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Revenge of the Part-Time Professors

Union cards in hand, the growing ranks of part-time university instructors demand their fair share.


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By Harold Henderson

Columbia College can't offer group health insurance to its roughly 800 part-time professors. So instead, this summer it managed to find insurance brokers willing to sell to interested part-timers on an individual basis. Christie Block, who has a master's degree in linguistics from Ohio State, holds three part-time jobs at Columbia: she tutors in the writing center, teaches English as a second language, and assists the ESL coordinator. She talked to an insurance agent earlier this fall.

"She asked me about the payment plan--quarterly or monthly? I said monthly," Block recalls. "She said it had to be direct electronic withdrawal. I said no, I'm against the idea of their having access to my account. But it would be impossible anyway. I only get paid in certain months of the year. There is no way I can expect to have even $100 in my checking account on the first of every month. She couldn't believe it. I didn't realize how strange it sounded. It's just part of my life."

It's not news that many college teachers enjoy about the same pay and job security as migrant melon pickers. The news is that a few of those teachers are finally doing something about it. At two of the city's most urban institutions of higher education--Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute--part-timers have organized to negotiate better deals with their schools. "Fair treatment of the part-time faculty would enhance the quality of education," argued a May 1997 manifesto written by the Part-Time Faculty at Columbia, P-FAC, "by strengthening morale, enhancing a sense of community, extending our commitment to our students, and allowing us to grow as professionals." But they're up against two powerful forces: a national trend toward increasing reliance on part-time faculty and their own schools' particular history of drawing on working professionals as part-time teachers.

In 1970 less than a quarter of the college professors in the U.S. were employed part-time. Today almost half of them are. One reason: part-timers work fantastically cheap.

At Columbia, if you'd taught one three-credit class this fall semester you would have been paid $1,482. P-FAC has calculated that a full-time Columbia professor would have earned almost $6,000 for teaching the same class. "We may be teaching next to someone with equal qualifications and experience," says part-timer John Stevenson, "and be getting one-quarter of what they are--less if you include benefits."

The fiftysomething Stevenson holds a PhD from the University of Chicago; he teaches philosophy at Columbia and at Roosevelt University and moonlights as a security guard. He has reluctantly concluded that the odds against his finding full-time professional work are overwhelming. "I was teaching at a small college, Barat [in Lake Forest], where they advertised a philosophy position nationally [it was later cut]. They got 400 responses. The humanities chair was just astounded. They had applicants from Yale and Brown."

Translation: Part-time college teachers may not just be passing through on the way to something better. Part-time teaching may be all there is. "What keeps this [low pay and poor working conditions] happening," says Stevenson, "is the sense that 'next year I'll get a full-time job.'" Perhaps because that no longer seems realistic for many part-timers, some have concluded that it's time to stop fighting with the 399 other applicants and try to improve part-time work itself.

Part-timers rarely have organized, partly because they don't think of themselves as part-timers and partly because they don't work together and may not even see each other from one year to the next. But the biggest reason may be that they know how many others are waiting to take their place. Prestigious academic departments across the country continue to pump out new PhDs as if there were a 1980s baby boom for them to teach--when in fact academia has been a buyer's market for more than a quarter of a century. Thus even prestigious schools that make relatively little use of part-time faculty themselves contribute to the problem. According to Linda Ray Pratt, who chairs the English department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, English departments nationwide awarded 1,080 PhDs in 1995 but listed just 605 available jobs, only 243 of which were likely to lead to stable full-time work.

In other words, as Pratt writes in her contribution to the anthology Will Teach for Food, "If things continue unchecked, about 90 percent of the English Ph.D.'s on the market in the next few years will not find a tenure-track job. More than 40 percent of recent Ph.D.'s in English won't secure any full-time position." Even if many find work elsewhere, the rest may seek part-time teaching jobs just to keep a toehold in the profession, creating "an ever-larger pool of cheap labor that only an administrative saint could resist." In the art world, the recent downturn in its market and cuts in both foundation and government support have created a similar situation. The end result may not be good for anyone, in Pratt's assessment: "Eventually, a profession that offers nothing better than marginal employment to those who have met the standards will not attract the most promising young minds."

