‘A system of exploitation’: The adjunct experience

Daniel Pollock, Editor-in-Chief

“I think I need to take a break next quarter.” These words were fatal for Randall Martin’s position as an adjunct English professor at Pierce College Puyallup.

He was speaking to Holly Smith, the dean of arts and humanities. The Puyallup Post had just run an unfair article in which a student was quoted calling him out for biased grading.

Upset and wanting advice, Martin went to the dean’s office: She wasn’t there. He went to the president’s office: “Go to your dean,” he says he was told. He went to the dean and he says he was told: “Talk to the girl who wrote the article.”

Smith declined to comment on Martin’s situation as she can’t talk about personnel issues.

“I started getting this feeling that I’ve had before when I needed to get help from the administration and they don’t do it,” Martin said.

Martin decided to take the opportunity to teach his classes about the “caste system” in higher education: adjunct versus full-time professors.

Adjunct professors, also known as part-time or contingent faculty, are not tenured, which means they are hired on a quarterly basis. Martin says they make 63 percent of what a full-timer makes, but some say the actual difference is difficult to calculate. They commonly teach at multiple schools.

Also called assistant adjunct professors, adjuncts were originally designed to fill in gaps when an institution needed to offer extra classes. But at Pierce, 70 percent of the faculty are adjunct. Nationwide also, about 70 percent of faculty members are contingent, according to government data.

Martin says the topic tied in to his curriculum, but Smith discovered his topic and told him he couldn’t teach that in class.

“I always thought professors had academic freedom,” Martin said.

Upset and burned out, Martin asked to take winter quarter off. It was fall quarter, and at the beginning of winter quarter, Beth Stevens, a full-time English professor and the English department coordinator, sent him an email. It read: “We don’t have any classes for you for spring quarter.” His quarter-by-quarter contract wouldn’t be renewed—essentially, he was being fired.

Smith and Stevens declined to comment.

Martin doesn’t believe he’ll be able to teach at Pierce again. He admits he became upset with Smith when she told him he could use Pierce’s recently implemented Step System.

The Step System gives adjuncts benefits based on seniority. If they work at Pierce for three years, they can apply. If they are approved, they move up to the next step and receive pay increases and higher priority when class times are assigned.

Michael Boggess, vice president of contingent faculty issues for the Washington division of the American Federation of Teachers and an adjunct at the Fort Steilacoom campus, says the Step System gives adjuncts a full-time career path, saying it will prepare them for a full-time position, if one becomes available.

The system was added in the last negotiated agreement between the faculty union and the administration.

Martin doesn’t believe this does enough to improve work conditions for adjunct faculty.

“You guys don’t need to be making it better for adjuncts, you need to be giving full-time positions,” Martin said. “The purpose of an adjunct is to fill the gaps whenever there are scheduling difficulties. It’s been abused so that they’re relying on adjuncts almost entirely.”

Barbara Parsons, an adjunct faculty member at Pierce College Puyallup, almost lost her adjunct position at another local community college after asking a student to leave her classroom.

It was 10 years ago. The student wouldn’t follow Parsons’ classroom policy: No hats in class. She asked him to take it off. He wouldn’t. She asked him to turn it around so the brim wouldn’t block his face. He wouldn’t. Then she told him to leave.

The student went to the dean of the English department, who—after hearing the student’s story—tracked down Parsons.

“He yelled at me for 10 minutes; I yelled back,” Parsons said.

The student planned to enroll in another class, but none was open, so he returned to Parsons’ classroom, wearing a hat and a hoodie daily. Remembering the dean’s tone, Parsons didn’t stop him.

But Parsons realized later that she wasn’t assigned any classes for the next term. She contacted the department chair. Parsons remembers the response: “I really can’t talk about that.”

Parsons realized she, like Martin, was being frozen out of classes.

She went to several college officials asking for help. She didn’t get any until the chair of another department told her to apologize to the dean. With reservations, she did—and received class assignments soon after.

