JMU's adjunct professors faced fiscal uncertainty moving into the spring semester.

As professors and students adapted to the shifting class formats mid-semester, JMU adjunct professors were uncertain if they’d have the same classes, if any, to teach in the spring. 

The end of the 2020 spring semester saw a 25% cut to the part-time faculty budget across all academic departments for the fall semester while upper administration took no similar cut, and some part-time — adjunct — faculty members said they were anticipating more cuts to their course loads for the 2021 spring semester. However, the cuts didn’t materialize.

“I'm well enough aware that when it comes to the cuts … jobs like mine are going to be one of the first to go,” Bryant Beverly, an adjunct professor in the writing, rhetoric and technical communication (WRTC) department, said. 

Beverly said he was able to maintain his planned course load of four classes this semester because he teaches courses that are required for all freshman WRTC majors, which makes him less vulnerable to cuts than other adjuncts. But even with that protection, Beverly said he was considering the prospect of his course load being cut in half.

Department heads navigated deep cuts to budgets

Katherine Schwartz, director of the School of Art, Design and Art History (SADAH), said that all academic departments within the College of Arts and Letters were asked by the College to find 10% of their overall budget to cut for the fall semester on top of the 25% cut to the adjunct faculty budget mandated in April

Only two of SADAH’s adjunct professors lost all classes, one by choice and another who Schwartz said wasn’t depending on their one course for “their livelihood.” Schwartz said that with some rearranging, the department was able to give the remaining adjuncts a full load of three classes. 

“I don't have adjuncts that are terribly, terribly displaced right now,” Schwartz said. “It was a minor adjustment. Some of them had to trade classes; we had to trade classes around to make it all work. But we were able to do it.”

If there are additional budget cuts in the spring, Schwartz said, she hopes they target the general budget instead of restricting the adjunct budget further. If future cuts reduce each focus area’s funding by another 10% — which means the loss of $50,000 for SADAH — Schwartz said, her department will make cuts the “democratic way” to make reductions as gently as possible.

Pandemic only exacerbated existing income insecurity for adjuncts

An adjunct professor who requested anonymity because she feared cancelation of her contract and damage to future career prospects, and who’ll be referred to as Jane Doe, said she was assured by her department head that she’d have her normal amount of classes in the spring, but Doe said she wasn't certain that offer would remain available before she received her contract. 

As of Nov. 6, Doe’s received a contract for the spring that ensures she’s teaching her normal course load, but she said that news comes after months of uncertainty. Doe and Beverly said that adjunct contracts for spring are generally renewed around the end of October or the beginning of November. 

“That's just been my biggest concern recently — just job security,” Doe said.

Doe said that despite her department’s transparency, she felt that the option for further cuts was left open. If course loads were cut in the spring, Doe said, it would’ve been a financial blow for both adjuncts and their families. Doe and Beverly said they rely on their salaries from part-time teaching as their entire income before the addition of their spouses’ earnings. 

Doe said she was concerned that even if her course load remains the same, her “already low” pay could be reduced for teaching the same amount of courses. She makes $4,000 per class each semester, which she said on the scale of part-time pay is higher than most adjuncts’ compensation for their work. Adjuncts at JMU can earn as little as $1,050 or less per credit hour for a class they teach, according to documents obtained by The Breeze detailing part-time pay in fall 2019.

Doe said that in her 10 years spent working at JMU, she’s never personally received a pay raise. Part-time faculty pay per credit hour, which varies across departments, received a 5% pay increase a few years ago, Doe said, but there’s no merit-based raise system for adjuncts, who work contractually each semester. Doe said that a 5% increase after working 10 years at JMU didn’t do more than account for inflation over the past decade. 

If her pay was reduced further, Doe said, she would’ve seriously considered leaving JMU, but that prospect is risky because the freelance field is even more uncertain. 

“I think it would, like, tweak my sense of dignity,” Doe said. “There's a point at which I'm not gonna be willing to do this job. Like, if they cut my pay by ‘X,’ will I do it?”

Beverly said he’s had conversations with his wife about what they’d do if he lost half of his income. He said he’s considered pursuing his artistic interests on the side like other adjuncts in the WRTC department to supplement his income from teaching. 

