MTSU professors, union members rally for increased adjunct professor compensation in Tennessee

Story by Andrew Wigdor, Editor-in-Chief

Photo courtesy of Dana Smith

Across the state of Tennessee, educators and activists are rallying behind increased compensation for some of higher education’s most unsung heroes: adjunct professors.

Adjunct professors are not eligible for tenure, teach on limited-term contracts, generally receive no retirement or health benefits and, many say, far too little in terms of monetary payment.

The cry for increased benefits has sparked conversation and can be heard all over the state. About three weeks ago, Austin Cable, an East Tennessee State University student and Student Government Association senator started a petition on to raise the adjunct professor pay at the school from $600 to $1,000 per credit hour, or $3,000 for a standard three-credit-hour class. The petition has almost 2,000 signatures.

“Adjunct professors are currently making poverty level wages for teaching hundreds of students,” Cable states in the petition.

MTSU professors don’t fare any better.

According to MTSU’s annually published rate of compensation for adjunct professors, the compensation is split into four “levels” of pay. Level one is $550 per credit hour for adjuncts who hold a master’s degree or other “demonstrated competencies and achievements that contribute to effective teaching and student learning outcomes.” Level two is $600 per credit hour for those with level one credentials plus three years of professional experience or a terminal degree in the teaching discipline, or special qualifications for the teaching assignment, or limited availability of candidates for the assignment. Level three is $650 per credit hour for those with level one credentials plus 6 years of professional experience, or a terminal degree in the teaching discipline and 3 years of professional experience, or unusual qualifications for the teaching assignment, or very limited availability of candidates for the assignment. Finally, level four is $700 per credit hour for those with level one credentials plus 9 years of professional experience or a terminal degree in the teaching discipline and 6 years of professional experience, or exceptional qualifications for the teaching assignment, or extremely limited availability of candidates for the assignment. The chairperson of each department determines the level at which an adjunct is hired.

There are currently 241 adjunct professors teaching courses at the university. Some departments only employ one to two adjuncts, but others, such as MTSU’s Music Department, have as many as 32 adjuncts. 

Marissa Richmond, an MTSU adjunct professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said that the lack of substantial benefits is a heavy burden on many educators in Tennessee.

“We’ve gone several years where we have gotten no raises whatsoever, and we’re still teaching, in some cases, full loads and teaching the same classes as many of our colleagues,” Richmond said. “We feel that we should be paid better.”

“In Tennessee, historically, there has been a lack of support for public education, and it’s been frustrating at the lack of support and not willing to spend the money,” Richmond added.

Richmond noted that, while she believes the pay should indeed be raised, it’s not the only change needed to support the efforts of adjuncts.

“I’m much more concerned on a personal level on the lack of health care benefits and that I have to provide my own health insurance,” Richmond said. “It’s not just the pay. It’s the lack of benefits.”

MTSU adjuncts are only permitted to teach two classes per semester, unlike ETSU adjuncts who are permitted to teach up to three. In accordance with the state policy, adjuncts at MTSU are not eligible for sick leave, insurance and/or retirement benefits.

Like ETSU, however, MTSU representatives have been joining the fight for adjunct professors. The university chapter of the United Campus Workers Union have taken part in lobbying for a House and Senate bill to be created in the Tennessee General Assembly, which would raise adjunct professor pay from $600 to $1,000 per credit hour in the state.

The union came up with the bills, SB0775 and HB0707, and found Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Dwayne Thompson to sponsor them, respectively. Both the House and Senate bill were introduced on Feb. 5.

Thompson, the sponsor of the House bill, said that if one factors in all of the time spent teaching classes, meeting with students, answering emails, etc., adjuncts generally make less than $10 an hour.

“It’s way too low for someone with the education or the expertise needed to teach these classes,” Thompson said.

According to Yarbro and Thompson, the bills won’t be passed in this session due to a lack of funding to achieve the adjunct raises. The funding would come from the state and come with the requirement to be specifically used for the purpose of adjunct raises. Yarbro told Sidelines that the cost to implement this would be around $25 million.

The UCW MTSU chapter and members from all over the state visited the capitol on “Lobby Day,” which took place on March 6, and spoke to representatives regarding the importance of the bill’s goal.

Michael Principe, an MTSU philosophy professor and vice president of MTSU’s UCW chapter, said that much of the lobbying centered on garnering awareness.

“Part of it is getting members of the legislature to understand what adjuncts are,” Principe said. “I think that’s true of many people … I make a point in my classes to bring up (adjuncts) … Students are often quite surprised when they hear about the salaries of adjuncts and that they haven’t been raised in several years.”

“The low pay for adjuncts isn’t just their exploited labor,” Principe added. “It’s bad for students, and it’s bad for the campus community. Adjuncts often work at multiple campuses and don’t have an office. It’s hard for them to be available to students where they ought to be.”

Another UCW member and MTSU professor, Kari Neely, said she got involved with the issue because she was disheartened by the continual lack of raises for adjuncts at the university.

“I’ve been at the university for 12 years, and everytime we go to our faculty meeting at the beginning of the year, the highlight of that meeting is the confirmation of the percentage raise as faculty and staff … with the exception of adjuncts,” Neely said. “It’s abysmal what they’re paid.”

Neely believes that the lack of raises could be due to the fact that extra money for faculty raises is generally reserved for full-time faculty. In a MTSU Board of Trustees meeting in June, a 1.5 percent salary increase for employees was approved and a plan to adjust faculty salaries based on market values was formulated. MTSU President Sidney McPhee later clarified, however, that the raises did not apply to adjunct faculty, temporary employees, graduate assistants or student workers.

Neely worked as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Michigan before coming to MTSU, and at that university, graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts were all part of a union. Due to this, they received competitive wages and health care.

Both Yarbro and Thompson have requested that the comptroller’s office do a study on the financial aspects of the adjunct raises in the state during the interim period between assembly sessions. Thompson said they fully intend to bring the bills back next year.

“I think there’s been increase in the cost for higher education and a decrease in public support for higher education,” Yarbro said. “Those two things have led there to be squeezes and stagnancies in other parts of the institutions.”


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