Higher education but lower salaries for adjunct professors

Professors struggle to find secure employment after years of rigorous and expensive education.

Professors struggle to find secure employment after years of rigorous and expensive education.
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For Andrew Bretz, the high turnover among adjunct professors is a threat to education.

“I’ll just do it this way because this is the way that we’ve always done it,” Bretz, an assistant  adjunct professor in the English department, told The Journal, describing the mindset of adjunct faculty who fear losing their jobs if they introduce new content or learning methods in the classroom. 

Bretz is one of 411 adjunct professors at Queen’s, most of whom lack the job security once expected of higher education. 

According to a 2014 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), tenured faculty numbers are decreasing in proportion to the huge increase in student enrolment. The increase in contract faculty is not as easy to measure, largely because most universities keep their numbers of contract faculty confidential for fear of scrutiny.

Bretz saw this decrease in full-time faculty take off firsthand when he began his PhD at the University of Guelph in 2008.

“I remember … [E]arly in [2008], there were all these notices on the bulletin board outside the main office of jobs from colleges and universities around North America,” Bretz told The Journal. “And then literally, a month later, those jobs were all gone—and those jobs never came back.”

The adjunct positions which do exist often face reduced salaries.

At Queen’s, adjuncts’ minimum starting salaries range from $8,756 to $12,432 per 3.0 unit courses, according to Deputy Provost (Academic Operations and Inclusion) Dr. Teri Shearer. These salaries are dependent on years of teaching experience and class size. 

If an adjunct professor teaches three classes, his or her average starting salary hovers at  $31,782—which is $9,569 below the poverty line for a four-person household.

These salaries are competitive compared to the HEQCO report, which suggests starting salaries closer to the range of $6,000 to $8,000 per half-course.

According to Bretz, it costs money for universities to keep up with national student rankings, whether this includes investing  in construction projects or even handing out free Beavertails every Wednesday—which Bretz said can be trade-offs for lower salaries or less hires.

Bretz—who has worked at five different institutions across Ontario since 2007—said that, although his employment is precarious, some of the best treatment he’s experienced has come from Queen’s, where he’s finally covered by a union contract,  and receives health and dental benefits, research funding, reimbursement for travel, and—for the first time—his own office.

However, Bretz admitted that he couldn’t, in good conscience, encourage a student to pursue academia as a profession. 

“This is an incredibly terrible life for people,” he said.

For Tim Wright, an adjunct assistant professor in the Classics Department, the situation seems equally pessimistic. 

“The problem is systemic, and I expect it’ll get worse before it gets better,” Wright told The Journal. Wright added there were only two tenure-track job offers in the entire country last year, with each one likely receiving an average of 200 applications.

He said the lack of jobs for adjunct professors could be credited to demographics and time.

“Professors from the baby boomer generation make a lot of money, and there are many of them. [There’s] no easy solution to this, and the long-term consequences of the imbalance are potentially alarming.”

Michael Mombourquette, a continuing adjunct associate professor of Chemistry, explained that demographic issues would similarly affect incoming PhDs.  Although he was uniquely hired as a full-time professor from his first day at Queen’s, he predicts challenges for graduates coming into the field.

“I marvel at the fact that people are still entering the PhD program in our department,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are not going to get the kind of positions that they think they are going to get.”

Ceredwyn Hill, a retired adjunct professor of Biology, has always struggled to find a city where she and her husband, also a professor, could both find employment and settle down. 

When her husband found full-time work  at Queen’s, Hill accepted a position as a “Group 1” appointee, or what she refers to as an “Adjunct 1.” 

The University Secretariat and Legal Counsel lists a Group 1 appointee as “[a person] who [gives] their services to the University for some or no return; persons who normally teach fewer than the equivalent of two full courses per year for remuneration.” 

After refusing to continue to teach without payment, Hill stayed as a researcher without pay for 25 years. While she expected the role to progress to full-time work, or at least contracted paid work, it never did.

Hill pointed out one major obstacle: since retirement is no longer enforced at age 65, those faculty members over age 65 are able to collect their current salaries and pensions simultaneously, keeping payment options for those below age 65 limited.

Hill explained that when the university does hire full-time professors, they are more likely to hire externally than to pay someone who already has a spouse employed by the university, and is thus likely to stay regardless.

Conversely, the Queen’s University Faculty Association’s (QUFA) Collective Agreement states that the spouse of any tenured faculty member who applies for an academic position and is qualified, shall be short listed for the position.Hill noted Adjunct 1 status can also come with a lack of respect. 

“I’m concerned I will be discredited when I tell people I [don’t] get paid, even though I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve contributed to this scientific community,” Hill told The Journal

Furthermore, as an Adjunct 1, Hill recounted often being treated as a scapegoat, especially by male full-time professors.

“We basically have no power at all,” Hill said. “There are things that [full-time professors] can do, that we just can’t.”

The risk of having too many adjunct faculty appears even more significant when it’s pointed out that faculty on contract may have less freedom while teaching. 

“For term adjuncts and pre-tenured faculty, the reality is that the precarious nature of their positions may well lead them to avoid controversial subjects,” Jordan Morelli, Chair of the QUFA’s Political Action and Communications Committee, wrote in QUFA’s newsletter, Voices. “In the current corporate model of universities where the ‘customer’ is always right, it can be very intimidating in practice to adopt teaching methods that truly challenge our ‘customers’ (i.e., students).”

While the situation appears daunting for adjunct professors at the moment, Queen’s will be hiring 200 new tenure-track faculty members over the next five years as part of the University’s commitment to faculty renewal, according to Deputy Provost, Dr. Shearer. 

But in a school full of qualified faculty members with widely diverging backgrounds, contracts, salaries, and opinions, one trend is evident: more education doesn’t pave a clear pathway to security or success.

“I wish I had more optimistic answers,” Wright said when asked about the future of adjunct professors. 

“Hopefully I’m wrong.”

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