Maine’s educational systems are not equitably serving adjunct employees

MSEA-SEIU Member Matthew Burke testifies Jan. 23 before the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs in support of LD 1878, Resolve, to Establish the Commission to Study the Use of Adjunct Professors in Maine’s Public University and College System.

TO: Education and Cultural Affairs Committee
DATE: January 23, 2020
RE: LD 1878, Resolve, to Establish the Commission to Study the Use of Adjunct Professors in Maine’s Public University and College System

To the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of LD 1878, Resolve, to Establish the Commission to Study the Use of Adjunct Professors in Maine’s Public University and College System.

My name is Matthew Burke and I teach students as an adjunct instructor in the Fine Arts at the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College. I’m a member of the Maine State Employees Association and have been employed as an adjunct in Maine since August of 2019. Prior, I served as Department Chair, as an associate professor jointly appointed across the Visual Art Department and the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. My family and I moved to Maine in 2019 after my having served 14 years at KU. I’ve been a professor in higher education since 2000.

MSEA-SEIU are leading the way on many important issues which I fully support, including fair wages and benefits; secure jobs; skilled member grievance representation; greater political power for workers; safe and sound retirement benefits; among others. I’m heartened that LD 1878 proposes to provide for a study that is done publicly and with stakeholder input, and recommendations on the use of adjuncts in the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System. I’m pleased that it intends to address issues including creation of a career path for adjuncts, an expansion of their role in student retention and success, improving access to healthcare for adjuncts, and looking at long term funding needs. All these are urgent matters of equity and fairness.

I proudly serve within these State systems because I get to be part of educating Maine’s citizens. I enjoy the rank of adjunct and I love my work. Every semester, I witness students as they develop their skills, explore important questions about self and society and discover the wonder and joy of the Arts. My classes will be one of the only encounters that some students have with actively making and experiencing the culturally important experience that is Art. I’m gratified that before they head into business, healthcare or the trades, among 2 others, that I have the chance to make a student’s 17-week semester a positive and fulfilling encounter with the Arts. It makes my heart sing.

I’d like to emphasize six points where I feel Maine’s educational systems are not equitably serving adjunct employees, based upon my experience as an adjunct instructor.

Compromised Earning Power
As a Maine citizen myself, I am unable to qualify for a home loan from a lender through my adjunct status. My income doesn’t count because it’s not secure semester-to-semester on paper, though in practice I have earned consistently each semester as an adjunct. It’s problematic that I would work to educate Maine citizens and uphold the values and serve the mission of Maine’s higher education institutions, while not being able to enjoy the “earning power” to secure owning a house for me and my family. LD 1878 would explore ways that the adjunct status not bar me and other adjuncts from being able to qualify for loans by better valuing the important and legitimate labor we perform. My earning power should not be penalized because of my status as an adjunct. I love Maine and have vacationed here since I was a boy, I am a proud graduate of Colby College and my wife and I would like to retire here, but at present, we are not able to afford purchasing a home.

Low Wages/System Inequity
Efforts to keep higher education cost reasonable for students, which I fully support, have been disproportionally put on the backs of adjuncts. If calculations for hours of preparation, grading, office hours and classroom time are factored into pay, the rate of pay for adjuncts at Maine’s public institutions is close to minimum wage in many situations. There’s an urgent need to properly “value” adjunct labor and make it consistent across the system, for example, salaries at private colleges are higher than those at public institutions. Adjuncts are not as costly to the institution as tenure-track or full-time faculty are, yet we perform nearly similar functions. As a former full-time faculty, I taught two classes a semester, as an adjunct I teach the same or more, for less pay. In general, it appears that our labor is compensated with lower pay to so as to help keep the cost of tuition in check. Yet, we know administrative positions in higher-ed across the country have proliferated in the last 20 years, thus increasing institutional expenses.

Unstable Job Security
Currently, my adjunct employment from semester-to-semester is unstable and unpredictable. For example, I was financially secure last (fall 2019) semester, this semester (spring 2020) I am not. Though having received a good evaluation from one of my 3 institutions for the classes I taught in the fall, I was not assigned classes this spring because of an enrollment dip. Additionally, the school at which I am working this spring offered classes to me spread out over four days, rather than stacked more conveniently into two. While this is work for which I am grateful and in which I take great pride, with classes spread out throughout the week, I am not easily able to augment my teaching with other employment. Additional employment is necessary in order for me to remain economically secure.

Uncompensated Time
As an adjunct, I have to teach classes at different schools throughout the state in order to make a living. This means I have different policies and procedures, including email accounts and semester calendars, that require my time to manage and implement. These tasks add to the “invisible labor” or preparation time for which I am not compensated. As a faculty who teaches in studio art classrooms, I have considerable responsibility to
keep tools and equipment in good operating condition for the sake of student safety. For example, twice a semester, I wash the welding jackets we require in SMCC’s Metal Arts class. Though I am reimbursed for the cost of laundering, my time is not compensated. I could just as easily not launder the coats, but dirty welding jackets would negatively impact my students’ learning experience. In fact, I began doing this after student requests. This is one small example of the many uncompensated tasks, and maintaining classroom equipment for the sake of safety, that fall outside the time spent teaching students in the classroom.

Lack of Benefits and Retirement Plan
I also do not qualify for health and dental benefits and generally lack the benefits of actual full-time employment. Prorated or some otherwise access to health, dental and retirement plans, as an adjunct, would help greatly. Currently, I and my family are insured through my wife’s plan. Additional economic burdens include, the institutional lack of reimbursement for mileage. I drive 40 or 50 minutes one-way each day to commute, which
sounds reasonable for an eight hour/day job, but sometimes my adjunct workday is 2.5 hours (one studio art class) which is not an efficient use of time of money.

A Less Than Clear Career Path
Currently, there is no real career path to full-time for me as an adjunct. While I aspire to continue in higher education teaching Maine citizens, the need to find more secure fulltime employment may pull me away from this field of work which I love so much. I may have to switch out of adjunct teaching because it doesn’t pay. My job search includes 4 applying for full-time positions in higher education, but these openings are few and far
between because of how expensive they are to fund. When I secured my first tenure-track job in Kansas, in 2004, it was after applying to 81 job openings in sculpture over the course of three years. The scarcity of full-time work in higher education teaching is directly related to the over reliance on under-valued adjunct work.

In closing, thank you for your time and attention reading my testimonial in support of LD 1878, Resolve, to Establish the Commission to Study the Use of Adjunct Professors in Maine’s Public University and College System. Having served as both a full-time faculty and now an adjunct in higher education, while I honor the distinction between the two job specifications, I believe much more can be done to improve the work-life of Maine’s higher education adjuncts.

Please feel free to contact me with further questions or for more information.

Matthew Byram Burke MFA
He, Him, His
University of Southern Maine
Southern Maine Community College

Updated: January 24, 2020 — 12:17 PM