Students mill about on the University of Maine's Orono campus Nov. 3, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Kimberly Simmons is a part-time associate professor at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

In a Dec.19 column in the Bangor Daily News, the president of Husson College argued that college is an excellent investment, worthy of public support. In order to maintain high quality educational opportunities in Maine, we must also support the faculty who teach the classes.

The “adjunctification” of higher education occurred over decades. Non-Tenure Track (NTT) faculty experience an ever increasing workload, but typically lack job security, fair compensation and access to professional development. We learn how to use new technology and keep up with scholarship in our field at our own expense. Most part-time faculty in the University of Maine System currently earn under $5,000 per course. This pays for us to create new courses or update syllabi, teach a 15-week semester, and grade final work. Many of us also support students who are struggling academically or personally. In comparison, the University of Maine football coach and the new athletic director each earn about $250,000 annually. Michael Laliberte withdrew from his appointment as president of the University of Maine at Augusta after faculty objections, but could still earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to not work. We have enough resources to more fully value frontline faculty if we choose.

The difference between full and part-time faculty may rarely be noticeable for students (or tuition paying parents), and most of us work hard to keep it that way. However, 72 percent of undergraduate classes are taught by contingent faculty across the country. In the fall of 2021, University of Southern Maine part-time instructors outnumbered full-time faculty. Adjuncts teach about half of the courses in Maine’s community college system. Higher education depends on precarious low-wage faculty to balance budgets. Many of us remain in these roles for our entire career. The cost is high for workers — stories of extreme over-work and desperate financial situations are plentiful.  

Women, and especially women of color, are over-represented in the contingent labor pool. These instructors provide more than their fair share of uncompensated emotional labor, including supporting students who may be struggling with significant problems and the ongoing pandemic has only made teaching (and learning) harder. Universities rarely offer part-time options for caregivers, and the motherhood penalty is extreme. Sexual harassment drives many out of tenure track positions, and systemic racism results in a disproportionately white tenure track. We will not achieve purported goals for more diversity in higher education until we address these problems.

Adjunctification is often bad for students. Part-time faculty typically do not have office space, do not provide formal advising, and rarely teach the same student twice. The relationships that fuel intellectual development take time. As we navigate education in a pandemic, the intensity and time it takes to do a good job has increased significantly. It is simply unfair to ask part-time faculty to constantly volunteer to work beyond our contracts, but without stronger relationships education suffers.

This problem is not unique to Maine or to 2022. However, the current rise of labor organizing provides new hope for solutions. This fall, University of California non-tenure track faculty launched the largest and longest strike in higher education history. Their new contract may be a blueprint for public higher education across the country, including in Maine. The Legislature should try again to advance a bill that would place faculty and staff onto the University Board of Trustees and additional future members should reflect a strong commitment to public higher education. The wellbeing of faculty is an essential element of a vibrant educational institution and part-time faculty are a big part of higher education in Maine.