Adjuncts need support

I read with dismay this paper's article, "Community colleges cut adjunct hours to avoid Obamacare" (Oct. 27). Many adjunct faculty are already concerned about limits on teaching hours. Further cuts of their hours raise more red flags. And linking this to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) distracts from the real issue — how to harness the energy and talents of adjunct faculty to improve student success.

Adjuncts play a vital role in higher education. For decades, institutions have increasingly relied on adjunct faculty for classroom instruction. At most community colleges, adjuncts now teach more than 50 percent of classes and are over 70 percent of the total instructors. No community college could function without them.

This was not always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, most faculty at American colleges and universities were full-time employees. They had benefits, reasonable job security and a voice in issues that affected instruction. Adjunct faculty taught a few classes, but these adjuncts were usually retired professors or professionals from the community.

As enrollment expanded, colleges made a strategic decision to stop replacing retiring full-time faculty with new full-time professors. Instead, they simply hired adjuncts, offered them no benefits and paid them a fraction of what full-time faculty used to earn for teaching the same courses. When demand for classes rose, colleges hired more adjuncts on a semester-by-semester basis. This may have been attractive from a short-term financial perspective. But with adjunct faculty playing such an essential role in community colleges, the long-term damage to students can no longer be ignored.

Consider the impact on students' education. Most adjuncts lack adequate college office space and equipment to prepare lessons and class activities. They must often counsel students about assignments and personal problems in hallways and other public areas because there is no private meeting space. And they face uncertainty about course assignments from one semester to the next that makes the substantial time needed to update and improve course materials difficult to justify.

Adjuncts are highly committed to teaching. Otherwise they would not continue under these conditions. Putting more restrictions on adjuncts' ability to earn a decent wage, however, is not a formula for improving teaching performance. Instead, colleges should be exploring creative ways of increasing their support to these dedicated instructors so they can better promote student success.

Too few colleges are facing up to the challenge. And to blame Obamacare for the plight of adjuncts is to ignore the truth—the lack of support for adjunct faculty has grown progressively worse over the last four decades and is now a national problem.

At Montgomery College we have sought to do something about it by organizing an adjunct faculty union in association with the Service Employees International Union. We now have a voice that has proven effective not only in improving work conditions but also in helping us better serve our students. Adjunct faculty with teaching experience have more basic job security and certainty over course assignments. We can apply for professional development grants to stay up to date on our course subjects. We have a labor-management committee that meets regularly to resolve issues in a collaborative fashion. And yes, we have received pay increases through collective bargaining.

Our desire for a union was not simply about pay and benefits. We see ourselves as partners with the college administration, staff and full-time faculty in achieving greater educational excellence and higher levels of student success. Indeed, without our contributions neither would be possible at Montgomery College or any other community college today.

Hardly a day goes by without another expert, elected representative or parent bemoaning America's low-performing students and criticizing the effectiveness of teachers and schools. Anxieties grow — and rightly so — as competition in the global economy increases from such faraway places as India, China and Brazil. Community colleges must address many issues to move the performance needle. But clearly part of the solution is to better tap the talent and energy of adjuncts, and this can come only through greater support and fairer compensation. The current debate over Obamacare must not be allowed to distract us from this broader educational concern.

William Primosch is an adjunct professor of political science at Montgomery Community College and president of the Montgomery College Adjunct Faculty Union, part of SEIU Local 500. Email him at William.Primosch@montgomerycollege.edu.

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