Part-time faculty deserve full-time support

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • March 5, 2015

At issue: Adjunct professors push for better working conditions and higher pay.

Our take: This is an important labor issue that students should advocate. 

Great teachers can be transformational. They can inspire us to reimagine dull subjects, kindle quests for self-discovery, and even become lifelong confidantes and friends. One might say that a great teacher is invaluable, but of course, our economy forces us to name a price. And part-time Emerson professors say that price is too low.

In the midst of negotiations over a new contract, a group of part-time professors—who said they’re not directly involved with the negotiations—sent letters to President M. Lee Pelton urging the school to better support the adjunct faculty. Currently, a first-year adjunct professor who teaches a full load—four classes—can earn as little as $17,600. That’s less than most students will make after graduation: In a 2013 survey Emerson conducted of alumni, only 19 of 63 respondents earned less than $25,000.

Emerson ought to invest more money into its adjunct professors to incentivize teaching here, and pay hard-working professors what they deserve. A higher salary will give good adjuncts more incentive to teach here, making it easier to attract, hire, and retain professors of the highest quality. 

One reason behind the school’s lackadaisical compensation for adjunct faculty is simply a lack of funding: it’s no secret that Emerson isn’t great about fundraising. In the 2014 fiscal year, 94 percent of the college’s total revenue came from tuition and fees, according to its latest financial statement. Private gifts and grants made up less than one percent of its revenue. 

In fact, Emerson’s largest single donation in history is just $2.5 million, recently contributed by 1958 alumnus Bill Bordy—and, yes, the theater on Tremont Street is named after him, too. Further, his donation was directed specifically to the Emerson Los Angeles fundraising campaign, where is only a drop in the bucket: The campaign intends to raise $20 million in three years, and as of September—a year in—the fundraiser had only raised $2.8 million of its goal.

Since Emerson depends so heavily on tuition, student money has speaking power. Students have lent their voices to other labor issues at this school, and the case being made by adjunct faculty members is another that warrants attention. When food service workers were fighting for union recognition, many Emerson students protested and lobbied side-by-side with the employees who prepare their food. In October, the employees gained union recognition.

Now, Emerson students must show that same support to adjunct professors. Many of these professors enjoy working here and want to continue working here. But already, some have left the college, citing unsustainably low compensation, according to adjunct faculty union president David Kociemba. Students must let the administration know that—whether blue or white collar—workers’ rights matter. 

The relationship between professors and students is a two-way street. Part-time professors are dedicated to their jobs, and to students’ educations, regardless of their limited pay. In return, students should stand by them in solidarity on their journey toward fairer salaries.