Contingent faculty at UA seek better treatment, some join campus union 

Ethan Henry, Staff Reporter

Almost all undergraduate students have taken a course taught by a contingent faculty member. It might have been a graduate teaching assistant or an adjunct instructor, which is a part-time temporary teaching instructor. Even those working as full-time teaching instructors frequently have no job security or contract beyond the current year.  

“‘Contingent faculty’ is an umbrella category that includes adjunct professors, visiting professors, lecturers, instructors, and graduate assistantships,” wrote Crystal Chang, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, in an article.  

According to page four in the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment’s Faculty and Staff Data, in 2022, The University of Alabama employed 1,044 non-tenure track faculty members, including 461 classified as temporary part-time members. 

Part-time temporary instructors, commonly referred to as adjunct instructors or adjunct professors, are paid per course they teach and are not salaried.  

Michael Innis-Jiménez, a UA professor of American studies who teaches about labor history, explained that universities can often save money by hiring adjuncts in place of other professors. GTAs frequently teach introductory classes or, in many of the sciences, they teach lab sections. In some programs and departments around campus, graduate students must teach or participate in an assistantship in order to get credit toward their degree. 

“It varies in every college because it’s up to the deans, but they can hire at least two temporary [faculty] members teaching four classes a semester for the same price of hiring a tenure track person that teaches two a semester,” Innis-Jiménez said. “So you can get eight classes for the price of two, but then you’re getting temporary employees that are not able to work on their own research.” 

Innis-Jiménez referenced the United Campus Workers of Alabamas actions levying pressure on the University to make changes. The labor union is “an organization by and for all workers in Alabama’s public higher education systems,” according to their website. They started in 2019 in Tuscaloosa and are “building campaigns to improve wages, healthcare, and the well-being of all campus workers.” 

“For workers at any level, I mean undergrad employees, grad employees, I think really the only way to get pressure on the University to listen and to change is a unified voice or getting together. I mean, last year [the University] made the minimum wage $15 an hour. For about a year, UCW had a campaign of pushing that,” Innis-Jiménez said. 

Despite this, part-time instructors aren’t paid by the hour; instead, they are paid per course, so the University’s minimum wage doesn’t extend to them. Innis-Jiménez said he believes the pay per course might end up being less than $15 an hour when some adjuncts add up the number of hours spent per month on a given class. 

Compensation is a common complaint among GTAs. In fact, Kenon Brown, former GTA coordinator and current associate professor for the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, said this was one of the few concerns raised by his graduate assistants. 

“That was a complaint that I got more often than not, was just about the size of the stipends that was provided,” Brown said. 

The graduate student employee minimum varies depending on department and college, but the minimum compensation rates from 2021-22 all fell somewhere in between $1600 and $1800 per month. These rates apply to full assistantships, which require around 20 hours per week; partial assistantships require around 10 hours per week. 

“Even when I was a graduate student, one of my biggest issues was trying to make ends meet while on a graduate assistantship. I mean, it definitely is a common issue right now,” Brown said. 

Erin Stender, a current GTA who teaches two sections of Intro to Women’s Studies, which is enough that she’s teaching every day of the week, said the problems also extend to the healthcare that student employees receive. Graduate assistants have access to the student healthcare plan, which many have argued isn’t very extensive. 

“My father retired in the last year, so I opted into the student insurance. I didn’t think anything of it. My permanent retainer fell off during the pandemic, and I went to go get the glue off the back of my teeth. Just simple. It was going to be like, $300, $400 … but that’s just not feasible for someone on this type of insurance,” Stender said. 

Stender said that this issue is partially a question of values. 

“The fact is that it’s run like a business when we need to value the humans who make the University actually function,” Stender said. 

She also mentioned everything that UCW-AL has done to organize campus workers. 

“Unions are vital to labor rights and to our understanding of what we can build together as a community. Everyone should be in a union, and unions are good. And the rhetoric that unions are dangerous is purposefully spread so that we are not able to be valued for our work,” Stender said. 

Stender said that although GTAs go in knowing the conditions of their employment, she still believes that they are being exploited. She connected this to adjuncts, who also face some difficult terms of employment. 

