Adjunct professors say they've become the 'temp workers' of college classrooms

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2014 - 2:19 PM

Paid a fraction of what many colleagues earn, adjuncts across the state and country are starting to join forces to demand better treatment.

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Student James David and Metro State University Prof. Anne Winkler-Morey talked about the assignment she had just handed back to him.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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In many ways, Anne Winkler-Morey loves being a professor. It’s the job she always wanted, teaching history at Metro State University.

Except for one thing. She has no benefits, no job security or even a desk to call her own. This year, she says, she’ll earn just $17,000.

It’s a far cry from the academic career she dreamed of while earning her doctorate at the University of Minnesota. She’s discovered the hard way that faculty jobs with a steady paycheck and a modicum of dignity are a shrinking minority in college classrooms.

For the first time, half of all college instructors are like Winkler-Morey: part-time adjunct professors who, critics say, are often trapped in a cycle of jobs that barely pay the rent.

“I spent 12 years training for this,” said Winkler-Morey, 55, of Minneapolis, who started teaching 20 years ago. “I was making more on unemployment than I am now.”

Now, adjuncts across the country are starting to join forces to demand better treatment.

“There’s a perception that college faculty have the easiest jobs and are very well paid,” said Maria Maisto, founder of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts. “People are generally shocked, I think, when they discover what the conditions are.”

As an adjunct, Winkler-Morey says she has no problem getting teaching offers — but they’re almost always part time, temporary and a fraction of the pay that staff instructors get for the same classes.

It is, administrators admit, one way they’ve tried to fill gaps in the teaching ranks without locking themselves into long-term commitments.

“Yeah, it is a way to save money; I don’t see any way to get around that,” said Mike Reynolds, associate provost at Hamline University in St. Paul, where adjuncts now outnumber full-time professors.

For those on the front lines, the trend has been demoralizing.

“You certainly don’t go into becoming a professor thinking you’re going to be making poverty wages,” said SooJin Pate, who has a Ph.D. in American studies and made $15,000 as an adjunct at Macalester College last year.

Surveys show that adjunct professors make $18,000 to $30,000 for the equivalent of full-time work; compared to “tenure track” professors who earn $68,000 to $116,000 (plus benefits), according to the American Association of University Professors.

Meanwhile, the percentage of professors in those coveted tenure jobs has been steadily dropping: only three in 10 today, down from six in 10 in the 1970s.

In the past few months, frustrations over the plight of adjuncts have boiled over in congressional hearings, online petitions (Better Pay for Adjuncts) and a two-day walkout at the University of Illinois at Chicago last month.

And there are growing signs of unrest in Minnesota. In January, Adjunct Action, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union, started contacting thousands of adjunct instructors in the Twin Cities to gauge interest in forming a union. In February, Winkler-Morey launched a group called United Minnesota Adjunct Professors on Facebook, inviting adjuncts to share their concerns “so we can move toward a list of demands.”

The concern goes beyond self-interest, activists say. They argue that the growing reliance on academic temp workers is shortchanging students.

“Adjunct faculty are running out the door because they have to teach as many classes as they can to make a living,” said Maisto. That leaves little time for students who may need extra help.

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  • Without and office, professor Anne Winkler-Morey looked out the window as she waited in the lobby to meet a student before class. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com Anne Winkler-Morey teaches as an adjunct professor at Metro State University in Minneapolis, MN Wednesday, March 5, 2014.

  • an adjunct’s catch-22: Anne Winkler-Morey, an adjunct professor at Metro State University in Minneapolis, gave her students instructions as she handed out their midterm. Winkler-Morey, who started teaching history at Metro State seven years ago, said she feels like she had been typecast as someone willing to accept low-paying jobs.

  • How much do professors earn?

    Adjunct (full-time equivalent): $18,000 to $30,000

    Assistant professor: $68,000

    Associate professor: $80,100

    Full professor: $116,400

    Source: American Association of University Professors, 2013 survey, average

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