Ismael Carrillo has been teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art for two years. A native of Spain, with a degree in illustration, he says he has been hoping to land a full-time job at the top art school.
"I was thinking, Well, maybe I will be full-time soon, because I get that all the time," Carrillo says, pushing away a fruit fly-contaminated Guinness at Liam Flynn's Ale House. "Then I went to the doctor, and they found a tumor."
He points to a scar visible on his graying left temple.
As an adjunct instructor, Carrillo makes a few thousand dollars for each course he teaches. He has no office and he gets no fringe benefits-no pension or 401(k) and no health insurance.
"It took a long time to find a doctor because I had no insurance," Carrillo says.
The tumor was benign. Somehow it got cut out. And Carrillo laughs as he tells his next story, about trying to get an apartment of his own. Currently he lives with one of his brothers. "It's hard to have any kind of relationship," he says.
He tried to get in low-income artists housing, but they do a credit check. For the past year Carrillo used only a debit card-"I did not know the difference," he says-and so with no credit history, he could not qualify for the housing. He went round and round with card companies and banks trying to find a way to establish credit. Sears wouldn't even give him a card, he says.
Shortly after getting a card with his brother as co-signer, Carrillo says he received a notice in the mail: "You have American Express, platinum, no limit!"
Four fellow adjunct professors sitting around the table laugh too and tell similar stories. One recently taught five courses at four different universities to try to make ends meet. Another used to commute to New York for one of his several adjunct gigs. Every one of them says they love teaching and would like to continue at it.
"I'm perfectly willing to make lower pay than your average business man," says Leslie Shellow, who has a sociology degree as well as an M.F.A. and teaches at MICA. "I know I'm not going to make $100,000 a year as a teacher. But I don't make enough to pay my bills at a very low level. I don't make enough to pay my mortgage. I drive a very old car. I actually didn't have health insurance until I got married, and that was three years ago."
Shellow is 44 years old.
"It wasn't until I married my husband and realized what he gets paid for a job that is less stressful-really skilled, but less stressful," Shellow says. Her husband's pay as a federal employee-with a union, step increases, and a defined-benefit pension-opened her eyes, she says. Even so, she hastens to say that she loves the work and wants to keep doing it. "We just need our basic needs to be met."
On March 7, MICA adjuncts filed for a union election and to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 Coalition of Academic Labor.
MICA pays its 200 or so adjuncts significantly more than most schools-at least 35 percent more, on average, according to a study by a pay consultant.
Many MICA adjuncts get $4,000 per class, and the maximum is now $5,000-up from $4,500 last fall. That means if they can wrangle four classes per semester, theoretically they might pull down $40,000 per year and still have the summer free.
But few if any adjuncts get that sweet a schedule, and of course their course load changes from semester to semester at the whim of the head of their department. Katherine Kavanaugh, an artist and MICA adjunct and co-chair of the faculty committee that has negotiated with the college administration, says the removal of the pay cap was "a ruse." For adjuncts there has been no across-the-board raise or even a cost-of-living increase since 1999, Kavanaugh says.
MICA's full-time professors average about $70,000 a year, according to Douglas Mann, MICA's chief financial officer. They teach and take on administrative duties adjuncts don't. They also get health insurance.
MICA adjuncts have been in meetings with the full-time faculty for two or three years trying to get their support for better pay and working conditions. "We don't know what the full-time staff thinks," Joshua Smith, a MICA adjunct who helped organize the union effort, says. "We've asked them to be neutral."
The union effort at MICA is part of a campaign by SEIU to organize adjuncts at colleges and universities nationwide. In an economy marked by stagnant wages and record corporate profits, with pundits left and right telling young people to stack up their advanced degrees, the fact that many Ph.D. professors earn less than $25,000 a year teaching as adjuncts in several different schools has long been an unspoken secret-both in academia and in the larger economy.
"People are willing to basically bottom out the market because it's such a competitive market," Smith says. "They agree that what you are getting [as an adjunct professor] is status."
The problem is not unique to MICA or to Maryland. And it's not a product of the economic crash of 2008. For three decades, colleges and universities have reduced their percentage of full-time and tenure-track professors while increasing the staff of part-time and contingent faculty. The 2012-13 economic status report by the American Association of University Professors includes a singe chart that tells the story (pictured below).
