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Adjunct faculty reflect on challenges of roles

Faculty acknowledge opportunities, obstacles, challenges of pandemic

<p>For adjunct faculty during the pandemic, COVID-19 has added an additional layer of uncertainty in finances and career plans.</p>

For adjunct faculty during the pandemic, COVID-19 has added an additional layer of uncertainty in finances and career plans.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit all members of the University community with a wave of uncertainty. But for many adjunct faculty, this sense of instability wasn’t new. 

“The stressor of COVID exposed the weaknesses in our society,” said Connie Crawford, adjunct lecturer in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and director-in-residence of Rites and Reason Theatre in Providence. Because of the University’s three-semester structure during the pandemic, many professors taught multiple semesters in a row, which Crawford worries will lead to faculty burn-out. Crawford, alternatively, had time when she was not teaching, leading to a loss of income because adjunct lecturers are paid based on the number of courses they teach. 

Teaching during the pandemic forced Crawford to spend more time preparing and learning new skills related to remote learning. “It takes more energy, but I get paid the same,” she said. “COVID exposed this system where so many colleges and universities around the nation depend on adjunct teachers.”

The University’s Handbook of Academic Administration defines “adjunct faculty” as “persons who are normally not otherwise employed by Brown, or who, if holding full-time administrative positions at Brown, … are appointed to meet a specific department need.” Adjunct faculty are typically hired for one, two or three full years, and their contracts can be renewed according to departmental needs, according to the handbook. 

According to Joel Revill, senior associate dean of the faculty, 7% of University faculty are considered “adjunct.” This number includes staff members other than professors to whom the University grants the adjunct title in order to allow them to teach and get access to systems like Banner. But these staff members often “have roles that are very different from what most people think of as the stereotypical adjunct faculty member,” Revill said. 

The standard pay per course at the University is about $10,000, according to Revill. A full-time faculty member without any other responsibilities typically teaches six courses per academic year, and according to the Office of Institutional Research, the median salary of a lecturer at the University is $82,000. Revill said he does not know of any adjunct faculty members who teach as many as six courses per year. 

Crawford, like many adjunct faculty members, chose this particular path because she started teaching at institutions of higher education later in life. She sees both advantages and disadvantages to her role. 

“For some people, being an adjunct offers a flexibility that's good,” she said, but downsides include lower pay, lack of research support and lack of benefits. 

Irene Glasser, adjunct lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, used to be a full-time professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, then retired to focus on research. In 2013, she decided she wanted to go back to teaching part-time in an adjunct role. 

“I'm very happy with what I'm doing and I feel like my adjunct position does not get in the way of teaching my students,” she said. “Being an adjunct also means that I do have time to pursue research” at Brown.

Glasser acknowledged that her situation as a former full-time professor puts her in a privileged position compared to many adjuncts. While she still has healthcare from Eastern Connecticut State University, she “can understand fully that (healthcare) would be very stressful” for adjuncts who do not have it from other jobs.

Adjunct faculty are eligible for health, dental and vision insurance, according to Kimberly Almeida, the director of benefits operations at the University. All employees of the University who work less than 50% of full-time employment — which typically includes adjuncts — pay a full premium.

“If somebody was trying to make a full-time living out of” being an adjunct, Glasser added, “they would probably have to teach quite a few courses.”

Richard Fleeter ’76 PhD’81, adjunct associate professor of engineering, has taught as many as four courses per year but has to buy into Brown’s health insurance. “You're eligible to pay for the Brown Health System, which is what I’m doing,” he said. “I can't complain about it because they were upfront when I took the job, but that’s a disadvantage.” Fleeter only teaches at the University for part of the year and spends his remaining time at another job in Italy. 

Similarly, David Upegui, adjunct lecturer in education, also has a full-time job at Central Falls High School. He serves as a site leader for students in the University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which requires its students to complete a residency at a local school. Upegui’s students attend a seminar he holds once a week at Central Falls High School, so they can interact with real high school students. He does not teach in person at the University. 

Upegui said he is one of many adjunct faculty members who are able to provide students with real-world skills due to industry experience outside of teaching in higher education. “We are really a bridge between what happens in public education and what's happening at Brown,” he said. 

