Uncovering the 20%: Part-Time Faculty At the 5Cs
Erin O’Brien, a visiting professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies, has been on the tenure-track job market since 2008. A former Fulbright fellow and community activist based in Los Angeles, O’Brien has taught two to three classes a semester at the 5Cs in the hopes that a permanent position will surface here or elsewhere.
But like most of her part-time colleagues across the country, O’Brien has had to settle for part-time teaching positions at multiple institutions in order to make ends meet. So far this year, she has taught five classes at three different institutions—the 5Cs and two other public universities—and plans on making around $30,000 before taxes. After taking into account all of her living and transportation expenses, O’Brien said she has very little wiggle room.
“I will make $31,200 before taxes. … Is it more than minimum wage? Yes-ish. During the summers I’m on unemployment,” she said. “So do I make ends meet? No. I live paycheck to paycheck, and at the end of the month I have zero dollars in my bank account.”
O’Brien is one of the estimated 1.3 million professors—roughly 75 percent of all instructors nationwide—who are non-tenure track professors in the United States. A 2013 report by the American Association of University Professors said that “such positions now make up only 24 percent of the academic work force, with the bulk of the teaching load shifted to adjuncts, part-timers, graduate students and full-time professors not on the tenure track.”
According to O’Brien, one of the greatest issues in the field is lack of security. With courses assigned by the semester, instructors have little foresight as to what courses will be offered and whether or not there will be a need to hire them.
“I don’t know what happens in the fall. I have no idea,” O’Brien said. “But I know that I am not making ends meet. When I apply for a tenure-track job there’s anywhere from 100 to 400 people applying for that job.”
While salaries for tenured professors average $84,000 nationally, salaries for non-tenured professors linger between $20,000 and $25,000, according to National Public Radio. Earning just twice the federal poverty level, and those who are strapped with massive student loan debts from their time at graduate school, few have any option but to work more.
Most recently, part-time instructors and their allies across the country have fought for better pay, an increase in work-related benefits and the right to collectively bargain for non-tenured professors. Such demands were voiced during National Adjunct Walkout Day this February, where thousands of part-time instructors across the country took to the streets.
Yet even as horror stories surface about the hardships some non-tenured faculty face in the United States, rarely are such complaints visibly made at the Claremont Colleges. Currently, nearly 20 percent of all instructors at the 5Cs are considered part-time faculty.
For Lauren Chen, visiting professor of biology at the W.M. Keck Science Department, better pay and tamed expectations might quell any unrest.
“A lot of us take these visiting positions knowing they are limited in time and will probably not turn into something permanent,” she said. “Most visiting instructors I’ve talked to regard this as a stepping-stone for teaching experience in order to keep moving forward. We are also treated really well [by the administration], as opposed to adjuncts at other places, and we get a lot more benefits.”
Chen, who just recently accepted a tenure-track position at Pacific University, is one of 14 visiting professors currently teaching at Keck. Together, they represent 30 percent of all active instructors currently teaching at the department.
According to Marion Preest, Interim Dean of Faculty at Keck, such a relatively high number of non-tenured professors reflects an increase in the student body and the department’s lack of space to house more tenured-tracked faculty.
“In 2000-2001, our enrollment was 1,950. For this current academic year, it’s 3,251,” she said. “Because of a hiring freeze of tenure and tenure-track faculty, we had to increase the size of our classes and begin to hire a lot more visitors.”
For Chen, such a high density of visiting professors was a major benefit.
“Because there’s a lot of people teaching courses for the very first time, there’s a lot of camaraderie among us, which is not always the case at other schools,” Chen said.
For O’Brien, however, this was not the case.
“I don’t know any of them,” she said. “Even the colleagues in my department, they’re like, ‘I never see you.’”
Alvaro Molina, a visiting assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Scripps College, came his position with the knowledge that it would be limited.
“I have nothing but good things to say both on the student and the faculty side,” he said. “I knew coming in that Scripps had a recent retirement but were looking for a permanent position for next year in a different specialty to mine, so I knew that this was a very limited position.”
Given the spatial and financial constraint of the department, Preest regards Keck’s visiting professors as “indispensable,” stating that, the department would certainly crumble and fall without them. Because of this, Preest is proud to say that she believes Keck treats its visiting professors fairly well.
“I feel good about the way we treat the visitors in our department,” she said. “You hear horror stories of people that make a living zipping from one poorly-paid teaching position to another, and they are seriously under pressure because of the lack of consistency and security. We don’t do that to faculty here and I feel good about that.”
Even as some 5C part-time faculty remain determined and hopeful regarding the future of their own employments, others are still calling for action on the matter.
“Something systemically has to change,” O’Brien said. “Universities should not be retiring tenure-track lines; they should pay adjuncts a fair wage—there’s one organization that is calling for $15,000 per class. The teaching load for most tenure-track faculty is less than the teaching load for most adjunct-faculty.”
Lauren Ison contributed reporting.