“We've been holding onto enough and saving enough so that we can keep going for at least a little while, if we need to start looking elsewhere,” Beverly said. “It's not something we want to anticipate or have to deal with, but we never rule out the possibility.”

“A tale of two cities” for adjuncts at JMU

For the spring semester, some part-time faculty members within the physics and astronomy departments weren’t rehired, and the department transitioned full-time faculty members to full teaching loads, JMU Spokesperson and Director of Communications Mary-Hope Vass said in an email to The Breeze. Greg Corder, an adjunct professor who works in the physics department and in adult continuing education, said adjunct professors weren’t sure if they would return in the spring. But despite the loss of adjuncts’ income in the fall, Corder said that he believes the adjuncts of the physics department weren’t fazed. 

“If there was a reduction, it wasn't something that caused a lot of problems,” Corder said. “I feel like you could say everybody in [the physics] department, honestly, doesn't really do it for the extra money. We really enjoy the opportunity to do something different, just from talking to colleagues, so it wasn't painful.”

Corder also works as a full-time school teacher at Thomas Harrison Middle School, teaching computer science. He said that the physics department's adjuncts are generally retired professors and teachers or are actively teaching in public schools full time and “are not counting on their adjunct pay for their livelihood.”

For adjuncts at JMU, it’s “kind of a tale of two cities,” Corder said. There are some like Corder who are part-time because they enjoy teaching and have other income, and there are adjuncts like Beverly and Doe who are dependent on JMU’s payroll for their total income. Despite Corder not being rehired as an adjunct for the fall semester, his job as a full-time school teacher meant he had a better financial cushion than other adjunct professors that have no other main source of income.  

“I feel for those people — I don't know how they're [doing it],” Corder said. “I feel real bad for that situation.”

Adjuncts grapple with JMU’s efforts to be transparent

Despite Beverly’s reliance on part-time teaching for his full income, he said he’s in a better financial situation this semester than he could’ve been if JMU had decided to go fully online at the start of the semester. If enrollment had decreased significantly before the start of the semester instead of after the rehiring period, he may not have been able to teach four courses, he said. 

The only group that’s earned Beverly’s complete trust on campus is the WRTC department, he said. About the administration’s response to the pandemic, Beverly said, “They have been failing in pretty much every way.”

Beverly said he thinks upper administration lacked transparency in its communications to faculty, staff and students, and that it’s struggled to enforce the gathering restrictions on campus. Vass said in an email to The Breeze that the pandemic has brought “unique challenges” to the university since its effects began in March.

“The university is continuously monitoring [COVID-19] and determining what areas will be impacted, but also how to best communicate that information to the JMU community,” Vass said in the email. “We are certainly open to suggestions and helpful feedback in an effort to better address these concerns.”

Schwartz said that this fall, she and other department heads have received emails about the university’s decisions at the same time as students, other faculty and staff. She said she saw this as an effort to be completely transparent, but it was difficult as a director to not get a “heads up” to prepare for questions. 

“I was able to, with a straight face, tell the faculty when the questions started coming in, ‘You know, I'm hearing about this for the first time today, too,'” Schwartz said. “So, there has to be a lot of trust involved here that the people that we're working with are making the decisions in the best interest of our students and the best interests of our faculty and staff, and that they're having to make them quickly.”

Corder, on the other hand, said he’s impressed by the transparency of the physics department and of JMU’s leadership, and he said he believes they want adjunct professors who were cut to return to classrooms as soon as possible. He said he sympathizes with the difficult dilemmas the administration faced.

“These leaders have this, this crazy task,” Corder said. “This is unprecedented … There's an expression, ‘You can't squeeze blood from a rock.’ You know, the situation is unfortunate, and a lot of things are out of our control.”

Beverly said that at times, he feels hypocritical for resenting the university administration’s actions while wondering if the decision made to start the semester in person is the reason he still has a job as an adjunct professor. He said he’s aware that people in his position are usually the first ones to be cut — but he’s an adjunct that teaches essential courses with high enrollment. 

“What's the price of me getting these greater benefits,” Beverly said, “if it means all these kids and staff and other people getting sick?”

CORRECTION (Dec. 1, 2:02 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that JMU didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. However, JMU Spokesperson and Director of Communications Mary-Hope Vass had responded to The Breeze by email on Nov. 19. The article has been amended to include the university's comments per Vass' email.

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