The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to the writing or editing of 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 his opinions and expertise and does not speak for the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars from across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every two weeks.
In a December 19 column in the Bangor Daily News, the president of Husson College argued that the university is an excellent investment, worthy of public support. In order to maintain high-quality educational opportunities in Maine, we must also support the professors who teach the classes.
The “complementarity” of higher education has taken place over decades. Non-tenured professors (NTTs) face an ever-increasing workload, but generally lack job security, fair compensation, and access to professional development. We learn to use new technologies and keep up with knowledge in our field at our own expense. Most part-time faculty in the University of Maine system currently earn less than $5,000 per course. This allows us to create new courses or update curricula, teach a 15-week semester, and grade final work. Many of us also support students who are having academic or personal difficulties. By comparison, the University of Maine football coach and new athletic director each make around $250,000 a year. Michael Laliberte stepped down from his appointment as president of the University of Maine at Augusta after faculty objections, but could still earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for not working. We have enough resources to further value front-line faculty if we choose to.
The difference between full-time and part-time faculty can rarely be noticeable to students (or tuition-paying parents), and most of us work hard to keep it that way. However, 72% of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent faculty across the country. As of fall 2021, part-time instructors at the University of Southern Maine outnumber full-time faculty. Auxiliaries teach about half of the courses in the Maine community college system. Higher education depends on precarious, low-paid professors to balance budgets. Many of us remain in these roles throughout our careers. The cost is high for workers – stories of extreme overwork and desperate financial situations abound.
Women, and especially women of color, are overrepresented in the casual labor pool. These instructors provide more than their fair share of unpaid emotional labor, including supporting students who may be struggling with significant issues and the ongoing pandemic has only made teaching (and learning) more difficult. . Universities rarely offer part-time options for caregivers, and the penalty for motherhood is extreme. Sexual harassment drives many people out of tenure-track positions, and systemic racism leads to disproportionately white tenure. We will not achieve the so-called goals of greater diversity in higher education until we address these issues.
Addition is often bad for students. Part-time teachers usually don’t have an office, don’t provide formal guidance, and rarely teach the same student twice. 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 dramatically. It is simply unfair to ask part-time teachers to constantly volunteer to work beyond our contracts, but without stronger relationships, education suffers.
This problem is not unique to Maine or 2022. However, the current increase in unionization offers new hope for solutions. This fall, nontenured faculty at the University of California launched the largest and longest strike in higher education history. Their new contract could be a model for public higher education across the country, including in Maine. The legislature should try again to push forward a bill that would place faculty and staff on the university’s board of trustees and future additional members should reflect a strong commitment to public higher education. Faculty welfare is an essential part of a vibrant educational institution, and part-time faculty make up a large portion of higher education in Maine.