By Rick Perloff

In the spring of 2004, Maria Maisto, a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Maryland and a long-time Washingtonian, decided to leave Washington, D.C. for an uncertain future in the Rust Belt. She and her husband had lived for more than a decade in and around the nation’s capital, but the expensive housing market and aftershocks of the D.C. sniper attacks — one of which occurred in their neighborhood — had taken its toll. They decided to start afresh in a new locale that offered a more comfortable, if less cosmopolitan, lifestyle.

What happened over the course of the next 10 years, as she took a series of jobs in higher education, shattered Maisto’s faith in colleges and universities. It changed her perspective on what it means to be a professor in today’s multiversity. And it spawned a thousands-strong national movement on behalf of adjunct faculty that has flexed its muscle in myriad ways, generating stories in the national media, pushing a Congressional committee to hear testimony on the adjunct cause, and forcing universities to consider (albeit minimally) the way they treat and pay adjunct instructors.

This is Maisto’s story. But it is also a story about the larger issues that impinge on universities in our region during a time of increased academic corporatization, when the value of teaching is frequently set aside and adjunct professors are treated as academic appendages, their backgrounds and dedication to students somehow beside the main academic point.

In the fall of 2004, Maisto’s husband landed a high school teaching job in Akron, Ohio. After making sure her two young children had adjusted to their new living situation, Maisto began looking for a teaching position at the nearby colleges and universities. But her experience turned out to be dramatically different from what she expected. She secured an interview for a part-time teaching slot in the English Department at the University of Akron, got dressed up, and brought along samples of her teaching and a resume. Although she had not finished her dissertation, she had passed her doctoral exams with honors, had a good teaching record at Maryland, and knew quite a bit about higher education from her time working at the D.C.-based Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Conference of Academic Deans.

As she recalls, the departmental administrator with whom she met was nice enough, but did not seem particularly interested in her distinctive background or what she offered. “You can teach up to three courses, you know,” he told her, telegraphing a greater concern with putting pedagogical boots in the classroom than appreciating how this particular instructor could enhance the learning experience.

[credit: Discott, via Wikimedia Commons]

[credit: Discott, via Wikimedia Commons]

She took the job, a bit unsettled by the interview, but gratified she had the opportunity to teach undergraduates. But as an adjunct instructor of English at the university, she experienced the drip-drip of daily frustrations: the low salary, the inadequate working conditions, and a sense that her work was not appreciated by tenured faculty. Rather than framing the salary and unsupportive work environment as the inevitable downside of a university teaching position, she viewed her difficulties more systemically through the lens of social justice. This is not how things ought to be, she and her adjunct colleagues said. Working on behalf of these colleagues, she helped draft a letter to the editor of The Akron Beacon Journal, lamenting the conditions adjuncts faced. Her coworkers all liked what she wrote, she said, but no one would sign; they were terrified that the university would retaliate by firing them. Undeterred, Maisto signed her name, indicating underneath that the letter had the imprimatur of 20 other adjunct faculty members. In late December 2008, The Beacon Journal printed the letter. No one was fired. But the letter did not change a thing.

Maisto believed that sweeping actions were needed. She began considering taking her ideas beyond the local context and onto the national stage. It turned out to be a propitious moment for such action. There was growing awareness in academia of the problems adjuncts faced, and out of this frustration, a new organization was emerging. The name of the organization would serve as a synecdoche for the plight of adjunct and other non-tenured faculty, who now outnumber their tenure and tenure-track colleagues in the halls of academia: New Faculty Majority.

Maisto, 47, is currently president of the board of NFM and has become the dominant public face of the burgeoning adjunct faculty movement. A West Akron resident, she is a ubiquitous presence in print, broadcast, and social media, the go-to person for journalists, the focus of feature articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a panelist in a discussion aired by Al Jazeera America, a peripatetic presence on the Web, a prolific tweeter, and an author or co-author of dozens of articles, including a recent piece in The New York Times online opinion section, as well as an article in Inside Higher Ed emblematically called “Who Is Professor ‘Staff’: And How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?” She has testified before a congressional committee, arguing that colleges and universities have exploited a provision of the Affordable Care Act to deny adjunct faculty healthcare benefits.

