Our university respects and fairly compensates adjunct faculty
September 24, 2013 4:00 AM
By Ken Gormley
A recent op-ed piece by United Steelworkers lawyer Daniel Kovalik ("Death of an Adjunct," Sept. 18) generated much heat but cast little light on the issues involving adjunct professors at Duquesne University. Mr. Kovalik offered a very partial and sometimes inaccurate account of the life of a former adjunct faculty member, then criticized the actions of the university while ignoring the facts.
Like any ethical employer, Duquesne University regards its relationships with its employees as confidential. In this instance, it also respects the privacy of the family members grieving their recent loss. As a result, Mr. Kovalik's account of key aspects of the story must go unchallenged. The inferences he draws, however, must be confronted head-on.
American colleges and universities have long relied on part-time instructors to staff some courses. This is the norm. Sometimes, full-time faculty members take leave or pursue research projects yet certain courses must still be taught.
There also is value in having part-time teachers share their real-world experiences. This benefits the students as well as the instructors. (I taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law for seven years while I practiced law; it shaped my own career.)
Part-time teaching positions have been around as long as education itself. Indeed, there is brisk competition for them. Individuals have many different reasons for pursuing them.
Part-time teaching jobs provide supplemental income. Professionals in many fields -- law, accounting, nursing and others -- see value in passing their workplace experiences and insights to the next generation. Indeed, Mr. Kovalik teaches as an adjunct faculty member at another local university, in conjunction with his full-time job with the United Steelworkers.
I applaud him for this: He obviously finds his part-time position to be professionally rewarding. Indeed, individuals in many occupations -- from police officers to librarians to medical personnel -- pursue part-time jobs that can enrich their lives.
It is true that one category of part-time instructors in higher education has prompted great debate nationwide. These are individuals who seek to build full-time careers by combining multiple part-time contracts, often at several institutions. This has been a hot topic of discussion for more than 30 years.
Mr. Kovalik's position on this subject, for the record, is the outlier. The millions of Americans who work multiple part-time jobs in other sectors of the economy do not expect their employers to treat them as full-time employees just because, in aggregate, they work 40-plus hours each week.
At a university, a part-time teacher may work 10 hours per week preparing for and teaching a three-credit course. A full-time faculty member teaches multiple classes and assumes many other responsibilities: conducting research, authoring scholarly papers and books, writing grants, performing community and professional service and supervising graduate student work.
There are clear differences between the responsibilities and expectations of these two roles, and that is reflected in the compensation offered for each. At Duquesne, part-time teachers receive $3,500 per semester (15 weeks) for teaching a three-credit course. This is higher than at many colleges and universities.
It is unfair to suggest that Duquesne University has turned a blind eye to part-time employees. To the contrary, where it is possible to aggregate part-time courses to create new full-time positions, that's being done. Where part-time salaries can be increased, that is being pursued. Duquesne itself raised its minimum salary per course by 40 percent in recent years and now offers one of the highest rates in the Pittsburgh area.
This brings us full circle to Mr. Kovalik's op-ed and to his unmistakable insinuation that Duquesne has no interest in participating in the national conversation about part-time faculty members because it is somehow anti-union. (I am a former union member and grew up in a blue-collar town, Swissvale, where unions were revered.) Mr. Kovalik's insinuations are unfair.
As a lawyer for the steelworkers, Mr. Kovalik is well aware that complex political and constitutional issues are involved in the battle he is waging to unionize part-time faculty in one of our 10 schools. Specifically, he fails to mention that Duquesne University has invoked its First Amendment rights to religious exemption from National Labor Relations Board jurisdiction. In the process, he's unleashed an organized attack on Duquesne to inflame others and rally his troops, using the distorted story of an 83 year-old woman -- whom he barely knew and whom priests and others at Duquesne knew personally and sought to help for several years -- to advance his argument.
The scope of the religious exemption -- for which there is Supreme Court precedent in National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago -- can and should be decided by the courts, not by reckless opinion pieces that tell only a sliver of the story.
The role of part-time faculty members on American campuses today and how they are compensated is a serious and important topic. Addressing the challenges involved will take mutual respect, creative thinking and sustained collaborative effort. Sadly, Mr. Kovalik has done nothing to further that goal by exploiting one elderly woman's story to vilify a Pittsburgh institution -- Duquesne University -- that has a history as venerable and a commitment to the well-being of its employees that is just as strong as that of the labor union he represents.