Titles highlight disparities in resources, pay among URI faculty

Adjunct professor, senior lecturer, assistant professor: three job titles that often look the same on the surface to unknowing students, yet have very different job distinctions on closer inspection. 

At the University of Rhode Island and institutions across the country, there are three main faculty distinctions: part-time faculty members (adjuncts), tenure-stream professors (assistant professors, associate professors, professors) and non-tenure-stream professors (lecturers, senior lecturers, teaching professors). Each title for a full-time professor indicates a promotion as well as a rise in seniority for the professor.

While faculty with tenure status have job security, benefits, decent salaries and the freedom to choose the classes they teach first, adjunct professors lack similar luxuries. Adjuncts are paid for each course they teach per semester and often find out their courses only a few months before the semester begins and receive the last choice of classes after full-time faculty members. 

URI English Professor Carolyn Betensky is an advocate for adjunct faculty rights. Along with other professors from higher education institutions around the country, she began Tenure for the Common Good, an organization working to “reverse the trend towards hiring more and more adjunct faculty,” to create more equitable labor conditions in academia.

According to Betensky, in the past universities throughout the country were primarily made up of tenure-track faculty. Adjunct positions and titles were commonly reserved for experts or guests wanting to offer professional expertise in a one-off class. 

Around 2000, a shift towards hiring more adjunct faculty members began, since it is cheaper for universities to hire these per-course professors than to welcome more professors into the tenure-stream track. 

“The reason it’s possible for universities to hire so many per course instructors is when you invest so many years of your life doing this research that you’ve done to get a Ph.D., a lot of people love teaching,” Betensky said. “A lot of people love research. There’s a lot of talent there, and a lot of passion and a lot of commitment, so then that’s why people do it.” 

While many adjunct faculty members are actively looking to pursue the per course positions, others are also full-time employees elsewhere, teaching on the side or teaching courses after their professional career ends.
At URI, about 34 percent of faculty members are adjuncts, according to data from College Factual. The national average of part-time faculty members within the teaching body of an institution is 51 percent. According to Betensky, the national average salary per course is $3,000 a semester, and at URI, adjunct faculty members receive approximately $5,000 per course.

The Part-time Faculty Union (PTFU) represents the approximate 500 part-time faculty members at URI. The mission statement of the PTFU is to “promote and preserve the professional integrity and economic well-being of all members of the URI Part-Time Faculty.”

PTFU President Edward Inman III said that many adjunct faculty members are looking to become full-time faculty members, while others enjoy being part-time, per-class professors.

“We do teach a lot of classes, and the full-time faculty are doing other things, whether it’s research or teaching their own classes, or whatever the case may be,” Inman said. “But we do pick up a lot of the slack, and we do a lot of work, but gladly so that we do it.”

Mary Ann Gallo is an adjunct professor in the communications and public relations departments in the Harrington School of Communication and Media. She has been an adjunct professor at URI since 2014, while also teaching other institutions around Rhode Island. 

Currently, Gallo is teaching three courses in the Harrington School, an increase from her usual two-course load each semester. Gallo said that she often gets to choose her classes from a selection after full-time faculty have chosen. Over the years, the University has gotten better about notifying adjuncts in advance they will be rehired for the following semester, according to her. She said that this gives adjuncts a stronger sense of job security with the courses being planned and offered further in advance.

According to Gallo, she found out what courses she would likely be teaching for the spring 2021 semester on Nov. 9, 2020, giving her over two months to prepare. 

“It’s just how it works,” Gallo said. “As an adjunct, you know that going in, too. I don’t feel less important because of [being an adjunct]. I would hope the University regards me. I teach the same class as somebody, for example, who’s full-time, so that has to give us some equity there.” 

Keith Labelle is a full-time faculty member at URI but he also teaches as an adjunct professor and is one of the two at-large representatives on the PTFU board, in addition to his work as assistant director of the Bystander Intervention Program. Labelle has instructed courses in gender and women’s studies, communications and community service departments.

“You would think that people would complain more, but honestly, I think that most part-time faculty are just happy to be getting a paycheck, happy to have a job,” Labelle said. “We just think that part-time faculty deserve, obviously not as much as full-time faculty, but deserve to get paid what we’re worth.”
While being an adjunct is often sporadic and pays significantly less than other professor positions, non-tenure stream full-time faculty members also face similar challenges. 

According to Betensky, faculty members in the lecturer category receive the same benefits as tenure-track faculty and are part of the full-time faculty union, however receive significantly less pay for significantly more work oftentimes. Lecturer category full-time faculty members often teach more classes, have less access or ease to conducting research and are not allowed to serve on the URI Faculty Senate. 

“I don’t think you could find a lecturer who would say ‘I’m not happy to be a lecturer instead of a part-time adjunct,’” Betensky said. “It’s a lot better, and URI is to be commended for that. It’s better, but it’s a compromise and it’s a problem. We have to stop balancing budgets on the backs of people who are teaching the students we claim to care about.”

Betensky similarly highlighted the difficulty that lecturers face applying for tenure-track jobs. This is because they don’t have the same research resources as a non-tenure faculty member to propel themselves as a research-driven applicant that’s typically sought after.
“If you want to get your foot in the door, if you want to hope to get a tenure-track job, you have to publish as if you had a tenure-track job,” Betensky said. “And can you imagine how demoralizing it is for people getting Ph.Ds, and then they get these $3,000 a semester gigs.” 

However, Inman believes that in many cases, previous teaching experience as an adjunct professor gives applicants an advantage when applying for a full-time tenure or non-tenure-track position. Classroom experience and student feedback both make a difference in applying for full-time positions, according to him.

Miriam Reumann is a teaching professor in the history department and president of URI’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the full-time faculty union that represents both tenure track and non-tenure-track faculty members. 

As a non-tenure-track faculty member herself, Reumann can recognize the differences between professors’ titles, but advocates for them equally in AAUP. The number of tenure faculty members and the number of lecturer faculty members varies throughout the University by college, as well as at the department level. 

  “There are some departments that sort of hire and use lecturers differently, there are some that are totally dependent on them, where they do the vast bulk of the teaching,” Reumann said. “There are others where there’s a small number of lecturers, and they’re kind of well integrated into the department. And we do pretty much what our tenured colleagues do, we just do a little more of it and get paid less.”

Reumann said that her department, history, has hired non-tenure-track applicants into the tenure stream. However, she also said this is unusual for a department to do, and gave the history department credit for doing so.

Despite the strong efforts in unions like the AAUP and the PTFU to ensure their faculty members are treated fairly and receive appropriate compensation, the difference between the different types of faculty members is rarely recognized or considered by students. 

When students sign up for classes, most don’t consider what types of professors are teaching their courses. 

“At URI, I really doubt students notice, acknowledge or pay attention to [faculty status],” Reumann said. “They’re interested in, what kind of a teacher is this person? Do they give feedback? Am I interested in their style?” 

Faculty status does affect students, as part-time faculty members can’t advise students on what classes to take or tell them what class they can sign up to take with the same professor in the future. 

This same ignorance is not the case among faculty members, though, who are generally aware of the distinction between adjunct, tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors. 

“Among faculty, there has been a history of some suspicion, and occasionally condescension, between ranks,” Reumann said. “I think that again, the more openly we acknowledge that this is the University system we have, and if we want to change it, it behooves us to know how it works and articulate what changes we want. The more of that we can do, the better.”