DePaul adjuncts face job insecurity on quarter-to-quarter system

February 3, 2020

More than 50 percent of DePaul’s teachers teaching a class each quarter are adjuncts. What most of their students don’t realize is that means they are contracted quarter-to-quarter and are not entitled to benefits like health insurance or FMLA. 

According to the Institutional Research and Market Analytics (IRMA), there were 962 part-time faculty teaching a course in the fall quarter of 2019, compared to 870 full-time faculty. During the previous academic year, there were about 1,350 part-time faculty taught at least one course and adjuncts taught a total of 46 percent of all classes at DePaul. 

Balancing multiple jobs and heavy course loads 

For some of DePaul’s adjuncts, like one who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, working multiple jobs to make ends meet is a common practice. Split between two colleges in the city, they commute between both, balancing teaching, office hours and grading.

“It would be nice to be able to spend a full week on one campus (…) the place in which it matters, or I see a difference is being able to meet with students,” they said. “I’m really only here two days a week.”

They said that hard decisions have to be made as an adjunct that students don’t always see.

“If a student wants to meet and it’s not going to work because I’m on a different campus, that can be frustrating for the students that feels like ‘you’re not there for me?’” they said. “There is literally no recourse sometimes.”

They are one of dozens of adjuncts that teach WRD 103 and WRD 104, two of DePaul’s four mandatory courses, which focus on writing and composition. In WRD 103, 90% of professors that are teaching this course in the winter quarter, are adjuncts. In WRD 104, that number increases to 93%. 

In LSP 120 and 121, it’s more complicated to calculate due to many of the faculty teaching those courses not being listed on either the full-time faculty or adjunct faculty list. In LSP 120, which is one of DePaul’s mandatory mathematics courses, two out of 11 professors are listed as full time. In LSP 121, one out of 7 professors are full time.

Teaching introductory courses can be more difficult for professors for a number of reasons. 

Nancy Lefever, the associate chairman of DePaul’s Workplace Environment Committee (WEC) which was established in 2016 to voice the concerns of adjuncts and an adjunct herself in the Language Arts and Sciences department, said that introductory courses like WRD103 and 104, have a bigger class size.

“My class is capped out and I’ve got a waiting list of 11 students,” Lefever said. “My tenured peers have the luxury of teaching eight or nine hand-picked students.”

Both of Lefever’s courses are capped out at 23 students with a full waiting list of 11 students. According to Lefever, teaching an introductory writing course with 23 students is hard because there is a lot of drafts, revisions and final papers that she has to grade.

A DePaul adjunct, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said that teaching introductory courses are difficult because the courses are often filled with freshmen, leaving them to feel like they are the “front line.”

“We have to teach them about Blue Star, walk them to the Center for Students with Disabilities and talk to them about what to do in case there is a sexual assault,” they said.

Aside from teaching at DePaul, she tries to take on any freelancing assignments that she can due to financial needs. “We try not to but as an adjunct we can’t afford to miss paid work,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Nathan DeWitt, Chairman of WEC, is also an adjunct who takes on freelancing assignments. “That’s the reality of freelance, you say yes to every job ever and figure out how you’re going to make the time work,” he said. “Someone is going to get short-changed and it’s almost always the student.”

Some adjuncts feel under pressure to maintain retention. Lefever believes that balancing responsibilities as an adjunct and personal financial responsibilities can affect freshman retention.

“We’re losing 15 percent of students between the first and second year, it seems like they need to pay a little more attention,” she said.

Lefever wanted to clarify that it is not because adjuncts are doing a poor job, but because of the large class sizes and the large amount of responsibility each adjunct has.

According to Lucy Rinehart, the Associate Provost for Academic Planning and Faculty, said “I don’t know that you can draw a direct line here between adjunct faculty teaching intro-level classes and first-year retention.”

Rinhart said that retention stands at 86 percent, which she says is “way above the mid’ 60 percent national average, and well above what is expected in schools in our peer group.”

DeWitt’s department, the School of Cinematic Arts, has addressed these concerns and a lack of consistency in introductory courses, by having full-time staff teaching the intro courses while adjuncts teach higher-level courses.

