December 16, 2011
Members of the Campus Community:
Many students, faculty, and staff signed the “Petition for Educational Quality, Fairness & Equity at SUNY New Paltz” advocating for increased compensation for adjunct faculty and related matters. Others are aware of this petition through media reports and communications from the New Paltz UUP Chapter. I appreciate and value when members of the College make their thoughts about this and other matters known to me. However, I believe petitions oversimplify institutional decisions, choices, and possible courses of action, and they typically provide little or no background and context. The issues as presented in the petition do not fully explain the facts and figures around which such important institutional decisions are made. I will attempt to provide that information here.
I respect the views and motivations of those who signed this petition. I also value and respect the excellent contributions that adjunct faculty make to New Paltz and to our students, including those who bring special knowledge and experience of their employment or practice into the classroom. Adjunct faculty teach about 30% of our courses. While this is a sizeable part of our course offerings, it is substantially less than national averages and will decrease even further when our budget-reduction plan is fully realized. Nonetheless, courses taught by adjunct instructors will always be an important part of our offerings.
I will share some of my current thinking about this topic in the context of institutional needs and priorities, and will clarify several points of context missing from the petition as well as serious inaccuracies in the media coverage of this matter. Although some may hold the view that the presentation of a petition necessitates immediate response and action, as I have stated and written elsewhere, I am taking this time early in my presidency to learn more about the College and to assess our most significant needs and directions, including those that will warrant investment of financial resources. I have made and will continue making decisions and pursuing actions that have immediate impact on the College, while learning as much as I can to inform other decisions and actions that have long-term institutional consequences. The subject of adjunct compensation fits into the latter category.
A December 5, 2011 regional newspaper article about adjunct faculty at New Paltz stated “The last time adjuncts got a raise was six years ago.” That statement is patently false. It has had the unfortunate consequence of misleading members of the broader community about New Paltz policies and practices for adjunct compensation. I have been spending time this past week correcting those misimpressions. We have also submitted a letter to the editor to correct these inaccuracies.
The administration has increased adjunct salaries at the same level as negotiated salary increases in the UUP collective bargaining agreement. Such increases are voluntary local agreements, and are not mandated as part of the statewide-negotiated UUP contract. These included increases of 3% in 2006-07, 3% in 2008-09, 3% in 2009-10, and 4% in 2010-11. In other years (including the current year), adjunct salaries did not increase because UUP contract negotiations were ongoing. Once the contract was ratified in 2008, adjuncts received the 3% increase for 2007-08 (delayed), along with the 3% increase for 2008-09 and a prorated per course increase that resulted in an effective increase of more than 10%.. As a result, the per credit base rate for adjuncts has increased from $822 in 2005-06 to $1,000.44 in 2010-11, an increase of more than 21% during this time period. The College intends to continue past practice of granting adjuncts the same increases afforded to full-time faculty in their negotiated contract, even though the College is not required to do so. In addition, adjunct faculty are eligible for discretionary salary increases, based on documented quality of teaching and related contributions. At least in the past three years, virtually every adjunct faculty member whose request for a discretionary salary increase was supported by their department chair and dean has been awarded such an increase by the provost and president. These salary increases are carried over into the per-credit compensation rate applied in the following year(s) for adjuncts who are rehired. As a result, some New Paltz adjuncts earn per credit rates as high as $1,068, the equivalent of over $3,200 per 3-credit course. To the degree that funding for discretionary salary increases is available, we are committed to recognizing and rewarding high-quality contributions by adjunct faculty.
Some will argue that even with these increases the compensation for adjuncts is too low. The same newspaper article cited above stated that SUNY New Paltz adjuncts “work for peanuts.” That statement implies that adjunct compensation at New Paltz is unsystematically low, but a few comparisons provide little basis in reality for that view. A December 1 Chronicle of Higher Education article quoted AAUP statistics that adjuncts nationwide earn $2,700 per course, compared to $3,000 (or higher) at New Paltz. One nearby private college, with tuition rates an order of magnitude higher than at New Paltz, has a base compensation rate for adjuncts of $2,500 per course. Adjuncts teaching at all nearby community colleges are compensated at lower rates than at New Paltz, although adjuncts with 7 or more semesters of teaching experience at one community college are compensated at a rate only slightly less than the current starting rate at New Paltz. New Paltz compensates adjuncts teaching science laboratory courses at rates 40-50% higher than at the community colleges.
The above-cited Chronicle of Higher Education article noted also that typical adjunct faculty nationwide work “without benefits.” In addition to being compensated at higher rates than most national and regional standards, adjunct faculty at New Paltz who teach two or more courses qualify for health insurance benefits, during their first and subsequent semesters teaching at that level. The state pays 90% of the costs of the premium for employee coverage and 75% of the premium for dependent coverage. During the current year, state contributions are about $245 for the individual plan and just over $500 for the family plan per biweekly payroll – a large investment of state funding in the compensation package of New Paltz adjunct faculty.
By comparison, adjunct faculty at one nearby private college qualify for health insurance benefits only if employed half time or more; at another, no benefits are available. Adjuncts at two regional community colleges become eligible for health insurance benefits after one year (at one) or four consecutive semesters (at the other), but the employee pays the full cost of the benefits with no institutional or state subsidy. At another community college, benefits are not available to adjuncts working less than full time.
Given the costs of health care and of health insurance coverage if purchased independently, the more ready availability of health insurance coverage for adjuncts at New Paltz and the employer subsidy of that coverage must be regarded as a significant part of adjunct compensation.
Thus, considering both salary rates and the availability and employer subsidy of health insurance coverage, employment as an adjunct faculty member at New Paltz offers distinctive compensation advantage over similar opportunities at most other higher educational institutions in the region (exceptions are nearby private colleges where tuition rates are easily 8-10 times higher than at New Paltz). There is no basis in fact for media and other suggestions that compensation for adjuncts at New Paltz is comparatively low – indeed, there is considerable evidence pointing to precisely the opposite conclusion.
My administrative colleagues and I inform our decision making and planning by routinely using baseline and comparative data of all sorts. The compensation adjuncts receive at other institutions is highly relevant to our decision making. We would be irresponsible in our use of tuition and taxpayer support if we were to ignore national and regional comparisons and contexts, especially in this difficult and uncertain budgetary climate.
If there is an argument that adjunct compensation is inadequate, its target should be regional, statewide, and national and not specific to New Paltz. The faculty union’s advocacy for adjunct faculty salaries should be channeled through its statewide contract negotiations, which are conducted through the Governor’s office and not by individual campuses.
As the College continues to move ahead in enhancing academic quality and opportunity for students, it is essential that we invest resources in those initiatives and programs that most clearly advance our goals and our vision points. Such decisions must be based on careful planning and evaluation of evidence, and consideration of the multiple consequences of each decision. A decision to increase compensation for adjuncts would necessarily result in direct or indirect consequences of decreased funding for some other program or function, as well as affecting opportunity to increase support for other programs or functions (including our ability to hire more full-time tenure-track faculty and lecturers). Thus, such a decision cannot be made in isolation of other considerations. Trade-offs are the coin of the realm in the decisions that institutional leaders make, especially in a constrained and uncertain budgetary climate. Such complexities are virtually never captured in petition language. The evidence I have presented here does not provide an immediate and compelling basis for increasing adjunct compensation at New Paltz, relative to other ways that we might direct our financial resources.
The administration is committed to continuing our participation in regular part-time labor management meetings, where we discuss with union leaders various concerns of adjunct and other contingent faculty, and consider and adopt approaches to address those concerns where that is feasible and consistent with sustaining and enhancing our core educational mission.
Donald P. Christian