Better Pay and Conditions Finally in NJ for College Adjuncts — the ‘Gig Workers’ of Higher Ed

Sheila Noonan | February 4, 2020 | Education
Thousands of adjuncts at nine public colleges in New Jersey recently ratified a new contract. Does that mean these part-timers finally are getting their due?
Credit: Luke Jones from Flickr 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
In some cases, adjuncts represent about half the faculty.

Adjunct college instructors in New Jersey, as elsewhere in the country, have become critical to universities’ teaching models, in some cases representing about half the faculty. They have been battling a long time for adequate pay and conditions and some gained ground in 2019.

College faculty and students marched, carried picket signs, and mailed postcards to the Governor’s Office last November to draw attention to stalled contract talks; union members at four of the colleges represented by the Council of New Jersey State College Locals voted to authorize a strike.

It never came to a strike, however, as talks resumed and led to agreements reached in December. The contract for about 5,000 adjunct, or part-time/contingent, faculty at nine public New Jersey colleges was ratified in January, with more than 99% of adjunct members voting in favor. A separate contract for about 5,000 full-time faculty, librarians and professional staff was sent to members for ratification the week of January 27. (The council represents members at all state public colleges except Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology [NJIT], which have different unions.)

Adjuncts received the largest increase achieved by the council for a four-year contract: an increase of $230 per teaching credit hour, which by the contract’s end in 2023 will amount to $5,115 for teaching a three-credit course. That means If an adjunct faculty member taught three three-credit classes in the contract’s last year, he or she would earn $15,345 — about 14% more than without the raise. Part-time faculty will also receive a minimum of $25 an hour for mandatory training and an increase in compensation for canceled courses.

Under the 2019-2023 contract agreed upon by the council and the state, full-time faculty, librarians and professional staff will receive a 2% raise each year; lower health care premiums based on percentage of pay rather than premium sharing; and an increase in tuition waivers for dependent children and spouses, among other gains.

“We’re very happy with the outcomes, but of course, we always wish we could do more for our members,” said Tim Haresign, council president and a biology professor at Stockton University. He credits the November “Days of Action” at member college campuses for drawing the public’s attention. “The rallies and other activities definitely helped negotiations, as the issues we raised affect the public’s perception of the schools. We also showed the unity that exists between full-time and adjunct faculty.”

Unions representing other adjunct faculty in New Jersey have negotiated contracts over the past year. At NJIT, the 2019-2022 contract for adjunct faculty, which was ratified in December, includes such provisions as: wages to $5,500 per course by fall 2021, an increase in professional development funds and provision of sick time for members. In May 2019, more than 3,000 adjunct faculty at Rutgers University reached what their union called a “groundbreaking and transformative contract,” which creates three levels of adjunct professorship at Rutgers and mandates job security in the form of multi-semester appointments.

Growing dependence on adjuncts

The prevalence of adjunct, or contingent, faculty at four- and two-year colleges in New Jersey is nothing new. It’s also been an upward trend nationally over the past few decades, and today, more than half of all faculty appointments are part-time, according to an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) fact sheet.

The ratio of full-time to part-time faculty at New Jersey colleges varies, but contingent instructors have a definite presence. Two examples, using the 2018 institutional profiles required of all New Jersey public colleges: Rutgers University had 4,234 full-time faculty teaching 52.7% of classes and 3,310 part-time faculty (along with administrators and graduate assistants) teaching 47.3%. Ramapo College’s 216 faculty taught 59.2% of the classes, while 244 adjuncts, as well as administrators and graduate assistants, handled the remainder.

Adjuncts are often described as the “gig workers” of higher education. They typically work year-to-year with no health insurance and low pay; some work at two or three colleges to make ends meet. Some are recent graduates of master’s and doctoral programs who try to find tenure-track jobs but cannot, or, like Kenneth Ronkowitz, have full-time jobs or businesses, yet enjoy teaching. He worked at NJIT in an administrative role and, with his academic credentials and 25 years as a high school English teacher, was asked to teach a course. That one class led to others at NJIT in technical writing, web design and more at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as adjunct positions at Montclair State University and Passaic County Community College.

Kenneth Ronkowitz

While he is no longer teaching, Ronkowitz has seen what many adjuncts experience. “If an adjunct is not already working at the college, as I was at NJIT, he or she is often coming in around six, the offices are closed, and they don’t know anyone. They’re often the same people who are teaching five classes a semester at three different colleges. It can be very tough.”

