At One 2-Year College, Adjuncts Feel Left Out

Oakton Community College reaches out to its part-timers, few of whom have time to take advantage of the offer

Peter Holderness for The Chronicle

Kamran Swanson leaves his apartment early in the morning to begin his two-hour commute to Oakton Community College, in Chicago's suburbs, where he teaches philosophy as an adjunct. He doesn't linger on the campus: "Without my own desk, you never really feel at home."
October 18, 2009

Two days a week, Kamran Swanson arrives at Oakton Community College just before one of the three philosophy courses he teaches. Between classes, he heads for a windowless office on the second floor of the campus building, where if he's lucky he can find an open desk. Oakton provides 25 of them for its hundreds of part-time faculty members.

After Mr. Swanson is finished teaching for the day and has held his required office hour, he is out the door to catch a bus home—without ever serving on a faculty committee, attending a department meeting, or even having a cup of coffee with any of the college's other professors. If students want extra help, Mr. Swanson usually handles their questions by e-mail. "Without my own desk," he says, "you never really feel at home." Mr. Swanson acknowledges that it is partly his own schedule that leaves him little time to do much more at Oakton than teach. He lives a two-hour commute from the suburban-Chicago campus here and teaches two classes at another community college downtown.

But even adjunct professors who have worked at Oakton for decades and are inclined to hang around the campus—which is dotted with 20 outdoor sculptures and a 16-acre lake—say they feel like outsiders. Their lack of connection to full-time faculty members and to what goes on at the college outside the classroom poses a crucial problem, they say, not just for them but for the institution and its 10,766 students. After all, the college's 540 part-time instructors outnumber its 154 full-time professors by more than three to one, teaching 60 percent of the courses here. While administrators at Oakton have taken several steps to encourage part-time professors to play a bigger role, and even pay them to attend faculty meetings, most of the college's part-time instructors either can't make the time or feel they don't really belong.

"There is a whole social and professional interaction that goes on in the faculty world that ignores adjuncts," says Lawrence E. Marks, who has been a part-time teacher of psychology and global studies at Oakton for seven years. "I don't have any chance to struggle with the faculty over what's right or wrong in the classroom. The ultimate benefit of that is for the students."

'Nobody Knew My Name'

Complaints about a lack of connection are not unique to adjuncts at Oakton. The Chronicle heard the same lament from several part-time professors in the Chicago area who took a survey it distributed last spring. "In my role as an adjunct," one wrote in an anonymous comment, "I have very little contact with regular faculty, or even other adjuncts, so I feel very marginal to the educational process of the school."

Part of that feeling is built into the job: Adjuncts are paid to teach, and many work at several institutions, which leaves them little time or inclination to get very involved at any of them. But that poses an increasing problem as part-time adjuncts now make up about 50 percent of the professoriate nationwide. That means that half of the nation's college instructors may not feel much of a connection to the campuses where they teach.

By adjunct standards, Oakton is actually one of the better colleges in the Chicago area to work for. It has the state's oldest union for part-time instructors and pays them a competitive rate—between $2,475 and $3,540 for each three-credit course. The college is known for giving adjuncts freedom to teach the way they see fit, and it isn't reluctant to back up instructors if students challenge a grade. It also encourages, and often pays, adjuncts to get involved outside the classroom.

Margaret B. Lee, the college's president, was once an adjunct instructor herself. She taught English at Alpena Community College, in Michigan, during the mid-1970s, while she finished up her dissertation at the University of Chicago and worked on a pig farm with her husband. "I have an innate sympathy in my heart for those people who get called a day before class starts and get sent the syllabus in the mail, and there's no other contact throughout the semester with anyone until you're told, Turn in your grades," she says. When Ms. Lee was an adjunct, she recalls, "I could say, nobody knew my name."

But the president, who entered a convent right out of high school and spent seven years as a nun, says she has worked hard to create the sense of community at Oakton that she learned was so important to the church. At every meeting of the Board of Trustees, representatives of the adjunct union sit at the table with board members, she notes. And, she says, Oakton takes its adjuncts seriously. It was upon the recommendation of an adjunct that the college decided to continue requiring all graduates to pass a test on the country's founding, even though Illinois decided last year that colleges could drop the requirement. "Because you have one title and not the other is no indication you are less important," says Ms. Lee. "I think you can be as involved in the life of the institution as you want to be."

The adjunct union here, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, has tried to make sure instructors get paid for extra time they spend on university business such as serving on committees and attending training sessions and department faculty meetings. Adjuncts typically earn $22 an hour for those activities. The union also pushed the college to agree that for every full-time faculty opening, 25 percent of those interviewed must be adjunct instructors. In the last decade, that has helped increase the proportion of full-time professors hired from the adjunct ranks to 63.5 percent, up from 50 percent.

The union has also pressed for symbolic changes, making sure that this year's faculty directory lists adjuncts right along with full-time professors, rather than in a separate set of papers stapled into the back of the book.

Still, Barbara Dayton, a sociology instructor who helped form Oakton's adjunct union nearly 30 years ago, says there is a "definite stratification" among faculty members here. Ms. Dayton has taught at Oakton for 33 years, and as the union's president she is practically an institution on the campus. But when asked if she counts any of the full-time professors among her colleagues or her friends, she comes up blank. "If I wanted to talk to somebody about something, they'd be willing," she says. "But it isn't like they'd casually drop in and say, Barbara, what do you think about this?"

Olivia Cronk, a part-time instructor of English, says she sometimes feels invisible at Oakton. During a department meeting at the beginning of this academic year, she waved at a full-time professor whose classes Ms. Cronk had covered a few times when the professor couldn't make it. But all Ms. Cronk got in return was a blank stare. "She clearly had no recognition," says Ms. Cronk.