“And that’s what it is to be an adjunct,” Parsons said. “That’s the caste system right there. They would never have done that to a tenured professor.”

Parson’s and Martin’s stories are a common reality for adjunct professors, who can be removed from hiring pools for undisclosed reasons.

“That’s the nice thing about having adjuncts for the administration,” Martin said. “They’re free to get rid of people as they wish.”


Adjunct work conditions also impact the classroom.

At the time of the interview, Parsons was teaching five classes at two schools.

“To me that is inhumane, teaching five composition classes,” Parsons said.

The workload impacts Parsons’ students; she says it limits her time to grade assignments and her availability for office hours.

“It’s better for students if they have the traditional tenured professors,” Parsons said.

Many full-time professors teach three classes per quarter but also have responsibilities outside of the classroom, such as advising students, committee work and research.

Adjuncts are commonly called part-time professors but this is a misnomer; adjuncts could work more hours than full-time faculty. Parsons said her quarter with five classes required almost 80 hours of work per week.

Stevens also sees problems with the adjunct system. Her husband, Rob Stevens, is an adjunct professor at Pierce. She calls it a “system of exploitation.”

Stevens says part-time faculty tend to be on the periphery of the department and aren’t as involved, as they don’t have time, and they aren’t paid for involvement.

“I do not believe in asking people to do extra work for no pay,” Stevens said. “I’m firm on that.”

Stevens said adjunct faculty are only paid to lead their classes and hold a minimal number of office hours.

Stevens has freedom to arrange meeting times with students if they can’t make her office hour. But, adjunct faculty aren’t paid for meetings with students outside of office hours.

While Stevens wants adjuncts to be involved, she says she’s deeply conflicted about engagement without pay.

Stevens says this impacts students, as adjuncts don’t have the same understanding of the department and the institution as tenure-track professors do.


Even though she is tenured, Stevens teaches five classes per quarter and also teaches summer classes. Stevens’ family’s finances rely on her to work in the summer. But full-time contracts don’t include summer teaching, and Stevens’ position in the summer is more like adjunct work, often called moonlighting; if her classes don’t fill, they’re cut.

“I feel the same pain, a similar pain, that a part-time faculty member feels when their classes don’t fill and get cut because I rely on those classes,” Stevens said.

Stevens said most English full-time faculty at Pierce teach extra classes, as the base salary doesn’t cover their income needs.

If full-time professors’ classes don’t fill, they take a class from an adjunct professor. Full-time professors have to fulfill their contract, which requires that they teach three classes per quarter.

In 17 years of teaching, Stevens has had to take two classes away from adjuncts.

“It broke my heart both times,” Stevens said. She added that in those situations the full-time professor is required to choose which adjunct to take a class from.

Stevens wants Pierce to hire more full-time faculty. She says the current five and two-thirds full-time English faculty members, one works at both campuses, are overworked.

“I do feel for the administration because they have a certain number of dollars and they have to decide where those dollars go, and faculty members are not the only things that need to be funded,” Stevens said.

Adjuncts are entitled to unemployment benefits for the breaks between quarters, however, Parsons says those benefits are hard to earn. She says colleges usually contest the application.

“I would say humiliating is the word,” Parsons said. “Having to fight for unemployment benefits when we don’t even really want to be asking for unemployment benefits. We just really want a living wage that doesn’t have dips when school’s out.”

While working at multiple colleges, Parsons’ total paycheck is smaller than that of a full-time employee who only works at Pierce.

But Parsons does believe there are positive aspects to working as an adjunct.

“One good thing is you have a lot of flexibility with your time,” Parsons said. “I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder all the time.”

Parsons says Pierce has made some positive changes for adjunct faculty, including offering increased hours and the Step System.  

Parsons says Washington is one of the better states to be an adjunct professor: adjuncts are provided a 403k, health insurance and unemployment benefits.  

“In other parts of the country, there is no medical insurance, there is certainly no retirement savings, (adjuncts) aren’t entitled to unemployment,” Parsons said. “There are people living in their cars.”


