Academic gig workers.
The Uber drivers of academia.
Call the part-time instructors who make up two-thirds of classroom teachers in the country’s largest higher-education system what you will. What matters most to them is whether they’re called.
Every semester they wait for work assignments that may make them eligible for health benefits, pay for groceries or further a slender dream of landing an elusive, full-time, tenured job.
Numbering nearly 37,000, the part-time academics commonly referred to as adjuncts are the backbone of the California Community College system that enrolls about 1.5 million students. Working semester-by-semester with little to no job security especially now as pandemic-driven enrollment drops are costing jobs, adjuncts often take gigs at multiple college districts to cobble together something akin to full-time employment but at pay rates vastly lower than full-time professors.
Before the pandemic cut into their ranks, adjuncts taught nearly half of the classes at the state’s 72 local, semi-autonomous community college districts. At 35 of them, they made up 70% or more of all faculty, community college data shows. At only two districts did full-time professors outnumber them. Yet many adjuncts say they are treated as if they are inferior.
Part-time faculty work is “just as hard as full-timers, sometimes harder,” said Curley Wikkeling-Miller, who teaches cosmetology at both the Peralta District in Oakland and the Solano District in Fairfield. “It’s hard to kind of spread between the two colleges. I have to give half of my energy over here and half at the other college.”
Not all adjuncts use gig work to assemble full-time employment. Colleges have long relied on part-timers who teach as an aside to professional careers, lending real world expertise to students in everything from accounting, journalism and cosmetology to auto body repair and mortuary science.
The numbers of so-called “one and done” part-timers aren’t tracked by the community college system. In an EdSource survey of working conditions, to which 930 part-timers responded, 17% said they taught one class a semester and 33% reported working in at least two districts in 2021. Of that group, about 25% reported teaching in three or more districts.
Fifteen people reported teaching at four. One, Mark Lieberman, taught nine classes across four San Diego County districts last fall, work made somewhat easier by remote teaching.
“It’s a bit of a juggling act,” Lieberman said. At each district he’s part-time. But his combined work exceeds full-time. “I’m at 140% to 150%” of a full teaching load.”
Adjuncts grossed an average of less than $20,000 per district, according to 2020 salary data for 41 of the 72 districts that listed titles for part-time faculty. The data was obtained by EdSource under the state’s Public Records Act.
“We didn’t go into teaching to make a whole bunch of money,” said Heidi Ahders, the president of the adjunct union at the Mendocino-Lake Community College District. “But we didn’t go into teaching to get walked all over, either. It’s a two-tiered system. We’re the underclass.”
Despite their numbers, they have little collective clout because they work under individual local contracts with no statewide standards, negotiated with locally-elected boards of trustees. Pay, health insurance – if they get it – compensation for office hours, class preparation and grading, vary widely.
What they do share across the system is the primary responsibility of teaching the state’s most academically vulnerable college students at a time when community college enrollment is plummeting nationwide and in California, increasingly costing adjuncts their jobs.
“More so than ever before, we’re in a very precarious and volatile situation,” said John Martin, chairman of the California Part-time Faculty Association, an advocacy group.
He’s a history adjunct at the Butte-Glenn and Shasta community college districts. “It’s always been a tough time in these jobs, but it’s been heightened by the pandemic.”
“Jobs are being lost” because of enrollment declines, Martin said. Adjuncts “have no assurances as to the future.”
A 2020 American Federation of Teachers’ national study across two-and-four-year colleges found 25% of adjuncts “relying on public assistance,” 40% “having trouble covering basic household expenses” and 45% delaying needed medical and mental-health care. Sixty-one percent of participants worked at community colleges.
California has an “absolute reliance, overall, on part-time faculty,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges, a state-wide advocacy group for both full-time and part-time faculty.
Adjunct working conditions “affect student success,” she said.
Students need instructors “who are dedicated to a campus and dedicated to them as opposed to being dedicated to being on the freeway, or worried about their next meal or if they can pay their health care or their rent,” she said.“It’s criminal to run the colleges off the backs of the part-time faculty. It has to stop, especially if we’re saying that the goal of the community colleges is to lift our students out of poverty. We’re not going to be doing that with faculty living in poverty or close to it.”
