Karen Thompson has worked at Rutgers-New Brunswick as an adjunct professor in the writing program for more than 40 years.
But come spring, she won’t have a job.
Thompson is among dozens of adjuncts, or part-time lecturers, whose positions have been eliminated, at least for the next semester.
“It was like a lightning bolt,” said Amy Higer, a political scientist and president of the union representing adjuncts at Rutgers, where she has taught for more than 20 years. “It’s so demoralizing.”
The cut follows a larger reduction in adjuncts this semester. The university said it has about 25% fewer adjunct positions this fall compared with last year. The decision was made because of fluctuations in enrollment “as well as efforts by the university to control costs at a time of unprecedented pandemic-related economic pressures,” said spokesperson Dory Devlin.
She said the writing courses at Rutgers-New Brunswick will be taught by full-time faculty and teaching assistants.
Adjuncts have long struggled with difficult working conditions and lack of job security and benefits, often taking positions at multiple schools to make ends meet. In recent years, more have begun to be represented by unions, which have fought for better conditions. Still, when budgets tighten, they often are among the first to take a hit. Some are graduate students finishing their studies. Others are professionals who have turned to teaching, and a growing number, like Higer, are trained as educators and made a career as adjuncts because tenured positions are often hard to come by.
Locally, other universities also have experienced or are bracing for faculty losses.
“There’s no doubt we have adjuncts who would normally teach two courses this fall who are only teaching one or none,” said Steve Newman, the faculty union president at Temple University.
The Temple Association for University Professionals also has heard that a program that employs many adjuncts would be using fewer in the spring, he said. The union is concerned that cutting adjuncts will mean an increase in class size, which isn’t good for students either, he said.
“We are very concerned about it, and we are trying to figure out how to push back against it,” Newman said.
Even before the pandemic hit, Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, encouraged the system’s 14 universities to curtail the use of adjuncts as finances tightened. Seven of the 14 have warned of possible reductions in teaching staff for next fall, though they haven’t specified whether adjuncts would be targeted. Those universities are Mansfield, Lock Haven, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, California, and Cheyney.
At Rutgers University, with campuses in Camden, New Brunswick and Newark, about 2,100 adjunct professors typically teach during any given semester, Higer said. This fall, there are about 1,600, she said.
The writing program is one of the biggest users of adjuncts, Higer said. She estimates 60 have lost their jobs: Rutgers didn’t provide an exact number. Higer said the union found out about the cuts because three of its board members teach in the writing program. Instead of thanking professors who have worked hard to move courses online, they are slapping them in the face, she said.
And the union is concerned more adjuncts could be affected.
“We’re trying to find out who else is on the chopping block," she said.
Other campuses have been impacted by the reduction this fall. Bruce Garrity, a part-time lecturer in the arts program at Rutgers-Camden, said his teaching load was cut in half. He usually teaches four studio and art history classes; this semester, he has two.
Both Higer and Garrity said they don’t believe the reduction in adjuncts was driven solely by the coronavirus.
“They’d like to get rid of adjuncts as much as they can, and they are taking this opportunity to do it,” said Garrity, who has taught at the university since 1997.
The university could find the money, Higer asserted, “if educating students was their priority.”
Thompson, who started at Rutgers in 1979, is indicative of many of the adjuncts in the writing program, who have taught for decades.
“It’s a little funny that we’re called adjuncts,” said Thompson, 75, who helped start the adjunct union decades ago. “I’m going on 42 years.”
She said she participates on university committees for no compensation and has been one of the first to speak out on issues because she cares about Rutgers. She teaches two classes a semester, and her annual salary is about $32,000, thanks to a raise last spring, she said; she was making $25,000.
She said she’s more worried about younger colleagues who can’t collect Social Security and don’t have other work; she could retire, she said.