Her concerns are rooted in reality, as well as empathy for her adjunct colleagues. Over the past five decades, the number of adjunct — or part-time, contingent, or, to harness the most semantically evocative term, precarious — faculty has exponentially increased.

According to John W. Curtis, former research and public policy director at the American Association for University Professors, more than 76 percent of faculty members and instructors at U.S. higher-education institutions are adjunct, or contingent. By comparison, in 1969, when millions of Baby Boomer students attended classes, about 22 percent of faculty members were contingent, or off the tenure track. What’s more, Curtis has reported, from 1976 to 2011, the greatest increase in instructional employees at higher-educational institutions has been in part-time faculty. Their numbers ballooned by 286 percent over those 35 years. There is a pink-collar aspect to this: A majority of adjunct faculty members are women.

Higher-education scholars tick off a number of explanations for the proliferation of adjunct faculty. Student enrollment has swelled, requiring colleges to hire more instructors. State legislatures have slashed university budgets, encouraging universities to hire faculty on the cheap. The glut of graduates with doctoral degrees allowed administrators to hire more professors on short-term, contingent contracts. College and university administrators came increasingly from the business world, where reliance on cheap part-time workers is commonplace. Universities have hired a bevy of academic administrators, paid handsomely, to handle the myriad structural and political demands of the modern multiversity: increasing graduation rates, maximizing student success, coordinating strategic planning, and conducting program reviews. As the number of well-paid administrators increased, there was less money available to hire tenure-track faculty. Courses still had to be taught, and hiring adjunct faculty became an academic godsend.

Maria meeting with a few members of the Tri-C Adjunct Faculty Association organizing committee, a sub-group of the Ohio Part-time Faculty Association

Maisto meeting with members of the Tri-C Adjunct Faculty Association organizing committee, a subgroup of the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association [credit: Bob Perkoski]

Although annual salaries vary, a report summarizing email responses from 845 contingent faculty members released last year by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce revealed a dismal picture. A large number of part-time instructors reported that they earned less than $19,530, the federal poverty line for a family of three, and considerably below the $23,550 poverty threshold for a family of four.

Adjuncts frequently don’t talk specifics. They live day to day, frequently fulfilled by the joy of helping students reach new heights, but beaten down by bills and paltry paychecks. They often do not know if they will be rehired the next term and sometimes get the word from departments just a few weeks before classes start. They frequently lack offices, sometimes holding office hours in coffee shops, and shuttle from campus to campus. They are the traveling troubadours of academia, cobbling together courses to make a living. With self-deprecating humor, they disparage themselves as “freeway fliers” and “roads scholars,” although in some cases their training is equivalent to tenure-track faculty members.

[blocktext align=”right”]The median salary for adjunct instructors is a meager $2,700 for a three-credit course.[/blocktext]The median salary for adjunct instructors is a meager $2,700 for a three-credit course.Universities’ treatment of adjuncts has downstream effects on the education that students receive. “Faculty teaching conditions are student learning conditions,” Maisto and other activists emphasize. Because part-time faculty lack the resources and time to attend to their students, the quality of education students receive can sometimes suffer.

Although the adjunct cause has been championed since the mid-1990s and was encapsulated in a 2005 book by labor educator Joe Berry, dramatically titled, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, it was not until Maisto spearheaded NFM that the issue garnered media coverage and captured policymakers’ attention. Berry praises Maisto effusively. “She is individually one of the most important figures in the realization of the growth of the movement in the last 30 to 40 years,” he says. “She has been hugely important and a capable leader and has done a lot of things on behalf of the movement in representing us and giving us a public voice.”