Part-time faculty-who made up less than 25 percent of college faculty in 1975-now account for more than 40 percent of all university teachers, while the count of tenured professors dropped from 28 percent to about 16 percent.
Put simply: As tuition and fees have increased way above the rate of inflation, many college teachers' wages and benefits have stagnated-or decreased-as universities outsourced their teaching to a contingent workforce.
And the phenomenon is not limited to those who teach commonly denigrated subjects like art and literature. As The Atlantic reported,in 2011 less than 40 percent of newly minted engineering Ph.D.s had a job. A bit more than a quarter were doing postdoctoral studies, which means low-wage work. More than a third had nothing-no job, no class. These are people with a terminal degree in engineering-a field for which industry hacks are constantly claiming they can't find qualified workers.
In 1973 more than half of all U.S.-trained biology Ph.D.s could land a position on the tenure track within six years of graduation. By 2006, less than 15 percent could.
The SEIU campaign has organized universities in six states-Washington, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maryland-and the District of Columbia. It claims 18,000 adjuncts so far. Adjuncts at Howard University, the historically black institution famous for its elite graduates, filed for a union the same day MICA's instructors did.
Echoing the union, the New Faculty Majority, a nonprofit membership organization seeking better pay and working conditions for adjunct professors, wants "equal pay for equal work," job security, "academic freedom" for adjuncts, a say in faculty governance, professional advancement, health and retirement benefits, and "equity in unemployment insurance" for college teachers. That organization experienced a breakthrough last fall when its director, Maria Maisto, testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
She was there to talk about how colleges were cutting adjuncts' hours to less than 30 per week to avoid providing health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act, but both Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat, and a ranking Republican member wanted to hear more.
The committee eventually heard from more than 800 adjunct professors in 41 states, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The committee produced a 36-page report, "The Just-in-Time Professor," detailing the problems inherent in a system that offers little money or stability to the people who are supposed to be educating the next generation of Americans.
"More than one million people are now working as contingent faculty and instructors at U.S. institutions of higher education, providing a cheap labor source even while students' tuition has skyrocketed," the report says. "Traditionally, adjuncts were experienced professionals who were still working in or recently retired from their industry outside of academia, with time on their hands to teach a class or two at the university or community college. Adjunct work supplemented their income; teaching was not their main job. Such adjuncts still exist. But national trends indicate that schools are increasingly relying on adjuncts and other contingent faculty members, rather than full-time, tenure-track professors, to do the bulk of the work of educating students. . . . The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself."
It's not clear yet what will come of the congressional report, but the issue of low pay for adjunct professors has gained national prominence in recent months, and some state lawmakers are paying attention.
There are bills pending in the Maryland General Assembly which would authorize union-organizing in all 16 of the state's community colleges. Currently unions are effectively barred from most of them. As at MICA and other colleges, both state-run and private, adjuncts at community colleges are paid very little to teach each course. But the situation is different at community colleges, according to Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
"It's a national debate," he says. "We need to study this before you have one bill that fits all situations."
Sadusky's organization recommended that no action be taken on the bill while a study group looks it over and invites stakeholders to refashion it for resubmission next year.
Only about 150,000 of Maryland's community college students are seeking a traditional degree, Sadusky says. "The other 350,000 are seeking workforce certification . . . so we hire a lot of part-time folks. Most of these people have other full-time jobs. What we're doing is hiring their expertise. We hire them to meet that need. But that's not a continuing need. So one of the questions is what really constitutes an adjunct professor . . . ?"
This is not an entirely academic question. Sadusky says the Affordable Care Act, with its 30-hour-per-week cutoff point requiring employers to provide health insurance, prompted the association to seek guidance from the Internal Revenue Service over how to count class-preparation time.
"They said use the rule of reasonableness," Sadusky says.
Remember, a typical three-credit college class meets for three hours a week. If you look at classroom hours only, adjunct pay looks pretty good. Take a three-credit course at Harford Community College. The pay is $822.44 per credit hour, or $2,467.32 for the course. If the instructor does 16 weeks at three hours of instruction per week, that works out to $51 an hour-double a decent wage, or about half what a good auto-repair shop charges to tune up your car.
But instructors need time to prepare lessons, grade papers and projects, and help students outside of class. All in, it's easily triple the time in-class, which means the rate (in this example) is closer to $16.17 per hour.