Whatever their path to an adjunct role, the university professors’ association says “many contingent faculty members are excellent teachers and scholars.” Mary Wallace, president of the council’s Montclair adjunct local and adjunct representative to the council’s executive committee — who was an adjunct for about 10 years — would take it a step further. She believes contingent faculty bring “real-world” value to their classrooms. “Faculty with doctorates can provide students with exposure to research, and unquestionably, that’s important,” she says. “Adjunct faculty often have practical experience in their fields that help students prepare for the profession they wish to enter. We have adjuncts who are successful business owners, lawyers, teachers, politicians, nurses — you name it.”

Where unions come in

When adjunct faculty are represented by unions, there are typically gains for them, namely in pay. In an article titled “Do Unions Help Adjuncts?” published in the June 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education, Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley describe results from their quantitative analysis of 35 colleges’ collective bargaining agreements from 2010-2016. In all cases, adjunct contracts reflected salary increases.

Another area where unions have successfully negotiated for adjuncts, they say, is professional development. At NJIT, Institute for Teaching Excellence programs that “promote the use of state‐of‐the‐art pedagogical and technological methods in teaching” are available to full-time and adjunct faculty, as well as graduate students. Last year, an adjunct workshop series was created to meet the professional development contract provision negotiated by their union, the United Council of Academics at NJIT, according to Blake Haggerty, executive director of Digital Learning and Technology Support.

“Topics were selected to increase adjuncts’ awareness of what tools/resources are available, strategies for engaging and assessing students, tips for increasing their efficiency, and where to go if they have questions or need assistance,” he said. However, even with flexible options for workshop attendance, late-afternoon timing and meals provided for in-person attendees, he says registration was low.

One of the areas where Edwards and Tolley say unions generally have yet to move the needle: parity with full-time faculty in terms of pay and benefits such as health care. Future contracts may present opportunities for the unions to pursue treatment for their adjunct members that more fully recognizes their credentials, which are often the equal of permanent faculty. In the NJIT adjunct contract, for example, one of the gains mentioned  is “a commitment to work together on health insurance for adjuncts.”

Regarding compensation, Wallace notes, “Our goal is to strive for parity with faculty, and it’s something many full-time professors support. When we teach the same courses, the pay should be the same: equal pay for equal work.”

Two adjuncts share their experiences

Ines Lopes has experience as a high school English teacher and in the administrative side of higher education, the latter at Rutgers and Harvard University, as well as two master’s degrees: one in Teaching -Secondary Education and the other in Fine Arts-Poetry. Last fall, she taught her first course as an adjunct instructor in English composition at Union County College (UCC).

“I had an itch to return to the classroom, but at a college level to see what it was like,” says Lopes. “My class was small — about 12 students, as compared with 42 in my Newark high school; they were great. I also enjoyed the autonomy of personalizing the syllabus to incorporate some material of my choosing.”

Maxine Patroni, left, and Ines Lopes

As a first-time evening class instructor, says Lopes, she had to figure some things out on her own, such as how to reserve space or where to find evaluation forms. And she did, helped in part by an informal network of new adjuncts also learning the ropes.

Lopes was prepared to teach another class this spring until her scheduled session unexpectedly fell through. She’s undeterred, however, and plans to find adjunct work in the fall at UCC or a four-year college such as Rutgers, where she is senior administrator for the Center for Cultural Analysis, or another four-year school.

As a New York University graduate student, Maxine Patroni, a creative writer and poet, was offered an opportunity to teach. “I fell in love with teaching,” she said, and after earning her Master of Fine Arts, she was a full-time professor at a North Carolina community college for four years.

When Patroni relocated to New Jersey, however, she was unable to find a full-time role, and she has been an adjunct professor of writing at Stockton University, her alma mater, since January 2017. As an adjunct, she is typically limited to teaching three three-credit classes during an academic year. However, Stockton’s spring 2020 course enrollment showed the need for an additional section of Argument and Persuasion in Social Sciences, which Patroni, vice president for adjuncts in the council’s Stockton local, was asked to teach. She agreed but, because she taught two fall courses and was already assigned to teach Writing Reviews this semester, signed an “overload” contract.

The fourth course means more money for Patroni, as adjuncts are paid by the course, but that wasn’t her motivation. “My students mean everything to me. I enjoy being in the classroom, and I invest a lot of time reading books and watching podcasts on how to be a better teacher,” says Patroni. “I meet with students, write recommendations for them and offer career guidance — and it’s all worth it to me.”

Patroni still hopes to find a full-time college teaching job, but until then, supplements her income by working summers at a local cruise boat business, which is run by another adjunct. Whether an adjunct or full-time faculty member, she plans to remain active in the union. “Down the road, I’ll keep fighting for others, because someone fought for me,” she said.