Monday, November 30, 2009

Blog XXXIV (34): The Plight of the Adjunct

The "In the Service of Clio" blog returns today from an extended Thanksgiving Day holiday. This blog entry originally appeared as a guest editorial in today's (November 30, 2009) issue of The Providence Journal. Tim Norton, an adjunct professor of writing at the University of Rhode Island, is the author of "Adjuncts are the Real Indentured Servants on R.I. Plantation," which is a play on the legal of name of the smallest state in the union, "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation." This essay raises some of the issues that I discussed on April 6, 2009 in Blog IV.

Although some of the issues Norton discusses focus on matters relevant only in the Ocean State, he touches on important employment concerns to scholars in all fields. Since these topics are highly relevant to the readers of this blog, I am reprinting it here in its entirety. "In the Service of Clio" will return to its previous series on alternative forms of employment for the history Ph.D. next week. Here is Norton's editorial:

Imagine going to work in the morning with no guarantee that you will have that job in four months. Imagine working for one third of the pay that your colleagues receive without benefits. Consider never getting a raise no matter how excellent your performance may be. Welcome to the world of the college adjunct instructor.

“Adjunct.” The word itself gives the ring of an extraneous and forgotten part, the appendix of some hulking machine. As an adjunct writing professor at the University of Rhode Island, I am one of 450 part-time faculty who do 40 percent of the teaching at that institution. Part timers brought in over $52 million of tuition income in 2007-08 and we were paid a scant $3.98 million from that overflowing pot.

Adjunct instructors are the chattel on the academic plantation, and we make tenure, great pay, sabbaticals and health care realities for the full timers, the faces on the university brand. Adjuncts are the silent, quivering caste, hiding in plain sight and praying that we will be thrown the same insufficient crusts in the next semester. In that ivy-covered ecosystem, adjuncts are the plankton, upon which everything else in the chain depends.

Union abuses define Rhode Island. Public-employee unions run the Rhode Island legislature and the majority of citizens pay for the comfort and reward of the few who are on the state gravy train. That said, adjunct college and university instructors are hired semester to semester, they have no health care or benefits, and good performance is unrelated to future employment. The Dickensian treatment of part timers at URI is criminal, and these abuses are what unions should seek to remedy.

Recently, Rhode Island College ratified an agreement with the state Board of Governors for Higher Education. It represents the first contract ever given to adjunct faculty members in Rhode Island and it gives a dash of hope to a long-aggrieved class. RIC adjuncts will now receive academic freedom, course-assignment rules, a grievance procedure, job security, leave of absence for jury duty and a retroactive pay raise of 3 percent. Some 60 percent of all teaching at RIC is done by adjuncts.

It was my bad fortune to work at the University of Rhode Island, with its medieval policies regarding part-time teachers. The administration has been stonewalling a part-time faculty union for years now but it cannot long ignore the evolution taking place right before it. Without equitable treatment backed by a union and the rule of law, fear inevitably fills the vacuum. Fear drives profits, but you will not find that fact noted in the annual report. Union abuses are regrettable and should be reined in, but the lack of a union for the right reasons is nothing but de-facto endentured servitude. All work has dignity, but living as most adjuncts do is a disgrace.


  1. Dr. Sarantakes,

    I've been reading the posts on working in the field of history with interest as I am currently applying to graduate school with the intention of studying military history. I'd be interested in asking you and some of the guest bloggers some questions about teaching at a DoD school. What would be the best way to contact you?

    Corbin Williamson

  2. Corbin,

    Read Blog XXVI and Blog XXXIII. Both essays focus on that very issue. Then, visit for my e-mail address, if you want to discuss issues more.

  3. Your essay was most interesting, and I don't know the particulars of Rhode Island, but I'm wondering if the enemy there was not public sector unions but the administration at the University?

    Here at HFCC, our full-time local tried to unionize the part-timers in 1980. The attempt went down in defeat by 35 votes (out of about 500 adjuncts), mainly from adjuncts from the business community who were ideologically anti-union.

    Last year, our adjuncts, now about 740 of them, unionized, mainly with their own effort but with assistance from the full-time local and the state affiliate.

    This is just one example, but in my experience, now nearly 14 years in a union, I've generally found other unions to supportive of fostering unionization elsewhere. Generally, I've found the problem to be with the executive administrators and the state politicians.

    Just a thought

    Hal Friedman
    History Department
    Henry Ford Community College
    Secretary, HFCC Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1650

    1. The enemy is definitely the University of Rhode Island administration. A part time adjunct union has finally been established there but adjuncts have no health care and no more job security then they had before. Adjuncts need to file a class action suit against the universities that grind them into hamburger for doing the same job in the classroom that star Ph.D. faculty perform.

  4. Having been an adjunct at New School University, and other schools, I am grateful for this column. I taught 12+ courses, and was abruptly dropped after having been asked to teach the next semester because I had finally decided to support unionization of adjuncts, which I had opposed for a long time. At one point I was teaching 4 courses at 3 schools in NYC as an adjunct, & needed help from my mother to pay my 750/month rent for one room in someone else's apartment.

  5. That's illegal. Did you talk to the national labor relations board? Did the union try to do so?

  6. Ugh. This post reminds me of my own horrible experiences as a sessional (what we call adjuncts here in Canada). I got blacklisted by a department once for going to my union to get paid for money owed under the terms of my contract. The dept had no lawful ground or reason to fight it but they did anyways. I finally got paid but, like Diane, I never got another chance to work there.

  7. For several years, I taught five courses a semester, but was not "full time" because the courses were allotted as 19% each. Twice the load, a fraction of the money. We have a union now and I teach 4/4 for 100% of my still, er, modest salary, but that can change as soon as breaking the union becomes an administrative goal.

  8. There's career politicians and chopping their salaries in half. A group known as Citizens for a movement to radically change California government, by getting rid of California Reform wants to make the California legislature a part time time job, just like it was until 1966.