* * *

To understand Maisto, you must begin with family. She is the daughter of an American father and a Filipina mother. Her father grew up in a blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, the son of a steelworker who helped launch his union in the 1930s. But he transcended his working-class roots, becoming a U.S. Foreign Service officer, seasoned diplomat, and ambassador to Nicaragua from 1993 to 1996. Her mother grew up in a prominent Philippine family and attended Georgetown University, where she met her husband. Maisto describes her mother as independent-minded, someone who lives life on her terms.

As a student at Georgetown, influenced by her upbringing, Maisto initially considered a career in the Foreign Service. She took the two-part entry exam the summer between her sophomore and junior years. She passed the written exam, but failed the oral portion. During the oral exam, the interviewer posed a problem: “There is an oil shortage in the country where you’re serving and transportation is limited. You are in charge of the motor pool of the embassy. The ambassador’s wife has to go to a tea. How are you going to handle that?” A good answer would have balanced security issues and a recognition that transportation choices were limited with the need to respect the formalities of diplomatic protocol. When she returned home, Maisto described the question and her father asked how she answered it. Using her mother as the archetype of the ambassador’s wife, Maisto said, as if it were perfectly obvious, “Oh, I’d tell her to take the bus.”

[blocktext align=”left”]…the strategy was obvious: Publicize the problem. Organize. Go national.[/blocktext]A quarter-century later, as the leader of an adjunct faculty organization, Maisto sometimes seems to blend her parents’ styles, combining her father’s diplomatic approach, listening respectfully to administrators as they defend the status quo, and then, with the dogged determination of her mother, writing articles that plaintively describe the plight of adjunct instructors and their daily struggle to make ends meet. As a student at Georgetown, Maisto found she gravitated toward the humanities, stayed to earn a Master’s in English, and then decided to matriculate to Maryland for a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1993. But she never completed her dissertation, partly because her topic — the theoretical foundations of the emerging discipline of religion and film — was unconventional, and few faculty members had the requisite expertise or interest in the area. Her daughter was born in 1999, as she struggled to work on her dissertation. “It was just impossible to continue,” she says. And so, for a combination of reasons — personal, professional, and gender-based — Maisto never completed her doctoral thesis.

It seems to be a mild source of frustration to her, but she overcame it, channeling the angst into passionately teaching students at the University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College, hoping she could land a full-time job that would somehow make everything right. But everything did not turn out as she hoped or planned. She did not obtain a permanent full-time position, and she learned, to her dismay, about the privations that adjuncts experienced. But to Maisto, who tends not to personalize problems but instead looks outside herself for solutions — a psychological style with benefits and costs — the strategy was obvious: Publicize the problem. Organize. Go national.

In 2008, when Maisto was pursuing a broader organizing approach, there was considerable ferment afoot. Peter D.G. Brown, Distinguished Service Professor of German, Emeritus at the State University of New York at New Paltz, had been advocating on behalf of adjunct faculty since 2004. In 2008, he was forging a new organization that would help advance the cause of contingent and adjunct faculty. As a tenured professor, Brown did not feel comfortable leading a national adjunct advocacy organization. He approached a couple of adjunct faculty members who were active in advocacy circles and asked if they would lead the new group. Maisto answered the call and became the founding president of the nascent group, New Faculty Majority.

* * *

Recently, Maisto and I were talking at a Panera restaurant not far from one of the campuses of the Cleveland-based Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). She had just finished teaching an honors composition class at the Tri-C Brunswick University Center, a sleek, modern building outfitted with the computerized accoutrements of modern education but bereft of any charm. Maisto did not have an office, so when she zipped into the functional classroom, she had to drape her coat on a chair near the front lecturn. And when she needed to talk to a student about a personal problem after class, she whipped out her cellphone to do so, while others stood, in the front of the classroom, and waited their turn.

A sizable portion of the class period one day was spent on students’ sharing and commenting on a summary of a religious studies essay each had read. “Okay,” she said, very upbeat, almost sing-songy with enthusiasm. Referring to the students collectively, she instructed, “You’re checking your classmates’ work to see if they’ve got all the essential elements of the summary in there. Okay, try to identify at least one good thing they did and identify something they can revise. We’re going to do a minute or a minute-and-a-half per person. This is always the hardest part. Okay, so you’re ready. Flex your pencil muscles here. Stand up, stretch, ready, okay? On your mark, get set, go.” With that, each student speed-read another student’s summary, marked comments, passed it to the next student, and grabbed the next paper.

