Stomp: Adjunct faculty take on Santa Fe Community College administration over wages, benefits

From Santa Fe Reporter:

walk through the hallways of Santa Fe Community College’s ultramodern Trades and Advanced Technology Center reveals the focus the college puts on preparing its students for a rapidly expanding global economy.

Its rooftop is lined with panels for hands-on experience in the growing solar industry. Workshops and classrooms serve as incubators for students studying contemporary vocations like biofuel technologies and weatherization installation.

Inside one classroom, Miranda Merklein is instructing a technical writing class of 14 students, teaching them basics about landing these “jobs of the future.” 

She reviews several keywords and phrases, warning her students that leaving them out of their cover letters and résumés could mean their applications never see the light of day in a human resources department.

“This is the key to breaking through HR,” Merklein tells her students, who range from early adulthood to middle age.

But the conversation quickly shifts to the state of the economy, something that Merklein says is impossible to ignore when discussing job applications. One student, Zane Armijo, laments about the difficulty people fresh out of college have today when trying to convince employers to hire them for professional jobs.   

“They always require experience, but then you can’t get experience because you didn’t have a job before that,” he says. “And it’s just this endless cycle of not getting a job. So basically, you have to know someone in some job to get a job.” 

Merklein responds to Armijo with understanding.  

“What’s happening now is you go to school, you get your BA or your master’s, and you’re done,” she says without reassurance. “And then it’s like, ‘Well, you don’t have experience, so you can be an intern. You can work for free.’”

“Unpaid intern,” interjects a chuckling Julie Jones, who’s also here to learn.

“Yeah, unpaid intern,” Merklein says. “Or extremely low-wage intern.”

One student, Alan Richards, interjects about how he didn’t get hired for a job because he was overqualified. Another mentions that her father, an engineer with 40 years of experience, currently can’t find work because of the same reason.

"WHEN YOUR JOB DEPENDS ON A SEMESTER-TO-SEMESTER CONTINGENT APPOINTMENT, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT SOMETHING CONTROVERSIAL"

Merklein says she sometimes combats the problem by leaving her English doctorate degree off of her résumé. She uses body language to make her next point, lowering her right hand to near her waist. “The workers are down here,” she says.

She raises her left hand near her head. “The administrators are up here. They’re making executive salaries. The Walmartization of everything is what we’re dealing with in many fields. You put all the risk on the bottom. The workers carry the risk. The workers are disposable. They have no bargaining power.”

Merklein isn’t shy to talk about her own employment dilemma. As an adjunct professor, last year she made just $28,500 before taxes for teaching 14 classes between SFCC and Northern New Mexico College in Española. During the spring and fall semesters, she estimates she put in at least 60 hours each week for class time and preparation. During the summer, she says she still puts in full-time hours.  

Her income comes in stark contrast with that of the community college’s full-time faculty staffers, who make around $54,000 a year plus benefits and teach roughly five courses a semester. Across the country, full-time higher education faculty make an average salary of $86,293 between all professor ranks.

Contracts come to Merklein on a semester-by-semester basis, and no job security means that adjuncts can’t pursue topics in the classroom as freely as full-time professors, she argues. She’s not alone in her assessment.

“When your job depends on a semester-to-semester contingent appointment, you are not going to open your mouth about something controversial,” says Jason Elias, the western regional coordinator for the American Association of University Professors, which defines academic freedom as “the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

But as her teaching style in her technical writing class illustrates, Merklein doesn’t worry about this anymore. “Even though I don’t have academic freedom, I’m going to act like I do,” she tells SFR. “I’m going to teach as though I had tenure. And if I get fired, then I get fired.”

Her only hope forward, she says, now lies with how successful adjunct professors become in organizing and bargaining for their rights. SFCC has been in a tumultuous era. Last winter, the community college’s governing board voted to fire President Ana “Cha” Guzmán over concerns about her management and leadership style. Randy Grissom, who then served as interim vice president of academic affairs, quickly succeeded Guzmán as interim president of the college in January.

Just last month, the board gave Grissom a three-year contract to stay on as president. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing.

Earlier this summer Grissom announced that the college was facing a $5 million budget deficit and needed to cut wages and lay off 2.5 percent of its staff.

The problem, he maintained, grew from the previous administration’s poor financial projections. 

Through all of this, adjuncts like Merklein contend that they’ve been ignored by the administration.

After class, Merklein pins a small white button with red letters reading “AAUP” to her shirt, representing the professors association that advocates for faculty and can act as a union in higher education institutions. Merklein, 36, is interim president of the college’s AAUP chapter, which formed only last spring.

 

Adjunct faculty outnumber full-time faculty at SFCC by a 3 to 1 ratio.
Peter Sills

 

She didn’t adopt her firm stances on adjunct teaching until recently. Previously, Merklein worked as a journalist. She holds a master’s degree from St. John’s College and a doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi.

In 2011 she began teaching college, becoming an adjunct the next year at SFCC—the same place where she started taking courses a decade before. For the next year, she kept relatively quiet, attempting to work her way up the career ladder and become full time.

“I already knew adjuncts were being exploited,” Merklein says. “I just thought that eventually I might be able to still get that full-time position.” Things changed last fall when, after not making much career progress, she came across an article written in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “Death of an Adjunct,” the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who died in abject poverty after a 25-year career of teaching French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Duquesne didn’t renew Vojtko’s contract to teach in the fall of 2013. Afterwards, Vojtko didn’t receive retirement benefits or a severance package. She lived in a crumbling house, according to the article, and couldn’t afford health care. Soon, Vojtko collapsed and died on her front lawn.

The article sparked a national debate on the growing adjunct field and the modern labor practices of colleges and universities. What little hope Merklein had left of using her adjunct career as a stepping stone withered.

“I got the chills,” she says. “It was then that I knew that I had been deluded, that I was not looking into the matter realistically. My entire consciousness changed.”

Employment trends also aren’t on her side.

In 1975, according to US Department of Education statistics, part-time positions made up 24 percent of higher education faculty jobs in the country. By 2011, that number had swelled to 41 percent.

Community colleges rely on adjuncts even more. Part-time faculty made up 70 percent of new hires at public community colleges in 2009, according to a report released earlier this year by the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Roughly 58 percent of community college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts, according to the same study.

Worse yet are for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix Online Campus, where less than one percent of faculty are full time.

Maria Maisto, president of the Ohio-based New Faculty Majority, attributes the growth in adjunct faculty to decreased public funding that led to solving short-term budget gaps with more part-time employees. What resulted, she says, is a trend toward a corporate model of higher education that includes skyrocketing administrative salaries and scaled-back investments in tenured faculty.

“It’s not unlike what happened in a lot of other sectors in terms of outsourcing,” Maisto says.

To Elias, the trends are alarming, especially given the amount many colleges and universities are making students pay for their education. Seventy percent of college students in the US go into debt to receive a college degree, averaging $29,400 in the hole after graduation.

“I don’t think they want to be taught by folks that can barely make it on the salaries they have,” Elias says. “How can we help students out of poverty when faculty are also living in it?”

Read the full story here.