The Pay Gap

Part of the gulf between full- and part-time faculty members here is financial. Full-time faculty members at Oakton teach five courses a semester and earn an average of $86,000 a year. Adjuncts, who can teach up to three classes each semester (a new contract will allow them to teach four), earn a maximum of about $21,000 during the academic year. Like other colleges, Oakton does not provide adjuncts with subsidized health insurance. And full-time professors can qualify for up to $1,000 a year in travel expenses for scholarly conferences; adjuncts usually get only as much as $100.

That means that when Keith R. Johnson, an adjunct instructor here, traveled to the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco in August to present a paper, he bypassed the conference hotel and stayed at a hostel, where he shared a room with five other men (he got a top bunk) and paid $30 a night.

The gap in pay and benefits feels particularly unfair to adjuncts at Oakton because, unlike at many four-year institutions, the credentials of full- and part-time instructors here are not much different. Nearly as many adjuncts as full-timers hold Ph.D.'s: 18 percent compared to 22 percent. And all but one of the full-timers here are tenured or on the tenure track, while many adjuncts don't know from semester to semester how many courses they will be teaching.

Larry Knapp is an adjunct instructor with a doctorate in film studies from Northwestern University. He gets along well with his department head at Oakton and enjoys teaching. But he is bitter about the status differential between full- and part-time instructors, and the idea that if someone hasn't made it into the full-time ranks it must be because there is something wrong with him or her. "We are not part of the actual family here," he says. "It is like we are servants."

Feeling unimportant, says Mr. Knapp, comes with a price. "There is no incentive to give 100 percent," he says. "Mediocrity is built into the system."

Beverly E. Stanis agrees. She left a full-time legal career 28 years ago, the year she had the second of her five children, to begin teaching business law part time at Oakton. As an adjunct, she says, it is easy to teach the same material the same way, year after year. No one pays adjuncts to take the time to look at things in a new way, or to try out different textbooks or teaching methods. "It is easy to stay with the old," she says. Working as an adjunct, she says, also means "you're always on the edge wondering, Is this going to be my last semester?" The insecurity, says Ms. Stanis, makes adjunct instructors afraid to bring up thorny issues, like problems they might have dealing with a troubled student.

Another adjunct at Oakton, who asked to remain anonymous, says that she has tried to bring up some of her concerns but that no one will listen. Recently, a one-semester class she taught was split into two, but her department has not evenly spread the material over two semesters. Too much is now taught in the first semester, she says, and not enough in the second. But as a part-time instructor she doesn't have the clout to change the curriculum, she says. "I know what works, but I don't have a voice in that, even though I'm the one teaching it," she says. "I have brought it up several times, but it never gets addressed."

Some full-time faculty members here are just as frustrated over adjuncts' lack of power and their narrow scope. "If you're a full-time person, you're looking at how courses fit into the life of the college and the life of students when they transfer," says Julia Hassett, who heads Oakton's department of mathematics and computer science. "If you're a part-time person, you're looking at your own teaching."

That equation has become a problem, says Ms. Hassett, because over the last few years, several full-time professors in her department have retired but the college has hired adjuncts in their place. As a result, the adjunct ranks have swelled to 80 as the number of full-timers has dropped to only 10. Full-time professors at Oakton are supposed to be mentors for part-timers, but Ms. Hassett's full-time faculty members have told her they can't possibly do the job.

Ms. Lee, the college's president, says Oakton cannot afford to tip the balance toward more full-timers. In fact, she figures, converting all of the college's adjuncts to full-time status would cost $20-million. But beyond that, she says, part-time instructors allow the community college to remain flexible, offering some classes in hot, new areas while getting rid of others that interest students less. "It would be financially impossible," she says, "and probably not instructionally desirable."

'Bittersweet Irony'

Some department heads here have tried to reach out to adjuncts. At the start of every academic year, Denis R. Berkson, chairman of the performing-arts department, invites its 20 adjunct instructors and three full-timers to a "rally," complete with a buffet dinner. This year he gave everyone a flash drive. "If you have an institution where it's us and them," he says of full- and part-timers, "then you should close the place down." Mr. Berkson has put two adjuncts in charge of a departmental committee to assess student learning, and he is paying them $400 each to do the job.

Hollace Graff, who leads the department of humanities and philosophy, is sensitive to adjuncts who say they feel like second-class citizens. She lists the department's 37 adjuncts on its Web site, right alongside its six full-time professors. And the full-timers don't cherry-pick their favorite courses. "We have agreed that adjuncts should not be frozen out of the more interesting, advanced classes," she says.

Still, it can be a rough road for adjuncts who try to take a more active role in life outside the classroom at Oakton and deal with full-timers on an equal footing. "You have to be very, very aggressive to be part of that community," says Mr. Marks, the psychology instructor. "The full-time faculty and administration are not any more welcoming than in corporate America. You do not get invitations to sit at lunch with them."

But Mr. Marks feels he has begun to break down some barriers. In August he won the campus's award for excellence in part-time teaching—which comes with a $1,000 prize. Since then, people Mr. Marks doesn't even know have been saying hello and smiling at him in the hallways of Oakton's sprawling, two-story building. Someone even sent him an e-mail message, asking his opinion on whether final exams should be cumulative or should cover only material since the last test.

"I'm in the loop now," says Mr. Marks.

The day in August that he received the teaching award, though, he was reminded of his status as a part-timer when he went home and checked his mailbox. He had gotten a letter from the private company from which he buys health insurance: His bill, the letter said, was going up by $400 a month.

"I got great pleasure out of the recognition I got," he says of his teaching award, "but it was a bittersweet irony to be forced the same day to deal with the reality that I'm in this situation because I'm an adjunct, and my employer doesn't give me health insurance."