Joe Berry, a former adjunct and labor leader, who, with his wife, Helena Worthen, recently published the book Power Despite Precarity, about part-time, or, as they prefer, contingent faculty, said that students miss out when professors don’t have job security and academic freedom.
“Teaching conditions are learning conditions,” Berry said in an interview. “If we can’t afford to speak the truth as we know it because we don’t have the job security and, therefore, don’t have the academic freedom, that means (students) don’t have the academic freedom to hear the whole range of ideas.”
And, he added, the constant flux of waiting for appointments across multiple districts in order to make a living affects how much time adjuncts have to devote to detailed class planning. That can result in students “suffering inadequately-planned classes. If (instructors) are pulling it out of their hip pockets, it’s because the system forces them to.”
Will the Legislature act?
Two state bills designed to bring adjuncts relief failed last year. One would have upped the number of classes they can teach per-semester at individual districts; the other required the community colleges Chancellor’s Office to study compensation statewide with a goal of creating parity between full and part-time professors by 2027.
But the community college’s state leadership helped kill the study, claiming it trampled district sovereignty.
“It is not appropriate for the Chancellor’s Office to engage in matters of local control and locally negotiated” employment contracts, Vice Chancellor of Government Relations David O’Brien, wrote to lawmakers in May. He added that the system’s chancellor, currently Eloy Ortiz Oakley, has a “long-standing precedent of neutrality” in contract negotiations.
Oakley urges the state to direct more money to the community college districts and let them decide how to spend it. He declined to be interviewed for this story but in written remarks said, “The best way to support part-time faculty is to advocate for additional budget investments in the context of local control for college districts and elected leaders.”
In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation to increase adjuncts’ teaching loads per district. It would have eliminated, for some, the stress of teaching multiple classes at multiple districts to earn a living. Adjuncts are limited now to teaching no more than three courses at one district unless special circumstances exist.
Newsom’s veto message said the bill put “significant ongoing cost pressures” on the state and districts, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Community colleges “could not operate without part-time faculty,” he wrote. But wages and benefits are better addressed in the state budget, he claimed. The 2022 proposed budget Newsom released last month, included $200 million in new spending for adjunct health care.
The system had asked for $300 million to aid part-timers, most of it for healthcare and it is not yet clear how much legislative support the matter has.
Martin said Newsom’s cost estimation of the bill allowing adjuncts to teach more than three courses per district “was totally overblown. It assumed all (adjuncts) were going to run in at once and demand to teach four classes.”
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, a former adjunct, said he had been optimistic Newsom would sign the bill because it’s clear adjuncts need help. He told EdSource he will introduce a new version of the legislation this year.
“It’s just a more difficult enterprise to be a part-time instructor than full-time. I know how difficult it is to go from school to school,” Medina said.
Oakley’s office doesn’t track how many adjuncts work multiple jobs.
Yet many adjuncts, despite their part-time time status, are deeply committed to teaching and are among “the best faculty or have the best teaching pedagogies because they are really passionate,” said Devon Graves, who researches community colleges and teaches graduate-level classes on their administration at Stanislaus State University. Adjuncts are the equal of full-timers in wanting students to “have the best learning outcomes,” Graves added.
But conditions can undercut those efforts, Graves said.
“They’re disadvantaged to provide full support and a learning environment for students when they don’t have all the necessary financial support and office support that (full-time) faculty have.” Some relief to adjuncts came in federal Covid aid funding of equipment and training in virtual instruction, but it was uneven across the state.
Office hours — whether in person or virtual — often pay at lower rates than classroom time. Some districts budget pools of money and make adjuncts apply to get paid. Students can be left in the lurch.
Alyssa Weibling, 21, a student in the Shasta district, said she had two classes taught by adjuncts in last fall, and each was difficult to reach outside of class, and they often canceled office hours with little or no notice. This happened “at least a couple of weeks every month,” she said. “They would just say sorry without much explanation.”
