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March 23, 2015

Adjunct faculty protest unfair pay, benefits

By Kevin Alquist

Some part-time Cleveland State University professors protested low pay and lack of benefits on Feb. 25 in the Student Center. The event was part of “National Walkout Day,” a social media-sparked protest arranged by adjunct faculty at universities across the country.

More than 600 part-time professors teach 66 percent of the courses offered at Cleveland State. Each semester, they are paid roughly $2,500 per course with no benefits for approximately four months of work.

On Feb. 17, English professor Brian Johnson wrote an email to adjunct faculty at Cleveland State to arrange participation in the adjunct walkout. In it he wrote, “I am walking out because, despite teaching as many hours as CSU will give me, I make less than $15,000 a year. During the 15 years I’ve been teaching, adjunct pay has stayed the same while the number of adjuncts has increased.”

(See a copy of the email below)

William Morgan, vice provost for Faculty Affairs and a former adjunct faculty member in a research role, said he had not talked to Johnson or heard of any disciplinary action against him since the day of the walkout. Morgan said he knew in advance of only one department that had members planning on participating.

“We asked the dean to notify the department chair to remind any adjuncts in that department of the proper procedures for requesting absence from a scheduled class, and otherwise the obligation as stated in their university contract to meet their scheduled classes,” Morgan said. “At this point, college deans have not informed us of any violations.”

According to Johnson, a common grievance among adjuncts is that their pay fails to account for the time spent preparing for in-class lectures, grading assignments and exams.

Morganalso said all adjuncts received a 5 percent pay increase at the beginning of 2014, and at least one college increased its pay scale to raise the minimum salary.

“The current compensation plan assumes most adjuncts have a primary source of income from a full-time, usually nonacademic position elsewhere,” Morgan said. “As such the compensation is reasonable when viewed as supplementary income.”

Morgan added that all part-time faculty have the opportunity to apply for full-time positions at Cleveland State and elsewhere, but admitted that competition is tough because of an influx of applications from prospective professors nationally and internationally.

Johnson said his concerns go beyond finances, as he said stretching the time of adjunct faculty trickles down to the student body as well.

“It’s not fair to ask students to learn something from someone who is making $14,000 per year,” Johnson said. “Adjuncts that are working a six-course load to keep up with rent and bills, when do they have time for office hours?”

Communication and film professor Maria Gigante, who visited the awareness presentation in the Student Center but did not walk out on her scheduled classes, said she opted to briefly mention the issue to her students as to not interrupt their class time, but she hopes to see more awareness of the issue in the future.

“I hope to see more events that give adjuncts a voice because I think we all want to be here,” Gigante said.

She noted that tuition increases over the years have not led to any major increase in pay for teachers in her position.

“The tuition for college has gone up every year since the 1970s, and I know there are a lot of expenses to run a school, but for teachers to get such a small amount and have no job security is a problem. To give adjuncts a chance to speak and have a voice to be heard is important.”

Gigante started teaching film classes at Cleveland State in the fall of 2014 and said she experienced similar strife at Columbia College in Chicago, where she taught previously. She said she expected similar circumstances when she took the job last year.

“There was a part-time union at Columbia that was very active up until the time that I left,” Gigante said. “Even though there was a union and the rates were okay, it was still an issue there because no one had benefits or job security.”

Gigante said she enjoys teaching and it allows her to continue to be a part of the Cleveland film community in conjunction with her work as a freelance producer and director for independent films.

“It’s increasingly hard to do both because if you need to be on a shoot but you have a class, it’s just a hard thing to balance,” Gigante said. “At the end of the day, working in production pays more than teaching, so that’s what adjuncts are up against if they’re going to have to take on a lot of work to pay the bills, something’s going to have to give.”

The struggle of balancing multiple jobs is not lost on Morgan, who sympathized with the reality that many adjuncts are left in limbo by waiting for full-time jobs, whether they are academic or not, but he added that he does not believe protest is the correct solution.

“Unfortunately, there are gaps in the American labor market that are not easily resolved structurally, and therefore require individuals to navigate through carefully,” Morgan said. “I don’t think collective protest is a meaningful solution in this case.”

Another common grievance among adjuncts is that they have to pay around $200 for a parking pass each semester, something Gigante avoids by utilizing street parking.

