Philadelphia college adjunct professors organize for job security

For 15 years, Debi Lemieur has been a part-time adjunct instructor for the “great books” class that all Temple University undergraduates take, where they discuss texts like Plato’s “Republic” and Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”

She’s also taught Latin and other subjects at St. Joseph’s, Villanova and Rutgers universities and run training programs for other instructors. She has two masters degrees in classics and won an award from Temple for “excellence in teaching” in 2018.

But despite her long experience in the school’s Intellectual Heritage program, every semester she’s never completely sure she’ll still have a job when next term begins. 

Recently, she says, a Temple administrator told her that because of drop in student enrollment, class assignments needed to be reserved for the university’s full-time professors, and all of the 22 part-time adjunct instructors in the program would not be rehired this fall.

“This is how they treat adjuncts. No respect. No dignity. No job security,” Lemieur said. 

After the group announced a series of teach-ins to publicize their expected dismissal, they received letters saying they would each get at least one course, she said. 

The letters note that the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences could still cancel those assignments at any time before classes resume in August. While some adjuncts are optimistic they’ll return in the fall, Lemieur said she doubts the sincerity of the administration’s announcement. 

“Unless we get a huge bump in enrollment, which I don’t see happening, then I don’t think that that is true at all,” she said. “I think we will probably all be let go.”

Bearing the brunt of cuts

Such precarious work conditions are standard fare for adjuncts, who make up an increasingly large proportion of university faculty in Philadelphia and across the country. 

To draw attention to the struggles of adjunct or “contingent” faculty, instructors from Temple, University of the Arts, Community College of Philadelphia and several other schools will hold a rally outside City Hall on Friday with state Sen. Nikil Saval, state Rep. Rick Krajewski, and other supporters.

“We’re keeping the focus on how the most vulnerable faculty are not only experiencing all of the instability and the political pressures that have been leveled at higher ed, but they’re also the ones bearing the brunt of these unnecessary cuts,” said Bradley Philbert, an adjunct at UArts and an officer with the United Academics of Philadelphia, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers union.

Temple’s faculty union, TAUP, is also planning an informational picket on campus next Tuesday to draw attention to their demands during current labor negotiations, which Lemieur said include guaranteed short-term contracts for some adjuncts. 

The events come as other types of academic workers at Philadelphia colleges are pressing for concessions from their administrations. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, graduate students will vote this month on whether to unionize with the United Auto Workers with the goal of seeking higher stipends and improved benefits. At Drexel University, resident assistants, who oversee students living in campus housing, last month asked for voluntary recognition of their union.  

Prioritizing full-time faculty

A Temple administrator denied that the Intellectual Heritage adjuncts were ever told they would not be rehired, the Temple News reported. 

The school “has preliminarily penciled in nearly 30 sections” of IH courses to be taught by adjuncts this fall, provided enrollment remains consistent, a university spokesperson told Billy Penn in a statement. The hiring picture will become clearer in June or July, the spokesperson said.

Temple’s statement did not respond to questions about adjuncts’ working conditions or their demands for contracts. It said the College of Liberal Arts had given more IH sections to full-time faculty to ensure they have full-time course loads. 

“Temple University has always prioritized job security for its full-time faculty members, and this is a point of pride for the institution,” the statement said. “This year, despite uncertainty surrounding enrollment, the university has worked diligently to both balance the budget and retain our excellent, hardworking faculty members.”

For example, the College of Liberal Arts has not let go any of its full-time, non-tenure-track professors for the fall semester, the university said.

Enrollment at Temple has plummeted nearly 22% in the last four years, resulting in a $50 million budget cut this academic year, the Temple News reported.

Part-time with no benefits is the norm

Some professors have full-time tenured positions, which are basically permanent jobs until they retire or choose to leave. Others are on track to getting tenure, or have full-time contracts lasting one or more years. That used to be the norm; back in 1969, almost 80% of college faculty were tenured or tenure-track.

But in the succeeding decades, many colleges and universities tilted sharply away from hiring full-time professors and now heavily depend on adjuncts, or contingent faculty, who are hired on a part-time, non-contract basis, and are typically paid much less.

Nationally, the proportion of instructors who are full-time with tenure dropped from 39% to 24% from 1987 to 2021. Other full-time instructors, tenure-track and not, increased slightly to 29%.