Why would presumably intelligent graduate students volunteer to become sellers in a buyer's market, year after year, decade after decade? This unsavory situation has been sustained by the optimism of youth (I know I'll get a full-time job), the opportunism of age (If we cut back on graduate admissions, who will teach all the introductory courses? Who will do the grunge work involved in research?), and just plain bad guesses about the future. Richard Stacewicz--who teaches history part-time at Columbia, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago--says that when he started on his PhD "the prognostication for 1995 was wide-open because of [expected] retirements. I'd just completed a master's, and they offered money [for doctoral study]. Nobody acknowledged that full-time positions would be replaced with part-time or fewer larger sections."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now confirms the perceptions of the pessimists. In the on-line version of its "Occupational Outlook Handbook" (, it projects that increasing numbers of full-time faculty will retire between now and 2005--but their jobs won't necessarily become available to anyone else. "In an effort to cut costs, institutions are expected to either leave many of these positions vacant or hire part-time faculty members as replacements. Prospective job applicants should be prepared to face intense competition for available jobs as growing numbers of Ph.D. graduates vie for fewer full-time openings."

The BLS is too polite to say so, but many financially squeezed colleges and universities need part-time teachers the way less reputable citizens need cheap wine. Downstate in Champaign-Urbana, the part-timers are mostly graduate-student "teaching assistants," but the habit is the same. In the book Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson calculates that if his English department were to replace part-timers with full-time professors, it would have to double its instructional budget from $3.5 million to $7 million a year--more if you add benefits. "The conclusion is unambiguous: my department is completely dependent on cheap graduate student labor."

Telling tales out of school has made Nelson something of a renegade among full-time tenured faculty. True, the American Association of University Professors has repeatedly viewed with alarm the trend toward a part-time professoriat, in reports published in 1980, 1986, and 1993. Its "Guidelines for Good Practice" defines exploitation of part-timers as failing to offer them "raises in pay, access to benefits, opportunities for promotion, or eligibility for tenure and the procedural protections essential to academic freedom." The AAUP also holds that institutions relying heavily on part-time teachers hurt themselves in that they "diminish academic freedom, respect for teaching, and public confidence in higher education." (Left unstated is the fact that every full-time position replaced by part- timers reduces the status and clout of full-time college professors, and hence of the AAUP.)

But the AAUP's warnings have found a stolidly unresponsive audience. According to a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education (November 7), even the agencies charged with accrediting colleges and universities pay little attention to the impact of part-time dependency.

At Columbia--where the 1997-'99 catalog states that "teaching is the central focus of the College"--a full-time teaching load is considered to be four three-credit classes per semester. "If you're going to try to make a living part-time teaching," says John Stevenson, "you're going to have to teach five or six classes per semester" at one school or another. In that case, you'd be teaching half again as many hours as a full-time professor and (using Columbia's rates) still grossing just $17,784 a year--with no benefits and no guarantee of work from one semester to the next. "Some people prefer to work only part-time, but I'd say very few want to be compensated at a much lower rate."

Columbia executive vice president and provost Bert Gall doesn't think part-time pay is that much lower. Full-time faculty, he points out, are paid more than part-timers because they're expected to do more. Full-timers must serve on college committees, develop the curriculum, counsel and advise students outside of class, and improve themselves professionally. He figures that classroom teaching is, very roughly, only about a third of what full-timers are paid for at Columbia--and therefore concludes that any gap between part-time and full-time pay rates is small or nonexistent.

During October and November more than 360 Columbia part-timers (over a third of the part-time staff) did more than disagree with Gall. In a step rare for college faculty of any kind, they signed union cards, saying they want to be collectively represented by the Part-Time Faculty at Columbia (P-FAC), now an affiliate of the National Education Association. An election to decide whether this will happen will be held by mail ballot January 20 through February 3, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. If a majority of those voting support the NEA, Columbia will become the first four-year private college in Illinois to have professors wearing the union label.

Part-time professors at Columbia are supposed to be more like Stephen Franklin or Terri Hemmert than Christie Block or John Stevenson. They're supposed to be working full-time in their fields and teaching a bit on the side. They're supposed to be earning a decent living at their main jobs. They shouldn't care whether Columbia offers them job security, advancement, health insurance, pension benefits, or office space.