“I try and work the system by parking in the street,” Gigante said. “It’s kind of a hassle and I have to hussle to find a spot on the street or pay $7 to park in the garage.”

The National Adjunct Walkout Day group on Facebook has more than 7,200 members and the Cleveland State Adjuncts page has 79 followers. Johnson said while the adjunct walkout announcement did not spark major growth in the group from Cleveland State adjuncts, there has been a steady growth in interest.

“We are trying to get the group to grow,” Johnson said. “Obviously there is a problem because by walking out you could possibly lose your job.”

Johnson said he has been in contact with organizations like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union in order to deal with the issue on a national and local scale.

Morgan said he does not fear that protests like the walkout will continue to grow.

“The work is voluntary, a conscious decision that this is what one wants to do with one’s time,” Morgan said. “Part-time academic work is desirable to urban professionals with special expertise they wish to share with students while staying engaged in their full-time position. This has been true for all 50 years of CSU and for almost all American universities.”

Johnson arranged an adjunct faculty meeting on Tuesday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Service Employees International Union at 1771 E. 30 St. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the issues surrounding their position as adjuncts and what to do about them moving forward.


A copy of the email from Brian Johnson:

Dear faculty member:

On February 25, I will not be in my class. I will be in the Student Union participating in National Adjunct Walkout Day. Please join me in the Student Union on Feb. 25 to raise awareness of unfair adjunct working conditions at CSU.
I am walking out because, despite teaching as many hours as CSU will give me (three classes), I make less than $15,000 a year. During the 15 years I’ve been teaching, adjunct pay has stayed the same while the number of adjuncts has increased (and the number of coveted tenure positions has decreased). I could list other reasons. I think we all could. I have two children and I make a below poverty threshold salary, despite the hundred thousand dollars of debt accrued to earn my degree. That’s my big sob story. I’ve heard worse. But to be honest, that’s not why I’m participating.
I’m participating because it’s time. That’s it. All around the country, adjuncts will be walking out,demonstrating, and protesting unfair conditions. To not walk out, at this time, is to disagree with those people. Teaching class on Feb. 25th is a message to the powers that be at CSU that you are okay with how you’re treated and that when the opportunity arises for you to complain, you will keep quiet. It’s really that simple.
That’s what this walkout means. You are saying to the CSU administrators that you (about 66% of the workforce by my reckoning) feel that your treatment is unfair. Someone asked me the other day what the point of that might be. I don’t know. I do know that silently taking low paying jobs as some kind of self--imposed punishment for being an intellectual isn’t helping our situation. In a lot of our cases, we are making less than minimum wage. Moreover, nothing has changed for adjuncts over the decade and a half of my teaching career except that there are more of us now, and less of those tenure track jobs that we all covet. We are adjuncts. This is our career.
Someone told me that this walkout only punishes the students. I don’t know. Many adjuncts, out of fear for their jobs, seem to go too easy on the students. At the same time, full time faculty who might be teaching important classes in the department are increasingly being asked to shoulder more of the load of running their skeletal departments (while also being forced to act as low-level administrators over adjunct faculty).Graduation rates decrease as the percentage of adjunct faculty increases. Maybe there are other reasons for that decrease, but preaching the value of higher education while undervaluing those who provide it does not encourage students to succeed.
What happens next, I don’t know. Some universities are unionizing. Others are not. Some are having demonstrations. Others are not. In some places, full time faculty are standing with their adjunct counterparts in support (I hope that is the case here; the adjunct condition is not imposed by department heads, and we all know that). In other places, the distribution is causing strife. I’ve heard the number $15,000 per class bandied about. That, in and of itself, would make this job a viable career option.
Here’s what I do know. I know that if I am still making this pay in 2 years, I will not be able to look my children in the eyes. I will have failed them as a parent for staying in this job. I know that if I am fired (technically, if my contract is not renewed) for walking out on the 25th, I will have lost a less-than- minimum wage job, and I can’t respond except to say, “big whoop.” I know that I’m having an increasingly hard time teaching my students a subject when I know that my expertise in that subject has doomed me to poverty.
I have watched for fifteen years. It’s time. Support National Adjunct Walkout Day by joining me in the Student Union on Feb. 25, 2015.

Thank you for your time,

Dr. Brian Johnson
CSU adjunct faculty