JMU Adjunct Faculty

JMU's adjunct faculty face increasing job insecurity in the wake of COVID-19.

Dabney Bankert, head of JMU's English department, received an email that went to all department heads from university administration on April 14 mandating a 25% cut to faculty funding. 

However, two weeks later, on April 29, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Heather Coltman sent an email to JMU's adjunct faculty saying that the "top priorities in this crisis continue to be our core educational mission and our people, who are the greatest resource we have."

As part of JMU’s response to the financial blow in the wake of the coronavirus, department heads across the university were faced with a difficult decision. 

Who were the most expendable adjunct professors in their departments? 

Remaining adjuncts nervous for job security

Adjunct professors are hired contractually on a semester-by-semester basis, and they were the only faculty whose salaries were affected by this 25% budget cut, Bankert said. Adjunct professors are part-time employees of the university, while full-time professorial positions — such as assistant professors, associate professors and tenured professors — have set salaries that can’t be reduced by JMU.

“Everything I could do short of, you know, letting people go or cutting their pay, I did,” Bankert said. “And then, I was left with this really difficult choice of, ‘where could I find that 25 percent?’ And, that was the case with all department heads.”

Bankert was asked in early April to create projections of how a 100% or 50% cut to adjunct faculty funding would affect her department’s operations which, she said, “of course was pretty catastrophic.” 

In an email to The Breeze, Coltman said that after full-time faculty are assigned course loads, adjuncts are hired “as needed” based on the enrollment of each semester, making it “too early to know exactly how many classes will be taught by full-time faculty as opposed to adjunct.”

“In previous years, when we had the resources to be less precise, we may have erred on the side of over-scheduling, which allowed more time for planning and course preparation,” Coltman said in the email to JMU’s adjunct faculty. “This is simply a luxury we do not have right now.”

An adjunct professor, who requested anonymity and will be referred to as Jane Doe in this story to protect her privacy, said the provost’s email was “reasonable” but that it made her nervous enough to immediately contact her department head to ask about her job security — a sentiment shared by Melanie Caskill, an adjunct French professor. 

“When I read an email from the provost or even our department head, I feel better for, like, a few hours, a day,” Caskill said. “And, I feel like they're really trying to do the best they can to keep us. They're really trying, but then I know it's not on them.”

Caskill said she appreciates the communication from the administration, but she opens each email with anxiety, anticipating bad news. Caskill, whose fall semester courses have been cut from four to three, said she “would love to stay at JMU” but that she felt it was necessary to begin looking for other part-time jobs in case her course load was cut further than 25%. As a single mother, she said, she feels pressure to make sure she can support her son.

“I don't want to sound like I'm someone just thinking about the money, but it's a thing when you have kids, family, and expenses,” Caskill said.

Doe said that at one point, what turned out to be a casual call from her department head initially sparked fear that when she answered the phone, she’d be told she no longer had a job.

Hiring freeze helped JMU “recoup” revenue loss

The University of Virginia’s senior leadership announced it would take a 10% pay cut in an April 14 press release. In a June 16 announcement on its website, the College of William & Mary proposed that if staff furloughs or pay reductions were required, “senior university leaders will be the first impacted and in the largest amount.”

Doe expressed frustration at the lack of a similar gesture from JMU’s highest leadership as adjunct faculty face pay cuts and job insecurity. 

“There has been no indication of upper level administration … raising their hands and saying … ‘These are the sacrifices we're making to preserve jobs, really keep jobs,’” Doe said. 

Though the university is having to significantly cut its personnel budget, JMU's senior administrators haven't yet publicly offered to decrease their own salaries. President Alger’s salary is $477,580 annually, and the university’s senior vice presidents make roughly $200,000-300,000 each year. 

In an email, University Spokesperson and Director of Communications Caitlyn Read said the university’s “cost saving measures,” which included a hiring freeze and a postponement of construction on campus, allowed JMU to partially recoup the loss of $33 million in revenue from the spring semester. 

“This allowed us to protect peoples’ employment,” Read said. “No full or part-time university employee, including members of senior leadership, lost their job or experienced a reduction in compensation as a result of COVID-19 to date.”