This kind of part-timer has been at the heart of Columbia ever since Mike Alexandroff became president in 1963. (He retired in 1992 and was succeeded by John Duff, who began his own career as a part-time faculty member at Seton Hall University in the early 1960s.) Columbia students were expected to learn "arts, communications, and public information" at the feet of creative professionals who were already earning a living in those fields. That idea has served the school well; Columbia is enjoying its 33rd straight year of growth and now enrolls 8,600 students in eight buildings, six in the south Loop.

"Part-time faculty--practicing professionals who are leaders in their fields--are a critical part of our mission," says Gall. "They're inseparable from the institution, a valued part of the community." At Columbia they may even enhance the educational environment--exactly the opposite of the effect feared by the AAUP. Gall remembers that in the 1960s other institutions looked askance at Columbia's use of part-timers. "Now we're more typical," he says. Still, Columbia remains well above average, with about 80 percent of its roughly 1,000 faculty members part-time. Now it's again running counter to the prevailing academic trend by seeking to increase its number of full-time faculty.

P-FAC members--who repeatedly emphasize that they love teaching and Columbia--don't deny the existence or value of this kind of part-time faculty. But they know it's no longer the only kind. And they suspect that it may actually be a minority, even at Columbia. They contend that many, perhaps most part-timers these days are in fact underemployed academics and artists who want full-time work but can't find it--people for whom part-time teaching is not a pleasant sideline but a desperate necessity.

Everyone has an opinion, but nobody actually knows how many of Columbia's part-time faculty fit either pattern. P-FAC tried to find out by distributing a survey to 934 Columbia part-timers in November 1996. About a quarter of the surveys (238) were returned. Half of the respondents said they earned less than $20,000 a year from all sources; two-thirds considered low pay and lack of benefits at the school "serious" problems.

These figures suggest that P-FAC has a point--but do they represent the entire part-time faculty? Those with grievances are probably more likely to fill out and return a questionnaire. On the basis of anecdote alone, it seems likely that part-timers in Columbia's degree-granting departments--such as film and video or art and design--are more likely to fit the college's traditional model, while part-timers in general subjects such as English, history, and philosophy fit P-FAC's model better.

Building on the survey and a follow-up petition, five leaders of P-FAC wrote to President Duff on May 12, asking to work with the administration for fairness and quality education. They asked that

base pay for one course be doubled, to $3,000 per semester;

a cancellation fee be paid to part-timers who prepare to teach a class that's later canceled because not enough students have signed up (which can be devastating for a part-timer who's prepared the course and turned down other work);

part-timers ultimately have an opportunity to become tenured as part-timers;

part-timers be allowed to buy into the full-timers' group medical and dental plans;

P-FAC be recognized as an official faculty body to which all part-timers would automatically belong when hired; and

more money, space, and equipment be available to part-timers for professional development.

Duff met with the group on June 12 but yielded little ground. The college administration's answers, in brief, were: no way, no, no, maybe, no, and yes.

In response to the request for more money, Gall says, "I don't know very many organizations that could double the salaries of a large part of their workforce without serious consequences." Part-timers have received small annual raises during Duff's tenure. They got a 5 percent increase in base pay in September 1997 and will get another in September 1998 "if financial conditions permit," as Duff wrote in an August 14 letter. According to the administration, financial conditions don't permit compensation for canceled classes or any kind of tenure for part-timers as part-timers.

In response to the request about benefits, Duff wrote in his letter that "the Vice President for Finance and the Director of Human Resources . . . are exploring ways to permit the part-time faculty to participate to some extent in employee benefit programs." In the same paternalistic vein, Duff firmly rebuffed another seemingly innocuous P-FAC suggestion that he appoint a committee that would include part-timers and "make recommendations regarding wages, benefits and working conditions of the adjunct faculty."