One adjunct, who preferred to remain anonymous because of his lack of job security, described his experience as a part-time instructor. 

“Well, normally I’m teaching four classes for Alabama. Usually, like most adjuncts, I’m also teaching classes at other universities as well. So, I usually teach two at Shelton State [Community College] and then I also do some online classes. So, per semester I’m usually teaching about eight or nine classes,” he said. 

This adjunct said his after-tax take home pay from the University is somewhere around $500 per class each month. He also said that his busy schedule is typical of those in an adjunct role. Adjuncts receive no benefits from the University, meaning they generally have no access to retirement benefits or a healthcare plan. As a result, many resort to using Obamacare, including this anonymous adjunct. 

“A few years ago, I had a dental situation where I needed a root canal, and I was embarrassed to tell them that I didn’t have dental insurance,” he said. “Because they said, ‘Where do you work?’ And I said, ‘Down at The University of Alabama.’ And they said, ‘The University of Alabama doesn’t give you dental insurance?’ I said ‘Nope.’ I was really embarrassed by that. So, I had to pay for that procedure out of pocket, too.” 

In April 2022, UCW-AL began circulating a petition asking for accessible healthcare coverage for all UA employees, including adjuncts. Although the anonymous instructor supports some of the advocacy that UCW-AL has done, he is hesitant to become directly involved. 

“I signed their petition, but because of the insecurity of my job, I’m afraid to get too out front and vocal,” he said. He later added, “I’m hoping that union does some good, but it scares me to be involved in it.” 

Despite these issues, the instructor is thankful for the opportunities that the University has provided.  

“They’ve kept me employed, four classes per semester, since 2005 and during COVID. And that has been a major blessing because I know that there are a whole lot of other adjuncts, who, that’s not the case,” he said. “They pretty much have to struggle every semester to put together enough classes to be able to survive. But I’ve not had that problem — knock on wood — and it’s because my department has been so good to me.” 

Part-time instructors lack the job security of a tenure-track professor. Similarly, although full time temporary instructors receive a salary and benefits, they face the same job insecurity as adjuncts. 

Brett Shaw, a full-time instructor of English and co-chair of the Committee for Instructor Compensation, helped draft a proposal requesting higher pay for English instructors last spring. Although the minimum pay was recently raised from $40,000 to $45,000, Shaw said he wasn’t sure how much of that increase was directly due to the committee’s proposal.  

Being a non-tenure member of the faculty who lacks long-term job security, Shaw commented on universities’ increased reliance on contingent faculty. 

“The way academia used to work was that you’d have people take up these instructor positions, but the expectation is that they’d be young and that they would move on to a better teaching position quickly. That has obviously very much changed,” Shaw said. 

Although he clarified that this problem isn’t exclusive to Alabama, Shaw said that colleges are increasingly relying on contingent faculty. 

“With the increase in enrollments, the need for more education, and the need to keep those costs low, universities across the board have looked toward these more instructor-led models when it comes to their teaching workforce,” Shaw said. 

Many instructors in the English d2epartment receive a pay that cannot meet their standard of living. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the annual cost of living in Tuscaloosa County for a family of two adults and one child is $65,402. 

“We have a number of instructors in our department who are living on credit, like do not have enough to cover their bills month to month,” Shaw said. 

The Committee for Instructor Compensation is intended to be a permanent fixture within the English department. Shaw also connected instructor compensation to the push for increased diversity on the University’s campus. 

“I think we’ve seen some increases there on the student side, which is fantastic, but I also think to do those students justice they need educators who are equally diverse, and you’re not going to be pulling that sort of diverse workforce down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, without that increase in pay,” he said.  

Shaw said that in the quality-of-life survey sent out to other instructors, many report that “their head is not even really above water.” This is a difficult reality to confront. 

“It’s always painful to hear those things and know that these are people that want to be doing this work and are forced to make very tough calls for themselves and their families,” Shaw said. 

Shaw is also a member of the organizing committee for UCW-AL, which continues to push for expanded healthcare coverage and increased union membership in the future. Although UCW-AL represents a fraction of the campus workers at the University, the numbers present at meetings have certainly increased, according to those who have previously attended general assembly meetings.