Adjunct professors are hired on a semester-by-semester basis, which allowed the university to implement the hiring freeze without formally removing adjuncts from their teaching positions. To achieve the 25% cut to the adjunct budget in each department, the university simply didn’t renew adjunct professors' contracts to their full extent, or at all. 

Avent Beck, an adjunct professor for the writing, rhetoric and technical communication department, said that because the university is trying to save money after the financial impact of the coronavirus at the end of the spring semester, he understands that adjuncts “may be on the chopping block.”

“They have to do what they have to do, and they can’t spend money they don’t have,” Beck said. “I don’t require them to be supportive of adjuncts at this moment because there’s too much in play for them.”

Beck said there are too many variables to expect the university’s administration to predict what the fall semester will look like and that insecurity will affect the ability to pay personnel. Andy Perrine, associate vice president for communications and marketing, said personnel accounts for between 70 and 75% of the university’s expenses. As a department head, Bankert expressed her relief that she wasn’t required to make the difficult decisions facing the university’s administration about JMU’s overall budget. 

“I'm sympathetic to the problems they're facing, you know — it's bad,” Bankert said. “And you know, no choice [they] make is going to be an easy one, and no choice is going to not have consequences.”

Losing 25% of adjuncts hurts full-time faculty and students

One consequence of the 25% cut is the effect on full-time professors, who have been asked across all departments to work full course loads to minimize the need for adjunct professors to teach courses where possible. Bankert said she’s concerned by the halt to programs such as academic leave, where full-time professors could previously apply for a semester away from teaching courses to participate in research or contribute to publications. 

Zachary Bortolot, professor of geographic science, was scheduled to be on academic leave in the upcoming spring semester to create a program that would teach people on the autism spectrum how to interpret satellite images, he said. This project had a personal connection for Bortolot, as his son is on the autism spectrum. Now, he said, his department has alleviated the impact to the curriculum that would be caused by cutting some adjunct professors by canceling Bortolot’s and all other professors’ academic leaves in the department. 

Bankert said academic departments rely on adjunct faculty to fill the teaching gaps in some programs, and Katherine Schwartz, director of the school of art, design and art history (SADAH), said many long-term adjunct professors are counted on “to deliver a good portion of our curriculum.”

Bankert and Schwartz both said they’re worried about what cuts to adjunct course loads may mean for students’ learning experience. SADAH may have had some difficulty ensuring that specialty studio courses are available to students who need them to graduate, as many studio instructors are adjunct professors with specific expertise, Schwartz said, but the program was able to fill the adjunct-taught sections with full-time faculty who were reassigned from other roles. 

“The way I understand it is, there's going to be very few people that are not on full teaching load,” Schwartz said.

When evaluating where to cut 25% of adjunct salaries in the English department, Bankert said, she had to entirely cut the courses of two adjunct professors in order to preserve the jobs of two other adjunct faculty members that, if cut, would have effectively destroyed JMU’s fiction writing program. But, even with those measures, the two remaining adjuncts’ salaries had to be cut. Bankert described the decision as a “devil’s bargain.” 

Cutting adjunct faculty was “inevitable,” Bankert said. And while she said she thinks the university has taken a “conservative approach” to decreasing the adjunct faculty budget, she said she believes it’s possible there may be another round of budget cuts before the beginning of the fall semester. Read said a budget cut is likely due to a “shortfall” in state revenue and funding for the university, though it wasn’t indicated which university departments the possible cuts would affect. 

Despite JMU being Caskill’s “No. 1” choice for employment as her first job after moving to the U.S. from France in 2016, she and other adjunct professors began to look for other part-time jobs after the 25% cut was announced. 

“Most adjuncts, we're not sure if we have a job in the fall,” Caskill said. “It’s an uncertain time, but I feel like … [adjuncts are the] first row, the first line if there are budget cuts. It's going to be adjuncts first, of course.”

This is the fifth article in a series by The Breeze's investigations desk examining the financial impact of COVID-19 on JMU. The next article in this series, covering JMU’s fundraising efforts in response to COVID-19, will be published Friday.

Contact Jamie McEachin at mceachja@dukes.jmu.edu

Contact Jake Conley, investigations editor, at breezeinvestigations@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.