In the future, she said, she hoped to take classes taught by full-time faculty with hopes of better and consistent access. Not being able to access teachers outside the classroom is, she said, not a minor issue. “It does affect our learning.”
With part-time faculty teaching “the majority of community college students” nationally, it’s critical that their employers include them in decision-making and offer training to make them as effective as possible, said Linda Garcia, executive director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Adjuncts “are not engaged as much as full-time faculty because they don’t have the time,” and most students don’t know who are part-time and full-time professors, Garcia said. Just as instructors need to understand the life circumstances of students, they need to explain their own to students as well, she said.
“If they don’t have the time to have office hours or to stay behind after class” because they are teaching elsewhere or have other work, they need to say why, Garcia said. “That’s relationship-building and being transparent.” Instructors have to accommodate student needs. “But it goes the other way, too.”
Adhers, the adjunct union officer in Mendocino, said office hours are as important as class time.
“Office hours are actually instruction. You’re doing the work of an instructor,” Ahders said. “You feel like you have to help your student because you’re a teacher whether you’re paid or not.” Not paying adjuncts for office time is “kind of a slap in the face.”
Sometimes adjuncts work several semesters before office pay kicks in.
The Mt. San Antonio district in Walnut, Los Angeles County, doesn’t pay for office hours immediately, said its president, Bill Scroggins. “You have to work for us for a couple of semesters before you qualify.”
“Most of our younger faculty have lots of enthusiasm for being as effective as they can be with students. They’re evaluated for continued assignments.” They “want to see their students do really well” and will work on their own time, he said.
John Martin, chair of the part-time faculty association, said Scroggins’ example is “very exploitative, very condescending,” to adjuncts.
At Butte-Glenn, Martin is paid $25 an hour for office hours and $80 an hour for teaching. But his office-hour pay rarely covers a full semester — it is sometimes limited to five or six weeks a semester — and he won’t meet with students when he isn’t getting paid.
“I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to be abused anymore,” he said. He’ll meet with students before or after class informally on his way in or out. “But that’s it.”
Steve Hall, a Butte-Glenn psychology adjunct, said office hours create a dilemma for part-timers of being either “a fool or a jerk.” A fool for working at reduced rates or for free. Or a jerk who rejects students’ needs.
Hall chooses the fool – he won’t turn away students who need him, regardless of compensation.
They’re “hungry for things, not necessarily the content in the class, but for an honest interaction and feedback about reality,” he said, “That’s where (teaching) makes a difference. What drives me is making a difference.”
Units of flexibility
In 2020, the New York Review of Books, in a lengthy piece that delved into the conditions of part-time professors nationally, quoted an unnamed “vice-president at a large community college” telling adjuncts, “You should realize that you are not considered faculty, or even people. You are units of flexibility.”
Insults to adjuncts’ humanity aside, the comment reflects what experts say is the reality of the nation’s huge community college system that educated about 1.5 million students in California in 2020 and 7.7 million nationwide in 2019, the most recent year available.
Adjuncts are increasingly depended on to fill slots at the least expensive cost.
Nationally and in California, adjuncts make up the largest portion of the faculty at the community colleges: about two-thirds. Part-timers comprise 50% of the faculty at California State University and 18% at the University of California.
In California, adjuncts have continued to hold two-thirds of the community college faculty jobs even though their total number has increased 18% in nearly two decades to about 41,000 in 2019. Because of the pandemic, their ranks dropped to 36,848 in 2020.
Unlike other part-time workers across the economy, adjuncts stand out because they play a major role in educating students for whom community college may be their last chance to go to college.
Decades of decisions
California’s community college system, formally established in 1967, grew out of junior colleges across the state that date to 1910. Employing a majority of full-time, tenured faculty “engaging with students consistently” was the original goal, Graves said.
Like other public institutions, the districts “were not immune to the economic hardship that’s been brought throughout the years,” he said. “One of the biggest expenses is personnel. Faculty tenured positions are very expensive. When you cut those lines, you get that increase in part-time faculty.”
Both the Vietnam War and California’s Proposition 13 anti-tax revolt in 1978 impacted the system greatly, Berry said.