“No one knows how to write a basic summary,” Maisto lamented after classs. “So, at the beginning of the semester, I always work on that to make sure they have that particular skill set because it’s so critical to doing any kind of writing.” She felt a certain affinity toward these students because she had taught them the previous term, and knew their likes, dislikes, and peeves. But her ability to tend to their needs was limited by her lack of both an office and the time that she could devote to outside-the-classroom mentoring.

She was sharing this over our lunch in Seven Hills, a Cleveland suburb, where she ordered a turkey sandwich and a soup, and talked with me about the complex, interlacing aspects of her life: teacher, adjunct faculty leader, and wife and mother of three children, including a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. The roles intertwine. She worries that the poor working conditions under which adjunct instructors labor will affect her children’s educations when they attend college; more poignantly, she empathizes with the struggles of one of her students who was severely autistic. She reached out to the college to find ways to help him, but experienced more in the way of legal obstacles than social support, her efforts to help stymied by her inability to meet with the student because she had no office.

United Workers Congress button, which is a coalition of low-wage and temporary and migrant worker groups . The smaller button is for the Ohio Part-time Faculty Association

United Workers Congress button, which is a coalition of low-wage and temporary and migrant worker groups. The smaller button is for the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association [credit: Bob Perkoski]

As she finished her lunch, Maisto discussed the structure of the New Faculty Majority, explaining that there are two NFM organizations: one primarily a membership organization, the other a 501(c)3 public charity that is legally entitled to receive support from funding organizations. About 3,500 adjunct and other contingent faculty members, graduate students, and administrators are part of the NFM network. The number of adjuncts is only a tiny proportion of the total, but Maisto insists it constitutes a beginning.

I have to be honest and say there isn’t consensus within the contingent community about what the ultimate goal is,” she said. “What we all agree on is that the nature of the workload should determine what the wages are and that the wages reflect how institutions and society value the work. And the fact that 75 percent of the faculty — or if you want to say, 50 percent of the faculty, who are part-time — are paid poverty-level wages tells us that institutions and society don’t value the work of higher eduacation, what faculty are doing within higher education, so we’ve lost sight of higher education as a public good. And so I think we have common principles around social-justice ideas, and that we have to come together as a community to figure how we’re going to preserve the integrity of higher education and to make it central to our community life rather than peripheral and adjunct.” With the double-entrendre, she laughed.

For all her prominence and media savvy, Maisto is a remarkably unegotistical person. She dresses nattily, but modestly. When we spoke at Panera, she wore a blue-and-white scarf draped over a turquoise sweater. She chose her colors for reasons that were decidedly unsartorial. “We try to wear blue and green because that’s kind of our colors,” she explained, adding that blue and green symbolize the climate-change movement (blue for air and water, green for grass). She and her colleagues reasoned that the movement offered a useful metaphor for their work, because, like scientists who advocate on behalf of climate change, NFM members must contend with those who emphatically deny that adjunct professors face any problem whatsoever. “When we figured out that the climate metaphor was really good for us, we started to become fixated on the blue and green,” she said.

Maisto describes the adjunct cause as a movement as well, and SUNY New Paltz’s Brown uses the term “ad-cons” (adjunct-contingents) to describe the common quandary of problems that beset different non-tenure-track faculty members. Like all movements, the adjunct movement has different strains and strategic foci. Its leaders describe the strategies with a term — inside/outside — that calls up images of the 1960s, when some protesters preferred to make change “from inside the system,” and others pursued more radical approaches. While proponents of the inside and outside approaches, notably Maisto, view the two strategic perspectives in complementary — not conflicting—terms, they differ in form and content.

