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Campaign to win better pay for adjunct faculty gains steam in NC

Students and faculty gathered to rally on the steps of Wilson Library on Wednesday.
Students and faculty gathered to rally on the steps of Wilson Library on Wednesday.

On the surface, Steen — a 2005 UNC graduate and a faculty member at East Carolina University — looks like every other professor. He has a Ph.D.; he has scholarly publications. His students call him “Dr. Steen” or “Professor Steen.”

But Steen is a fixed-term faculty member on a nine-month contract, and ECU didn’t renew it for next year. He hasn’t yet found a new job.

Steen is now a leading figure in North Carolina’s chapter of a national campaign called Faculty Forward, which began earlier this year and advocates for higher wages and better working conditions for adjunct and fixed-term faculty.

Adjuncts teach part time and might not receive benefits like health insurance or office space. Fixed-term faculty work full time on contracts with no guarantee of renewal.

Tenure offers higher pay and long-term job security, but these positions are on the decline as universities navigate a time of tight budgets. Only a third of UNC faculty are on the tenure track.

“We’ve connected with so many more people than I knew who are out there who said they work at more than one university — they’ve gone back and forth for several years,” Steen said. “Over a number of years and generations of students, they still feel unstable in their jobs and in their wages.”

Faculty Forward was launched by the Service Employees International Union, which represents 16,000 non-tenured faculty nationwide. In right-to-work states like North Carolina, faculty can’t unionize, but the SEIU’s campaign advocates outside of collective bargaining. A Faculty Forward chapter just launched at UNC.

Rallies held nationwide to coincide with Tax Day on Wednesday — including at UNC, where a Faculty Forward banner was prominently displayed — sought to shed light on some professors’ low pay.

Inspired by the Fight for $15 movement to hike the minimum wage, Faculty Forward is spearheading the Fight for $15K, a push for all faculty to be paid at least $15,000 per course and receive benefits.

It’s a bold proposal, but it’s designed to attract attention, given that part-time instructors now make up more than 50 percent of faculty nationwide. The average salary per course for part-time faculty at research universities is $3,400.

Advocates for better pay say it directly affects student learning when faculty members are constantly worried about making ends meet.

“It’s not a middle-class job like it used to be,” Steen said.

Pay per course tends to vary by department. An online search of part-time jobs at UNC shows openings that pay between $5,200 to $6,500 per course. In the English department, the average is about $7,500. A one-year position in the anthropology department would pay a salary of between $40,000 and $45,000.

T. William Lester, a city and regional planning professor at UNC who’s researched the minimum wage, said some departments at UNC pay adjuncts about $10,000 per course. He thinks $15,000 is a reasonable request.

“I think it’s about time that adjunct professors are paid more. They have years of training and do a tremendous amount of work,” Lester said.

Some adjuncts at UNC teach a course on the side — a journalism professor might do so while working as a reporter, or a professional novelist might teach a creative writing class. Others, such as Anne Mitchell Whisnant, teach as well as holding an administrative role at the University.

“There are quite a few of us on campus who are in these sort of hybrid roles,” said Whisnant, deputy secretary of the faculty and an adjunct in the history and American studies departments.

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But there are adjuncts at UNC who don’t have secure employment within or outside the University, and their working conditions are often not well understood, she said.

And with little to no job security, they’re often afraid to talk about it.

Several of UNC’s adjunct and fixed-term faculty spoke at a rally Wednesday in front of Wilson Library, but they wouldn’t be identified for fear of retaliation.

Because Steen is already losing his job, he’s not worried about speaking out.

The same goes for Demetrius Noble, an adjunct professor at UNC-Greensboro, who is also losing his job at the end of the semester due to budget cuts.

“I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a kid, I’ve got bills, but I don’t have a job anymore,” he said.

Still, Steen is undeterred by the flickering promise of academia.

“I love this profession. I love my students. I want to make this my career.”