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Class divide on campus: Adjunct professors fight for better pay, benefits

John Brecher / NBC News

Tenured professor Rosalind Petchesky, left, and adjunct professor Marcia Newfield have similar job descriptions but are on opposite ends of the income scale.

Marcia Newfield and Rosalind Petchesky are both professors at the City University of New York. They both have advanced degrees. They both have been teaching for decades and are in their seventies.

But there's a big difference between the two: Petchesky is a distinguished professor, and Newfield is an adjunct.

That means Newfield makes a fraction of what Petchesky makes: After 26 years, Newfield still only earns $3,622 for each of the two classes she teaches per semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College, hardly a living wage in the most expensive city in the country, but above the average of $2,987 per course for adjuncts nationwide.

At the same time, public records show that CUNY's distinguished professors, like Petchesky, make around $144,000 a year. Petchesky's tenure—meaning she can't be terminated without just cause—renders her one of the most protected workers in the nation. Newfield's course load could be eliminated for any reason, even after classes begin. Through the Professional Staff Congress' Welfare Fund, adjuncts have health insurance (for now), but Newfield has no job security, disability benefits, permanent office, or input in her department's curriculum, and only a meager pension. Petchesky has time to do her own research thanks to sabbaticals and a reasonable course load; Newfield has had to hustle to make ends meet.

"To students, everyone is just 'professor,'" Newfield said. But long-term adjuncts like her "are in a different class. They're poor. There's no other way to explain it."

The CUNY system employs about 7,000 full-time faculty and 13,000 non-tenure-track faculty—3,000 of which are cobbling together their living teaching a full course load. This isn't uncommon—the ratio of adjuncts to full-time professors has been growing for decades, creating a microcosm of the wealth gap worsening across the country.

While adjuncts struggle to pay basic expenses, some tenured professors teaching in the same classrooms are recruited to campus with lucrative salaries well into the six figures, sometimes lured by luxurious homes subsidized by the university. While tuition has skyrocketed by almost 80 percent in the past ten years, parents and teachers may not realize that their money is partly going into the pockets of the "academic one percent": a handful of well-paid superstar professors and administrators. (The chancellor of CUNY, which has steadily lost state funding, made $574,004 in 2012.)

Meanwhile, a growing majority of precarious, struggling faculty are teaching the next generation.

Adjuncts look to unions

Adjuncts are a diverse group: graduate students building their resumes, professionals making money on the side, and long-time faculty like Newfield who simply never managed to score a tenure-track position. The position of "adjunct" was popularized in the 1960s in response to a shortage of qualified professors wielding a Ph.D. Nowadays, there's a surplus. According to the American Association of University Professors, the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is around 1 to 4. Universities, particularly cash-strapped public schools, have responded in kind. Three quarters  of American college and university instructors fall into a contingent faculty category.

On a growing number of campuses across the country, adjuncts are unionizing to demand a living wage and benefits, some with the help of a recent national campaign run by the Service Employees International Union. Still, these victories haven't yet reversed what has long been a reality in academia: a two-tiered university system for professors who have virtually identical job descriptions.

Take Kip Lornell: He's been teaching ethnomusicology at George Washington University since 1992, has his Ph.D., and has published 14 books. As a regular part-timer, his course load is limited to three classes plus service work, for which he receives $23,000 per year. "Those are poverty wages," he said.

Lornell does intellectual property research for Smithsonian Folkways to make ends meet, and if it weren't for his wife, he said, he wouldn't be able to provide for his two kids, especially in a pricey metropolitan area like Washington, D.C. He's been involved in unionizing the adjuncts at GWU, and he knows many full-time faculty who are "quietly neutral to supportive." But the university's "top down" approach assures that "they're not really involved in the process. It's more a quiet solidarity than anything else."

In some cases, the conditions of adjuncts are often outright ignored by full-time faculty. Cary Nelson, a tenured professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and the editor of the anthology "Will Teach For Food," said that on a large campus like his, contingent faculty are "sort of invisible. The two groups just don't interact with one another."

Adjuncts usually aren't allowed in departmental meetings. They often live far from campus. They teach night classes, or juggle side-gigs, or commute to jobs on several campuses. Meanwhile, "so many tenure-track faculty are like racehorses—they have blinders on left and right," said Nelson.

Some chalk this up to the nature of the profession. Academia can be "very individualistic," said Mike Fabricant, who is a tenured professor at Hunter College's School of Social Work (and, according to public records, makes six figures). Many professors choose to "focus on their own research" rather than "disrupt their work life, even when they're working alongside folks who are being exploited terribly."

Fabricant said some "believe strongly in a meritocracy, that adjuncts are lesser versions of themselves." No tenured professors would go on record with NBC News saying they believed this. But a handful declined to comment, citing limited knowledge or opinions about adjuncts at their institution.

Disagreement in the ranks

Of course, there are plenty of full-time professors speaking up for more equity in the university system. Andrew Zimmerman, a tenured professor at George Washington University who has attended a few meetings with adjunct organizers, said tenured faculty like him "have a responsibility to speak out against" the marginalization of adjuncts, and that "given the protection of tenure, we have no excuse."

Petchesky, the distinguished professor at Hunter College, agrees. She posted an open letter online in 2010 addressed to "all my full-time colleagues," urging them to stick up for contingent faculty. "The two-tier labor system in public higher education weakens and destabilizes working conditions for us all," she wrote. "As long as management can be assured of a huge, vulnerable contingent workforce… it can resist the demands of full-time union members."

In the last few years, CUNY professors have joined protests and donated award money to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourcing effort to chronicle adjuncts' wages across the country.

To many, the first step is getting everyone on the same page, since even the two-tiered system has tiers within it. Petchesky said that graduate student adjuncts can be disengaged "because they are still thinking of this as a temporary stage," even though "you also have adjunct faculty for whom this is a dead end." Jack Dempsey, a long-time adjunct at Bentley University who supplements his paltry contract by raking leaves and editing books, thinks "it's important for full-time faculty to know what adjuncts make." Many, he said, don't have a clue.

The contingent sect of the university system is so diffuse that even adjuncts can't agree on the best solution to their plight. In October 2013, Bentley's adjuncts narrowly voted against joining a union. Paul Mark, a CPA who teaches one class during the summer, sent out a faculty-wide email announcing his plans to vote "no."

"I have never believed that unions were created to represent white collar workers," he wrote. "If ours was an industry such as mining or construction, I would fully support a unionization drive…However, as university professors, we are far from such worlds."

Dempsey begs to differ. "It's wishful thinking that a Ph.D. is still a mantle to the upper-middle classes," he said. For a shrinking tenured population, that's still the case. But "when you're making minimum wage, you're simply another wing of America's low-wage workforce."

Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

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