The coronavirus has thrown the entire higher education industry into uncertainty, but it’s been especially cruel to the thousands of part-time professors undergirding New England’s colleges and universities. The effect has been to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in higher education: While many tenure-track professors received pandemic-related extensions for their research, many adjuncts simply watched their jobs evaporate. While some professors may teach from home, adjuncts lucky enough to have courses often feel pressure to come to campus — even though their jobs rarely come with health insurance.
“They’re kind of like the Uber drivers,” said Gary Rhoades, who studies higher education at the University of Arizona. “COVID just heightens and surfaces the already existing inequities.”
Despite the stereotypical image of a college professor as a lofty intellectual with a large office and a lifetime appointment, part-time, non-tenure-track professors — adjuncts — have steadily become the majority of faculty across all of higher education since 1985. They often share offices, lack the generous perks of tenured professors, and have few opportunities for advancement, despite performing the majority of undergraduate teaching. They are also more likely to be women and people of color.
Even in a good economy, these academics cobble together a living teaching courses that pay around $5,000 each, working on short-term contracts that they hope will renew each year — often without benefits.
In 2018, full-time tenured professors accounted for just 22 percent of the academic labor force, according to the American Association of University Professors’ 2019-20 report. Part-time professors, meanwhile, made up 52 percent, and full-time but non-tenure-track professors account for another 18 percent.
Since the pandemic hit, thousands of adjuncts across the country have seen their careers flounder. The City University of New York laid off 2,800 adjunct professors in June. The University of Michigan Flint laid off 41 percent of its 300 lecturers.
In Boston, nearly half of non-tenure-track faculty at UMass Boston were notified in May that they might not be rehired in the fall, although most have been. Many private colleges in the region have reduced their adjunct ranks or cut their course loads. Some of these job losses are invisible, not counted as layoffs because the professors work on short-term contracts that simply weren’t renewed. That also means they are sometimes not eligible for unemployment assistance.
Those lucky enough to have course assignments this fall have spent many unpaid hours reinventing their classes for Zoom.
Many adjuncts who are teaching in-person this fall, however, say they feel vulnerable. At Emerson College, part-time professors, who constitute slightly more than half the total faculty, were told that if they contract COVID-19 at the outset of the semester and cannot return, their salary will be cut off.
One Emerson adjunct, who has taught writing for four years, still has not completed enough teaching hours to qualify for university health insurance — 24 credit hours hours are required, not including those taught as a graduate student. She worried about teaching in person this fall but thought that if she asked to teach remotely she could jeopardize her chances of receiving the two course sections she relies upon, which each pay around $5,500.
“[Adjunct] faculty is seen as so kind of disposable, in some way, and replaceable,” she said.
This month the professor, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to jeopardize her job, began teaching in person, wearing a mask and wheeling a plexiglass shield in front of her as she moves around the classroom. She strains to hear students from behind her shield, their voices muffled by their own masks.
“You’re rolling your plexiglass shield around, and you’re trying to make the technology work for the students who aren’t there, and you’re speaking into a microphone … and in the back of your mind you’re saying, ’I really hope no one in this class has COVID, because I don’t want to be exposed,” she said.
Adjuncts who are able to teach all their courses online struggle with other challenges. Richard Strager, who teaches language courses and English as a second language at Salem State University and several other schools on the North Shore, spent the summer teaching himself such techniques as how to facilitate smaller break-out conversations on Zoom.
Strager, who speaks six languages and has a decade’s experience as an adjunct, has no paid vacation or retirement contributions. He feels lucky that he is not forced to risk his health by teaching in person, but online courses have made his job more difficult.
“It feels like double the work because you have to reinvent every class for an online platform,” said Strager.
Unionizing efforts nationwide during the past five years have created some improved working conditions for adjunct professors but not enough to shield them from disproportionate repercussions of the pandemic.
Some are beginning to fight back. At Harvard, a group of lecturers, who work full time but on short-term contracts, asked the university to extend their contracts for a year during the pandemic to provide some stability. The university has not responded, the group said. Similar efforts have taken place at Yale University and Smith College.
The American Association of University Professors last month called on institutions to provide adjunct professors with paid sick leave, eligibility for unemployment benefits, paid training for online teaching, contract extensions, and other better working conditions during the pandemic, calling adjuncts “the tiny and invisible lines of connection between institutions and students” and warning that “the future of the profession is at stake.”
“There is a ton more awareness and activity, especially around the health care and precarity of jobs,” said Adrianna Kezar, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies higher education and compiles data about better ways to employ non-tenure-track professors.
Some tenured faculty have begun to rise to adjuncts’ defense: A petition signed by tenured professors at schools across the country calls on institutions to grant contract extensions to these professors.
A spokeswoman from Boston University declined to comment on the number of adjuncts the university employs or how they have been affected by the pandemic. An Emerson spokeswoman said the college employed a greater number of adjuncts than usual this fall, as it launched its hybrid learning plan. Adjuncts did not receive a reduction in pay or any other type of compensation, she said. She said faculty members work with their department chairs to reschedule when they need to miss a class due to illness.
Rhoades, the University of Arizona professor who likened adjunct professors to Uber drivers, said it is ironic that universities are spending more on campus facilities and amenities to convince students it is safe to return to campus, even as they are laying off or reducing the hours of adjunct professors.
“It just heightens more than ever the structural inequities of institutions disinvesting in the people who teach students,” he said.
Despite her part-time status, Rani, the BU adjunct, has thrown herself into the work, chairing a committee about diversity and inclusion and planning a course this semester that will focus on current topics including Kamala Harris and the Black Lives Matter movement. She has devised creative ways to safely teach in person, such as walks around Boston with her students to visit historic sites.
She finds it demoralizing to know that her full-time colleagues who teach the same courses enjoy more job security and steadier pay during the pandemic.
“At the end of the day they’re not waking up at 2 in the morning with the same worries that I have,” she said.