21 years, no raise: Adjunct teacher pay at center of ETSU rally

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For some adjunct professors at East Tennessee State University, a 40-hour work week isn’t enough to cover the bills. 

It’s something that some students on campus are trying to change.

Adjunct professors are considered part-time faculty hired on a contractual basis by the university. Unlike tenured professors, adjunct professors are paid by the credit hour, with a base rate of $600 per credit hour per semester. 

That base rate hasn’t been increased by the Tennessee Board of Regents in 21 years.

Zachary James is one of 36 adjunct teachers in the university’s Literature and Language Department. He’s been teaching Japanese classes for two years at ETSU, starting when he was fresh out of graduate school. 

He said the university pays him $600 per credit hour per semester. Since adjuncts are part-time, they can teach no more than three classes per semester. Even teaching three classes each semester and summer classes, James said he doesn’t make more than $15,000 per year. 

He has a second job teaching a martial arts class at ETSU’s Basler Center for Physical Activity and picks up odd jobs throughout the year to help make ends meet. 

And he considers himself fortunate as an adjunct professor.

“I’m very lucky because I get to teach three classes this semester,” he said. “At three classes, I pull about $5,400 a semester after taxes. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be in a different department where I would be paid less.”

Job postings on East Tennessee State University’s website for adjunct faculty seek “highly-qualified individuals” with either a master’s degree or “extensive work experience.” One application for an English position offers $1,800 per 3-credit course.

With the three-class cap taken into consideration, equals a possible $5,400 per semester, or $10,800 per year without summer courses.

The positions are also labeled as temporary with “some opportunity for renewal.” Adjunct faculty positions do not include medical benefits or university benefits like access to the CPA, James said. 

“At any time, I could lose my job, and that’s hard because I love this job,” James said. “When I see my students actually learning and challenging themselves and realizing that learning Japanese isn’t as hard as they initially thought, and they can do this, that makes my day.” 

ETSU Cheif Communications Officer Joe Smith said adjunct pay is based on several factors – he said adjuncts in graduate programs make more than those in undergrad, and that there are discrepancies in pay depending on the department.

Michael Hoff, chief planning officer at ETSU, said in a statement on Wednesday that faculty salaries are on the university’s radar. 

“Since last fall, ETSU has been studying staffing related to the instructional mission of the university, including the role of adjunct faculty, and is using data to identify ways to enhance faculty salaries and provide a high-quality education,” the statement said. “Decisions regarding salaries for adjuncts are made at the college level, and these salaries vary by program.”  

James said that even though he’s considered part-time on paper, workweeks toward the end of the semester can equate to 45 hours per week for him once he factors in class planning and grading. 

Because of the unpredictable nature of his job, he said it’s difficult to find a stable source of supplemental income. 

“I’ve tried taking on a third job and most places say they can’t work with my schedule or the commute is too far away,” he said.

Austin Cable, a senator in ETSU’s Student Government Association, co-sponsored a university-wide bill to give raises to adjuncts on campus.

The bill passed the SGA in a nearly-unanimous vote and is awaiting action from President Brian Noland.

According to the SGA bill, 517 adjunct professors provide about one-fourth of the classes at ETSU and 35 percent of introductory classes.

Efforts to raise adjunct pay statewide are moving through the Tennessee General Assembly, too – if passed, HB0707 would raise the base adjunct pay to $1,000 per credit hour, almost twice the current base rate at ETSU.

In the meantime, Cable has helped organize a rally in support of adjunct faculty on campus. The rally will be April 10 from 3-4 p.m. in Borchuck Plaza. 

Cable said his research into adjunct faculty made him realize how far-reaching the issue has become. 

“As a student, I’m paying a lot of money to go here, and I really would like to receive the best quality of education as possible,” Cable said. “Part of that is paying your teachers enough so they don’t have to take jobs at other universities or do other things to compensate for the low amount of salary that they make here.” 

And James agrees. 

“I don’t want people to come off thinking that I think this is a bad job,” he said. “It’s just I would like to be able to do my job and be focused on this job, and it’s hard to focus on doing that job properly when you’re worried about your lights going out.”

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