Life as an adjunct instructor means constant uncertainty, explained Alex Wolf-Root.

Adjuncts such as Wolf-Root, a philosophy instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, are part-time workers who must contend with low pay and little job security. Many hold doctorates and perform research for free in the hopes they will someday land full-time employment at a university, he said. 

And they are an outsized share of the nationwide teaching staff.

“The odds are stacked against you,” Wolf-Root said of ever getting a full-time job at a university somewhere. “But I like to teach, I like to help students critically engage.”

As the pandemic forces colleges and universities to slash their budgets, part-time instructors like Wolf-Root, the base of the teaching staff at colleges, are worried about partly or even entirely losing their teaching hours. Without the protections enjoyed by tenured faculty, adjunct instructors could see their positions cut and openings for college-level instructors diminish everywhere. 

The situation doesn’t bode well for students.

Cuts to part-time positions could mean fewer course offerings and larger class sizes. If cuts extend to full-time faculty positions, students will feel the impact. 

Studies show the rise in the use of adjunct faculty by colleges, among many negative effects, has lowered student GPA and contriibuted to a decline in student persistence from year to year, said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

“It’s not because adjuncts are poor instructors. It’s because we’ve structured their work so it’s impossible for them to create a quality teaching and learning environment,” Kezar said. “They’re hired last minute, don’t have time to prepare, and don’t have time to even understand what the textbooks are so they’re reading things at the same time as the students with very little input on what they’re teaching.”

Over four decades, the proportion of part-time professors has grown nationally to include about 40% of college instructional staff, according to the American Association of University Professors. That’s compared with 29% of instructors who are professors with tenure or on a track to tenure.

Wolf-Root, who is also the United Campus Workers Colorado union president, said CU Boulder also has an outsize share of part-time faculty. 

So far, the university has not cut its part-time teaching staff. Nationally, over 360,000 college workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, Kezar said. The numbers don’t spell out how many of those workers are part-time instructors.

But professors such as Cecilia Orphan, a University of Denver assistant professor of higher education, said that she expects that schools such as CU Boulder and others could look to their part-time workers for cuts.

During the Great Recession, schools cut back on the number of tenured positions, she said. Schools hired back many after the economic downturn. This time around, the hardships could fall on adjunct professors because of the uncertain outlook of the pandemic, she said.

“It seems like they’re going to try and do everything they can to protect us, the full-time faculty, which could mean that they will hire fewer adjunct faculty,” Orphan said.

Thomas Bonn, a CU Boulder philosophy doctoral student, said some departments across the country are cutting funding for graduate students or have halted graduate admissions altogether. Graduate students teach about 15% of college classes nationwide. Many like Bonn also want to teach someday.

Bonn said the pandemic may push him in another direction, especially if adjunct professors start to lose jobs in greater numbers.

“I’d like to teach philosophy professionally, but given that COVID has greatly worsened an already terrible job market, I’m strongly considering alternative options,” he said.

To trim its budget, CU Boulder has imposed furloughs, cut salaries, and reduced hiring and some administrative costs. Its enrollment this fall has fallen, and it has received less state money due to the pandemic-induced recession.

School spokeswoman Deborah Mendez-Wilson said the school doesn’t anticipate any further cuts this school year and that the priority is a high-quality learning experience for students.

“Specific personnel decisions are being made at the school and college level, and the campus continues to emphasize the priority of serving our academic mission in these decisions,” she said. “We value our adjunct and part-time faculty, whose classroom contributions greatly benefit students pursuing their academic goals at CU Boulder.”

Kezar said schools nationwide could still lose more students in the spring that would prompt further financial hardship. 

While worries persist, both Kezar and Wolf-Root said they hope colleges rethink how they view staff  — not just through a cost-cutting lens, but also as a question of maintaining their quality of education.

Wolf-Root said dissatisfaction with working conditions, among other issues, prompted adjunct instructors to unionize in the spring. He hopes the newly formed United Campus Workers Colorado can work with the school to ensure adjuncts are treated fairly.

“People need to think bigger and reimagine, like, why do we have these institutions and structures?” he said. “Let’s make them work for us.”

It’s not just imperative for bettering working on a campus, Wolf-Root said, but also for the students who have worked and sacrificed to invest in their education.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.