Great Colleges to Work For

A Canadian College Where Adjuncts Go to Prosper

Robert Leon for The Chronicle

Bill Nikolai (left), a librarian at Vancouver Community College who was elected assistant department head by his peers, with Frank Cosco, president of the faculty union, who says, "We don't have a completely equitable situation, but we try to make it as equitable as possible."
July 25, 2010

Vancouver Community College, like many institutions of its kind, relies heavily on part-time faculty members. But its policies for promoting and supporting them have helped the Canadian institution avoid the criticism of activists who accuse many American colleges of exploiting their adjuncts.

That's because Vancouver instructors who are hired by the term but work at least half time for 19 out of 24 months achieve "regular" status—a form of job security that provides a level of protection largely unheard of for faculty members who aren't tenured or on the tenure track. "Once you're hired as a term instructor, people take it very seriously because the department heads and deans know that this person is going to be around awhile," says Frank Cosco, president of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association. He is a full-time faculty member with regular status who has worked at the college for more than 20 years.


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The work environment at Vancouver is the result of more than two decades of collective bargaining between administrators and the faculty union, which represents all faculty members. As a result of the union's contract, the gap between full- and part-time faculty members is narrower than at most institutions, and is often held up as an example of how to treat adjuncts, who make up the fastest-growing slice of the American professoriate.

In fact, a report last year by the American Association of University Professors named Vancouver as one model of how to improve the circumstances of adjuncts in the United States, many of whom are poorly paid and lack job security and health benefits. The association's report called for the conversion of part-time appointments to tenure-track jobs. Shortly after the report's release, some experts on adjuncts said there was no incentive for institutions to provide contingent faculty members in the United States with more job security, among other things. Paul D. Umbach, an associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, said that at best, colleges would "nibble around the edges" of such a proposal.

"We don't have a completely equitable situation, but we try to make it as equitable as possible," Mr. Cosco says.

For starters, pay for part-timers is based on what full-time faculty members make. So instructors who teach half time make half as much as full-time colleagues with similar experience who do the same work. Depending on experience, the pay ranges from about $54,000 to $82,000 in U.S. dollars.

Because seniority is accrued at the same rate by full- and part-time faculty members with regular status, a part-time instructor could outrank a full-time colleague in seniority. (The union's agreement calls for layoffs, if any, to be by seniority, regardless of full- or part-time status.) Health benefits are available to all faculty members who work at least half time. Maternity leave is available after six months of contract work.

When it comes to workload, no distinction is made between full- and part-time instructors, Mr. Cosco says. In addition to teaching, part-timers are paid for related work such as office hours, grading papers, and preparing course materials.

Perhaps the most important feature of Vancouver's system, say experts on adjunct issues, is that it allows faculty members who were initially hired term-by-term to be promoted into jobs with more-secure status. Once they work enough days during a two-year period, and provided they do not receive a negative evaluation, the conversion to regular status is automatic. The college has about 725 faculty members—475 of whom have regular status. "We purposely focused on the person, not the position," Mr. Cosco says.

A fine point of the union's agreement helps adjuncts who are seeking job security: After working for six months, they have the first right of refusal for any new teaching contracts offered in their departments to temporary employees.

Bill Nikolai, a librarian (a faculty position at the college), achieved full-time regular status a different way—he was elected by his peers to be assistant department head, a position for which the status is automatic. A onetime English teacher in Japan, he studied to be a librarian and, after graduating almost two years ago, landed an adjunct job at Vancouver.

"When I applied for the job, I didn't know anything about regularization," he says. "Then, when I got here, I started learning more about how things worked."

Stephanie Hummel, an instructor of English as a second language, began working at Vancouver in January and has taught every month since except April and May, when she didn't have a contract. Her latest contract ends in August, and she won't know whether she'll be teaching in the fall until just before classes begin.

But the potential job security is worth waiting for, she says. As an instructor elsewhere in British Columbia, she could earn only $30,000 at the top of the pay scale, despite her 10 years' experience and master's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

"Even for nonregular staff, working here is a step up," she says.

Sal Ferreras, dean of the college's music school, calls the perks available to Vancouver's adjuncts "goodies that make something challenging like part-time work a little bit more meaningful." Both the college and its students, he says, benefit from the stability of the work force.

"A lot of people who work part time for us are grounded in this institution and continue to develop themselves professionally," says the dean, who began his career at Vancouver as a part-time faculty member. "They have a particular affinity for this institution. The likelihood of them leaving this position is not very high."


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Access to professional-development opportunities also contribute to that loyalty. Faculty members who work at least half time for seven months of the year can get about $250 to cover the cost of conferences, research, subscriptions, and other professional expenses. They can also compete for grants of up to $5,000.

Lorraine Rehnby, who started at the college in 2008, was able to take professional-development leave for the first time in March 2009. She spent the 50 hours of leave time on a project to help her ESL students improve their vocabularies. It involved putting a Canadian twist on a popular American word game, Apples to Apples, in which players match nouns with adjectives they think best describe them. The words "Mount Rushmore" on one of the game's flashcards became "Mount Logan," a Canadian landmark.

The opportunity to create learning materials that her colleagues can also use is invaluable, she says. "I have so much support, a huge number of resources, and if I have questions, they get answered straightaway," says Ms. Rehnby, who is working during the summer term and hopes to achieve the more-secure job status in October. "I'm really lucky to have this job."

Vancouver's faculty-union contract expired in March, but its provisions remain in effect until a new agreement is in place. Bargaining will pick up again in earnest when the academic year begins, says Mr. Cosco, the faculty association's president. The union wants to see a few months shaved off the time faculty members need to work to attain regular status, and also wants to make faculty members who work less than half time eligible for health benefits.

Mr. Ferreras, the music dean, says department heads, whose teaching duties vary widely, would most likely say they want more release time to do their administrative duties, among other things.

Still, the work done in previous years appears to have paid off: Part-time employees feel like an integral part of the college community, says Mr. Cosco.

"If you want to work at VCC," he says, "it can be a career when you're hired the first time."