An adjunct faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said that the heavy course load affects their ability to pursue their research ambitions.

“Tenure positions are worked off the exploitation of adjuncts,” they said. They said that tenure positions couldn’t pursue their research if they were bogged down by the responsibilities that adjunct faculty are. They said these responsibilities keep them from being able to pursue their own research, thus never being able to have the credentials to become tenure.

The stress of balancing multiple jobs and large class sizes are not the only complaints that DeWitt and Lefever commonly hear. Job security, transparency for reappointment, pay per course and benefit threshold are issues that resound.

Quarter-to-quarter contracts cause job insecurity 

Adjunct professors work on 10-week contracts. Every quarter, a new contract begins with no guarantee that professors will be invited back for another contract. These positions are not just open to new faculty members, but some adjuncts have worked at DePaul for 25 years and beyond.

According to the DePaul Faculty Climate Survey in 2019, about half of part-time faculty want to hold either tenure or full-time positions.

A DePaul adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said “In the back of one’s mind, there is always the question and fear that a course will be cancelled, or that one’s appointment won’t be renewed, and that one’s very minimal livelihood will be significantly diminished or disappear.”

Reappointment is based heavily on student reviews, but some complain that the criteria is not transparent. “In a lot of schools the criteria for how you get another class and whether or not you’ll be hired again is not clear and not clearly communicated,” DeWitt said.

Faculty benefits is a common complaint from adjuncts. In order to be able to buy into health insurance, professors must teach six courses or work 1,000 service hours or a combination of both, in a fiscal year. 

A DePaul adjunct professor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job,  said that they qualified for one year with a combination of courses and service hours. The next year, they taught one less course but contributed three times as much service hours, and were ineligible. 

“It was never fully explained regarding course equivalencies, only that adjuncts had to teach six courses per calendar year,” they said. “ I had thought I’d provided the same services that counted as course equivalencies when my insurance was discontinued for 2020.”

Adjuncts don’t usually have control over what courses they teach or how many.

“Each year I never know if I get to keep the DePaul insurance,” they said.  “It makes managing my health care and finances difficult and maddening.”

“Policies available on the Affordable Care Marketplace ranged from $800 – $1100 per month with a $6,000 – $7,500 deductible,” they said. “ With my DePaul Blue Cross Blue Edge CDHP plan I paid approximately $250 per month with a $2,000 deductible.” 

Courses getting dropped can affect an adjunct’s eligibility. 

A DePaul adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said that “If a course is cancelled due to  low enrollment, one might find oneself below the minimum number of courses for eligibility and thus lose health insurance coverage.” “This is a very precarious position to be in when you have a chronic condition.”

Adjunct professors do not qualify for The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protects employees from losing their job when they take unpaid leave. FMLA is commonly used as maternity leave in the U.S. Pregnant adjuncts are not guaranteed job protection, but rely on their department to hold their position. Taking maternity leave would also affect an adjunct’s health insurance eligibility. DeWitt and Lefever said that these scenarios are possible, but not something they have been faced with yet. 

Something that DeWitt has had to respond to is an adjunct undergoing cancer treatment. The adjunct wanted to remain eligible for health insurance.

“You can’t teach a class if you’re undergoing cancer treatment, but you also need your health insurance if you have cancer,” he said.

In this instance, his department was able to give him the course work he needed when he returned from treatment to remain eligible. However, DeWitt says that “there have been instances like that where solutions have not been worked out.”

An adjunct who has worked at DePaul University for 25 years said that they have not received a raise in 15 years. The adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, used to receive a cost-of-living raise each year. According to DeWitt, there is not a policy that ensures cost-of-living raises for adjunct professors.

DeWitt emphasized that the “adjunct experience is far from ubiquitous.” Although these issues affect adjuncts university-wide, every college is responding to them differently.

Some adjuncts, DeWitt and Lefever pointed out, are happy with the way things are. Teaching isn’t their full-time job, and they view teaching compensation as more of a side job and are not dependent on it.

Second-class citizenship among faculty

Adjuncts have complained to the WEC that they feel like second-class citizens.