Columbia administrators do acknowledge that not all part-timers have jobs outside of academia. "Working part-time can be an opportunity to build a teaching credential and a more attractive resume," says Gall--an opportunity that would hardly interest, say, a successful television producer. "In the last two years 22 full-time positions here were filled by people [who'd been] teaching part-time. I believe that just over one-third of our full-time faculty came out of the ranks of our part-timers. We do make a conscientious effort to look first to them." (This policy distinguishes Columbia from much of academia, where a resume heavy with part-time teaching is widely believed to render a job seeker ever less employable as the years pass.) In addition, departments at the college have funds for part-timers' professional development. Part-timers now can have E-mail addresses at the school. And a show of 59 part-time faculty members' work--including sculpture, painting, photography, videos, and digital images--opened November 24 at the school's Hokin Center on South Wabash.

This wasn't enough good news for P-FAC. Discouraged by the administration's responses, its leaders went union shopping over the summer and decided to hook up with the NEA. "They organize education professionals," says John Stevenson, "and they offer a high degree of internal democracy and autonomy. We would have our own local, determine our own course." So far the NEA has organized about 1,600 college teachers in Illinois, the vast majority of them in two-year schools. At Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, the part-timers' local even has its own Web page (members.

As it happened, P-FAC began distributing union cards at the September 27 semester-opening institute for part-time faculty. There it became clear that the administration's vague mention of possible benefits the previous spring meant only that the college had found insurance agents willing to discuss coverage with individual part-timers. Many had hoped for group insurance, and emerged from the institute angry, willing to sign a union card. But group insurance for part-time faculty, who may be on the payroll one semester and off the next, is very difficult to obtain, according to Columbia human resources director Paul Johnson. "The carriers say, 'All we're going to get out of this group are the people who can't get insured anywhere else'--what they call 'adverse selection.' There's a reason [insurance companies] have the biggest buildings in town."

"We're doing what we love, so we aren't expecting to live like Rockefellers," says Timothy Wittman, who teaches art and architectural history and historic preservation at Columbia and at the School of the Art Institute. Wittman worked for the Chicago Landmarks Commission for 12 years and coauthored its citywide historic-preservation survey, back when the commission had its own staff.

The commission suffered what Wittman calls a "hostile takeover" by the city Department of Planning and Development in November 1992, and he realized he would have to move on. With few prospects of another full-time job in his field in the Chicago area, he put together a "freelance lifestyle" combining part-time teaching, speaking, writing, and consulting. "It's easier for me than some colleagues," he says. "I have no children and no car, so I can make a reasonable living. Still, all it takes is for a couple of jobs to fall through and you're in trouble."

The School of the Art Institute is smaller than Columbia (2,251 students versus 8,600) but relies almost as heavily on part-timers. About three-quarters of its faculty are part-time. SAIC charges more for tuition than Columbia ($17,160 versus $8,400) and pays its part-timers better ($2,906 for one course versus $1,482). The two schools' curricula overlap somewhat, but in general SAIC tends to be oriented toward fine arts, Columbia toward commercial work. The salary and security gap between part-time and full-time faculty yawns large in both places.

During the summer of 1996 12 SAIC part-timers--the Part-time Advisory Committee--labored to compose a proposal, which they presented to Dean Carol Becker that fall. In it they aired a key grievance (something that also rankles P-FAC members at Columbia): "part-time faculty, through their lower salaries, funded a large share of the growth of The School during the 1980's." Accordingly, they asked for

a 25 percent raise phased in over three years, to match the 1995 raises given to full-timers;

a chance to buy into group medical and retirement plans;

a role in school governance, with appropriate compensation;

a chance to get appointments longer than one semester or one year; and

advance notification when contracts won't be renewed.

Dean Becker calls the situation "very complicated." She adds, "There has been some real inequity. The institution needs to maintain some kind of fluidity, and we have an obligation to [part-time] people who've been here a long time."

The SAIC administration set up two committees to meet with part-time representatives. In the ensuing negotiations, Becker says, "We've educated each other." Part-timers got the raises and governance role they asked for. SAIC's procedure for making part-timers "adjunct" faculty--with better pay and benefits but no long-term guarantees--has been formalized. A few issues, such as pension benefits, are still being discussed. About a third of SAIC's part-timers receive health benefits. Becker says, "It costs a lot of money. The board frequently asks, 'Do you really have to do this?' and we say yes." Becker--probably the only academic dean in the city who began her Chicago career with a stint at the left-wing biweekly In These Times--says, "We're trying to make up for a lot of inequity in society," by which she means such things as the lack of universal medical care.

