate with legislators,” Maisto said.

The legislation has been attached to the federal Higher Education Act, which is currently being reauthorized.

“It keeps a department from hiring somebody year after year on one-year contracts without the world knowing it,” DeSaix said.

At UNC, Cairns said there has been talk of launching a task force, and he hopes adjunct faculty members with concerns will contact the Office of Faculty Governance.

Whisnant said UNC could be a model for other schools.

But the anonymous fixed-term faculty member said he isn’t confident that UNC leaders will improve working conditions for faculty like him.

“The people who have the most to gain are the people who are doing the exploiting.”

Cairns doesn’t agree: “I do think we’re being as proactive as we can be in trying to address this.”

Still, the battle to put these faculty on equal footing is far from over, Bickford said.

“We have an exploited, under-employed, under-compensated group of really skilled and talented people that we’re wasting.”