The voices of St. Kate’s adjuncts

Just one of the many reminders around campus that encourages students to work for justice. Is St. Kate's living up to these standards in its treatment of adjuncts?

Just one of the many reminders around campus that encourages students to work for justice. Is St. Kate’s living up to these standards in its treatment of adjuncts?

To follow up my articles on the institutional impact of underpaying adjuncts and the economic ability of St. Kate’s to fix this, it now seems appropriate to give the remaining space of this three part series to the voices of adjunct instructors at St. Kate’s. While this by no means speaks to the experience of all adjunct instructors at the university, it is a look into the struggles adjunct instructors face and the inconsistency between their experience and St. Kate’s values.

Dr. Kim Heikkila has been an adjunct at St. Kate’s for 11 years in the history department. Here are some of her experiences at St. Kate’s in her own words:

“One of the arguments schools will traditionally make about using adjuncts is that it allows the administration some flexibility so that, depending on enrollment, they don’t have to pay a full time person if they don’t have enough students. And I understand that but St. Kate’s has routinely needed me for three classes a year for about eight years, and that’s a half time position, so it seems like they’ve had the need. A half time contingent faculty member makes more than double what an adjunct makes for the same teaching role, though they are expected perform service on top of teaching, and also receive support for career development and benefits . . . The only motivation is economic, because it’s cheap labor. It’s not about flexibility when I can say look, the department has needed me three courses a year for eight years. You obviously need the courses—it’s about saving money.”

“This is really embarrassing—last year one of my students brought up the department brochure with the courses, professors, etc. and said, ‘I see all of the other faculty listed on ours, why aren’t you on it?’—I guess it’s because I’m an adjunct and the university doesn’t want to hint at any long-term commitment, even after ten years. It was humiliating.”

“I had a book come out, and I think on the back it says I teach at St. Kate’s. Shortly after the book came out, people who had read my book and wanted to contact me tried to get through to me at St. Kate’s. They would call the general St. Kate’s number and, even though I was teaching again the following semester, my contract hadn’t been finalized again so my name wasn’t on the department directory. So, the operator was telling people who were calling about my book ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t know who she is.’ It’s that institutional invisibility that’s so hurtful.”

“If I wanted to go to department meetings or gatherings at St. Kate’s, it was all on my dime as an adjunct. I had to be careful to not just donate my time just to be included. The school approved my title as ‘visiting assistant professor’ and I can’t even get my name on the department website after over ten years. I’ve asked my department, which has been very supportive, but they said it’s over their heads.”

Another adjunct instructor, Dr. John Harkness, echoes Heikkila’s sentiments about institutional invisibility and donating time and speaks to the structural issues of relying on adjuncts:

“There’s an expectation for instructors to participate in certain meetings and events, but no acknowledgment that we go uncompensated. I don’t want to say pay is the only thing that matters, it’s also about institutional presence and awareness of adjuncts’ situation.”

“It’s a very uneven contractual agreement—we’re expected to fulfill our responsibilities, but if the school were to decide to give the class to a tenured faculty last minute, all of the class prep the adjunct has done goes unpaid. I added up all of the work I was doing for a new course, between time to organize and prepare for the course, grading, time in the classroom, time with students, etc. I was working for less than minimum wage. Do students want their teachers working for less than minimum wage? In most other contexts, when employees are asked or required to do work they’re not compensated for, there’s a term for it: wage theft. And I don’t think wage theft fits in with what we should be standing for as an institution. I’m not sure if that’s the legal definition, but you get the idea. If your primary job is teaching students, and you can’t find the money to pay your teachers, something is off.”

“I understand the economic benefits but it’s damaging to how the whole university works. When adjuncts are hired from semester to semester, it effects communication—some of the classes that form the basis for education for the rest of student’s schooling, and if the teacher doesn’t have a strong basis in St. Kate’s or if they don’t feel that they have the security to do something like limit the class size and protect the attention students are given, it impacts students greatly. I also have no private space to meet with students, unless I use someone else’s office for a short period of time. If you want faculty to serve students the best they can, you need to give them the space and security to do so.”

“I’m very grateful to the school, it does a lot of things well, and the other teachers I’ve interacted with are devoted; I just think there’s a blind spot with administration about how underpaying and underappreciating adjuncts is a structural problem that undermines the institution.”

 

When we read these experiences and look to St. Kate’s values, the blind spot is undeniable. According to stkate.edu we are given the resources to “learn firsthand about the social, environmental, economic and political issues that affect the planet and its people, and to imagine yourselves as capable change agents in shaping fair social structures . . . We teach you the skills to grapple with ethical dilemmas at college, in the workplace and in the community — while staying true to your own principles. As a St. Kate’s graduate, there’s one thing you can count on: You won’t be afraid to take risks. And every decision you ponder, you’ll think about how it will affect not just you — but others around you . . . Throughout our history, the fundamental platform on which St. Kate’s was built — our mission, our heritage and our reputation for academic excellence — remains.”

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