The IRS released its guidelines last month. Splitting the difference between administrators, who suggested an hour of preparation per hour of class time is enough, and professors, who recommended two hours prep per hour of class time, the IRS says that colleges should figure about an hour and 15 minutes of prep for each hour of class time.
Sadusky's skepticism of unions is hardly unique. At a hearing in the House of Delegates on Feb. 11, presided over by Del. Sheila Hixson (the bill's lead sponsor), Dawn Lindsay, president of Anne Arundel Community College, spoke of the possibility of a union (the bill would not establish any unions, just give legal permission to union-organizing drives) in near-apocalyptic terms. A union would inhibit "my ability to engage in frequent, open, transparent communications" with faculty and would ruin the school's "entrepreneurial spirit," she testified.
At MICA, Raymond Allen, the vice president for academic affairs and provost, says something similar, though in a softer tone. "I don't think [a union is] a good idea in the sense of the way that it changes the nature of the relationship you have with the faculty," he says in a phone interview. With a union in place, "a collegial conversation becomes very formal."
Allen says he knows this from speaking with administrators at unionized colleges.
Allen and Mann, MICA's CFO, spoke with City Paper for about an hour. The two men speak in the calm and collegial way of academics everywhere.
MICA has seen the union effort coming, as adjuncts had been meeting with full-time faculty and administrative representatives for several years-with some success.
"It's part of our values to make sure people are fairly compensated for the good work they do here," Allen says. "We engaged in a lot of conversations with a representative group from the faculty . . . and we ultimately we decided to raise [the maximum per-class pay to $5,000] and to give them a cost-of-living increase in the future based on the [Consumer Price Index]. That was something that hadn't been done in the past, and we will do it in the future."
MICA's full-time-to-adjunct ratio reflects the national trend, he says, and the question of whether adjunct instructors can make a living is "a really interesting conversation," he says. "The truth is there are people we have hired year-in and year-out . . . the nature of our commitment to these folks is a year at best, often a semester. We feel like we're being fair to them, we tell them what the job is. We'd love to see them get a full-time job somewhere else, and from time to time we do hire onto the full-time faculty.
"Seen from the other side, it becomes a kind of treadmill that is difficult to get up and out of," Allen continues. "But at least it gives you a platform. You can fill in that blank [on a faculty job application] that says 'experience required.'"
The disconnect between the administrators' views and those of the adjuncts is hard to square until you realize that they live in entirely different worlds.
Allen's own pay package increased about one adjunct's worth between 2009 and 2011, jumping from $259,614 to $281,334, all told, according to MICA's publicly available tax filings. Mann did almost as well. His pay increased from $216,048 to just under $238,000.
These are not unusual salaries for college administrators, nor for men and women with advanced degrees and long experience in business and academia. Allen has more than 30 years at MICA, having worked there from 1970 through 1983 before leaving to become a vice president of academic affairs in New England. He returned as vice president in 1994, he says.
Fred Lazarus IV, MICA's celebrated president who is retiring in May after 34 years at the helm, makes over $300,000 in salary alone. In 2011 he received an additional $564,000 that pushed his total compensation to nearly $1.1 million.
Under Lazarus, who has an MBA from Harvard, MICA's endowment has increased by a factor of 25 as the campus grew by a factor of 10 and the student body doubled. In the past decade, MICA's tuition and fees roughly doubled; a year at MICA now costs more than $51,000 with housing. Yet money problems still beset MICA, Allen says.
"We're kind of chuckling here because we live on our own edge every year," Allen says on the speakerphone with Mann next to him. "It's often a handful of students that pushes us over the edge into the black."
Mann says the $51,000 cost to attend the school, which can be found online, is the "sticker price" and not reflective of the actual amount most students pay. "Roughly a third of that is written out in the form of student aid," he says. "Frankly, in recent years, what we've had to do is put together an additional reserve" to cover the increasing need or financial aid for students. He says it's "kind of a post-2008 phenomenon."
(In subsequent discussions by email, Mann denied MICA is on the fiscal edge. "I must have been distracted when he said that or I would've corrected it at the time," he wrote. "We should have the Chief Academic Officer talk about academics, rather than the finances.")
City Paper tried to square Mann's figures with the available financial record. According to the IRS Form 990-the tax form almost all nonprofits must make public-from 2009 through 2011 MICA took in about $30 million more than it spent.