[blocktext align=”right”]”…we have to come together as a community to figure how we’re going to preserve the integrity of higher education and to make it central to our community life rather than peripheral and adjunct.”[/blocktext]Adrianna Kezar, an education professor at the University of Southern California, is frequently associated with the inside approach. The ebullient Kezar majored in art history at UCLA and obtained a Ph.D. in education from the University of Michigan, with a specialization in higher-education administration. It might seem odd that she is on the empirical vanguard of the adjunct issue, save for the fact that she was an adjunct instructor once and empathizes with those who are in the neither-fish-nor-fowl academic role today.

Several years ago, Kezar asked more than 30 experts from different areas of higher education to give their views on the changing composition of faculty and then assembled them, hoping to gain solutions to the contingent-faculty problem. Her work has generated a wealth of innovative recommendations. Some prescriptions would cost little or no money to implement, such as explaining in faculty handbooks that non-tenure-track faculty members are afforded academic freedom. Other ideas would require more funding, such as harnessing large-scale purchasing power to create a group health insurance plan that would be cheaper than adjuncts purchasing plans on their own.

Given that some of these changes would cost little money to implement, while others that would require a greater financial expenditure would improve adjunct faculty members’ working conditions, as well as students’ learning, you might think that university administrators would begin to explore ways to make the changes, at least on a modest scale. But from an administration perspective, the issue is money — lack of it. April Mason, provost and chief senior vice president at Kansas State University, said on a Diane Rehm Show NPR program devoted to the adjunct problem last year that state support for her university “has declined over a period of many years…This puts our financial situation in a very tough spot as we want to continue providing excellent academic programs.”

But faculty advocates have a different view. “Universities try to hide behind the finances,” said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Assocation of University Professors, in an interview. “They do have the money. They just choose to spend their money in other ways.”

In the meantime, there remains debate among adjunct faculty advocates about a particularly thorny issue involving hiring of adjuncts for full-time positions. If, as Kezar’s research suggests, heavy reliance on adjunct faculty is associated with lower graduation rates and reduced student learning, than an obvious solution is to hire more full-time faculty. But whom do you hire? Maisto and Gary D. Rhoades, head of the Department of Educational Policy Studies & Practice at the University of Arizona, argue that as soon as full-time lines become available, adjuncts should get the positions, both as a matter of moral obligation and because, in most cases, adjunct faculty have a proven record of success in the classroom. But wouldn’t this be unfair to new Ph.D.s coming on the market? Many of these new graduates have greater familiarity with the latest trends in their scholarly fields and are more in tune with the technological tempo of today’s students.

Maria Maisto

Maria Maisto [credit: Bob Perkoski]

Kezar and Sue Doe, an associate professor of English at Colorado State University who has written articles on contingent academic labor, were both adjunct instructors themselves and can appreciate the need to give adjuncts currently on the job the first crack at new positions. But they see drawbacks as well. “I’m not sure that always is going to be the best mechanism,” Doe says. “It makes me wonder if these new graduates coming out of graduate school — people who have fresh new credentials — are never going to be able to penetrate the job market because there are these protections in place.”

Some colleges have come up with ways to balance the needs of both adjuncts and new graduates. Seth Kahn, an English professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and a long-time adjunct advocate, says that in all of the universities in the Pennsylvania state system of higher education, if an adjunct faculty member teaches full-time for 10 consecutive semesters in the same department, he or she becomes eligible for a “conversion vote” on whether the position is to be converted to a tenure-track slot. If the vote is positive, Kahn says, the adjunct gets the slot, “pending management approval, which, to my knowledge, has never been withheld.” But complications occur when faculty members are divided on whether an adjunct who has taught for a number of terms has the minimal qualifications for an open tenure-track position. In these instances, Kahn says, “there can be deep splits among faculty about whether adjuncts should be voted into tenure lines or whether new faculty should be hired through national searches.”

[blocktext align=”left”]The chief weapon is unionization.[/blocktext]Given these complications, along with other drawbacks of inside-the-institution approaches to change, increasing numbers of activists have gravitated toward an outside approach, which applies external pressure to colleges and universities to improve adjuncts’ pay and working conditions. The chief weapon is unionization.

