By Lynn Arditi
Published August 2, 2015
Barbara Silliman earned a Ph.D. in English literature, but it didn’t help her land her latest job: cashier.
For nearly two decades, Silliman, 62, has been teaching part-time at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Providence College. But she has never managed to land a full-time faculty position. So to pay her bills, she took a $9-an-hour job at BJ’s Wholesale Club.
Just over half of the faculty at Rhode Island’s three public colleges — about 1,500 people — teach part-time, according to a Providence Journal analysis of 2013 federal U.S. Department of Education data.
A recent study published in The Journal of Higher Education concluded that more than 70 percent of part-time instructors surveyed in 2010-11 wanted full-time teaching jobs but couldn’t find them.
Across the country, colleges and universities have tried to keep costs down by filling out their faculty ranks with part-time instructors. Nationally, part-time faculty, sometimes called adjuncts, make up about half of all higher education faculty — up from 20 percent in 1970, according to a 2014 U.S. House Committee report, “The Just-In-Time Professor.”
Part-time professors generally are paid by the credit hour, earning a fraction of the salaries of full-time faculty. And part-timers typically have no job security and no medical benefits.
Traditionally, part-time teaching positions were filled by professionals in other industries who taught on the side or who were recently retired — and those positions still exist today. But now there is a new class of permanent part-timers who survive on the academic fringes, teaching at multiple colleges and universities.
In New York City, these itinerant teachers are sometimes called “subway schleppers,” and in California, “freeway fliers.” And they’ve joined unions to press their demands for better pay and job security.
In Rhode Island, they are people such as Bruce G. Johnson, who moved from California to Rhode Island in the mid-1990s to study for a Ph.D. in English literature at URI.
Johnson, who was raised in an upper-middle-class family in a Los Angeles suburb, keeps reaching for academia’s brass ring — the tenure-track job — and missing it. Publishing more might help, he said, but he can’t find the time. “It’s a Catch 22,’’ he said. So he pours his energy into part-time teaching gigs.
“One semester I was in four different schools, in two different states,” Johnson said, “teaching six different courses.’’
Even with a heavy course load, he said, his teaching pay amounts to just $15,000 to $20,000 per semester. He works summers — and many weekends and holidays during the school year — waiting tables at a restaurant in Newport. About 40 percent of his income in 2014, he said, came from his restaurant job.
Neither of his jobs offer health benefits, which he buys through the state’s health-care exchange for about $7,500 per year.
At 53, he lives in an apartment in Johnston, has no retirement savings and drives a 17-year-old car with 120,000 miles on it.
“I mostly live check to check,’’ he said.
Johnson said he understands that full-time faculty are paid more because they have additional responsibilities, such as publishing and committee work. But he says some part-timers teach heavier course loads than full-timers and aren’t being fairly compensated.
“We’re not claiming that we’re equals,’’ Johnson said. “But we do a heck of a lot of work, and a lot of us have to teach more than full-timers do just to pay the bills.”
At URI, for example, the lowest-paid full-time faculty, lecturers, earn $42,420 a year plus benefits. Lecturers are required by contract to teach at least six courses a year, three per semester, though the university’s vice provost for academic finances said the “vast majority” teach eight courses per year.
That breaks down to between $143 and $1,174 more per credit hour than the university pays its entry-level part-time faculty.
But full-time faculty also are expected to do scholarly research, publish their work and use their expertise to serve their communities, the state and the nation, said Clifford H. Katz, the university’s vice provost for academic finances and academic personnel.
“We appreciate the contributions that our part-time faculty make in assisting us in delivering our curriculum,’’ Katz said. But “their contribution is different” from that of the full-time faculty.
“Our full-time faculty are fully engaged in teaching the curriculum,” he said. “The part-time faculty are only teaching one or two [courses] a semester or two or four an academic year.”
In June, a group of about 30 unionized part-time faculty from the University of Rhode Island and their supporters from Rhode Island Jobs With Justice protested what they said are “poverty wages” at a board meeting of the state’s Office of Postsecondary Education.