The anti-war and social movements of the ’60s led to people going to “college who wouldn’t have been in college before,” including returning veterans, he said. The demand exceeded the system’s capabilities, and the autonomy of locally-controlled districts left the fixes to the whims of individual district administrators.
“A collection of little decisions made by hiring officials at various levels of the community colleges to solve immediate problems” led to the steady growth in the use of adjuncts, Berry said.
The steep cuts dictated by Proposition 13 rippled through California’s K-12 system, resulting in more students getting to community college behind in basic skills and needing remedial courses, Berry said.
“The schools were worse. So, there was a greater need for remediation. And the community colleges had to put on all of these remedial courses.” That required more faculty at a time of unstable funding. Adjuncts were cheaper.
Prior to Proposition 13, college districts raised roughly 80% of their budgets through property taxes. The state took over funding because of the freeze on tax assessments that the proposition created, but the new system caused inequalities between the districts.
It took the state until 2006 to enact a new funding formula pushed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former community college student. It was 28 years after Proposition 13, and adjuncts had long dominated the teaching ranks.
Oddities of the academic workforce
The use of adjuncts is a byproduct of the open enrollment of community colleges, Garcia, of the University of Texas said. “We accept all. There’s no limitation to the number of students that are going to be accepted like at a university.
“That means that there is a need to have more faculty,” she said. Adjuncts are cheaper. “There are always concerns for the budget.”
In 1998, Scroggins, then a chemistry professor, was president of the statewide community college senate, wrote a position paper entitled “Overuse and Undercompensation of Part-Time Faculty in the California Community Colleges.”
The system “paid part-time faculty low wages based only on classroom hours encourages colleges to overuse part-time faculty to balance their budgets,” he wrote 24 years ago, complaints that continue today.
But as a district president, he told EdSource recently, he now sees the situation “through a different lens.”
He has to make decisions that affect how adjuncts are deployed “but with criteria about operating the entire college, rather than representing the faculty and looking at it from the experience of a faculty member,” he said.
Full-time faculty “give me a stable workforce,” he said. But “the realities haven’t changed surrounding adjuncts.”
There are “oddities about the way higher education handles its major workforce,” he said. Colleges “produce their outcome that is educated students by a workforce that consists primarily of faculty overseen by managers.”
Higher education’s “in some ways an industry. It runs by economic rules. You control both the compensation and the number of employees you have by how successful you are in the market,” he said, referring to enrollment.
At systems like the California community colleges, tenured faculty, serving in high positions such as department chairs, are primarily the managers. Adjuncts are primarily the workforce.
When the pandemic forced students to drop out starting in 2020, “I didn’t have students to teach,” Scroggins said. “So, I had to reduce my workforce, and I wasn’t going to lay off the most productive faculty,” he said, referring to full-time faculty, who generally teach five classes a semester.
It was adjuncts, units of flexibility, that didn’t get teaching assignments.
A zero-person department
The stress of worrying about if and when work will come can be a constant presence in an adjunct’s life, said Linda Sneed, a part-time English instructor at Sacramento-based Los Rios District and member of the local union’s executive board.
Underlying that, she added, is the dismissive way adjuncts are often treated despite the fact the system can’t operate without them.
Sneed attended a faculty meeting a few years ago when a presenter used a strange term – “a zero-person department.” She said she thought that might mean departments where there was no one to teach classes. She raised her hand for an explanation.
“A zero-person department is a department where there are no classes being taught by full-time faculty,” she was told. “The classes are being taught by adjunct faculty.”
Sneed recalled making eye contact with other adjuncts. There was nervous laughter. She hoped the reaction would stop the use of dehumanizing phrases about part-timers.
But during a meeting in January, she said, a full-time faculty member referred to himself as “a one-person department,” then added that he had an adjunct too.
“It’s disturbing that this has persisted,” Sneed said.
“We’re really invisible.”
Daniel J. Willis, EdSource data journalist, contributed to this investigation.
Andrew Reed, EdSource staffer, and Raya Torres, a journalism student at CSU Long Beach and a member of EdSource’s California Journalism Corps, contributed to this story.
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