Quarter-by-quarter contracts can create work insecurity for adjunct professors. Many adjuncts at Pierce declined to go on record about the system, they feared there would be repercussions from their deans or coordinators.

While Parsons agreed to an interview, she declined to share adjunct stories from Pierce to protect her position. But Martin was more vocal.

When the department chair at Pierce was making the class schedule a few years ago, she sent an email to adjunct professors: “If you guys want more job security be sure to volunteer for the 7 a.m. classes.”

Martin says full-time faculty would almost never take classes that early, but he was desperate, so he volunteered. Driving from Tacoma, Martin had to leave home at 6:15 a.m. daily.

“Full-time faculty get…whatever schedule they want, they get first dibs,” Martin said. “If their class doesn’t fill up then they’ll come and take your class.”

At a local college, students were leaving Martin’s classroom after the first day of class one quarter when the department chair entered and told him she gave the class to the wrong professor, and she had to hand it over to a full-time faculty member. They didn’t give Martin a replacement class and he wasn’t paid for the time spent preparing the curriculum.

Job insecurity also creates timidity in the classroom for some adjuncts.

“If you’re in such a precarious situation and you’re always biting tongue and afraid to say what needs to be said then you really have professor bias,” Martin said.

Regular classroom evaluations are in the negotiated contract, but Martin say these rarely happen. Stevens said professors are evaluated at least once every three years.

Mainly, the administration use the end-of-quarter student surveys to rate a professor’s performance.

The dean questioned Martin’s use of Flannery O’Connor in class—a novelist known for the Catholic themes in her work—after one student wrote in an evaluation, “talks about religion too much.”

Smith declined to comment.

Boggess says the deans rely too heavily on student evaluations.

“A student filling out that form at the end of the quarter isn’t really a professional evaluation,” Boggess said, adding students will typically evaluate the professor based on the grade they have in the class.

Martin says some adjunct professors tend to give higher grades because job evaluations come from the students.

“There’s no incentive to be challenging,” Martin said. “I always felt the pressure to go easy on my grading. I hate to say that.”

Smith says the feedback adjuncts get are the student evaluations and classroom observations.

“I would hope all our faculty are assessing students based on outcomes,” Smith said. “That’s what we would expect.”

Looking back at the first community college he worked at, Martin realized the administration pushed faculty to pass students. Martin says this is true of most colleges.

“It’s not in the college’s best interest to be overly vigorous in the curriculum,” Martin said.


Some adjuncts believe the faculty union doesn’t help; they want an adjunct union, instead.

Keith Hoeller has been fighting for an adjunct union at the national level for years. Hoeller was once an adjunct philosophy professor at Green River Community College. Now retired, Hoeller writes about the adjunct system. He’s written a book, and several articles for publications such as The New York Times.

Hoeller said the adjunct representatives in the faculty unions tend to be elected by a full-time faculty majority. He said the representatives tend to be willing to cater to the full-timers’ desires.

At Pierce College, the adjunct faculty union representatives are elected by adjunct faculty.

Martin and others testified in Olympia for a statewide union, but the legislature didn’t act on their request.

Others, however, believe the union helps.

“I actually have been pretty impressed by Pierce, certainly the union,” Parsons said. “The school’s willingness to work with the union to make conditions good for adjuncts has been impressive.”

Boggess says the union has adjuncts’ best interests in mind.

“The union really goes to bat for faculty and works on working conditions,” Boggess said.

Boggess is an adjunct by choice. He doesn’t need a higher paycheck. At his age, he’s not interested in tenure. Though his situation as an adjunct is different from others’, he doesn’t believe it affects the way he represents adjuncts in the union.

While Boggess believes problems exist within the adjunct model, he says he wouldn’t call it a caste system. He says there is a “divide” in the work expectations and job security.

“I would like to see adjuncts paid more, to have easier access to job security and long-term contracts,” Boggess said. “The worst problem is this quarter-by-quarter situation where there’s no guarantee of a class.”

Boggess believes some adjuncts fear to get involved with the union.