During those years, MICA's revenues increased from $83.2 million to $111 million, approximately 34 percent. Each year it publishes its revenue-less-expenses, a sort of gross profit for nonprofits. In 2010 and 2011, the latest figures available, those revenues amounted to $13.4 million and $15.2 million, respectively, the tax forms show.
MICA's gross margins topped 13 percent in both of those years.
These would be admirable figures if MICA were a for-profit institution. In 2013, U.S. corporations posted gross margins of nearly 9 percent, and that figure was much higher than normal.
Mann says the figures should not be used this way, because the revenues are more than operating revenue and the surplus goes to the endowment, scholarship funds, and buildings.
Between 2009 and 2011, tuition and fees MICA collected increased by more than 23 percent. Aid to students, however, increased by only 18.5 percent, the tax forms show. Put simply, it appears that, through 2011 at least, MICA's aid to needy students was increasing by much less than the sticker price students are asked to pay.
Mann says the figures look very different if 2008 is included, according to MICA's fiscal-year schedule. He puts the tuition increase between FY 2009 and FY 2012 at nearly 32 percent but the financial-aid increase at 34.4 percent, showing that "financial aid has grown at a higher rate than tuition and fees."
Top officials pay and benefits during the period City Paper examined increased by more than 40 percent-goosed by a $564,234 payment to Lazarus marked "other reportable compensation." The pay for all faculty and staff increased by a more modest 18.7 percent, the figures show.
MICA disputes these figures as well, saying top people really only got a 4-percent raise during those years. Lazarus "has elected to take a portion of his salary in the form of deferred compensation for many years," Mann writes. "One of those distributions ($564,234) occurred in 2011 and that's reflected in Schedule J, Part II, Column (B)(iii) on the 2011 990. That represents deferred compensation payments from prior years that were previously reported on 990s, along with appreciation from the investment of those funds. As you'll see, there's not a similar distribution in the 990s for any of the other years you're reviewing."
He says compensation for MICA's top officers "will be dropping significantly in FY 2013."
Such wild swings in annual pay are an occupational hazard for people in top positions. But the financial shocks are more manageable for those with guaranteed salaries in the low six-figures. Adjuncts receive no base pay unless they're fortunate enough to have a full-time gig outside of academia.
Adam Schneider fits that bill. He is paid a regular salary as director of community relations for Health Care for the Homeless, and he teaches on the side-several courses at several universities-for the love of teaching.
Yet he is still in favor of the organizing drive. "Every worker should have a union," he says.
And Schneider does have a union at Montgomery College. SEIU organized adjunct faculty there several years ago. Some of the MICA adjuncts teach or have taught at unionized colleges, such as George Washington University. Schneider says he doesn't know what the union has done for him, or even whether the union's dues are based on flat membership or number of courses taught.
"I'm not particularly active," he admits. "I would have to look at a pay stub."
There is an irony to that as well, as both George Washington's and Montgomery College's wage scales, published on the SEIU's website, are less than what MICA pays right now. At George Washington, an adjunct with a "terminal degree"-usually a Ph.D.-teaching a three- or four-credit course there is promised $4,030. A full-time teacher with the same degree makes at least $22,280 for teaching the same course.
"That's a floor," says Shellow, a MICA adjunct. "At MICA, they have a cap."
That cap may come down a bit harder next year, according to a letter Allen recently sent to faculty bringing news of a looming $3 million budget deficit at MICA. The college is going to cut the number of credits required to earn a degree by six, to 120, the letter says, in order to save money.
That will mean fewer courses to teach, and so fewer adjuncts to fill them. "I ask those of you teaching in the undergraduate studio programs to work with your respective chair/s and associate dean/s to meet this goal and in advance," Allen wrote.
Dominic Terlizzi, a 33-year-old MICA grad who has been teaching at MICA for five years (and teaches at Towson as well), has been searching for a full-time gig nationwide but is hoping to be able to stay in Baltimore, where he bought a house in Remington and has become part of the arts community.
"There is a reason they hired me five years in a row," he says. "I really like working there. The students are incredible."
Terlizzi says he turned down a well-paying corporate gig in New York years ago in order to teach and live here. He's currently working on a 30-foot statue to go on North Howard Street.
He's hoping the union will help him be able to afford health insurance, he says. "Maybe a little better income. At least we'd have a place at the table."
He says an older man once told him that as an artist, "you have to have an appetite for ambiguity."
"With a union," Terlizzi says, "we'd at least be a little more secure in the ambiguity."