Meanwhile, the percentage who work part-time climbed from 33% to 48%, or nearly half of the academic workforce, according to data collected by the American Association of University Professors. 

Adjuncts make up half of Temple’s faculty and teach a third of classes, according to Lemieur. At UArts, 85% of faculty are adjuncts, Philbert said.

The average salary for full-time professors in the U.S. was $107,700 in 2022, per an AAUP survey. Part-time faculty earned $3,700 per course section, on average, so an instructor who teaches two courses in the fall and two in the spring might earn about $15,000 a year. Temple adjuncts may teach at most two courses at a time.

Many adjuncts increase their income by teaching at multiple schools. A full load of eight classes per year might earn the average instructor about $30,000. They typically receive little or no health insurance, retirement contributions, tuition remission for family members, or other benefits.

Over one-fourth of adjuncts have total annual earnings below $26,500, according to a recent American Federation of Teachers survey. About a third earn between $26,501 and $50,000.

“Appallingly low pay”

Historically, the adjunct trend has been driven by factors including increasing student enrollment that stretched faculty capacity, the establishment of community colleges, and fluctuating course demand. 

Schools boosted spending on administration and non-teaching programs like athletics, state funding didn’t keep up with inflation, and students came to depend more on private loans rather than federal grants, putting pressure on colleges to keep their budgets down.

Data “paint a bleak economic picture of the profession,” including “appallingly low pay for adjunct faculty members [and] erosion of the financial structures that support higher education,” an AAUP report concluded.

In the Philadelphia region, the average pay rate for adjuncts is $1,600 per credit, or $4,800 for a typical three-credit course, according to a survey by United Academics of Philadelphia.

Rates reported by instructors vary widely, from averages of about $800 per credit at some smaller private colleges to over $2,500 at Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the UAP survey. 

Temple and University of the Arts are in the middle of the pack at about $1,600 per credit, while Drexel averages $1,500 and Community College of Philadelphia came in at $1,790.

“Our wages are so low that it is ridiculous,” said Lemieur, who is on TAUP’s bargaining team and heads its Adjunct Constituency Council. “My husband and I joke that if they fire me from Temple, it won’t affect our budget at all because I make so little. But that’s unfortunately not the case with people who put together their entire budget through adjunct positions, and many adjuncts are like that.”

A decades-long struggle

Faculty have tried to push back by organizing and seeking concessions from university administrations. 

In Philly, UAP has worked with instructors at Temple and CCP, and it organized faculty at Arcadia University in Montgomery County and UArts to get their first-ever contracts. The UArts contract was finalized in February after three years of bargaining.

Philbert, the UAP union officer, teaches at UArts, Rowan, and Penn State Brandywine. He said university administrations often seek to pit faculty with different statuses against each other, for example by threatening to replace full-timers who are seeking pay hikes with part-time adjuncts.

However, at UArts, which does not have tenure, the union negotiated on behalf of all the faculty and won important concessions for adjuncts, including year-long contracts, a seniority system, and a $200-per-year healthcare subsidy for senior adjuncts.

“Getting access to some amount of money that is dedicated to health care for some portion of the adjuncts is important, because we know in a later contract we can fight for more money and better access,” he said.

Elsewhere in the region, adjuncts celebrated a major victory a year ago at Rutgers University, where they won major pay increases after holding the first strike in the school’s history.

At Temple, the faculty union has not been as successful lately. 

Adjuncts there have been organizing for decades and got their first contract in 2017, which brought pay increases and a healthcare subsidy. Temple officials say they offered adjuncts a 12% pay increase last year, but Lemieur said the university and its lawyers have rejected demands such as mandated one-year or two-year contracts for senior adjuncts, more tenure-track hires, and office space for part-timers.

“They won’t talk about it. At one point, they completely rejected everything that we had put out for adjuncts,” she said. “At which point our team simply put it back on the table and said, ‘well, we are still fighting for this.’”

Rather than making adjuncts bear the burden of tight budgets and enrollment fluctuations, which aren’t their fault, university administrations should be improving their programs and pressing elected officials to boost public funding for education, Philbert argued.

“Administrators are not willing to make the changes that they’re empowered to make to attract students to the schools, to make the schools more affordable,” he said. “They’re not willing to take the political stances for fear of endangering what little education funding there is.”

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