“There’s a lot of intimidation involved. They’re afraid,” Boggess said, he believes many adjuncts believe: “‘If I get up and say what I want to say, and be active in the unions, I’ll be retaliated against.’—All they have to do is not hire you back.”

Boggess is also the chair of the statewide Contingent Faculty Issues Committee, which seeks to ensure adjuncts receive fair salary, suitable working conditions, and are treated professionally.


Parsons, who is in her 50s, has applied for many full-time teaching positions; but she says the candidates she’s competing with are recent university graduates—and younger.

“(Community colleges) don’t really want people my age because they are going to put a lot of energy into the tenure track process,” Parsons said. “Why do that with someone who’s going to be retiring in 10 years when you can do that with someone who’s got 40 years ahead of them?”

While hiring based on age is illegal, Parsons says hiring committees can work around this regulation by hiring based on newer, more relevant degrees.

But Smith says she is surprised by how few adjunct professors apply for full-time positions.

Stevens started at Pierce as a part-time faculty member. She was hired internally, as was Corrina Wycoff, the previous department coordinator.

“We have very often, in the past, hired from within,” Stevens said. “We have also, as of late, hired from without.”

The full-time English faculty wrote a letter to the administration, asking for more hires from the internal adjunct faculty pool, which Stevens also signed. She believes every full-time English faculty member signed the letter.

However, the screening committee isn’t permitted to use prior knowledge of a candidate in the first round of deciding who to interview.

“That’s for the applicant’s safety and protection,” Stevens said. “Let’s just say somebody on the committee, for whatever reason, had a negative impression, of a part-time faculty member, it wouldn’t be fair for them to bring that in.”

Stevens added it’s not fair for the pool of applicants if a committee member brings in a positive impression of a candidate.

Martin’s experience with the adjunct system didn’t begin at Pierce. He taught remedial English classes as an adjunct at a local community college before he came to Pierce. He was put on full-time at the college with a temporary contract.

But then the dean hired his wife as the department chair. And Martin’s contract wasn’t renewed.

The chair told him they didn’t have the funding to keep him. A week later, he saw an advertisement for two tenure-track job openings for the position he was just removed from. He applied.

“When I went to the interview, I saw who was applying and they were basically friends of the dean’s wife,” Martin said. “Lots of women, all the same age, with babies. I was not in that demographic.”

He didn’t get the position, though he was still given work—as an adjunct.

“I believe the entire department is interested in cultivating part time faculty to move into full-time positions,” Smith said. “I’m often surprised at how few of our part-time faculty actually apply to these positions.”


Martin, Parsons and Hoeller agree: Colleges have become businesses, and it’s hurting the system.

“We need to stop thinking of education as a business,” Parsons said. “Higher education is not a business.”

Parsons says a capitalist mentality has created the current education system, where administration executives are paid six digits and adjuncts are paid less than $4,000 per class.

Parsons remembers taking a history of medicine class from an adjunct professor when she was in graduate school. He was a young surgeon interested in medicine history and had time in his schedule to teach.

“That’s what adjunct used to be,” Parsons said. “It used to be something people did alongside of a full time career.”

Martin wants to see colleges hire more full-time professors. While he recognizes this would be nearly impossible with the current limited state funding that goes to community colleges, he has a solution:

“Get rid of the administrators,” Martin said with a laugh.


Martin is focusing on real estate now, he says he’s trying to reinvent himself. He may go back to teaching, but at the high school level—away from the adjunct system.

He wants college students to start adjunct clubs. He wants students to know adjuncts exist.

“The only friend an adjunct has are the students,” he said.

Hoeller, in his retirement, will continue writing and fighting for adjunct unions.

And Parsons will walk into her classroom tomorrow, and she’ll teach her students, and then she’ll sit in a cubicle in the adjunct offices in the College Center, and will wait for students who need help and maybe grade some papers.

And then she’ll drive to another campus—

and do it all again.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Daniel Pollock

‘A system of exploitation’: The adjunct experience

by Daniel Pollock time to read: 13 min