Ken Jolicoeur, 56, supports his wife, Grace Jolicoeur, and 21-month-old son, Dylan, on a part-time teaching income, which has gotten smaller because two college courses he usually teaches in the summer have been canceled. The Providence Journal/Bob Breidenbach
Among them was Kenneth Jolicoeur, 56, of Woonsocket. He supports his wife, Grace, and their 21-month-old son, Dylan, on his part-time teaching income.
In 2014, he earned about $52,000, he said, by teaching 10 courses — four each semester at URI and Rhode Island College plus two during the summer. (He’s a “level 3” part-timer, which means he earns $5,148 for each four-credit course.)
Jolicoeur, who has a master’s degree in English from Rhode Island College, never got a Ph.D. so he wouldn’t qualify for most full-time faculty jobs. But for 20 years he supplemented his teaching by working 10 to 15 hours a week in URI’s Office of Special Programs.
In late 2012 the university informed him that, as a part-time employee, he couldn’t work more than 20 hours a week, and in the fall of 2013 he was terminated from his administrative job, according to university records he provided to The Journal. Jolicoeur filed a grievance and an arbitrator ruled in his favor. The university has appealed to Superior Court.
This year, RIC canceled its summer program for incoming freshmen, for which Jolicoeur usually taught a course. And the summer class at URI that he was scheduled to teach was under-enrolled and subsequently canceled.
“For the first time in my life,’’ he said, “I’m unemployed.’’
He said he’s spending some of his summer redesigning one of his courses for the fall.
The mortgage on Jolicoeur’s house is paid off and he has a small savings. But he and his wife want to send their son to parochial school, he said, and he worries about how they’ll pay for it.
Until the part-time faculty formed a union in 2010, they remained largely “invisible,” said Dorothy F. Donnelly, the retired English professor and activist who helped organize URI/Part-Time Faculty United. The union, which represents URI’s 450-500 part-time faculty, is in federal mediation talks for a new contract. Their first and only contract expired in 2012.
The unionization of part-timers is part of a national movement, Donnelly said, “to address these issues of low pay, no benefits, no guarantee of courses for the next year and being totally ignored.”
But Donnelly, who had a 30-year career as a tenured professor, is the exception, say members of the part-time faculty. The full-time faculty, they say, has remained largely silent about the concerns of their part-time colleagues.
That angers Johnson, the part-time professor who waits tables in Newport.
“So much is published [by academics] about trying to help the rights of the oppressed and the marginalized,’’ Johnson said. “What about the guy standing next to you trying to make a living who shares an office?”
Frank R. Annunziato, executive director of the URI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which represents full-time faculty, said his members are sympathetic to the part-timers’ demands for higher pay.
“Most full-timers I know of,’’ he said, “want to see the part-timers get more money.’’
But URI’s full-time faculty union, he said, doesn’t support the part-timers’ demand that they be allowed to teach more than two courses per semester.
“Otherwise,’’ he said, “they’ll be taking jobs away from us.”
Always ask to see the member’s card, the younger woman instructed. Scan large items in the cart first. And keep a wet paper towel next to the register for separating sticky bills.
When she’s not behind the register, Silliman lectures about the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” about a washerwoman who toils long hours in a small Central Florida village.
Silliman, who grew up working-class, is accustomed to hard work. To pay her bills, she’s worked as a sales clerk, secretary and on the night registration desk at a hospital emergency room. If she tells people about her professional life at all, she said, she’ll usually just say she’s a teacher. “I don’t ever want anyone to feel I’m looking down on them.”
It was almost dinner and a line had begun to form in BJ’s. A customer with a full shopping cart rolled up. Silliman drew in a breath and shoved an empty cart, for loading purchases, next to her register.
“Definitely more physical,” she said, “than grading papers.’’
— firstname.lastname@example.org (401) 277-7335 On Twitter: @LynnArditi