By Paul Johansen and Paul Mark: State must do right by adjunct college faculty

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PITTSFIELD, PERU— We know a woman who once earned about $9,000 per year, making her eligible for Section 8 housing, food stamps, fuel assistance, Medicaid, WIC, the Earned Income Credit and Head Start for her four children. You may be surprised that at the time, she was also a college professor.

This was in the early '90s, when she first started out as an adjunct faculty member at Berkshire Community College. The situation for most adjunct faculty across the state has not improved over the past 25 years; adjunct faculty members never know whether they will be teaching from one semester to the next, or how many courses they will be assigned. Their assigned classes can even be cancelled, or their students reassigned at the very last minute. Adjunct faculty do not receive health insurance or pension plans. They are not allowed to advise students, despite knowing many of them well.

The contract extension for community college adjuncts was to expire on New Year's Eve but has been extended, for a second time, to March 31. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education is showing no signs of making an investment in this group of dedicated educators who are essential to our public higher education system.

'Adjunctivitis'

Because adjunct faculty are an appealing source of cheap labor for Massachusetts colleges, they have become exploited. Over the past few decades, the percentage of college classes taught by adjunct faculty has steadily risen. It is now well over 50 percent, and can be as high as 70 percent at some schools, a condition PBS dubbed "adjunctivitis."

Adjunct faculty generally have the same qualifications as their full-time, tenure-track colleagues. Tenure-track faculty do have additional administrative duties, yet factoring these out of the equation, adjunct faculty only earn about $0.74 on the dollar for teaching the same classes to the same students. Just as it is immoral that women are paid less than men for the same work, it is immoral for adjunct faculty to earn unequal pay for equal work.

A bill was filed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives this past January, H.639-An Act Investing in Public Higher Education, to attempt to remedy this unacceptable situation. The bill has over 100 co-sponsors in the Legislature, and is currently before the Joint Committee on Higher Education. Having over 100 co-sponsors is no small accomplishment and means that the majority of members of the Legislature want adjunct faculty to be treated fairly throughout our public college and university system.

The ability to have classes taught by adjunct faculty is important for any institution of higher education. Adjunct faculty can bring unique backgrounds and offer fresh insights to students. Adjunct faculty offer flexibility in hiring and expand available course offerings, and they can also help to reduce costs. Nothing in H.639 would change that.

All deserve better

The problem that needs to be addressed is that adjunct faculty were never meant to be the main source of instruction at any college. They are meant to supplement the core faculty who dedicate their careers to teaching students and helping them succeed. But if an adjunct professor takes on the equivalent of a full time course load, that instructor needs to be treated properly and paid fairly for his or her service. No person who works a full-time job should ever be left in poverty and reliant upon government assistance to survive. Our students, our community, and every member of our workforce deserve better than that.

Joint committees of the Massachusetts General Court are fast approaching the mid-February deadline to decide which bills will advance and which will not. We urge you to contact your local legislator, thank them if they are already a co-sponsor of this bill, and ask them to request a favorable report for H.639 from the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

Paul Mark is the state representative from the 2nd Berkshire District. Paul Johansen is an adjunct faculty member (math) at Berkshire Community College.

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