The adjunct faculty union movement has experienced considerable success over the past couple of years. Emboldened by a metro strategy, in which union organizers reach across universities in the same city to appeal to adjunct and contingent faculty members, adjunct faculty at Lesley and Tufts universities in Boston formed unions that are affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU-affiliated adjunct unions are also now in place at American, Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard universities in Washington, D.C.

Yet, as Peter Schmidt has observed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, unionization efforts face several hurdles. Adjunct faculty members do not spend much time on a particular campus, making it hard to locate and persuade them. Concerns about job security can cause some adjuncts to feel nervous about being linked with a unionization effort. Part-time instructors who supplement a full-time job with teaching may look askance at arguments that they should join a union to help their peers. But organizers make a strong case for the outside strategy. As Curtis, formerly of the American Association of University Professors, notes, research shows very clearly that when non-tenure-track faculty unionize, “they are more likely to have benefits and more likely to have due process protection, and their pay is better.”

Adjunct professors and others draw attention to their fight for a living wage in the "Fight for 15K" [credit: Nicholas Calderon via New Faculty Majority facebook page]

Adjunct professors and others draw attention to their fight for a living wage in the “Fight for 15K” [credit: Nicholas Calderon via New Faculty Majority facebook page]

Maisto, ever diplomatic and conciliatory, sees benefits in both the inside and outside strategies and touched on both when she participated in a discussion of adjunct faculty on The Diane Rehm Show in April 2014. Several days before the public radio program, the normally unruffled Maisto was nervous. She was concerned not about what she would say, but how she would say it. “I have a tendency to talk very quickly,” she said, noting that her speaking style (characterized by paragraph-long, Faulknerian-style sentences, impeccably connected by appropriate conjunctions, delivered quickly and without hesitations) might jar her audience, especially because her speech rate would clash sharply with Rehm’s famously slow, deliberative style.

But Rehm did not host the program that morning. She was visiting a radio station in Missouri, and the perky, faster-speaking Susan Page hosted the show. Feeling more at ease, Maisto varied her speaking style, using slower speech to convey empathy with the plight of adjuncts, then speeding up when she wanted to hammer home an argument. Toward the end of the show, one of the guests, William M. LeoGrande, associate vice provost for academic affairs at American University, in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the administration while not appearing hostile to adjuncts, commented that “something that universities can deal with at relatively low cost actually [is] simply including adjuncts in more in the way of university activities, university governance, and so on…It would do a lot to improve the general climate of the relationship between adjuncts and the rest of the faculty and the administration.”

“Right. Absolutely,” Maisto said, but then, with the verbal equivalent of an uppercut: “But the paradox is that they’re uncompensated for that time that they’re then asked to spend.”

* * *

Maisto takes the long view, noting that change takes time, articulating her view in tweets, comments, and articles. “It used to be that people were ashamed,” she told me. “They thought that this was very much an individual failing. Now that people understand that it’s structural and that is so pervasive, they are feeling much more comfortable talking openly about their experiences. I think that has been one of the huge benefits of the movement.”

Her schedule is packed. Even though it’s now summer and school isn’t in session, she’s off to California to do a presentation for the Modern Language Association; next, she’ll fly to Minneapolis to give a talk at the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies. “Organizing among adjuncts in Ohio is really picking up steam,” she says. The comparative literature student whose experiences transformed her into a full-blown social activist — one whose style emerged as a blend of her mother’s verve, her father’s ambassadorial diplomacy, and her own realpolitik pragmatism — is moving ahead on a journey fueled by commitment and inspiration, one that could be described as a peripatetic, occasionally quixotic quest. The odds are long, but Maisto persists, talking, traveling, and tweeting — undaunted and undeterred.

Rick Perloff is a professor of communication, psychology, and political science at Cleveland State University. He writes feature stories for newspapers and magazines.

Photos Bob Perkoski

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