“We are providing Brown students with an experience that is fulfilling and engaging,” he added. “It’s preparing them for when they teach their own class.” 

At the same time, Upegui said he feels that his unique status can feel isolating at times. “You're in this sort of limbo space where you're part of the Brown community, but you're also not,” he said. 

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“I think (my off-campus position) is an amazing thing because I’m teaching a class about urban schools,” Upegui added. “But because I'm not physically (on campus), some of the things that happen when you have colleagues that you interact with on a regular basis don’t happen.” 

Upegui also said that adjuncts are often uncompensated for the time they spend on University matters outside of class hours. Certain responsibilities that all professors have — such as human resources and administrative work — take time. “We still have to do the same administrative things that someone who gets all the benefits of being a full-fledged faculty member at Brown has to do,” he said. 

Revill said that adjunct faculty are not expected to do extra work, as they “are generally PhD holders who should have already developed both the ability to teach and a portfolio of courses that they're ready to teach.” He added that their pay is supposed to encompass everything they do to prepare for their course. 

For Crawford, it is essential that she puts time into improving her craft as a teacher. 

“We need to be trained about new ideas, how to support across abilities and new techniques in our field,” Crawford said. “The University needs us to be informed in order for us to teach well.” 

In Fleeter’s experience, this isn’t much of an issue. “Brown does pay you a fixed amount and everything you do is on your own time,” he said. “But nobody is forcing you to do those things.” He added that the University offers helpful workshops that are open to all professors regardless of their status and that everyone who participates does so voluntarily outside of class hours. 

Crawford and Upegui found that the pandemic only increased their working time outside of class. 

Upegui had to follow the same testing protocols as those on campus, even though he only teaches in person at Central Falls High School. “I understand the health concerns,” he said. “But it provided an extra layer of challenges for us because now we had to solve the problem (operating) outside of campus while professors that are on campus got the testing there.” 

Crawford felt she had to make lots of adaptations during the pandemic. “We were not given any kind of extra pay for all the learning we had to do, such as how to teach an acting class on Zoom,” she said. “It required a lot of learning, and since I'm not getting a full paycheck with benefits, I'm working way more for way less.”

Nevertheless, Crawford said she feels that she is very fortunate to be part of a department that seems to be mindful of the issues adjunct faculty face, specifically commending Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Patricia Ybarra, former chair of the department and former president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. 

Crawford pointed to a report Ybarra contributed to while at the ATHE called “Best Practices Document: Adjunct and Contingent Labor.” It contains results of various surveys done by the ATHE of adjunct faculty in the arts fields at various schools. 

Of the 49 participants in one survey, 44 disclosed that “they could not support themselves on their adjunct teaching income alone.” The report also noted that art adjuncts often lack health insurance because, unlike adjuncts in other fields, many don’t have other jobs in the private sector. 

Ybarra “addressed some of the places where I have not had a lot of support,” Crawford said, “so compared to most adjuncts I have a good situation” at Brown. “I do think that all colleges and universities need to look at how much they lean on the inequity of having adjunct or contingent faculty.”

Ybarra did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Crawford mentioned that universities could create a “tiered system that's on a different branch from that of an associate professor” which would allow adjunct professors opportunities for advancement. 

Upegui said he thinks small fixes would help make adjuncts feel at home. He recalled award ceremonies he was included in when he was a full-time University employee, as well as a cookout he was invited to this past year. “Those are the kinds of things that make you feel like you're part of an institution,” he said. “There are ways that you can make people feel special that do not necessarily mean money.” 

Ultimately, Fleeter stressed the honor it is to be an adjunct at the University. “It's really hard to become an adjunct and I don't think people should take it for granted,” he said. “It isn’t as simple as someone just being paid to come in and teach. They really are going to bring somebody in who is at the standard of any other faculty.” 

“Our positions as adjunct lecturers are unique. It feels nice that you can say ‘I'm an adjunct at Brown’ because you're coming from a place where a lot of really great things are happening,” Upegui said. “But I think the University overall does need to consider what burdens they're placing on people.”



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