Other issues--such as just how many people will be allowed to advance to adjunct status--remain to be considered at SAIC. But the mere fact that discussion is taking place means a lot. "There's an understanding of our needs," says part-timer Robert Mishlove, who teaches painting and drawing. "They are taken seriously. A formal conversation is going on that never was before." One part-timer who teaches at both Columbia and SAIC says flatly, "If they came to me with a union card at Columbia I'd sign it. If they came to me with a union card at the school I wouldn't sign it."

"A reserve labor force performs the same functions in academe that it does in the larger workforce--holding down all salaries, making employees feel desperate and competitive, dividing the workforce, and making organizing difficult," writes Rutgers part-timer Karen Thompson in her contribution to the book Will Teach for Food. "The practical way to prevent this is by pricing part-time and temporary faculty out of the market. They must become too expensive to function as a substitute labor force."

In other words, if the pay of part-timers were comparable to that of full-timers for comparable work, then colleges would have less incentive to hire part-timers. That would be fine with some people in the part-timers' movement, who would like part-time academic jobs kept to the minimum needed for institutional flexibility (the AAUP recommends just 15 percent). School of the Art Institute part-timer Brian Sikes, who has taught both art history and studio art courses, believes that SAIC has relied so much on part-timers that it now has too few full-time faculty to do a good job of governing the school.

But not everyone in the part-timers' movement sees full-time work as a goal or thinks that part-time academic work is all bad. "In a way, part-timeness has given me an opportunity" at Columbia, says Christie Block. "It would be difficult to get an administrative position elsewhere. Most ESL positions are purely teaching." And even Sikes, who would prefer full-time work, has found SAIC much more flexible than the full-time-dominated institutions he's worked for.

Among academics, the idea that part-time work should be paid better and given more respect--without necessarily being eliminated--doesn't have even the visibility of the occasional AAUP report. But it does have special relevance to women, who (according to Karen Thompson) make up 51 percent of part-time college faculty but only 34 percent of full-time.

The disparity may not be entirely the result of discrimination. "The availability of professional-level part-time work is crucial to the lives of women--to allow them to be mothers and homemakers as well as professionals," says Janina Ciezadlo, who teaches courses about women in art, literature, and music part-time at Columbia College. Ciezadlo isn't comfortable with the equal-rights model of emancipation, in which women are allowed to join the world of work only by fitting themselves into roles defined by and for men. "Women have sought access to the world of work, but they have not addressed the need to reorganize that world" to allow them to make their own choices. (Ciezadlo doesn't quote radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, but she could. "Women want to be equal and different too," MacKinnon says.) Getting a fair deal for part-time academic work, without trying to do away with it, fits right in with that agenda.

Even the less union-minded part-timers at the School of the Art Institute see the parallels between their situation and that of the United Parcel Service workers who went on strike over part-time issues. "It's been an education for us," says Robert Mishlove. "Visual artists have not tended to see themselves as people who worked with other people that way."

Richard Stacewicz, a labor historian by trade and a P-FAC leader at Columbia, doesn't hesitate to draw parallels between this struggle and those of the 1890s and 1930s. "It's like the 1890s packinghouses," he says. "We're day labor." Tim Wittman adds, "One thing that really rocked people at Columbia was the situation at Triton College this fall. Triton advertised for scabs [teachers to cross picket lines] and offered 40 percent better pay than we get."

Almost as much as money, these day laborers crave respect. Full-timers have been known to tell part-timers how nice it must be to teach part-time "and have all that extra time to do your work." Full-time academics may also regard perennial part-timers as losers--though the dismal job market suggests they may just be unlucky.

Worse than being disdained is being ignored. Christie Block taught part-time at the Illinois Institute of Technology for one semester. "I was completely invisible. I never met my supervisor." Signing a union card may get part-time professors better compensation, or it may not. But at least it should guarantee that they're no longer taken for granted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt.

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