“Some colleges have a culture where adjuncts are included and some colleges have a culture where adjuncts are absolutely treated like second-class citizens, or even worse,” DeWitt said. “Some of the things we hear about, adjuncts disrespectfully asked to leave meetings, frankly dehumanizing behavior.”

One adjunct faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said that they “refer to this as the academic caste system.”

Office space is one of the ways that adjuncts feel that there is a discrepancy between full-time staff and adjuncts.

Lefever enjoys her office space, however, she says, “some of our colleagues don’t even have a meeting space. Somewhere where they can speak to a student in private.”

DeWitt said that his office is shared among other adjuncts in his department. He has one shelf and cannot put anything on the walls. 

“I have anything on the walls, it’s very respectfully taken down and placed on that shelf,” he said.

Rinehart points to the WEC as being an effective way to voice the concerns of adjunct faculty.  DeWitt said that they’re voicing their concerns, but as an advisory committee they don’t have bargaining power or leverage.

According to Lefever, they have been able to make effective change. For example, her department is beginning to take into consideration adjunct’s availability and preference when scheduling courses. The WEC has also begun hosting annual receptions honoring adjunct faculty.

For some these efforts are not enough.

According to one adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, “administration having receptions honoring adjunct faculty feel like an attempt to distract from the real precarity of adjunct employment.”

Another thought that echoed from the complaints of adjunct faculty, is the perceived mismatching of DePaul’s Vincentian values and the carrying out of these values.

An adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job, said that “it’s not the Vincentian values that they preach when you take health insurance away from professors.”

DeWitt has heard similar thoughts from adjunct faculty that he has spoken to. “The university has a mission and a set of values that they claim to adhere to, but some of the ways they treat their adjuncts don’t necessarily adhere to these values,” he said. “At a certain point, if you’re not living the values you report to have, it’s not values, it’s marketing.”

“It’s so much more complicated than I thought it was,” DeWitt said. “I feel that every meeting we have it gets a little more complicated.”

CORRECTION (Feb. 4, 2020 9:15 a.m.): An earlier version of this story misstated the number of part-time faculty who want to hold either tenure or full-time positions, according to the 2019 Climate Survey.

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    Gabrielle Rose SimonsFeb 10, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    I’d like to thank The DePaulia, Hannah Mitchell, and all those who spoke out about the difficulties adjunct faculty encounter, even those–and perhaps especially those–who withheld their names. I myself am an adjunct here at DePaul; it’s not my first rodeo and I can say that DePaul is the most evolved of the various institutions I’ve taught at, in terms of showing respect and consideration for adjunct faculty.

    But there is room for improvement.

    I find it heartbreaking that the following phrase occurred TEN times in the article: “A DePaul adjunct, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of endangering their job…” Surely we can examine our collective conscience and ask ourselves why adjuncts are afraid –afraid! — to speak on record?

    The “Guiding Principles for Speech and Expression at DePaul University states “We affirm the right of members of the DePaul community to engage in speech and expression consistent with the values of academic freedom, free inquiry, and civil discourse.” Moreover, the University asserts that its “Mission is built upon the Vincentian ideal of universal dignity in which each person is invaluable and worthy of respect.”

    People who withhold their names for fear of retribution do not feel valued or respected. If we perpetuate a caste system where more than 50 percent of its faculty operates without job security we negate our mission and our ideal of universal dignity.

    There aren’t easy solutions to the adjunct problem that exists here and at almost all university campuses in the U.S. But there are first steps: Will the University uphold its values by issuing a statement that assures adjunct faculty that we will not lose our jobs because we openly speak up about conditions that warrant improvement? Solutions to problems do not happen when discourse is shrouded in fear among the insecure and complacency in the leadership.

    I will not withhold my name, but please don’t confuse my willingness to give my name with temerity. I’m just as afraid as the rest of my precarious colleagues. I do hope, however, to enjoin the DePaul community to foster dialog, transparency, and a commitment to change for the better.

    Gabrielle Rose Simons

  • K

    kristine martinFeb 9, 2020 at 5:23 pm